Norway, the enigmatic teardrop of a nation that crowns the Scandinavian peninsula, could be considered heaven or hell depending on whom you ask. As recently as April of this year, Norway was targeted as a publishing paradise in The New Republic — a mecca for writers based on the 100% literacy rate and guaranteed income by way of grants and generous distribution to libraries and chain bookstores. But do artists publishing reap any benefits of the smarty-pants population?
With the aid of the Norwegian Consulate General, Norway Focus: Kunstnerbøker spotlights 23 booksellers, institutions, and independent publishers at MoMA PS1’s NY Art Book Fair in an attempt to propel the predominantly regional scene into the international conversation.
The majority of the printed matter in Kunstnerbøker comes from one of three cities: Oslo, Bergen, or Tromsø. As Jessica Williams from Jessica Williams + Friends (based in Oslo) mentioned, you can go very far in Norway with even a tad bit of ambition. Although America is sold as the land of promise, oil money from the 1970s transformed Norway into a cultural samaritan. Grants cover individual projects or even lengths of time artists require to make work. Unions based on medium span all skill levels, from fine art to craft and even outsider or amateur art. Naturally this seemingly utopianscenario had me searching for pitfalls.
Despite these advantages, the atmosphere for artists’ books and zines has only begun to flourish. There is no artists’ book or zine union, so there are still a number of platforms that produce books solely as a memorial of exhibitions. Bjarne Bare’s Cornerkiosk Press counteracts this impulse, however, taking pains to produce “pure” works singular in their printed form. Emil Salto’s One Hand, and the Other and Ola Rindal’s Blindness (Pictures for another untold story) were challenging, devoid of text, and formally innovative. Salto’s photographs of hands holding blank pages impart a sculptural characteristic to the instinctual forms our bodies make. Rindal’s color photographs radiate with ethereal mystery, presenting an ice cube before it melts or a vista before the sun illuminates its contours. Publishing large editions of 1,000 or more, infrequently, is more traditional in Norway. Chris Tunge, founder of Heavy Books in Oslo and a colleague of Bare at MELK, mentioned that the transition into smaller editions was an innovation that was ushering in a revitalized interest in printed matter.
Independent publishers have sprouted wings, supporting internal talent with volumes that divulge a variety of styles. Although the audience for artists’ books in Norway is currently quite small, the fuse has been lit to introduce the peculiarities of Norwegian artists and their practices in book form.
Hordaland Art Centre based in Bergen has found a progressive way to relay regional artists to the international arena.
“Dublett,” launched in October 2013, focuses on local artists, prompting them to create an artist book of their own design that is paired with an anthology of texts surrounding their practice, respectively, bound authoritatively in hardcover.
Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s edition, the third in the series released for the book fair, is a delicate interplay between drawings of Picasso-esque birds or messy workbenches and stanzas of text.
Sturla Heggdalsvik is also pushing for an introduction to artists with satellite art-practices. “ROV” features approximately ten handpicked Norwegian artists per issue that collaborate with Heggdalsvik to present a sampling of their drawings (which is also his chosen medium).
Multipress‘s Angle series is another publication, currently on issue four, that will introduce regional artists in conversation with some international cameos. Line B. Løkken, one of the founders of the press, mentioned that she planned on 90 issues total with one coming out every few weeks. They are purely photo-based in editions of 360 with images created specially for the publication by a single artist, and a brief text on the inside of the back cover (also contributed by the artist). Books of this scale and quality guarantee a deliberate trajectory through government funding that is the inversion of traditional independent publishing: instead of getting better as people catch on, they are originating with a quality that is consistently stellar.
The quality of books in Norway Focus only mirrors the subject matter that emerges, which feels as foreign as the idea of camping in an icy cave or seeing the Northern Lights with any regularity. There is a deliberate, personal, almost philosophical air to the best publications, including those mentioned thus far. The essence is perhaps most direct in Kurt Johannessen‘s self-published gems. His imagery revolves around the ephemeral, including photographed soap bubbles and portraits printed in lacquer on a white page that only reveal themselves at the proper angle in the light. His words are meandering tales of self-discovery or isolation, often prompting the viewer to observe victories or discoveries through the soul of a vacuum cleaner, light bulb, or other inanimate object. His pocket-sized incantations, such as Discoveries or I Am, are performative daily affirmations, considerations to release your conscious from the mud.
This wandering aesthetic appears as a natural calm, a slower speed that allows one to saunter through the dredges of abstract thought. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are still people in Norway sitting on their couches every night eating pizza, depressed or disheartened for whatever reason. I was told by several people that Norway is more like suburbia than one would think despite the Arctic intimidation. The main difference between the scenes as I see it is power — Norwegian artists participate rather than rebel against the structures that fund them, but they can also survive regardless of gallery representation or international collectors. This teamwork lends to respect, and replaces shallow angst and frustration with time to evolve. Fjord it, let’s move to Norway.
Norway Focus: Kunstnerbøker takes place during the The NY Art Book Fair, of which Hyperallergic is a media sponsor. The fair take place at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens) through Sunday, September 28.