Oslo– Part 2 of 3
After working in Tromsø, I’ve flown south to Oslo, which is equidistant between Tromsø and Rome. Norway truly is a long country! Oddly enough, it’s much colder here than up north, where the Gulf Stream moderates the temperatures. The Oslo fjord is frozen over and people are crossing-country skiing on it. The ex-pat British artist Stuart Ian Frost, who lives in the deep forest south of Oslo, has volunteered to show me around a couple of museums. Stuart, a sculptor and environmental artist, installs site-specific pieces around the world and has materials in the CA+E Archive Collections.
We visited two private museums here, each remarkable for their vision. Iceskater Sonia Henie (1912-1969) was a three-time Olympic champion and film star–but also an avid art collector. After she married shipping magnate Niels Onstad, she collected early to mid-20th century modernism. The curved and slightly futuristic Henie-Onstad Art Centre sits atop a low knoll on a headland that projects out into the fjord about six miles south of Oslo. But the most amazing set of objects were by the early 20th-century collage artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), whose work presages installation art.
Schwitters was a German painter who by 1920 was constructing collages and assemblages from found materials; his work was the major influence on Robert Rauschenberg, hence installation art as we know it. Scwhitters came to a small town in Norway for vacation starting in 1930, returned in 1932, and spent every summer there until 1939. During that time he collaged the interior of the structure, creating one of his famous Merzbau works. The hut has decayed badly, but the interiors were salvaged, consolidated, meticulously duplicated and are currently on display at the Henie.
This is an important and state-of-the-art work of conservation that makes available one of the most profound transformations of a built environment in the history of art.
The other museum couldn’t be more different. Built by a group of Norwegian industrialists, and devoted to contemporary art, the new Astrup Fearnley Museet by renowned architect Renzo Piano sit on reclaimed land in the center of downtown Oslo. The roof lines decline toward the water, and although the building only opened a few weeks ago, the natural wood exteriors are already beginning to show traces of the handsome weathering they will undergo over time.
Inside the two main museum buildings 2,000 individually unique panes of glass let in what little exterior light is available during January, which is augmented by massive numbers of lights. The collection is steeped in blue chip contemporary artworks by Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Cindy Sherman, Odd Nerdrum, Cai Guo-Qiang and many more, as well as by younger artists, such as my friend Nate Lowman.
But my favorite piece is by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, a large earthenware recreation of the Colosseum in Rome. The eye-level sculpture is filled with potted plants that range from ferns and palms to cacti that turns the bloody arena into a potted planter. The survival of plants from such widely divergent climate conditions under the artificial lights of winter in Norway is predestined to failure, and provides is a sharp comment on the decline of empire through the lens of crossed environments. I can’t help but think that Schwitters, who worked along the fringes of Dadism almost a hundred years earlier, would have approved.