OSLO — What constituencies do monuments of political tragedies serve? How are those memorials, in turn, shaped by institutional politics of the art world? These were the questions guiding a panel at the recent conference “Public Calling” that concerned artistic memorials of the July 22, 2011, terrorist attacks in Norway. Hosted by KORO (Public Art Norway) and the Fritt Ord Foundation (a private free-speech organization), “Public Calling” explored timely matters of freedom of expression and surveillance in public space. It took place exactly one week before Americans took to the polls (November 1–2). Invited participants spanned the fields of social justice, art, theater and documentary, including #BlackLivesMatter Nottingham’s Lisa Robinson — convicted days later for a protest that shut down a highway this past summer — and Chelsea Manning’s criminal defense lawyer, Nancy Hollander. The event was orchestrated on the stage of the National Theatre, amid the scenography for Enemy of the Duck, a contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882). The latter’s protagonist — the truth-telling Dr. Stockmann, who earns the ire of his fellow citizens when he exposes water contamination — was evoked many times throughout the event. In this context, art was viewed as one method of speaking truth to power.
On July 22, 2011, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik embarked on a devastating massacre: he killed eight people by setting off a car bomb outside a government building in Oslo, before murdering 69 participants in a summer camp for the leftist AUF (Workers’ Youth League) on the island of Utøya. At least three monuments have followed to commemorate the attacks, which shocked a country widely known as peaceful. Internationally, the discussion has revolved around Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s yet-to-be-completed “Memory Wound,” commissioned by KORO in 2012. Dahlberg’s proposition centers on a three-and-a-half-meter (approximately 11-foot) vertical cut severing the Sørbråten peninsula opposite Utøya, making it impossible to cross the entire land mass on foot. Names of the victims would be etched into a wall that visitors could contemplate from the other side of the impasse. “Memory Wound” has generated controversy for years, with detractors calling it a “rape of nature.” Geologists have raised concerns about the stability of the sedimentary foundation to support it. As of September, local residents have threatened legal action against the state, putting the memorial’s future in jeopardy.
Yet two other monuments — also supported in part by KORO — traffic in less dramatic aesthetics. Beirut-based artist Ahmad Ghossein’s readymade memorial, “Relocating the Past,” pays homage to the catastrophe by freezing the moment in time. Ghossein worked to preserve newspaper display cases, originally sited in front of the VG newspaper offices in Akersgata, that registered the impact of Breivik’s car bomb blast. The cracked, fragile cases contain original broadsheets from July 22. After two years, the cases were moved to a nearby bus shelter. By contrast, “Lysning” (in English, “The Clearing”), by the architects 3RW, was created expressly for the victims of Breivik’s attacks. Sited in a secluded location on Utøya, it consists of a metal ring into which the victims’ names are etched. Visually, the austere monument differs substantially from the mixture of banality and horror that define “Relocating the Past.”
Kjetil Røed, a critic for Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, has been one of the people mobilizing sentiment against “Memory Wound”; in an article published last year, he called it a “state undemocratic memorial.” At “Public Calling,” however, he argued that the three memorials serve different populations and purposes. Røed likened the aesthetic restraint and emotional impact of “The Clearing” to a holy site, “where the inner experience is more important than the external props.” He praised the “intimate form” of “Relocating the Past,” explaining that “the distant moment is brought close to any moment now or in the future.”
He objected, however, to “Memory Wound” with a two-pronged critique. Ethically, he said, “Dahlberg’s work is dislodged from the everyday solidarity and the importance of consolation and healing which, ideally, characterizes civil society.” He also argued against the work’s aesthetic bravado. “‘Memory Wound’ rises above the reality of suffering by transforming the traumatic event into an epic symbol, something touching in its unbelievable horror because of its majestic aesthetic power.” This formal critique recalls feminist responses in the 1960s and ’70s to the violence of American land art, related to an ecofeminist discourse that linked the pillaging of nature with patriarchy and colonialism. At the same time, Røed’s social-democratic concept of “civil society” sounds like a dream in the US, where we have elected the most vulgar presidential candidate in modern history on a platform of race-baiting misogyny.
Røed’s perspective was complemented by a presentation by an artist who did not construct a memorial herself. Delivering a talk called “Practical Transparency,” Marianne Heier, an artist from Oslo, spoke about her role as head of the committee for 3RW’s “The Clearing.” She was responsible for working directly with the AUF party to select and manage a winning project from an architectural team. Heier stated that “The Clearing,” located at the scene of the crime, was never intended as an artwork but rather as a space of contemplation. “It is obviously a very different task to build a memorial on Utøya than to build one on land at Sørbråten, like the national memorial close by,” she said. “We saw these two memorials as fulfilling each other, covering different functions and needs in the aftermath of the terrorist attack of July 22.” As opposed to Dahlberg’s state-sponsored piece, “The Clearing” was considered apolitical, “placed where the attack happened, accessible to everyone but built on private land on the island.”
“The Clearing” received a small state-appointed budget, but it was barely enough to cover the construction costs. So Heier suggested that AUF supplement it by appealing directly to the state public art agency, KORO. With the assistance of actor Ole Skjelbred, she proceeded to read a series of confusing emails, exchanged over several months, between herself and a KORO representative. KORO originally disclosed to Heier, off the record, that the funding she sought had been approved by the artistic committee. The decision then appeared to be reversed, with the emails suggesting that there was pressure from within the organization to deny the request for “The Clearing” because of problems that KORO had encountered with the construction of “Memory Wound.” All monuments seemed to be put on hold due to the state’s concern over a potential lawsuit by locals to stop Dahlberg’s memorial. Heier and Skjelbred’s dialogue became increasingly absurdist, until it finally concluded on a positive note: KORO awarded the money, and “The Clearing” was built.
“This exchange … shows how fragile things are when under pressure, and how easy it is to tread wrong,” Heier said. “For a moment it actually seemed that KORO, a state agency for public art, was willing to sacrifice the interests of the bereaved in order to secure political interests.”
Heier’s call for full transparency — and her airing of institutional dirty laundry — evoked Andrea Fraser’s “Official Welcome” (2003). In the live performance and video, Fraser ventriloquizes vapid speeches by art world personalities before stripping naked and crying, thus implicating herself in an exhibitionist cycle. The imbrication of self and institution is the cornerstone of her 2005 article “From a Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique.” As Fraser wrote, “the institution of art is not only ‘institutionalized’ in organizations like museums and objectified in art objects. It is also internalized and embodied in people.” And yet, she says, we cannot — as artists, critics, curators, and cultural producers — exist professionally outside the field of art. “The institution is inside of us, and we can’t get outside of ourselves.”
Both Fraser and Heier ultimately offer a reading of “the institution” that is more complex than condemning. They charge the individuals that make up the institution with responsibility. Heier showed that the state agency is made up of talented, sensitive people whose artistic proclivities might come up against political pressure, but who can nevertheless succeed. In the end, KORO and Fritt Ord even gave her the platform to expose such an exchange.
The lessons of “Public Calling” seem distant yet foreboding in this season of political discontent. They are one we in the US would do well to remember it in the hard days and years to come.
The “Public Calling” conference took place at the National Theatre (Johanne Dybwads plass 1, Oslo, Norway) on November 1–2.