In Oslo: Astrup Fearnley Museum, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst and all that…

The Astrup Fearnley Museum is situated in the Tjuvholmen area in the Oslo harbour. It is an exciting, creative new area of development which used to be a shipbuilding site and an old prison. Now it’s restaurants, luxurious apartments, cozy small squares and lots of diverse, creative architecture.

The museum © Jan Oberg 2013

When you walk away from the anything-but-elegant City Hall and head for the Oslo Fjord, you have boats on your left hand side and those new buildings on your right; just keep walking and you cannot miss this private museum the architecture of which reminds you are a huge sail over a broad low boat. One part of this true masterpiece is the permanent collection with works of many contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Thomas Struth, Nan Golding, Jeff Koons, etc. – and the second part is devoted to changing exhibitions. At the time i visited in late June 2013, Cindy Sherman’s art photography.

I must admit at the outset that I have never been an admirer of her works. One, I don’t find the idea of taking pictures of yourself in all kinds of settings and outfits particularly interesting – and the element of repetition does creep in after some time. Of course many will react: Oh how impressive how she manages to look so different from one to the next image in such a convincing manner! I am also aware that they should not be seen as self-portraits but as statements on the human condition, or something to that effect.

Exhibition view © Jan Oberg 2013

That may be true but I somehow wonder what makes that so interesting from an art point of view and whether the trap we fall isn’t about technical perfection – which her works admittedly do display. Of course, one can say something philosophical about how we play different roles, go in and out of milieus, change in the process and still remain the same. This may be so – all I am saying is that Sherman’s works don’t really hit my heart.

Cindy Sherman and me © Jan Oberg 2013
Cindy Sherman and me © Jan Oberg 2013

Her more recent horror pictures – of which there are also plenty – don’t really catch me either. Dolls molested, limbs torn apart, horror movie imitations and that sort of shocking and superficial “special effects” soon appear boring to me. I also don’t watch such movies, sorry!

I know I am swearing in the church of art photography because Sherman is generally considered a world name. But so what? Apart from the fabulous technical perfection and the minute details – which somehow seduce you, of course, and rightly so – I don’t really get the point. The third category in this exhibition which is about sex, performed by girl and boy dolls and prosthetic body parts showing more or less perverse activities explicitly – well, kind of doesn’t get beyond the banal. I am not even provoked but it could well be that they are shocking in the puritan world of the U.S.

They don’t convince me as protest either – if meant to be – against sexual exploitation and violence. I respect such works, however, if they are expressions and elaborations of humiliations and traumas suffered during childhood – like in the cases of, say, Louise Bourgeois and Niki St. Phalle, Sophie Calle – but I can still sense that, if so, it is too intimately self-focused to make a statement to, or on, the larger world.

Indeed coupled with perhaps 30-40 per cent of the whole exhibition being self-portraits (or having herself as the main super-sized object in the picture), I hear myself mumbling the words ”narcissism” or ”navel-gazing” to myself.

But – fortunately – there is a fourth category – Cindy Sherman’s works of the 1970s and early 1980s. They are wonderful black and white images, often of herself but also of others, of people in landscapes and absolutely beautiful – one may say classical – portraits where the soft light and facial expressions make you dwell at length and wonder about content as well as beauty. In these works, interpretations are left to you, to your pondering the meaning and the subtle nuances in a silent face in incredible fine soft light – whereas the later works somehow are of the kind that impose themselves and leave little to the spectator to reflect on. At least me.

Late 1970es  © Jan Oberg

The Fearnly Collection is delightful, diverse and hangs in wonderfully lit rooms. However, one has to go through a hall filled with Damien Hirst’s effect-seeking artificiality of sliced animals in liquid-filled tanks with green glass. Something must have happened to him in his primary school’s biology class room? Until today I have only seen pictures of his cows in formaldehyde and I must admit that I am even less impressed by seeing them live. Are they meant to provoke? Point us to the life of fellow living creatures that we treat so awfully (as awfully, almost, as these have been treated)? Or what?

His butterflies and coloured circles à la Marimekko patterns from the 1970s – painted by his assistants, of course – lack, in my humble view, every bit of creativity. It’s deja vue. It remains to be seen how long time anyone will remember Damien Hirst for anything else but brilliant art market manipulations and silly fashion-like admiration. I am not even sure it is art – whatever that is.

Here are some snapshots of the present exhibition of the Astrup Fearnley Museum collection, many so much more interesting than Hirst:

Fabulous Sigmar Polke “Apparizione (1-3)” 1992 © Jan Oberg 2013
Andreas Gursky observed © Jan Oberg 2013
Anselm Kiefer’s gigantic “Barren Landscape” 1987-1989 © Jan Oberg 2013

There are 8 art galleries at Tjuvholmen  – tjuv means thief in Norwegian and alludes to the fact that the area used to host a huge prison). They display a rich variety of art. Clear is that they are all highly commercial (and at least two of them having Hirsts for sale) – and one must assume that they have to be to be able to pay the square meter prices here, among the most expensive in one of the most expensive capitals of the world.

I  leave Tjuvholmen with two thoughts. I sense it is great that the Norwegians – thanks to their wealthy shipping company owners and enormous state oil incomes – put their money to good cultural use.

But walking back in the amazingly beautiful sunset I also regret that art has become such a prestigious commodity for – well, the most wealthy. The entrance at the Museum is 100 Norwegian kroner per person, or 16 USD. In this area of town you see neither the segments of the population that has fallen behind in the oil boom, nor the many immigrants. While they may stroll the small lanes and perhaps buy an ice cream, such entrance fees – not to speak of the prices of the exhibited works at the nearby galleries – are simply beyond reach for virtually all of them – and presumably many others too.

Is art class politics in disguise? If it is, it doesn’t have to be, does it?

Getting affordable – good – art out to the people is still a huge challenge. Perhaps our times are such that the Internet will change both how we experience art around the globe and how we buy it?

Versace shoes, luxury apartments and boats…and the arts @ Jan Oberg 2013

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