Weekend Lovers

Kate Sutton around Oslo Gallery Weekend

Left: Dealer Eivind Furnesvik at Standard Gallery. Right: Curator Marianne Hultman with artist Allen Grubesic at Oslo Kunstforening. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

LAST MONTH, Norway marked the two hundredth anniversary of the signing of its constitution with children’s pageant parades and the traditional fare of hot dogs and ice cream. (“Don't ask us…” curator Jenny Kinge sighed.) As for Oslo’s art world, the bicentennial offered an excellent opportunity to take stock of its uniquely Norwegian situation—the system of guaranteed commissions and arts funding that have created a climate ideal for artist-run spaces, if little else. So in late May, several of these spaces bound together to host Oslo Art Weekend, a relaxed, primarily local affair that wasn’t so much a competitor to other global art-world events as an excuse to get together over beers and leftover Constitution Day hot dogs.

The weekend was timed to coincide with a wide range of happenings, from the Langham Research Centre’s J. G. Ballard–themed performance for the Ny-Musikk Only Connect Festival to the art academy’s graduation exhibition and “Master Party” bash, held on the porch (and in the bushes) of the Kunstnernes Hus. For the day-trippers, there was a retreat to the fjord-side town of Tønsberg for Oscar Tuazon’s solo show at the collector space Billedrommet, while those who kept to Oslo proper lined up for a screening of Pussy vs Putin with Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, part of the programming around the National Museum’s group exhibition “Take Liberty!” The show’s promotional posters plastered the city with images of Ai Weiwei flipping off the Gobi Desert. Curator Andrea Kroksnes reported that, so far, there hadn’t been many complaints about the image crashing Constitution Day festivities. “That’s because it isn’t a Norwegian national monument!” joked Sabrina van der Lay, the museum’s director of Contemporary Art.

Left: National Museum director of contemporary art Sabrina van der Ley. Right: Dealer Esperanza Rosales with artist Oscar Tuazon.

Oslo Art Weekend officially kicked off on a Thursday with an opening of two Bauhaus-themed shows at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter (HOK), a private museum founded by Norway’s Esther Williams–on-ice, figure skater Sonja Henie. The center built its reputation through celebrity collaborations more cerebral than starry-eyed, working with the likes of Joseph Beuys, John Cage, and members of Fluxus, a movement collected in depth by HOK. Still, Henie couldn’t resist a personal touch: a trophy room tucked into the foyer, where the spoils—six hundred strong—from the skater’s four-decade-long career are on display, alongside a documentary, some choice costumes, and an honorary trophy from the canceled 1940 Winter Olympics. It’s a departure from the rest of the space, a Neo-Expressionist masterpiece of stone and teak. “Originally the trophy room was all red velour,” curator Milena Høgsberg told me. “We’ve been toying with restoring that.”

The next night, openings would stretch across Oslo’s East-West divide, from artist-run LYNX, set up in a pavilion in Vigelandsparken, to a sneak peek of Allen Grubesic’s solo show at Oslo Kunstforening to a slew of openings in Grønland, including MELK, 0047, Noplace, and 1857. At the last, gallery directors Stian Eide Kluge and Steffen Håndlykken had rented a scaffolding staircase, allowing visitors to ascend the hull-like space of the former lumberyard to reach the roof, where the group show “Sunbathers II” brought together works by Ilja Karilampi, Margaret Lee, Ugo Rondinone, and Santiago Taccetti. We arrived on the early side: Karilampi was busy maneuvering a canvas up the scaffolding, while a bike lock was strung up like a leash through the eyeholes of one of Rondinone’s wall-mounted faces. Kluge noticed it and blushed. “That was for insurance. I guess we forgot to take it off.”

Meanwhile, up on Waldemar Thranes Gate, Standard (Oslo) was unveiling “I Never Learn,” Tuazon’s first show at the gallery’s year-old location. The artist had no trouble taking on the imposing space, a distinct upgrade from the corner nook the gallery had previously occupied. “This used to be a motorcycle repair shop,” dealer Eivind Furnesvik explained, adding drolly: “I felt like that went well with the machismo of some of my artists.”

Left: National Museum curator Andrea Kroknes with Ai Weiwei works in “Take Liberty!” Right: Dealers Maria Florut and Gilda Axelroud.

