It was a pivotal week to be in Norway, since a new right-wing coalition had just moved into government. The tension is particularly pronounced in the artistic community, not only because artists of course tend to be left-leaning but because in Norway the government has had a generous attitude towards supporting the arts for a long time – offering controversial state bursaries that subsidize artists – until now. Yet the topic of Oslo’s art scene especially has been a prickly one among the general public. Some would believe that the fact artists do not necessarily have to compete in a free market results in a disconnect from mass audiences. A deep divide has formed as a consequence between the art scene and the rest of society, punctuated by vituperative attacks from the mainstream press railing against the minimal style of conceptual art that Oslo has become known for in recent years. There’s also the issue of state-funded art being an insidious way of controlling it, creating a unified product for international export.
One of the typical victims of this vitriol against the arts is the much-mocked Høstutstillingen. A Norwegian institution, (now in its 126th year!) the Høstutstillingen is an annual display of contemporary art at the Kunstnernes Hus. It has become notorious, and is ridiculed by critics, artists and the public for being boring or farcical; still it is the most talked about and visited show in Norway every year. Clearly Norwegians enjoy a bit of piss-taking.
The exhibition format itself is a mirror held up to the infrastructures of the art world; in an interesting role-reversal, it is the panel of six jurors led by Nils Olave Bøe who are under pressure – given the task of sifting through thousands of anonymous applications sent through an open submission process – with the implicit task of seeing if they can identify the established and meritorious artists.
The resulting month-long exhibition is somewhat of a perplexing hodge-podge, as you’d expect. It doesn’t have any sense of cohesiveness, but with the format such as it is this would clearly be an impossible task. What is cool is to see the complete range of work – almost no aesthetic links can be identified between works – side by side. As an outsider, it feels like a genuinely good overview of what’s happening in Norwegian art now.
Are Blytt, Jan Christensen, 7182, 2013, Veggmaleri, akryl, Variabel, © Anu Vahtra.
To the judges’ triumph, some of Oslo’s best emerging names are here, alongside the unknowns.
Probably receiving the most column inches in the national press was Anja Carr, who also runs PINK CUBE, an alternative gallery space in Grønland, east of the city centre. Her pieces at the Høstutstillingen dominate the room (an installation and series of photographic works derived from performances). It is disquieting and divisive work – easy to see why it has elicited so much critical attention. Encompassing installation, performance and photography, Carr uses an intense mix of surreal colours, animal costumes and food. There’s something morbidly attractive and perhaps it’s in the ambivalence of Carr’s visual language; on the surface it’s playful (a fluffy pink bunny, a house built of bananas) but these alluring childlike figures are quickly disrupted into creepy nightmares (bunny dangling upside down by a rope eating carrots). At first, Carr’s work seems to function by visual impact, but looking on longer (for example, a video inside her installation, depicting the artist in a monkey suit eating endless bananas) it’s the disturbing way they recall feelings that is most piercing.
For painting that pushes the limits of the viewer to a provocative extreme, conceptual painters Are Blytt and Jan Christensen have collaborated on a typically challenging and obtuse piece for this exhibition. At the forefront of the rebellious minimalism movement coming out of Norway, the sought-after artists have presented work around the world including London, New York and Tokyo.
Ingri Haraldsen, Circular story, 2013, Kull på papir, 177 × 122; © Anu Vahtra.
More accessible is the work of another of Oslo’s bright young things, Ingri Haraldsen, whose impressive piece Circular Story was the stoical standout of the show for me. A beautiful large-scale work (pencil on paper) of a figure of a man, there is a laconic, gentle darkness in Haraldsen’s work, full of enigmatic Scandinavian atmosphere, galvanized by dichotomies: remote, majestic landscapes, nature and man, calm and passion, life and death, beauty and pain – Haraldsen depicts contrasts of feeling using black and white with astonishing technical prowess.
Other interesting pieces of a more accessible nature are a simple but wonderful photomontage “ “ by Hilmar Fredriksen, and a series of eccentric drawings by Bjørn Bjarre, another homegrown export.
Bjørn Bjarre, Solaris (Notes and Sketches no. 4 – 10), 2013, Blekk på papir, 14,5 × 10,5; © Anu Vahtra.
It may not be the most attentive display, and after over twelve decades its prestige and purpose may have faded, but as a starting point to explore the breadth of the scene, the Høstutstillingen proffers a glimpse into the unique scope of Norwegian contemporary art, and gives artists from all backgrounds a genuine opportunity to present their work on a national level.
With thanks to NABROAD.
(Image on top: Anja Carr, Banana Blues, 2012 , Performance – video – installasjon , 1,7 × 2 × 1,9; © Anu Vahtra.)