Norway celebrates its hundred years of being a nation-state this year as the liberation from Sweden took place in 1905, a time when Edvard Munch still was in his heydays. The large exhibition Kiss the Frog at the temporary pavilion of the The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Norway which was constructed as a huge green inflatable frog(!) during the summer including artists with large and ambitious projects of both for instance Elmgreen & Dragset, Lars Ramberg and Børre Sæthre was one mean of celebrating Norway’s independency art wise. The exhibition was not only celebrating the 100 year jubilee, but had an agenda of manifesting the future new building of the museum that (hopefully) will be built within the next five years, and also the new centralized mission of the museum that has expanded its tentacles to include design and architecture. The museum organization has undergone major restructuring and has merged with other previously separate institutions like the National Traveling Exhibitions and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Norway to become only one. The task of pulling it all together has been given to the Swede Sune Nordgren, previously director of Baltic Flour Mills in Gateshead. Nordgren has of course been attacked not only for his Swedishness but also highly criticized for a radical reinterpretation and re-hanging of the old masters hung in the old museums, as well as a miscalculation of the budget of the “frog” on a grand scale.
The political winds blowing in the directions of centralization have also stirred up a glowing debate within the Oslo National Academy of the Arts where several changes are being done all at once, the most noticeable being a merge with all the faculties (photograpy, sculpture, painting etc) to only one, Visual Arts, and the merge with the Academy with the earlier National College of Arts and Crafts in Oslo.
Outside of the national institutions though, a completely opposite whirlwind seems to be taking place. Students and artists within the younger generation are setting up their own galleries and off-spaces like BASTARD, a temporary space set up in the joint studio of Anders Smeby and Marius Engh arranging open-studios or opening up of a more permanently artist run spaces like the Galuzin ran by four art students. The ambitious exhibition of With Us Against Reality, or Against Us!, Willy Wonka Inc. an exhibition which transformed a former chocolate factory into a temporary art space just for the exhibition was for instance arranged by two art students and it included 35 artists, mostly young American artists. And American art has come indeed come in special focus in Oslo recently, Willy Wonka representing one of three American exhbitions.
The privately owned Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, with a profile of the only museum collecting American art on a larger scale in the Nordic region is currently exhibiting a larger survey of American contemporary art, curated by star curators like Daniel Birnbaum and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The exhibition will travel to Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Reykjavik in Iceland and Bard College in New York, but the Oslo institution AFMoMA initiated the project which seems to have been a condition for its success. Birnbaum expressed it like this:
As the request came from within the institution’s frame of interest, and did not derive from any other interest that for instance comes with the biennial-structure where one has to think about city branding and of local cultural politics, the exhibition was quite liberating to work with. No one from the outside really had predicable expectations towards what a museum in Norway was working on, since there were no predecessors and we were therefore much more at ease and were able to concentrate on the art itself.
That Oslo is situated in a slightly peripheral area might have played a larger role in that the curators were able to work without interruptions or inquiries too.
A third exhibition coming up soon is focusing on art from New York at the Kunstnernes Hus will be curated by the recently appointed director of OCA, Office for Contemporary Art in Norway, Martha Kuzma. Kuzma, who curated Manifesta 5 (together with Massimiliano Gioni) in San Sebastian 2004, is taking over office from Ute Meta Bauer who was directing OCA from its start in 2001. OCA hosts a studio programme and is the institution to where artists can apply for grants from. With Kuzma the local art crowd has high hopes for a further more internationalization of the scene, as well as a heap of fresh ideas.
With the oil from the North Sea pumping in and boosting the Norwegian economy, the market has noticed an increase of buyers and collectors. This fact in turn, has made it possible for several new galleries to opening up their doors. Most noticeable among them is perhaps the gallery STANDARD that opened up in 2005 run by young partners Eivind Furnesvik and Petter Snare. Their profile is certainly commercial, at the same time without exhibiting the stereotype of “commercial artists”. Including artists like Gardar Eide Einarsson (recently exhibiting in the Istanbul Biennial) and Mathias Faldbakken (representing Norway in the Nordic Pavilion in Venice 2005) more interested in the (often political) message as the medium and conceptual art rather than the objects that represent the ideas, STANDARD is making a somewhat risky and bold statement on what art should be and how it should be sold.
Painting, on the other end, is the object for the largest Nordic prize for contemporary artists, the Carnegie Art Award, where the first prize winner receives a stunning one million Norwegian kronor (approx 70.000£). At the exhibition currently on display at Henie Onstad Center for Art in Oslo, young Norwegian artist Josefine Lyche steals the interest from the more traditional painting prize winners with the display of a huge and quite formalistic wall painting. She just recently graduated from the Academy of Art, but has already started a promising career, represented by gallery MGM. Another young wall painter represented by the same gallery that has started an international career is young Jan Christensen that has been working for years with complex and multilayered wall paintings, and a third artist also known for his beautiful large wall paintings is Andreas Heuch, represented by Galleri Wang.
The two contradictious directions, that of centralization of the art institutions and merging of the art related fields under its wings based on political initiatives from “above” and the wide variety of artists run spaces, off-spaces and private initiatives stemming from the “below” of the grass roots, run paradoxically in parallel in Oslo. The legacy of Edvard Munch that for a hundred years seem to have been more of a hindrance for a new generation of artist than an inspiration, seem to finally have lost its grip. The young generation of artists, that could with great generalization seen to have diversified into two different niches; that of the conceptual and political artists represented by Faldbakken and Einarsson, and the more aesthetically based artists working with painting in an expanded field represented by Sæthre, Heuch, Christensen and Lyche, have been able to recharge the art scene with both beauty and content. It bodes well for the future.