Art After Terror

An edited version of the below appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of NY Arts Magazine

The ACTION–ReACTION exhibition at .NO, a Lower East Side gallery dedicated to Norwegian artists, aims to explore power relations. However, .NO also creates a link to the 7/22 acts of terrorism in Norway – stating that some pieces can be seen as “contributions to a collective mourning process.”

The ambiguity this linkage creates, of what is or is not terrorism-inflected, is only increased by omission of dates on artwork labels and by two eye-catching works on opposite ends of the space that explicitly reference the attacks. With this in mind, interpretation separate from the Oslo-Utøya attacks is left as kin to ignoring the 800 lb. pink explosive in the room.

And I mean that last bit of insensitivity almost literally, as the piece that confronts you through the window as you approach the gallery, BELIEF=interests (Vibeke Jensen, 2011), includes ingredients for explosives. Even what you see on approach refers to a post-attack reality: a blue “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” barrier spans the window. Intersected by a pair of unfinished wooden planks boarding up the window, it marks the gallery as crime-scene.

Viewed from inside: the barrier is painted black; one plank is mirrored; its vertical partner is painted black and scattered with mirror fragments; a plank on the floor lies beneath a bucket of nitrogen fertilizer, an unlabeled bag containing seeds, and two roses; a greasy-looking epoxy adhesive streaks the planks.

In contradistinction to these tactile, real-world objects are print-outs of a Twitter feed. Here, in the virtual medium through which news of the attacks spread, we read statements regarding the piece and attacks. For example, the fertilizer, epoxy (stand-in for diesel fuel), and cotton (represented by seeds), are bomb ingredients. Yet fertilizer and seeds can also be used to grow roses. A return visit to the exhibition showed the roses had been left to rot.

To my eye, identity seems to transition from whole to fragmented as one shifts from whole mirror to mirror fragments, with impetus provided by the explosive represented below. Simultaneously, the whole mirror’s irregular shape admits that Norwegian identity was never “whole” in the first place.

In these mirrors one also glimpses the piece on the opposing wall: it reads “no one is illegal,” with one word per line and alternating between right-to-left and left-to-right text. This mirror-writing of every second line “reflects” back at BELIEF=interests, placing the two works in dialogue. The statement rejects the killer’s anti-immigrant Islamophobia and gestures at unity: Norwegian is written left-to-right and Arabic right-to-left; the structure allows the eye to snake from word to word, without interruption.

Subsequent research, however, revealed that this piece predates the attacks by two years. Apart from reminding one that Norwegian immigration debates existed pre-attacks, this re-purposing jibes with conceptual art’s philosophy: if concept is criterion and object itself immaterial, why not re-purpose object in a different context and bestow on it new significance?

Into this milieu enter other artworks: Charcoal drawings by Sverre Malling, one shrinking a person to fit on a leaf, another enlarging a shell to fit a person, nod at gunman Brevik’s human prey hiding in the natural environs of Utøya. Pencil drawings by Sol Kjøk offer interlaced nude figures forming spheres or physically propping up one another; Norway-reds and -blues augment this message of post-attack national unity. Christer Karlstad’s oils portray figures in states of suspense, set in the muted light of a time suspended between night and day, a metaphor for post-attack national mood.

Overall, while interesting, the pieces seemed lacking in ambition. Perhaps this was deliberate: while the issue of what constitutes “simple” is a thorny one, there are predominant strains of Norwegian art that favor simplicity in the service of sincerity. Perhaps tame/earnest is an accurate reflection of the national mood “the-morning-after.” Or perhaps none of the artists risked overreacting.

Where the exhibition succeeds most is in its use of space. Between the partially boarded-up gallery, the mirroring effects, and the ceiling-placement of a painting by Karlstad – representing a woman suspended down towards viewer from the opening of a hole, it seemingly places the viewer in that hole – I found myself uncomfortably enclosed amongst the totality of responses, their myriad respective media indicative of a national emotional response spewing through all the cracks in the dam.


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