Fueled by oil riches, an anything-goes attitude, and a dash of Scandinavian egalitarianism, the country’s young artists are creating some of the most cutting-edge work in Europe. And you’ll find it all in Oslo.
Over the course of five days in August 2013, the artist Marina Abramovic summoned a flash mob to a hill in Oslo’s Ekeberg Park, overlooking the city, and led them in a chorus of screams. Some howls were so deafening and disturbing that the police were called in. The performance was a tribute to country’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch, who painted his iconic The Scream on that very spot.
The artist Sverre Bjertnes thought the event was terrible. I met the 38-year-old Oslo native in his studio, a series of rooms in a basement apartment in the tony Frogner neighborhood. Bjertnes’s work is wide-ranging—big, expressionistic paintings, mixedmedia collages, conceptual sculptures that he has shown at the James Fuentes gallery in New York City. He’d recently moved back from New York after enjoying a bit of notoriety there for his collaborations with fellow countryman and art-world enfant terrible Bjarne Melgaard. Melgaard is known for his outrageous acts: he brought in a pair of white tiger cubs for one New ork show; for another, he created a chair shaped like a black woman tied up and lying on her back. An international firestorm erupted when Russian heiress Dasha Zhukova was photographed sitting on it. He also recently launched his own fashion line.
Back at home, Bjertnes expressed a native suspicion about high-profile stunts like those of Abramovic and Melgaard. “We don’t have a really high-end scene here and I think that helps,” he said. “There is a real fear of the art market. Norwegian artists are pretty left wing.” Bjertnes is planning to open his own gallery in Oslo this year.
Perhaps another reason Abramovic’s Scream project didn’t appeal to Bjertnes is that it was all about Abramovic, which goes against Norway’s notion of Janteloven, also known as Jante’s Law, the principle that places egalitarianism and equality over individual egos. It’s at the root of Nordic modesty and humility. “You are not to think you are better than anyone else. You’re not supposed to rise above the crowd,” explained gallery owner Esperanza Rosales, a New York native who moved to Oslo from Brussels in 2011 to open a gallery, which she called VI, VII. “There is an austerity here. Norwegians are not ostentatious, despite the amount of money they have.”
Indeed, they are flush with cash. Thanks to the discovery of vast oil reserves in the late 1960s, Norway has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, topping out at $893 billion. But this good fortune hasn’t destroyed the country’s culture of equality. While other nations with such vast natural resources typically divide the wealth among the very few, Norway has spread it among all its citizens. Pair that with Scandinavia’s particular brand of social democracy, and there is enough government money to go around for things like universal health care, free education, and arts funding. Here, a recent art-school graduate can earn a grant for up to $40,000 per year to make art or to open a gallery.
All of these factors have not only contributed to a kinetic, creative ecosystem that feels genuine and democratic but have also made for some truly interesting art. Beyond the internationally recognized names like Bjertnes, Melgaard, Ida Ekblad, and Matias Faldbakken, younger artists are creating especially vital work, free as they are to focus on creating rather than on making rent. The result is that Norwegian culture is undergoing a resurgence—improvisational galleries, supportive nonprofit spaces, shiny new museums—after years of making do with the artistic legacies of Ibsen and Munch.
“I’ve never encountered artists being treated so well,” Rosales told me. In January she relocated VI, VII from the working-class area of Grønland to a 1930s building in the city center. “We have this friendly, unpretentious environment,” she said. “There’s a wonderful freedom here.” That communal, anything-goes attitude could mean opening a show for a single evening, as the One Night Only gallery does most Mondays, or curating an exhibition by inviting artists to leave a voice mail about why they should be picked, as the Tidens Krav gallery once did. Tidens Krav recently shuttered its doors because, as one of its four founders, Mercedes Muhleisen, explained, “We never meant for it to go on forever or become a sort of institution. To end it was as important as starting it.” For their last show, they hosted a poker tournament at which artists and collectors bet their own pieces or works from their collections, with the winner taking all.
Unlike in Berlin, Stockholm, or other European art capitals, the scene here is not dependent on or at the service of the market; there are few local collectors. “Public money is viewed very differently than private money here,” Bjertnes said. “There is not this aspiration for the wealthy class to collect art.” Government support is one thing; having a showy private collection is another. At Galleri K, where Norwegian artist Kira Wager’s photo-like paintings were on display, I met a local collector who told me he loved the work but he’d used up his annual art budget on a Wolfgang Tillmans photograph. Afterward, I learned he’s from one of the country’s most prominent shipping families, Norway’s equivalent to the Onassis dynasty. He presumably could have afforded to buy out Wager’s entire show. (Jante’s Law again.)
A more public controversy is Ekeberg Park, where Abramovic did her primal-scream piece. It is the brainchild of Christian Ringnes, a Norwegian real estate and brewing tycoon who originally wanted to create a “female art park” on the 60-acre parcel of land. Some residents felt that was chauvinistic, while environmentalists were concerned about what it would do to the natural landscape. Others objected to the idea that a long-standing municipal park would end up in the hands of a private citizen. Now, with its 31 sculptures, it has become a popular weekend cultural destination. But the local art world is still not impressed. As one insider sniffed, “This is the same person who put Marc Quinn’s Myth Sphinx, a sculpture of a yoga-contorted Kate Moss, in front of the theater he restored in downtown Oslo.” Similarly, the Renzo Piano–designed Astrup Fearnley Museum in Tjuvholmen, the city’s refurbished waterfront district, has garnered plenty of international attention for its architecture, but the culturati here have criticized its lack of breadth. They say the collection is diluted by works from the typical big guns—Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst—and there’s not enough of Norway’s emerging talent.
