Norse Code

Lauren O’Neill-Butler at the opening of the Momentum Biennial

Moss, Norway

Left: Outside the Momentum Biennial. Right: Momentum director Dag Aak Sveinar. (Except where noted, all photos: Lauren O'Neill-Butler)

THE RURAL COASTAL TOWN OF MOSS, NORWAY, is a forty-minute drive south of the nation’s chocolate-box capital, a blur of glistening shoreline and light-dappled forests. I traveled this route several times last week by rail, bus, and car, and only in certain moments did my attention stray from the sapphire waters, the islands dotting the bay, and the sailboats navigating their routes along the eastern shore of the Oslofjord. Norway, as you may know, is one of the world’s most picturesque places. Its contemporary art, as the well-worn estimation goes, tends to be somber, dark, and loud, the brooding black-sheep freak to a nation of beaming natural blonds.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Lina Džuverovic and Stina Högkvist, the curators of the 2009 Momentum Biennial, decided to address the notion of Nordic clichés in their exhibition, housed for the fifth time in Moss. Its title, “Favored Nations,” refers to a legal term for equal treatment in trade agreements, but it resonates nicely with the long-standing humanitarian and egalitarian milieus of the region, where it pays, literally, to be an artist. (In case anyone’s counting, artists participating in the show were each given seventeen hundred dollars and ample time to install.)

Left: Momentum curators Lina Džuverovic and Stina Högkvist. Right: Artists Matias Faldbakken and Gardar Eide Einarsson.

Those who remember René Block’s 2007 Nordic pavilion at the Venice Biennale, “Welfare—Fare Well,” might find the whiff of longing in this year’s Momentum a little staid. But it would be hard to parse whether that old nostalgic chestnut in “Favored Nations” is bolstered by location (many of the artists live in New York, London, or Berlin) or by the slowly diminishing forms of support from their homelands. The tone was subdued nonetheless, a sharp turn from the ’90s Nordic art “boom” popularized by a generation that included Peter Land and Olafur Eliasson. (As Džuverovic suggested, for a good read on this see Power Ekroth’s essay “Pissing on the Nordic Miracle.”)

I managed to drop by the exhibition a few days before it officially opened, which gave me a chance to speak with some of the artists installing their works. Nina Beier pointed out the intricacies of her collaboration with Marie Lund, for which five men are silently reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie on their own time and each in his mother tongue. Juan-Pedro Fabra told me about his own collaboration with Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Jan Håfström, taking special care to describe his spooky retrieval of a handmade sign in Montevideo, Uruguay, that once decorated the grave site of soldiers who died on the Nazi battleship Graf Spee. “Does that make me a tomb raider?” he asked.

I made several return visits to Ida Ekblad’s abstract paintings, Lars Laumann and Benjamin A. Huseby’s dreamy Nico-inspired video, and Maja Borg’s film Ottica Zero. Spread across two exhibition spaces––with twenty-four works in the Momentum Kunsthall (a former brewery) and seven at Gallery F15 (an ex-estate), as well as a series of works by Holmqvist in advertising light boxes around the town––the show meanders, but the high notes are strong.

Left: Artists Karl Holmqvist and Juan Pedro Fabra. Right: Standard (Oslo) director Eivind Furnesvik.

“Yes, but it turns the works into a bunch of footnotes,” was how one critic responded to my initial assessment during dinner that night at Moss’s Jeløy Radio, a stately hotel that once housed Norway’s first radio transmitter. Sharing our table with Momentum’s director, Dag Aak Sveinar; the director of the Baltic Art Center, Lisa Rosendahl; and Linus Elmes, the newly appointed director of Oslo’s Young Artists' Society (UKS), that conversation went from zero to ninety in the space of a few minutes. It was enough to cut short my tête-à-tête across the table with Moderna Museet curator Fredrik Liew about their upcoming Lee Lozano survey, as we partook in the kind of heated dialogue one rarely sees at such buttoned-up affairs.

Not all nights were like this, though. The raucous dinner in Oslo on Friday that followed Torbjørn Rødland’s packed opening at Standard began with dim sum and ended with rounds of the region’s notoriously strong aquavit. We needed it to warm up on that chilly summer night, which extended long into the hours of the next day.

Saturday afternoon’s opening festivities for Momentum brought back a more relaxed, Moss-style pace. Around 6:30 PM, several hundred people gathered in the garden behind F15 for a performance by Ásmundur Ásmundsson, assisted by a crew of shaggy workers, some with radio controls. A large crane was parked a few feet away from several blue oil drums that were stacked in a pyramid like champagne glasses at a swank party. Onlookers drank from plastic flutes.

Left: Artists Torbjørn Rødland and Nina Beier. (Photo: Torbjørn Rødland) Right: Ásmundur Ásmundsson peformance.

Without ado, the drums were slowly doused by cement that spewed emphatically and erratically from a hose dangling above the work. “Chris Burden,” said one; “Roman Signer,” said another. A bystander told me about an oil spill in the bay just weeks before the opening. Everything seemed just a little too scatological at that moment, and very un-Scandinavian.

“Do they really have to cover the whole thing?” I asked. “Well, it’s the manly thing to do,” was the reply. Then, nonchalantly: “Anyway, they bought all that cement.”

Left: Performance of Nina Beier and Marie Lund's New Novels, New Men (Jealousy, La Jalousie, La Celosia, La Gelosia, Die Jalousi oder die Eifersucht). Right: Artist Vibeke Tandberg. (Photo: Vibeke Tandberg)

Left: Little girl in a Jacob Dahlgren sculpture. Right: Moderna Museet curator Fredrik Liew with the Baltic Art Center’s Lisa Rosendahl and Linus Elmes of Oslo’s Young Artists' Society.