Breathless at the museum

No new perspectives on postmodern art are presented at the new Astrup Fearnley Museet; rather, it seems to have played out its part.

Tjuvholmen, Oslo, with the new Astrup Fearnley Museet. Foto: Nic Lehoux.

On 29 September the new Astrup Fearnley Museet was officially opened – almost 20 years after the museum first flung open its doors in Kvadraturen on the other side of the Pipervika bay. Expectations have run high, both on the art scene and amongst the general public. For this is a major investment, and we need an interesting museum more than ever, first and foremost because of all the chaos surrounding the public museums in Norway. The new Nasjonalmuseet, which is supposed to be placed at the innermost point of the bay, remains a more or less abstract entity. And no-one knows where a new Munch museum will be located – if it ever comes into being.

With the country’s leading private museum now firmly in place, the charmless neighbourhood of Tjuvholmen has gotten a cultural lynchpin among all its snooty galleries and bleakly stylish tapas bars. The opening day attracted in the region of 8,000 people, and the architecture and art has been showered in accolades. But is all this enthusiasm really justified?

Astrup Fearnley Museet. Foto: Nic Lehoux.

Overall, the building is presented as the main masterpiece with everything else taking up subordinate positions – which in practice also includes the art. The highly acclaimed Italian starchitect Renzo Piano has created what is actually a rather elegant structure that employs a maritime idiom, entering into dialogue with the harbour. The glass roof mimics a sail blown out by a strong wind, creating a strong diagonal. Such metaphorical architecture is not free of cliché, and I find myself asking whether this is an interesting interpretation of «the Nordic» today. It is easy to like the maritime style as a style, but here it suggests yachting culture rather than a poet’s yearning for the sea. The building’s moderate, or «democratic», scale is at odds with its angular, pointed, and chilly appearance. The latter is, however, relieved somewhat by the use of soft materials, specifically beautiful aspen wood. The references to postmodern architecture, steel, and glass also enter into a dialogue with the yuppie architecture of Aker Brygge, this lost neighbourhood of Oslo, redolent of an oft-reviled era. Unconcerned, Tjuvholmen continues to build on the themes established at Aker Brygge. But there is something strained and forced about the museum’s picture-postcard launch of canals and cosy quaintness. The thought that the tip of Tjuvholmen should offer a space conducive relaxing and splashing around as well as high-brown culture at the museum might be partly realised. Yet there are also obvious shortcomings to this semi-private public sphere, poised on the edge of a rigidly commercial neighbourhood. Tjuvholmen has little to offer to observers who appreciate a multi-faceted urban experience. 

Installation photo, Astrup Fearnley Museet. Photo: Nic Lehoux.

If we consider the museum’s function it seems somewhat awkward that the building is divided by a canal. It is quite literally not possible to walk dry-shod between the two parts, and it is difficult to see how the museum will turn this into a strong point even though it has to do with a division of functions: one part of the building will present the permanent collections, while the other will display temporary exhibitions. The opening exhibition To Be With Art Is All We Ask, curated by the museum’s director Gunnar B. Kvaran, shows a selection from the permanent collection in both buildings. Here, the structure of the collection is supposedly presented in chronological order, but during the press view it was difficult to discern any structure and chronology. The title evinces a certain humility towards working with art, and the museum itself points to how the exhibition is «object-oriented» and «concerned with art itself» rather than having a primarily social or political agenda. A somewhat evasive and spiritless strategy; a negative definition of what art is not. It is also a paradox that many of these works can and should be regarded in social and political terms, the feminist point of departure of Janine Antoni being one example. The opening exhibition mutes and gags such perspectives. 

Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (Divided), 1993 and God Alone Knows, 2007. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

The first room in the museum’s building on dry land is dedicated to a range of works by Damien Hirst, which is emphasised as a high-priority investment. We are almost physically forced through Mother and child divided (1993), and the procession of dead bodies pickled in formaldehyde ends with a black skull (New Religion – Fate of Man, 2005). Spectacular and glossy “names”, particular Hirst and Jeff Koons, dominate the presentation, giving it a somewhat dated and calculated feel. The display offers no new perspective on Hirst and Koons, quite the contrary; it seems as if these artists have played out their parts. Perhaps the celebration of the banal felt compellingly necessary once, but today it appears like a futile and mechanical strategy that offers little comment on the development of contemporary art (or society).  It seems as if the heavy presence of these high priests of postmodernism curtail a range of other potentially interesting perspectives on the collection.

Installation photo, Astrup Fearnley Museet. Photo: Nic Lehoux.

Despite such criticism the museum does, of course, have a number of good works. These include important photographs by Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, and Fischli & Weiss, and excellent works from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle to mention some of the best.  In the last decade particular attention has been paid to younger American artists such as Paul Chan, Frank Benson, Nate Lowman, and Dan Colen, but also to works by Brazilian, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian contemporary artists. The range of Norwegian artists represented here includes photographers such as Torbjørn Rødland and Vibeke Tandberg, painters such as Leonard Rickhard and Sverre Wyller, and younger figures such as Ida Ekblad and – of course – Bjarne Melgaard. The objective quite clearly was to present the wide-ranging scope of the collections, but ultimately the show becomes an exhausting obstacle course that leaves us no room to breathe.  We are inundated with works in unclear juxtapositions. It is also somewhat confusing to find exhibition posters advertising former exhibitions at the museum for no apparent reason. It would probably have been more productive to focus on fewer individual artists or on one or more specific themes that might offer some perspective on the collection.

Museum interior. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

The partly future-oriented and technically sophisticated features of Renzo Piano’s architecture contribute little to a comfortable exhibition situation for the art. This is true both aesthetically and in functional terms. Such «architectural resistance» may in time be used to art’s advantage, but in this opening exhibition no such productive relationship between architecture and art is evident. At their best, the views of the water through vast window areas are compellingly dynamic, offering glimpses of slender steel pillars that mime the masts of boats. However, the rooms do not appear greatly suited to the large collections. The slanting glass roof, which greatly affects the lighting, can be said to minimise the experience of the museum’s volumes. Another disappointment is the corridor-like passages peppered with works from the collection. Here, there is quite simply not enough room to breathe properly and the artworks seem crowded, as if standing in line for something. It is a mystery to me why the works have been placed so close to each other; they consistently kill each other. Many of the installations – such as Anselm Kiefer’s overwhelmingly heavy bookshelf and a complex installation by Matthew Barney – are disrupted to the point of disappearing. The bookshelf almost becomes ordinary, reminiscent of a living room, juxtaposed rather strangely with Jeff Koons’ overgrown figurine Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). Barney’s work is disturbed by visual noise as if it were placed in a bazaar. To put it briefly: the collection would have been better served if the museum had shown only half of the artworks currently on display. Then perhaps a range of thematic or conceptual links could become clear and the museum could have risen above all this conspicuous consumption, seemingly devoid of an overarching vision.  

Photo from Astrup Fearnley Museet. Front: Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. Back: Anselm Kiefer, Zweistromland/The High Priestess, 1986–89. Photo: Vegard Kleven.