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Art review

Lars Laumann: «Kompendium»
Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo


Vanessa Baird: «I don’t want to be anywhere, but here I am»
Trondheim Kunstmuseum

Even Magazine
#3, Spring 2016

I remember going on family holidays in my early teens and meeting kids from far bigger countries: German and French boys and girls hanging out in campsite playgrounds, chewing gum, tentatively smoking cigarettes. They would ask about Norway, about my hometown, and when I told them Oslo had half a million inhabitants, they’d laugh with pity and express doubt as to whether that even counts as a capital.

Growing up, I took it for granted that Norway had very little to do with the world as seen on TV. I’d been born in another galaxy: secure, but boring. Across the border in Sweden, there was unemployment, neo-Nazi rallies, no oil in sight, and a prime minister getting assassinated on his way from the movies. The Swedes, the aristocrats to our fishermen and inbred farmers, also had real culture, Ingmar Bergman and ABBA and Moderna Museet, that got attention even internationally.

So the fact that Norwegian culture – and in particular Norwegian contemporary art – has gained a larger international audience than ever before truly represents a novelty. In the last five or seven years, the art scene of my once sleepy hometown has established itself as one to be counted on. For the first time, art professionals from far beyond Scandinavia choose to live and work in Oslo, something which until recently only happened had they fallen in love with a native and never for the sake of the city’s opportunities. No fewer than nine Norwegians were included in the last Documenta (compared to zero in the three previous editions). By 2013 the larger international media had started paying frequent visits; the Wall Street Journal, in one of many exhausting trend pieces, proclaimed that Oslo is «the next art capital».

In spite of the suspicion that the positive attention from abroad boils down to us being the last Europeans with any financial future, our presence in biennials and art fairs and the increase in international press coverage has changed Norwegian artists’ understanding of their own strength and identity. But events far beyond the art world also offered a reality check and emotional revision of the deep-rooted notion that Norway is not part of the real world – above all the deadly terrorist attack on my hometown by a right-populist extremist on July 22nd, 2011, and its discursive aftermaths.

«Norwegians are cute – almost naïve – about their nationalism», states the voice-over in Season of Migration to the North (2015), a new video work at the heart of Lars Laumann’s mid-career retrospective in Oslo’s Kunstnernes Hus. The phrase is taken from the diaries of Ruth Meier, an Austrian Jew who came to Norway as a refugee in 1939, and one of two immigrants in Laumann’s work. The other is a present-day refugee: Eddie Ismael, a Sudanese architect and LGBT activist who, as the video begins, is busy staging a fashion show at the Goethe Institute in Khartoum, much to the displeasure of the Sudanese police.

Six days later, after being released from jail, he flees the country for Europe, only to find himself in a refugee camp in tiny, freezing Vadsø, at the northeastern tip of Norway. («The closest person to me on Grindr is in Russia», he tells us.) Ismael discovers a book of Maier’s letters, in which the young woman wrote of her close friendship with Gunvor Hofmo, one of Norway’s more significant modernist poets. Their possibly romantic relationship ended brutally in 1942, when the 22-year-old Maier was deported from Nazi-occupied Oslo and murdered at Auschwitz. After years of grieving, Hofmo later became one of the first in the country to live in an openly lesbian relationship.

Laumann’s choice of topic is acutely pertinent. Norway is at present working to house the largest number of asylum seekers ever registered, exceeding the record numbers from 1994’s Bosnia crisis. Some regional administrations have already admitted defeat, despairing that their infrastructure – schools, health care facilities – cannot possibly meet the needs of tens of thousands of newcomers. A new accusation arose in parliament in the final months of 2015: «tyrants of goodness», the label for those who invoked human rights and hesitated to limit explosively rising immigration. Soon after, the «tyrants» gave in; new restrictions have now been put in place. The arrival of a record high number of newcomers, all the way from the real world, now induces some of us to sign up as Red Cross volunteers, and induces others to join the rightwing Progress Party in fear of seeing both their cultural identity and welfare benefits slip away. Authorities estimate the coming housing and integration bill at $490 million.

Laumann’s urgent work historicizes the refugee crisis and adds an important, often neglected fact to the fierce debate on immigration, a power struggle constantly at risk of becoming one-dimensional: refugees are all different, because people are all different. Not all are fleeing Syria; Eritrean and Afghan citizens now seek asylum at an astonishing rate. Not all fled bomb raids and/or ISIS. Some are just gay, and that’s enough to get you into trouble in this world. The last time around, others were just Jewish. Season of Migration to the North also sheds light on another complication: a notable slice of those opposed to a more generous immigration policy claim that (asylum-seeking) Muslims are homophobic, and should therefore not be granted access to the kingdom. All of a sudden, the Norwegian right wing is advocating gay rights, and the age-old tactic of stirring up hostility between marginalized groups has entered Norwegian public life in a new guise.

