Monira Al Qadiri, OR-BIT 1–6 (detail), 2016–18, 3D-printed plastic, automotive paint, levitation modules. Installation view. From “Experi­ences of Oil.”

Monira Al Qadiri, OR-BIT 1–6 (detail), 2016–18, 3D-printed plastic, automotive paint, levitation modules. Installation view. From “Experi­ences of Oil.”

“Experiences of Oil”

“Oil is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere”—this is how a line in the Book of the 24 Philosophers, an anonymous twelfth-century text, would read, if one were to substitute oil for the word God, in accord with the omnipotence of our global fossil-fuel dependence. Curated by Anne Szefer Karlsen and Helga Nyman in Stavanger, the Norwegian capital of oil and gas, “Opplevenser av olje” (Experiences of Oil) attempted to graph this problem by presenting an international roster of sixteen artists and collaboratives that either spring from petrostates or address them in their work. Eschewing overt hand-wringing about climate change, the show took primary aim at its host nation’s historical self-fashioning as a humanitarian superpower—what Norwegian geographer and filmmaker Terje Tvedt has called “the goodness regime.”

Visitors first encountered Raqs Media Collective’s 36 Planes of Emotion, 2011, a sculpture that resembles a jumbled architectural maquette of colored Plexiglas panels on a low table. Several of them were etched with English phrases, such as AN INDULGENCE OF FRENETIC LAXITIES, inspired by a tenth-century Sanskrit commentary on an earlier treatise of aesthetic theory. Poet and Stavanger native Øyvind Rimbereid responded to India-based Raqs’s contribution with the audio piece AFTR OJL, 2021. Written in a pidgin tongue interlinking cognates from local dialect, German, English, Scots, Frisian, and old Norse, the track presents a beguiling semi-intelligible series of aphorisms (or are they cries?) sent back from the year 2480, imagined as a time possibly beyond carbon dependence. In Otobong Nkanga’s multichannel sound installation Wetin You Go Do? Oya Na, 2020, the Nigerian-born, Antwerp-based artist voices a similarly opaque polyphonic chorus of lamentations, ranging in volume and emotional register from angry to frustrated, bargaining, and even quiet. This trio of works was united by a shared quest to communicate a sense of ineffable rupture through either breaking language itself or its sources. Within the thematic bounds of the exhibition, the pieces seemed to speculate on another form of unearthing: the feeling of disorientation people may experience when stripped from their land or, conversely, when that land is stripped from them through mining and other forms of extraction.

Quarrying, in the literal sense, was tackled head-on in Senegal-born Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri’s mesmerizing OR-BIT 1–6, 2016–18, a suite of iridescent-hued plastic drill heads that spin seductively in midair, levitated through the use of hidden electromagnets. Turned skyward, divorced from the ground, these spiked and knobby zigguratesque bits are based on those used in actual oil rigs. Like Raqs’s assemblage, they here constituted a kind of futuristic mini skyline. Following the exhibition’s nonlinear time lines, which link Sanskrit to an as-of-yet-unborn language, OR-BIT 1–6’s city could be read also as the site of a new Tower of Babel allegory in which the forces of oil divide and scatter all.

“Everything is connected to everything else” is one of the founding slogans of the contemporary ecological movement. But the connectivity is grossly uneven and unequal. In Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (2011), author Timothy Mitchell notes that oil undermines governance through its robust supply chains. Oil’s liquidity, he writes, allows it to be pumped, refined, and prepared for transportation in several places at once. When strikes and even wars occur, the elasticity of this infrastructure stretches to absorb the shock of atomized disruptions by attempting to feed itself elsewhere. This idea is being tested through the European Union’s maneuvers to hedge its dependence on Russian energy (especially its gas).

Kuwait, Nigeria, and the other hydrocarbon-rich nations represented by the artists in the show share an umbilical cord of oil with Norway. By highlighting these relations, “Experiences of Oil” cut at a deeper self-critical idea: Although Norway may pose as an exemplary modern utopia, both to itself and the outside world, there is no outside. The exhibition insisted that the horizon of art’s alleged cosmopolitanism can move forward only if the lines on the map articulate how the tentacles of the energy-supply chain squeeze and pull all.