Furnesvik may have secured impressive new digs, but the dinner and afterparty were held at the same Chinese restaurant and cocktail bar, Beijing Palace, as all of Standard’s previous openings. I grabbed a shrimp roll and a seat between critic Arve Rød and Bergen-based, Berlin-bound curator Ingrid Haug Erstad, where conversation quickly turned to the controversial new commission by Oslo-based artists Lars Cuzner and Fadlabi. Under the auspices of “European Attractions Limited,” the artists had proposed reenacting the Kongolandsbyen, a “Congo Village” erected in Vigelandsparken as part of the 1914 “World’s Fair” that marked the constitution’s first centennial. “It was really just this village and some regional corporate pavilions,” Cuzner clarified.

“At the time, you had these kinds of African villages springing up all over Europe,” Cuzner explained. “Typically they would showcase the country’s colonies. Norway didn’t have its own colony, but it wanted to show it was still on the same level as the rest of the continent.” Organizers set up a “Congolese” village, with thatched huts made out of birch wood, which they then populated with eighty Senegalese “villagers,” hired performers whose paid presence was brokered through a Senegalese middleman. The exhibition received 1.5 million visitors in its five-month run, and this at a time when Norway’s population hovered around two million.

When the artists advertised their plans to reenact the village—significantly, they never specified how they planned to populate it, other than sending out an open call to volunteers and announcing that they could participate when they like, with no regulation, reparation, or instruction from the artists—the response was immediate. (#SomeoneTellNorway had even a Lupita Nyong’o Twitter impersonator up in arms.) The pair was vilified in the press, who were quick to express all kinds of outrage over “the human zoo” spoiling the park and allegedly marring the country’s allegedly unblemished international reputation. The Belgian ambassador took to the papers, demanding that the historically accurate Belgian flag be removed from the village gates. (After all, what did Belgium ever do to the Congo…?) “It’s almost like we just set the conditions and people’s responses did the work for us,” Fadlabi smiled weakly. “Anti-racism is so close to racism,” the artist continued, citing how the Afrikan Youth—an organization built on the presumption that skin color can equal a shared cultural heritage—had reached out to him, assuming he had been victimized by the situation. “One of the most popular interpretations here is that Lars is the evil racist, who has duped me into acting as his cover, as I clearly can’t think for myself.” Cuzner shook his head: “Any anti-racism is specific to the culture it came out of.”

Left: Artist Ilja Karilampi on the roof at 1857. Right: Artists Santiago Taccetti and Rebecca Stepheny at Kazachenko's Apartment.

When we went to visit this “monument of misrepresentation” for ourselves, the first thing I noticed were the blonde girls in flesh-colored bikinis kicking a soccer ball back and forth, oblivious to the fact that their disposable barbecue had caught the surrounding grass on fire. Two women were perched under the main structure sharing knitting needles, while little kids darted through the huts, leaving Wile E. Coyote–like child-shaped holes in the sides. “We should fix those,” said Fadlabi.

“What’s interesting is that no one had a problem with the idea of the international crowd volunteering to be in the village. They only objected because they assumed we would have Africans,” Cuzner remarked, noting the element of selective disdain. “For our project in the Bergen Assembly, we showed documents of real-life human zoos, like the Kayan villages of ‘Long-Necked’ women who tourists pay to see in Thailand. There was no outrage over that. What we’ve learned is, people are fine with other human beings on display, just as long as it’s not in Norway.”

“The only circus here,” Fadlabi summed up, “is the media.”

Left: Artists Lars Cuzner and Fadlabi at the Kongolandsbyen in Vigelandsparken. Right: A bike-locked Ugo Rondinone work at 1857.

Left: Dealers Asgeir Skotnes and Jonathan Viner. Right: Astrup Fearnley curator Hanne Beate Ueland.

Left: Dealer Behzad Farazollahi at MELK. Right: Dealer Bjarne Bare at MELK.

Left: Artists Peter Amdam and Josefine Lyche at LYNX. Right: Kunstnernes Hus director Mats Sternstedt.

Left: Office of Contemporary Art's Katya García-Antón, Tara Ishizuka Hassel, and Antonio Cataldo.  Right: Artist Eline Mugaas.