It is a transforming country in which Eddie Ismael has found asylum: changing politically, changing culturally, and changing physically as well. Oslo keeps growing at a startling rate – last year it was the fastest growing city in Europe – as migrants arrive from elsewhere in Norway and from much farther afield. How will the city welcome these migrants, and how will its urban character change? A few days before the opening of Laumann’s exhibition I found myself at a conference to discuss the city’s flagship new development, the southern district of Bjørvika, which integrates gleaming residential and commercial towers with such cultural institutions as the new Munch Museum (set to relocate there in 2020) and the Norwegian National Opera (already in place). After two hours of feel-good presentations from the developers, with slides showing white men high-fiving each other while biking the esplanade, things took an interesting turn.

The topic that turned out to interest most of the audience was demography, and the role played by culture in reaching the demographic and democratic goals the city, in theory, wants to encourage. The museum and the opera house are important institutions and lovely amenities, but the more contested piece of the puzzle has been a new home for the main branch of the Oslo public library. Initially it was meant to sit in the heart of this new district. Then, due to budgetary scandals, it was for a while at risk of not being built at all. Now it looks set to be built, but at much less prominent scale than first planned. A library, argued several participants, is the one institution you can trust to draw a truly diverse crowd – it’s an empirical fact. Sadly, far from everyone feels at home in an art museum or can afford to go to lunch in the so-called Barcode highrises. As for the initial promises of affordable housing units, those turned out to be as empty as the sidewalks.

The Norwegian activist and filmmaker Deeyah Khan, when receiving the University of Oslo’s 2015 Human Rights Award, was the latest to voice that improved integration, rather than military action, is the proper response to terrorist threats on European urban centers. Her thundering acceptance speech came to mind as I sat in the Bjørvika conference hall, musing at one waterfront Powerpoint after another, none of which seemed to acknowledge that my capital already has a diverse population and will become more diverse in the years to come. The arrival of an enormous cohort of refugees only emphasizes the fact that the population boom will not be made up of gluten-sensitive app developers in co-working spaces alone. But this particular part of town, where several of Norway’s now internationally visible arts institutions plan to make their home, risks developing its very own demography. One buyer of a seven-figure apartment in the area did not intend to inhabit it; he «only needed the parking space», said the mayor of Oslo in her opening speech at the conference. (She seemed to share my concern.) If the city does not acknowledge all of its inhabitants by taking even the low-income ones into its new, prestigious embrace, then it has surely failed as a democratic capital.

While Lars Laumann’s protagonist is safe in Norway, struggling «only» with day-to-day integration issues, a more brutal side of the refugee crisis is the news coverage of those who never even made it to the shore. The images have been many and disturbing. You can always look away, turn the page, go biking on the esplanade; but one artist who will not let you – or herself – get away with averting your eyes is Vanessa Baird. For the last few years, many of her large-scale works on paper, which make use of churning figuration and a nasty color palette, have been inhabited by dead bodies floating in the sea. Baird traveled to Calais in 2014, where she encountered migrants trapped outside official boundaries and desperate to cross the English Channel for Dover, and has not let go of the discomfort of witnessing the migrant crisis in person. White, middle-aged, an accomplished artist, and holding the protective amulet of a Norwegian passport, Baird has told of the nausea, confusion, helplessness, and even self-loathing involved when she entered the encampments of people Europe will not welcome.

At Trondheim Kunstmuseum this winter, her series of giant pastels form the work I don’t want to be anywhere, but here I am – for which she won this year’s Lorck Schive Art Prize, one of Norway’s largest art awards. Baird’s small room differs from the controlled and stripped-down spaces of the other award finalists at view. Around twenty wallpaper-size sheets stretch from floor to ceiling, crowding one another and overlapping in places. The morbid wallpapers feature, on the one wall, Baird’s longtime fairy-tale-gone-wrong narratives of horny goblins, drunk and bleeding women, and petrified trees. But on the opposite wall, images of the shore and the wavy sea almost blend with the deep blue, chipped stone floor, perhaps left bare to serve as an extension of the dirty ocean. Capsized boats drift on the water. So do bodies, even of infants. We see a single shoe, abandoned to the waves, and clothes rendered transparent by the water. Baird portrays the skin of the dying seafarers in an anachronistic pitch black, like in old, racist children’s books.

With guts rather than subtlety, and with no pretense of displaying the author’s own empathy or political correctness, Baird’s stomach-turning murals speak of the messy emotional admixture of despair and fear, and even hostility, that easily arises when we’re confronted with misery that could have been avoided. Her rage, not to mention her reliance on crude racial imagery, may have come cross as as excessive before, but less so after a year when so many migrants have faced official intolerance and media demonization—and when divisions in Europe have grown so wide that even young men born and bred here may choose to turn on their own societies, as seen in Paris this November.

But their antagonists, too, are no strangers to extreme measures. On the morning of my writing this, the news comes that yet another building planned to serve as emergency accommodation for the many new asylum seekers to Norway has been burned down. The former hotel was meant to house 40 Syrian, Afghan and Eritrean minors, all traveling by themselves. The cause of the fire was arson.