Olivia Plender, Self-direction Lounge, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “Arbeidstid” (Work Time).

Olivia Plender, Self-direction Lounge, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “Arbeidstid” (Work Time).


Henie Onstad Art Centre

Olivia Plender, Self-direction Lounge, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “Arbeidstid” (Work Time).

The current leadership of the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter has repeatedly repudiated the idea that art can stand isolated from the society that surrounds it. Recently, for instance, we saw a multipart project about education, “Learning for Life.” The center’s summerlong show “Arbeidstid” (Work Time) explored historical and contemporary notions of labor. The exhibition included pieces by fourteen artists and groups, and was accompanied by the publication Living Labor,__ edited by the exhibition’s curator, Milena Hoegsberg, with writer Cora Fisher. More a freestanding component of the exhibition than a catalogue, this playfully organized collection of essays and artist projects served as an instructive introduction to the show’s topic: our increasing tendency to allow labor to govern life.

Arbeidstid” was shown in two rooms separated by a passageway, a challenging set of spaces only partly unified by the show. Ironically, the space dominated by several red surfaces seemed to welcome you with an inviting “go”; the other, dominated by a green wall, signaled “stop.” The dominating “positive” green of Olivia Plender’s Self-direction Lounge (all works cited, 2013) was indicative of this installation’s strong sense of alienation. Partitions partly obstructed the way into a barren, depressing landscape of generic workplace furniture, representing the “fun, flexible” post-Fordist headquarters inhabited by “creative” office workers encouraged to set their own hours. An arrangement of the art center’s own obsolete office equipment (including analog phones with speed-dial labels naming actual employees past and present) was stashed behind yet another partition, reminding us that the present institution, too, has had to adapt to new, demanding regimes of labor conditions.

Across the hallway, both Michala Paludan’s installation Syklus and a proud century-old workers’ banner, borrowed from the Labour Movement Archives and Library of Oslo, were in bright reds. Syklus allowed the viewer to shut herself in a red-fabric-clad cube and become immersed in the artist’s selection of material on feminist labor struggles of the 1970s, drawn from libraries and archives in Oslo and Copenhagen and presented as slides accompanied by female voice-overs. Stepping inside the installation was like being transported to another time; the feel of the coarse textiles, the wood/orange/red color scheme, the slide projectors, and the cushions for floor seating were all perhaps pointers from Paludan to the fact that this very air of the anachronistic is an indication, sad to say, of how sociopolitical issues of gender and labor are commonly seen in Norway today, despite their continued relevance.

Several moments in the show foregrounded the human presence behind the ostensibly dry facts and statistics of archival material. One felt this, for instance, in the corporeal intensity lent Paludan’s study chamber by the very heat and whir of the projectors. Another take on this connection was Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens’s The Prophets. Here, abstract economical contents of graphs and diagrams were shaped by hand into frail miniature sculptures. In the air above them hovered an original labor movement banner from 1902 reading (in Norwegian) 8 HOURS FOR WORK, 8 HOURS FOR REST, 8 HOURS FOR WHAT WE WILL. Such rights are now taken for granted in Norway, one of the few nations to escape the recent financial crisis, and one in which this year’s centenary of women’s right to vote sometimes feels more like a mandatory exercise than a really heartfelt commemoration, as that right, too, is now perceived as a given by many citizens. But elsewhere in the West today, workers living with increasingly casual and contingent employment are demanding more work rather than less. It’s nice to see an art institution attempt to publicly confront our apathy.

Johanne Nordby Wernø