Uncertainty Principle


Left: Artist Trisha Donnelly with curator Daniel Birnbaum. Right: Astrup Fearnley, museum director Gunnar Kvaran, and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Few of us have had occasion to visit Oslo before, but a Saturday seminar organized by Daniel Birnbaum, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Gunnar B. Kvaran—the three curators of the show “Uncertain States of America” at the Astrup Fearnley Museet for Moderne Kunst—brought a boatload of American artists and three European journalists into Viking territory. After two weeks of pale-gray German skies that faded to black at half past four in the afternoon, traveling even further north to witness the spectacle seemed like a perverse crash-course in surviving the Prussian winter.

My plane from Berlin was delayed, so after a quick trip to the minibank to load up on Norwegian Kroner, I arrived at the tail end of lunch (forgetting that in a socialist democracy like Norway, the train is faster than the cab). I took a seat next to German colleagues Dr. Michaela Neumeister (of Phillips de Pury & Company) and Niklas Maak (head of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung culture pages and part-time professor at Portikus). The towering Adam Putnam kicked off the post-lunch lectures with an homage to Steven Parrino via Yves Klein, whose Leap into the Void, 1960, Putnam punned, “hovers over” many of today’s artistic practices. Trisha Donnelly, blessed with a voice as seductive as Madonna's, ended the studious segment of our day with her homage to the compression of time in Nina Simone's “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” In between, we heard lectures from Ilana Halperin, Jesse Bransford, and Seth Kelly, but a thumbnail outline would do them scant justice. Afterwards, standing in front of Matthew Day Jackson's homage to Eleanor Roosevelt, Obrist led a small group on a “hurricane” tour of the show before hustling off to catch the Norwegian debut of Miranda July's film Me and You and Everyone We Know. The movie’s childlike humor and touching lyricism helped ward off the dark discontent of winter. If you’re lucky enough to have seen it, you’ll remember that even lines like “You poop into my butthole and I poop into your butthole. Back and forth . . . until the poop is one . . . forever” are lent an unexpected beauty. If not, well, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Left: Artists Vibeke Tandberg and Torbjørn Rødland. Right: Artist Adam Putnam takes a picture.

Later, huddled around the fireplace at the fabulous apartment of Mr. Hans Rasmus Astrup (Fearnley is his mother's name), Trisha Donnelly let slip what she called a “rectum-ification” while Adam Putnam denied us all a “de-abstractification” of his budding oeuvre. Both terms reminded me that I forgot to ask Halperin what exactly she meant by the phrase “coincidental erogeny” earlier that afternoon. An elderly gentleman asked me something in Norwegian as I hovered near the local variant of tiramisu. My inability to respond prompted him to continue: “Are you one of those bloody Americans here for that idiotic show of contemporary art?” Owning up, I asked him where he thought the discipline had lost its way. “I am an art historian and for me Mark Rothko is young.” Faced with what threatened to become an uphill battle, I excused myself and headed back toward the fireplace, where I bumped into a colleague making a similar escape. A well-endowed blonde had been chatting him up. “She asked me why Picasso is considered a great painter!” “Great question,” I retorted. “Why didn’t you answer?” Birnbaum’s story about a humorous misunderstanding was more entertaining: many moons ago he was talking to a serious contemporary art collector from Texas who earnestly expressed admiration for that “lovely young man Okwui Enwezor who was making a documentary in a castle in Germany.”

Surrounded by so much wood paneling, it felt as if we were in a “castle-apartment.” Some of us looked out of place, others right at home. Apparently, Mr. Astrup had double-booked himself that evening, bringing together what otherwise would have remained separate worlds as a group of Roman specialists (in town for a seminar of their own) were also invited to dinner. It was a situation that a Situationist might have dreamed up. Mr. Astrup's well-heeled friends stirred up more than just your usual “how interesting” cocktail conversation, and by the end of the evening I was in a swoon, enamored of Norwegian frankness and happy these latter day vikings were behind this newest invasion of our uncertain states.

Left: Performance artist and filmmaker Miranda July. Right: Artist Seth Kelly.