Noblesse Oblige

Brian Sholis on “The Welfare Show”


Left: Uta Meta Bauer, Waling Boers, and Michael Elmgreen. Middle: The Bergen Kunsthall's facade. Right: Eivind Furnesvik with an artwork by Elmgreen and Dragset.

After three consecutive flights—New York to Amsterdam to Oslo to Bergen—it was a bit dispiriting to see a baggage carousel (with one lonely, endlessly circling navy blue bag tagged for a nonexistent flight) in “The Welfare Show,” Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s new exhibition at the Kunsthall. For many years, this coveted May exhibition slot, which coincides with the Bergen International Festival, honored older artists. Beginning in 2003, when Bjarne Melgaard exhibited, the focus has been decidedly more contemporary. This year also marks the hundredth anniversary of the dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden, so the provocatively titled exhibition—perhaps meant to complicate uncritical centennial celebrations—prompted hope for a “State of the Union”-style presentation.

Having weathered my bout of déjà vu at the baggage carousel, I went into another room, where the atmosphere was positively Beckettian. For the length of the exhibition this gallery will be empty save for twelve guards (from a rotating cast of thirty-six, noted Elmgreen) sitting silently in folding chairs around its perimeter. The small crowd at the opening, which consisted primarily of the artists, a few of their friends from Berlin, local museum officials, and a delegation brought in for the weekend by the Office of Contemporary Art (the Norwegian government’s visual arts booster club), was not keen on receiving the guards’ undivided attention; everyone exited almost as quickly as they entered. Elmgreen and Dragset also present a number of discrete sculptures and installations that comment obliquely on economic imbalances and welfare systems. The obliqueness is key: Dragset emphasized the pair’s disavowal of didacticism to several inquiring visitors (his parents among them). But “End Station,” their concurrent show at the Bohen Foundation in New York, which consists of a to-scale subway platform for a station that never existed, gains much of its subversive heat from its site-specificity, and the Bergen show, while exquisitely installed, feels like it could be presented anywhere with minimal alterations. (Indeed, it travels to the BAWAG Foundation in Vienna and the Power Plant in Toronto.)

Left: Bergen Kunsthall director Solveig Øvstebø speaks to the assembled crowd and the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway (at right hand edge of frame). Right: Ingar Dragset.

Inclement weather forced the cancellation of the ferryboat tour that was to serve as the after-party. Instead we all repaired to Bergen’s (apparently still active) Gentleman’s Club, a dark wood-paneled room lined with two rows of black-and-white half-length photo portraits of several generations of bearded Norwegians; one couldn’t help but imagine this as a homegrown version of Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits lineup. “A Gentleman’s Club is the perfect venue for Michael and Ingar,” noted Kunsthall director Solveig Øvstebø (with a smile) in her welcome statement. We settled down to a gargantuan shellfish spread. Members of the OCA cohort—artists, curators, critics, and gallery owners, mostly from Europe and chaperoned by gracious outgoing OCA director Uta Meta Bauer (who heads to MIT in the fall)—chatted amiably about the relative levels of Finnish and Norwegian melancholy, cultural isolation, and private sponsorship of public art. Eivind Furnesvik, a Bergen native who now runs Standard (Oslo), a new gallery, told Norwegian jokes, which seem to derive their humor from the lack of a punch line. As Jennifer Higgie put it, “This is all a bit like school holiday, isn’t it?”

The metaphor holds only if you’re willing to ignore the forty-degrees-Farenheit temperature, the driving rain, and, the next afternoon, the gale-force winds. Our group toured the Kunstmuseum while the Crown Prince and Princess were down the block to cut a red ribbon and inaugurate “The Welfare Show.” Word came back that prison food—literally—was served to the Royals at the officials-only lunch. I smiled smugly at my tasty meal. Then the bill came. The total was 150 Kroner, which translates to roughly $25—for a bowl of soup and a piece of cake. Welcome to Norway. Where do I sign up for welfare?