Marianne Heier, Diamond, 2012. Performance view.

Marianne Heier, Diamond, 2012. Performance view.

Marianne Heier

Marianne Heier, Diamond, 2012. Performance view.

The annual Festspillutstillingen—the visual art component of the Bergen International Festival—was first held in 1953. Hosted by the city’s Kunsthall, it has since become one of Norway’s most prestigious solo exhibitions. Successful Norwegian artists such as Bjarne Melgaard and Elmgreen and Dragset have had their turn; this year’s exhibition was Marianne Heier’s “Surplus,” curated by the Kunsthall’s director, Solveig Øvstebø. As usual in Heier’s politically and conceptually driven practice, lucid reflections on social and economic structures were given simple but efficient sculptural form. By showing only two works—grotesque, monumental Vima balanced by tiny, inconspicuous Diamond, both 2012—and placing them outside the exhibition venue, the artist made sure her festival exhibition would be remembered as a bold one.

The first part of Diamond was a performance that inaugurated the show, in which Heier presented Bergen Kunsthall with the gift of a gem worth $17,000, solemnly bestowed with a speech from the artist. Mortared in place in the Kunsthall’s facade, it now sits high above the main entrance but still visible from the ground. The embedded stone could not help but recall the permanent marks on Bergen left by English and Dutch fleets fighting the Battle of Vågen in 1665: A cannonball still sits embedded in the wall of the city’s cathedral. Though no reference to this famous local attribute was spelled out, Diamond’s visual echo of it added a kind of site specificity and served as a nod to the notoriously proud and patriotic bergenser audience.

This allusion to the 1665 cannonball might also prompt one to consider that troubled times have come again for the Dutch and the English. While its fellow European countries are tightening their belts and cutting cultural expenditures, Norway has been privileged with an oil-fueled stability, and art production here still enjoys the state funding to which artists have been accustomed since the 1970s. Though part of that system herself, Heier frequently questions its ramifications through both words and sculptural interventions. As evident in prior works such as Construction Site, 2005–2006, in which she refurbished a lunchroom for the National Museum’s guards, her institutional critique has taken the form of a gift from her—an individual artist of average income—to a powerful, state-funded institution. Again playing with the complex phenomenon of the gift and of the reciprocity it suggests, Heier purchased the diamond for the “Surplus” exhibition herself, using private savings.

Immediately outside the Kunsthall’s front doors, piled on the ground below Diamond, was Vima, a sculptural installation composed of the remains of a trawler. The eponymous Russian/Norwegian ship was sent to the breakers after its owners had neglected the economic responsibilities necessary to keep it operative, such as paying fines incurred for illegally abandoning it at harbor. For bureaucratic reasons, the ship was discarded, though it could have been restored to full functionality with minor repairs. By lifting the ship’s remains out of an economy that had deemed it bankrupt and into another—that of contemporary art—Heier commented on the relativity of economic logic. Not unlike an activist squatting in a condemned building, she pointed to the discrepancy between physically experienced and economically measured value. Endowed with artwork status, the scrap metal and its story were invested with a new significance. Speaking about her work, Heier has stated that “economy is in fact more abstract than most art”; in this exhibition, she reflected with poise on the role of the latter in the wake of neoliberalism and globalization.

Johanne Nordby Wernø