The Thief’s Journal

Left: Artist Bjarne Melgaard. Right: Curator Lars Toft Eriksen. (All photos: Travis Jeppesen)

AFTER SPENDING THE PREVIOUS TWO WEEKS isolated in a borrowed apartment in Copenhagen, hammering out some five thousand words a day on an endless novel, me and my brain were ready for a thaw. So when the offer came to journey even further north to snowy Oslo, for the opening of “Melgaard + Munch” at the museum named after the latter, it seemed like the most counterintuitive move I could make at that moment. I instantly said yes.

I’ve known Bjarne Melgaard for a little over a year now. We’re mutual admirers of each other’s work. His art adorns the cover of my last novel, The Suiciders, and we shared a room at the Whitney Biennial last year—though you can be forgiven if you didn’t notice my installation on the wall; Melgaard’s work tends to overpower that of anyone he shows with—even if your name happens to be Edvard Munch, it turns out.

Still, the exhibition makes sense—and doesn’t. Even curator Lars Toft-Eriksen admitted this when he was pressed by an aggressive journalist from Les Echos during the afternoon preview. “Actually, I don’t think Melgaard has a lot do with Munch. You see a much stronger connection in his work to an artist like Gauguin.” Well, Ms. Journalist wasn’t having any of it. “So what is the point of this exhibition?” she asked, gesturing at the clusterfuck installation of paintings by the two artists juxtaposed on top of one another to elicit a collage effect in the second room. “I’m not making any art-historical arguments here,” Toft-Eriksen responded. “I’m putting together a common critical approach.”

“Was Munch gay also?” she shot back, more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “Is this exhibition supposed to be his coming-out?” What a question! Isn’t everyone gay once they’re dead?

Just then, Melgaard entered the room with his hot new boyfriend in tow. I asked him if he was happy to be back in Norway, his hjemland. He shrugged. “No way. I hate it. I’ve just given a billion interviews to journalists who keep asking the same stupid fucking questions over and over again.” That sucks. So, will you be giving a speech at the press conference today? “Haha. Sure. ‘Fuck you, Norway. I wish all of you DEAD.’ ”

Left: Art historian Ina Blom and Tim Smith. Right: Critic Katy Diamond Hamer and Munch Museum director Stein Henrichsen.

Oh well. There are worse things than being a Norwegian artist in 2015, as I would soon come to find out. And even though there were whispers that the show had been heavily trashed in the local media, he is the artist everyone loves to hate—and he loves to hate them back even more. Kind of like the GG Allin of the art world, only he smells a lot nicer.

Despite nearly slipping half a dozen times on the blanket of ice at the museum’s entrance, I was quickly warming up to Norway. Besides its most famous export—black metal—Norway is also an oil-rich country. In fact, it is one of the richest (and most expensive) countries in Europe, a land that enjoys an enviable regional autonomy given its refusal to join itself to the bureaucratic behemoth known as the European Union. And since it is Scandinavia after all, the country clings, in spite of its wealth, to the ideals of a social democracy. This translates into, among other things, a (nonviral) load of state funding for the arts. To give but one example, Oslo has more artist-run project spaces than any other European capital, according to Katya García-Antón, director of OCA Norway.

Once I finished taking in the exhibition at the Munch Museum, I was driven to the Office of Contemporary Art for a press briefing on Norway’s contribution to the upcoming Venice Biennale. In the past, Sweden, Norway, and Finland have had to contend with sharing the idyllic Nordic pavilion in the Giardini. This year will be the first in which Norway has the pavilion to itself. And in a somewhat unusual move, an American artist, Camille Norment, has been chosen. Though, to be fair, Norment has lived in Norway for the past ten years, and her work features in both public and private collections throughout the country. While Norment works in an array of media, she is primarily focused on sound. We visited her studio, where we were treated to a demonstration of the glass harmonica, an extremely rare instrument that will feature in her Venice project.

Back at the Munch Museum for the VIP opening, Melgaard’s assistant Tim Smith spilled the beans on one of the exhibition’s hidden secrets: the presence of The Scream—or one of its four extant versions—concealed behind one of Melgaard’s works. I’m not at liberty to reveal its exact location, but here’s a hint: Look for a still from your favorite snuff film.

Left: Antonio Cataldo, senior programmer at OCA Norway. Right: OCA Norway director Katya García-Antón and artist Camille Norment.

At the end of a long day, I was ready to go back to my room at the Thief—which had been described by locals variously as Norway’s best hotel and Norway’s most expensive hotel—and retire with my Genet and my Grindr. First I felt obligated to stop in and congratulate Melgaard at the afterparty; it was in the Thief’s first-floor lounge, after all.

Smoking outside, I was joined by a gilded postpubescent who has unfortunately already mastered the friendly alcoholic’s penchant for standing three inches away from the faces of total strangers when speaking. He informed me that he was upstairs throwing a bash for his employees, celebrating the two-and-a-half month anniversary of the electric car company he owns somewhere up north. He asked me what I was doing in Oslo.

“…Bjarne Melgaard,” he pondered. “Wait… I think I own one of his works! He does paintings of shipyards, right?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “Perhaps you’re thinking of his famous painting Just Want to Get Your Black Infected Cock Up My White Ass and Be a Useless White Whore? There aren’t any boats in it, but it does feature some aquatic mammals.”

“Oh wait! He’s the guy who used to be a junkie and has now been clean for seven months, right?” Melgaard had told me earlier in the day that the Norwegian press had chosen to focus less on his art and more on his new drug-free lifestyle. “Wow, do you know him? Could you hook me up for a selfie?”

I was about to say I might even hold the camera for him—as long as he agreed to be my useless white whore—but alas, he was suddenly whisked away upstairs to his corporate orgy, which I suspect resembled an outtake from Salò, while I returned to the considerably restrained Melgaard afterparty (no drugs, but lots of brownies!).

There, I fell into conversation with the renowned New York hair stylist Bob Recine, who had designed the coifs on several of Melgaard’s sculptures and would continue traveling with the artist to Paris, where his show at Thaddaeus Ropac was set to open the following week. Our conversation ranged from Rene Ricard to the merits and minuses of being a cokehead versus a junkie… So actually not very far. We didn’t even make it to meth, Melgaard’s problem troll—though perhaps that had something to do with the company. “I don’t understand why people in the art world are so against it,” I remember Melgaard telling me once. “I have no interest in taking any drug if there’s no possibility that it might kill me.”

It would be so boring to be dead, and probably even more boring to live in a world where there’s no Bjarne. On a superficial level, he might be Norway’s most famous artist since Munch, but he is also the most prominent living artist to show the world a side of reality that very few wish to look at, acknowledge, or are frankly able to stomach. That’s the real miracle of Bjarne Melgaard’s work—that, and what I regard as its ejaculatory integrity. It hits you right in the face. Which is exactly where you want it, you dirty art whore.

Scenes from “Melgaard + Munch” at the Munch Museum.