Many of those local creators simply work outside the system. “There are so many artist-run spaces in Oslo because Norwegians just do it,” said Johanne Nordby-Wernø, the director of UKS, which was established in 1921 as a nonprofit gallery and an association to promote economic and social rights for artists. “If this was Sweden, they would make sure there was proper zoning and a fire exit before opening a gallery. They’re so much more politically correct and obedient.” Nordby-Wernø worked in Stockholm before moving back to Oslo in 2011, and at first she worried that the city’s art scene would be too small. But she eventually discovered that a good part of it was underground and word-of-mouth. “In Norway, we’re still rough around the edges,” she said.
The 1857 gallery is a case in point. Tucked between a sari shop and a mosque in Grønland, the artist-run space is housed in the former headquarters of a local motorcycle club. The front room is all harsh fluorescent light and floral-patterned linoleum. Stian Eide Kluge, who opened the gallery with Steffen Håndlykken in 2011, told me, “We kept the floor because we were thinking of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, but it was also our rebellion against the commercial white-cube space.” Despite the art-school speak and the unpolished, clubhouse feel, the pair are two of the most successful independent dealers in town, with an impressive profile of local and international talent. (Some of their Norwegian artists were recently showcased at the Astrup Fearnley.) “There’s a self-organizing aspect here that’s unlike other places,” Håndlykken said. Rosales, who befriended Kluge and Håndlykken when she opened her first gallery in the neighborhood, told me, “There is very much a Protestant work ethic here. You can’t just have the money from the government. You have to do the work.”
That day, Kluge and Håndlykken were busy editing a press release for an upcoming show and workshopping some ideas with one of their artists for a future project. Håndlykken led me to the back of the gallery, which opens up into a warehouse. It was once a lumberyard and now serves as a soaring backdrop for more ambitious installations. Last summer, they held a group show, “Sunbathers,” that featured work by the New York–based artists Ugo Rondinone and Margaret Lee on the rooftop. Visitors had to climb a scaffolding staircase to reach the exhibition. “There was no waiver to sign. We have carte blanche around here,” Håndlykken said.
“You have to remember we are a young society. We’ve only been a nation since 1905,” Einar Klepne reminded me when I met him at Fuglen, the stylish café he co-owns. It’s a popular art-world hangout that serves artisanal coffee and cocktails and has a Midcentury design gallery and shop next door. “We were under Danish and Swedish rule for over 350 years. We’re Vikings!” Klepne is sort of a de facto ambassador of Norwegian culture—he works for the city and has an office nearby. He and his partners, with the help of artist Takashi Murakami, recently opened an outpost in Tokyo. They’ve also created “Norwegian Icons,” a catalogue and traveling exhibition that highlights Norway’s unsung contribution to Midcentury Modern design.
Nordby-Wernø hopes that the art scene is moving away from that Viking mentality. “For so long, the idea of the typical Norwegian artist was this drunk, violent, romantic figure,” she said. The Swedes might not be as enterprising, but they’re more progressive. “Swedish artists deal a lot more with feminism and human rights in their work,” she explained. “For a long time the academies here encouraged that macho style, but now we are welcoming more international students and faculty, so I think it’s changing.”
Anja Carr is part of the new guard. Her pink hair matches the walls of her Pink Cube gallery—the name being both a statement against typical art spaces and a call for more femalecentric work. Pink Cube sits next to a bar on the second floor of a nondescript building just a few blocks from 1857. She was between shows when I met her, so her space was empty save for a sewing machine and a pile of adult-human-size animal costumes: a rabbit, a horse, a Daffy Duck–like character. Carr’s performance art, part My Little Pony, part Paul McCarthy, explores adolescence and sexuality. When she’s not working on her own art, she hosts “battles”—dueling exhibitions that feature different artists duking it out for the night. One battle featured the Danish duo Mom & Jerry facing off against That Purple Stuff, a collective of three Norwegians and an American, along with two local women known as Everbabe. During the event, Mom & Jerry created a Christmas workshop and aggressively tried to sell their work to the audience while That Purple Stuff, Skyping in from home, directed Everbabe to croon songs by male R&B artists. “Mom & Jerry got pretty aggressive and threw pudding on them and started screaming,” Carr recalled. “My openings are not stiff. It’s not just a bunch of people sipping champagne and pretending to look at art.I don’t want to be a slave to the system.”
Carr is far from that, given that the Norwegian system pays her handsomely for her creative endeavors. And indeed, it’s an unusually fortunate place to live and work, one where the government pays for its citizens to dress up in Disney-style costumes and host poker tournaments. But this kind of bankrolled exuberance is what makes Oslo so exciting right now. “It would be difficult to work as freely in other parts of Europe,” Rosales remarked. “Nobody is clinging to the past here.”
Maura Egan is Editor at Large for Travel + Leisure.