It’s Been Dying for Years
by Andreas Schlaegel
Cultural policy in Norway: Time to wake up
It’s a line from a Leonard Cohen song, about a waltz. Personally I really like dancing, but these classic dances, designed for pairs, are only fun at weddings. And some dances, like the tango, are simply best looked at. The other day I found an invite to a naked tango event. I couldn’t believe it was authentic, but I checked the website and found the hired pianist at my mother-in-law’s birthday party had invited me. He was part of the ensemble playing at the event. Why do these things always happen to me? I attract things like this. Anyway.
So here I am in front of a drawing at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo. Yes, if it’s about going south, why not start at the top? In Oslo, capital of the nation with Europe’s highest standard of living for nearly a decade. Surely things should be going fine here. And Kunstnernes Hus seems to be very well on the way. The beautiful building has recently seen exhibitions like that of veteran painter, sculptor and video artist Victor Lind, whose work has addressed hushed-up and still controversial issues such as the official Norwegian policy of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II to detain Norway’s Jewish population. In the last months director Mats Stjernsted had significant shows by Scandinavian and international artists, such as Liv Bugge, Karl Holmquist and David Lamelas, installed a branch of legendary book shop and publishing house Torpedo, and even relaunched the bar to give the house over to the artist community, and it is working. Trust me on that. And now the degree show of the master students of the art academy, which I’m responsible for. And that‘s why I’m looking at the drawing.
Not sure that the drawing should hang in the stairs. The artwork includes the idea of the museum-like installation as part of the work, but on top of the stairs, it makes its motif emblematic for the whole show. Or even more? Can the drawing handle this stress, is it fair to allow this level of (mis-)conception, is it negligent towards the artist? Should we kick back and leave this to the viewer? How safe can we play this, how much risk are we willing to take?
If we look at fine art education in Scandinavia, I believe I recognise a political move towards more accountability. Many of the small art academies have been willed into succumbing to a system of control. Often the Bologna process has been used as a cultural political weapon to cut the independence of fine art academies, weaving them into more of a creative industries structure. The fabulous old Helsinki Taideakademie underwent this structural change, and so did the Statens Kunstakademie in Oslo. It is now a small department within the larger Khio, the Olso art school. A great new space, huge workshops and more benefits come with this change, but also the loss of budgetary independence. A twisted arm and a golden cage.
But is the drawing about this? Taking visual cues from the 19th century etching found in popular scientific books, the artist, Ida Madsen-Følling, takes pencil drawing to extremes. I ask myself: is it necessary to make the drawing this big, nearly life-size? Do you have to be so obsessive about the execution: every line clearly articulated with a specifically chosen pencil? Regarding the detail one immediately imagines the joys of recess, of zoning out in the process of drawing. Art as taking time off from the daily chores and the worries every young artist (or young person) faces: will I succeed? Can I succeed? Artistically, economically, is there anything down the line?
That’s a question the curators of the Momentum Biennial could be asking themselves these days. In late June Power Eckroth and Erlend Hammer opened a beautifully schizophrenic exhibition in Moss, curating their instalment of arguably the oldest fine art biennial in Norway, if not Scandinavia, not as one, but as two independent and fiercely competing shows. As great as the show(s) are, it is a miracle they didn’t give up. Having started out with great plans of involving the extensive site of a paper factory that had just closed down, it comes off as a bit of a disappointment to see the project having become a beautiful if rather conventional show. But the closing of the paper factory was the key. It was a local trauma that caused rifts in the local political structure, right wing populists gained power and forced a significant cut of the exhibition budget. From there it went downhill, problems with the management of the former paper factory site and surprising levels of incompetence of the biennial management, who were working against the curators and artists, making it something of a wonder that this show materialised at all. And it still looks great. But rumours have it that this could have been the last Momentum Biennial. Which curator of renown would put themselves through a similar kind of ordeal? And why would public funds flow into a cultural institution that appears to be not wanted by a significant part of its local community? The task of educating its audience will be a tough challenge, but everything will be lost unless the show can raise understanding that in a postindustrial setting, of the kind Moss has just become, culture can offer a true sense of perspective. In a way the populist and neoliberal policies in place can’t. And on top of that, a major restructuring will be needed if this institution, implemented by no less than Daniel Birnbaum, Lars Bang Larsen and Atle Gerhardsen, is to survive.
I‘m still looking at a drawing, though. Maybe it is the artist herself who is burying her head in the sand, reflecting on herself making art. Her way of dealing with things by not dealing with them. Isn’t that what the ostrich is considered to be a symbol for? The world‘s biggest bird, a powerful creature with surprisingly beautiful eyes (if you’ve ever been to an ostrich farm, you‘ll remember those eyelashes) and a very curious beak (an irreverent tool to probe samples of nearly everything that comes in the way). The uncompromising way in which an ostrich checks everything coming into its way, including an extremely quick and, for the object of its interest, painful tug on nose or ears (careful with your own eyes), appears to date straight back to its close lost relatives, the dinosaurs. If ostriches are big chickens, dinosaurs were chickens without feathers, as simple-minded as ostriches, and interested in objects only in terms of whether they could possibly be devoured. Pretty straightforward, huh?
