Bright Lights, Big City

Johanne Nordby Wernø at the reopening of the Astrup Fearnley Museum

Left: Curator Sune Nordgren and Astrup Fearnley director Gunnar B. Kvaran. Right: Architect Renzo Piano and Milly Piano. (All photos: Jon Benjamin Tallerås)

IT’S TOO LATE IN THE YEAR now to experience Oslo’s famous bright summer nights. So many of the attendees of the recent private view of the new Astrup Fearnley museum looked forward to summertime, when Renzo Piano’s climate- and season-sensitive glass structure will really shine. Despite the seasonal disadvantage, the view of the sunny fjord and nearby islands were still stunning as the dinner for 450 in the museum’s main hall commenced. Anyway, the cohort of overseas visitors was striking in its own right. “Spectacular!” concluded Barbara Gladstone, who was happy with the way the “magnificent setting combines nature and culture.” Like many of the guests, she only had twenty-four hours in town. Hans Ulrich Obrist had already hopped a plane, while Oslo artists Ida Ekblad, Gardar Eide Einarsson, and Matias Faldbakken—along with guests Nate Lowman and Dan Colen—were less likely to miss out on the party.

“Light!” Piano exclaimed in his prandial speech, as he jovially took stock of the elements that he had in mind when he designed the new building. “And water! And more light!” A rustle in the back turned out to be Oslo’s oldest contemporary art phenomenon, the painter Pushwagner, who lived on the streets for years before gaining recognition, and who now sports his own gallery in the surrounding neighborhood of Tjuvholmen. Old habits die hard, and the pint-size man in his trademark dark sunglasses and black suit went through the motions with security guards over a waste bin–related dispute before he settled for an only moderately annoying whispering session with friends.

Left: Dealers Per Skarstedt and Barbara Gladstone with Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum. Right: The Guggenheim Foundation's Richard Armstrong.

Once the visitors were let loose in the building, many crossed the canal to yet another wing to see the rest of the opening exhibition, “To be with art is all we ask.” Here, the sprawling show (suffering under a criminally vague curatorial statement that claims it “tells a story”) opens with a room devoted to Damien Hirst. Upstairs, a key piece of the collection, Anselm Kiefer’s The High Priestess/Zweistromland, has found a new home. While in the former building “the Kiefer bookshelf” was installed in a windowless, angle-ridden corner I’d never thought I’d miss, the sculpture is now sadly dwarfed by its new—large and bright—dwellings. “Suddenly, it looks like a Billy!” a local painter sighed, referring to the modest Ikea bookshelf found in every Norwegian home.

Cavils aside, this crowd agreed on one thing: The private museum’s reopening represents a massive lift for the city and serves as a role model for struggling city- and state-run institutions like the National Museum and the Munch Museum. (Both are subject to fiery public debates, location issues remain unresolved, and one architectural competition after the next is held only to see the winning proposal archived.)

I ran into Knut Olav Åmås, op-ed and culture editor of Aftenposten, who declared that Oslo just had become a bigger city. He praised the newcomer, adding that “while the Museum of Contemporary Art is uninteresting, to say the least, and has been so for years,” he hoped the new directorship of Sabrina van der Ley would change that fact. Doesn’t he fear that the exclusivity of Tjuvholmen’s expensive apartment buildings and upscale businesses will create a gated community? No. The influential editor believes that the stated purpose of creating an accessible site for everyone will work out, and he emphasized the casual surroundings: a beach. Small bridges. Green, open squares. Had he actually seen anyone swim? Pause. “Well, this performance artist waded the beach yesterday. Then came the security personnel.”

Left: Artists Knut Åsdam, Vibeke Tandberg, and Ann Lislegaard. Right: Aftenposten editor Knut Olav Åmås.

Others, too, raised eyebrows over how it took a private initiative to put real pressure on the directors of public art institutions. “This inspires everyone to find solutions—and quickly, too,” argued Stein Olav Henrichsen, the new director of Oslo’s Munch Museum, from in between Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided), where he held court with dealer and former pop star (of a-ha fame) Magne Furuholmen. “Take the oil fund. All of it!” joked Furuholmen. (The $570 billion national pension fund is a regular in debates on government spending.)

On his first ever trip to Oslo, the Guggenheim’s Richard Armstrong was surprised the city wasn’t smaller. How did he think the Astrup Fearnley compared to its neighboring, leading contemporary art institutions? “Each has a different era in its DNA: The Louisiana has the 1950s, Moderna the ’60s. This is a museum of the twenty-first century,” he said. “They’ve really upped it by 300 percent.”

Vibeke Tandberg met up with collector Erling Kagge and fellow artists Knut Åsdam and Ingar Dragset for a smoke outside. “It’s funny to come home and see this,” said Dragset, who left for Berlin some twenty years ago. “Norway never cared to even have a capital. Now we’ll see: Perhaps people will find it fun to have a truly international city.”

Left: Hanne Beate Ueland, curator at the Astrup Fearnley Museum. Right: Munch Museum director Stein Olav Henrichsen with artist and dealer Magne Furuholmen.

While everyone praised the new spaces, some of us resurrected a recent debate on the “boys’ club” image the museum’s gained after showing only three women artists out of a total seventeen solo shows for the past decade. Ann Lislegaard, the latest of these (though her show was in 2007), joined in. “It’s that obvious link between capitalism and male artists that seems unbreakable,” said Tandberg. “I think their disinterest in taking responsibility for a better balance is their biggest problem. It’s not like it doesn’t show, you know?”

Sara Arrhenius of Bonniers Konsthall was happy with “the Pompidou feeling” of the architecture. But many missed the absent and now earlier greats of the collection: the Auerbachs, Bacons, Oehlers, Richters, Kippenbergers, and Freuds are left out in favor of newer, mostly American and Chinese works by artists like Huang Yong Ping, Matthew Barney, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman. “It’s a dealer’s collection more than a museum,” mourned one art historian. “Too much Koons!” But not everyone seemed to have a problem. Said another: “Imagine a peninsula filled with Hanne Darbovens.”

Left: Artist Ingar Dragset with Office for Contemporary Art Norway's Marta Kuzma. Right: Artists Ida Ekblad and Matias Faldbakken.

Left: Mats Stjernstedt, director of Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, with Sara Arrhenius of Stockholm's Bonniers Konsthall. Right: Milena Høgsberg, acting chief curator at the Henie Onstad Art Centre.

Left: Dealers Jay Jopling, Daniela Gareh of White Cube. Right: Artist Børre Sæthre, dean of the Art Academy in Oslo, Vanessa Ohlraun, and artist Lars Brekke.

Left: Steffen Håndlykken, director of 1857 in Oslo. Right: Dealer Esperanza Rosales and artist Børre Sæthre.

Left: Tone Hansen, director of Henie Onstad Art Centre. Right: Ingrid Moe and Aslaug Nygård of the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York.

Left: Collector and publisher Erling Kagge. Right: Helga Marie Nordby, curator and director of Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art and Creative Writing, and Caroline Ugelstad, chief curator at the Henie Onstad Art Centre.

Left: Astrup Fearnley's Véronique Svarstad and Gunnar B. Kvaran, artist Jeff Koons, and Danielle Kvaran of Reykjavik Art Museum. Right: Stian Eide Kluge, director of 1857 in Oslo.