This concept of a one-track mind reminds me of the “value for money” discussion surrounding Norway‘s Office for Contemeporary Art, funded in 2001, and hugely successful in helping a young generation of Norwegian artists establish themselves on an international scale. Think Mattias Faldbakken, Bjarne Melgarrd, or recently Ida Eckblad. But also in terms of getting cutting-edge international artists and curators to come to Norway. The ministry of culture expressed a lack of confidence in director Marta Kuzma over the question of what art best represented Norway. Due to a questioning of its use of funds, control on the state institution was eventually tightened, the head of the board ousted and finally an administrator with no art competence was installed who stated that her task was to make sure the ministry was satisfied and getting their “investment” back. Doesn‘t this kind of bureaucratisation pose a very general question about the freedom of the arts? This echoes recent developments in Sweden, where a similar institution, Iaspis, suffered comparable problems. But there is a difference between regarding culture as something to be supported and seeing it as something to invest in. Did I say neoliberal? Do you recognise a pattern?
Scared ostriches bury their head in the sand. The drawing reveals the tininess of its brain (Iook at the head, it must be simple-minded). In reality the birds don‘t do that—like artists they pick up stuff from the ground. And like artists, I‘d like to believe, ostriches are not so easy to scare, they are surprisingly confident, to a degree that can be quite irritating. Considering their size and the kicks they can deliver with their legs (look at those thighs), it is obvious that there are not very many animals who pose a serious threat to these creatures. They can even fend off attacks by big cats.
So what to bury the head in the sand for? Probably the image of the ostrich stems from the same time as the three wise monkeys, who signify “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” and relate to a wisdom of Buddhism, the focus on what these days would be called “positive thinking”, of peace and tolerance, not representing jesters like in Western culture. Yet covering their mouth, eyes and ears with hands could be interpreted as not so dissimilar to the ostrich‘s inaction, and as representing a fear of making decisions and acting upon them.
This goes to show how much the neoliberal project depends on maintaining a sense of stasis and producing a climate that favours fear of change. Any change. Real changes are implemented in good old top-down manner. To narrow any idea of culture that deserves support down to the form of an investment that must pay off is to cater to the lowest common denominator—that of good business, along the lines of: we don‘t know what it’s supposed to represent, but if all else fails we’ll at least get our money’s worth. But what is so irritating about this is its location. How come one of the wealthiest countries of Europe, of the world, that has invested so much in its social democratic vision of a welfare state, has convinced its wealthy citizens to pay big taxes for excellent state services and an incredible education for their kids, is so quick to give up on the philosophy that brought them these outstanding achievements? For if the arts are subjected to an idea of market-like accountability, surely it will be only a question of time for the next field of culture to be addressed? And why does this look very much like the beginnings of restructuring society along a neo-Calvinist agenda? Where will it end? It’s catch as catch can, no holds barred. The bottom line is experienced in the post-democratic relationship between Greece and the rest of Europe, in what is essentially a European crisis. When did it begin?
Historically both images, monkeys and ostriches, relate to early colonialism, when exoticism was in high demand. (From Justin Bieber’s pet monkey to 19th century images of babies on polar bear fur, ostrich feathers have always had success as a popular fashion accessory, a fad that brought them to the brink of extinction 120 years ago.) This also affected everyday language, when the imagery of exotic animals entered Western culture in proverbs. That these animals were characterised as either dangerous and savage (polar bears, tigers, crocodiles) or plain stupid (ostriches, monkeys) reflects the historical backdrop of an early stage of exploitation, when colonised people were either tricked (stupid) or forced (dangerous) into being colonised. The scheme is apparent.
The idea of sticking your head into the sand within the realm of power relations, the notion of closing your eyes to a real threat or not acknowledging unpleasant truths, precisely reflects the way capitalism works in a downright physical sense. Do we switch off our heads to allow some presumably greater power to take control over them and the rest of our potentially powerful bodies? In Ida’s drawing the ostrich buries its head in the sand of what appears to be a tropical, maybe even paradisiacal landscape dominated by a huge volcano at the very moment of eruption. The ostrich must have kept its position for a long time, its head having already decomposed into a skull. The time it takes for the head to decay could have facilitated the bird’s flight, even from the far-reaching effects of volcanic fall out. But it stayed there. What could have terrified it to the extent that it surrendered so entirely, an apparent act of suicide in the face of danger? It’s ridiculous.
Especially as we progress up the long and dramatic flight of stairs in Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, drawing closer to the drawing at the top, as if this was the result of something. The stairs could also be seen as a rendering of (art) education as such, as if it was a process of ignoring obvious peril while happily going dead in the head. The placement of the bird’s skull in the drawing, especially considering its dramatic dimensions and large size is reminiscent of Adam’s skull in 16th-century depictions of the crucifixion, where Jesus’s cross is erected in Golgatha, on the site of Adam’s grave. It marked Christ overcoming Adam’s sin, the symbolic redemption of all Christians, and his “victory over death.” What Ida shows us appears to be the opposite: the triumph of death, but what’s more, the advent of total annihilation. And what brought it about: inaction and the loss of faith. Not the loss of faith in a country, ideology or religion, but in the strength of the body, and yes, the political power to act.
What I like about Greek dances is they start slow. They activate the body and get blood pumping. They involve everyone. Or so I’d like to believe. So let‘s face the music, to quote my friend Rasha Salti, and dance. If only to prove to ourselves we are still alive. Shall we?