With the new building for the Astrup Fearnley Museet designed by Renzo Piano, an architectural masterpiece, the Tjuvholmen neighborhood of Oslo has become a new destination. The museum is launched with “To be with art is all we ask”, an exhibition of selected works from the Astrup Fearnley Collection by some of the world’s most innovative contemporary artists. Amassed over the last thirty years, these more or less narrative works reveal the personal, social, and artistic engagement of artists who have broken new ground within the history of art. Together, they present a cosmopolitan urban vision that spans different cultures and historical periods, dealing with themes like politics and the economy, religion and power structures, violence and sexuality, identity and memory, objectivity and subjectivity, fiction, beauty and art, all of which make up the common contemporary experience.

The sail-form roof that characterizes the new building conditions the shape of the display rooms, creating a sequence of spaces of various sizes and heights that challenge the works of art and influence the layout of the exhibition. Walking through the galleries the visitor will be aware of a continuous interference between the art objects or installations and the architecture, emphasizing their flowing multi-semantic nature. The exhibition has a chronological layout, a mise-en-scene that not only contextualizes the works, but allows the spectator to compare and evaluate the differences and similarities between what each of the artists was doing at the same moment in time. It also confirms a phenomenon that was not present in other historical periods and is unique to the art of our time: despite the fact that the world continues to be made up of diverse cultural zones, international contemporary art has a universal language.

This common aesthetic tends to be highly narrative, and draws on postmodern devices such as the use of the readymade and strategies of appropriation. Within this preoccupation with the copy, the metaphor of death is never far away, at least in reference to the late twentieth-century theory of the “death of the author,” which in more recent times has become nuanced by the notion that the ready-made and the copy are “original” art works after all. Analyzing the different conceptual approaches and degrees of appropriation adopted by the artists here, such as Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Huang Young Ping, Félix González-Torres, Nate Lowman and Shilpa Gupta, one becomes highly aware of the flexibility and adaptability of the current notion of art.

This exhibition tells a story. But it is a perpetually floating narrative that has neither beginning nor end. Indeed, the narrative of the exhibition is not one, but many, depending on how one connects the works and connects with them. Questions surrounding the human condition are raised through works based on language, objects, images and actions. These co-habit, complement and dialogue with each other, inviting a diversity of possible readings and interpretations. The spectator travels through different thematic zones – geopolitics, urbanism, politics, violence, sexuality, religion, identity and memory – that suggest non-linear narratives, and reveal social and personal issues through the materials, structure, and semantics of the works.

One possible narrative is that one is entering a city within the city, an architecture within the architecture. Monumental works like Ping’s Colosseum (2007), Matthew Barney’s Torii (2006) and an up-scaled tractor (Tractor, 2003 – 2005) by Charles Ray, are framed by Piano’s architecture, which is itself anchored in the park, the neighborhood, the city. In this sense, the exhibition is a metaphorical collage of a city, where the works offer a fragmented glimpse of urban life in a ubiquitous contemporary society.

What is notable in this selection of works is that the emphasis in contemporary art has shifted away from a world dominated by America and towards a global society and culture. This creates a frame for exploring the rhetoric of the consumer society – a story about modernity worldwide – its contradictions of violence and harmony. These artists display a strong political commitment. An acute sense of injustice often reveals itself in their layered narratives. There is no innocence or tentativeness in either the presentation or content of their works, but the overall mood is rarely outrageous; rather it is one of critical realism, mixed with sarcasm and dark humour. The artists invite the viewer into a world of consumption, mass production, luxurious commodities and social contradictions and injustice in order to explore the way in which the consumer is trapped inside a complicated system of temptation and desire, promoted by the phenomenon of branding.

As an alternative to this assertion of the exclusive and the unique, of quality and taste, which in fact create uniformity and homogenization, artists such as Tom Sachs return to the handmade using cheap materials, while Jeff Koons proposes a populist notion of beauty by appropriating the aesthetics and the social and cultural conventions of the “lower” classes. One could argue that his creative act is a political one, aimed at re-evaluating the cultural references of a class that for too long has been regarded as the outsider. And while continuing to explore social behaviour and the expression of certain basic, common values in society, Koons and others deal with the theme of desire by appropriating the aesthetics and the mechanisms of commericialised sexuality and pornography. A subtle bridge is built between populist sexual representation, the basic nature of desire, and art. The artists create an interesting ambiguity, a kind of double reading, which helps to transform the image to the status of art, inviting the spectator into a voyeuristic identification with the image through this easily accessible universal subject.

Above all, the works here express man’s relationship to society. In Félix González-Torres’ works, for example, audiences are invited to help themselves from mounds of sweets or stacks of posters, transforming consumables into social events that are often informed by dense biographical, biological and political undercurrents: the pile of sweets is equivalent in weight to the combined weights of Gonzalez and his partner, who died from AIDS. The spectator is invited to consume the sweets or carry them into society. The work is a conceptual structure, a rendezvous, and a performance, where the spectator provides the work with its true content and where everyday urban objects and cultural conventions are placed in participatory or performative situations that renew their meanings.

Elsewhere, materials and situations are similarly transformed into objects that on closer inspection take on a symbolic character, onto which the viewer’s experiences and unconscious whims can be projected. Models of a building or even an airplane lavatory can convey an emotional and sensorial experience, simultaneously fascinating and troubling, as well as raising meaningful speculation about identity and authenticity, beauty and idealization. In Robert Gober’s work, for example, seemingly innocent everyday objects betray a different side to their character, referring back not only to the artist’s personal experiences, but to familiar objects from the home environment such as a crib, a sink, a pump, a drain, or a stack of newspapers. Creating the initial impression of ready-mades, all are in fact handmade and strongly infused with the psychological workings and memories of the artist. The transfigured objects tell their stories on several different levels, presenting intricate and mystifying narratives concerned with childhood, sexuality, religion, discrimination, and memory. This theme of memory often appears through the historical events and personal experiences that the artists transmit through their works. The artists are witnesses, and their works are important archives from a certain time in history, as well as a personal trace of their own existence, mementoes in the struggle against forgetting.

The Astrup Fearnley Museet is also a place of memory, collecting, conservation and mediation. Privately owned, the museum opened in 1993 in Oslo, but the Astrup Fearnley Collection has a history that dates back to the 1960s. This exceptional collection does not aspire to present an encyclopedic overview of international contemporary art, and has always concentrated on individual works and artists, rather than on movements or historical periods. The Collection’s distinctive focus is on acquiring major pieces of contemporary art that push the boundaries of the artistic canon by artists who occupy key positions in the field, either because they have created visual languages, objects, and images of great originality and quality or because they have reinvented significant aspects of cultural production. This means that certain artists have an outstanding presence in the collection, and are presented in depth, showing the development and the coherence of their work. Over the last decade, the Museum has concentrated intensively on American contemporary artists, and younger artists like Paul Chan, Frank Benson, Nate Lowman, and Dan Colen, to name just a few. More recently, the focus has been on works by important European, Brazilian, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian contemporary artists. The museum’s aim is to collect and present these major works by international contemporary artists in illuminating depth, but also in dialog with the Norwegian art scene, and to have a real presence both in the city of Oslo and in the international art world.

In recent years, we have witnessed an important change in the art community, especially in Europe, with the introduction of ambitious private collections and foundations. Those that have received the most attention are based in Greece, Italy, France, Germany and Norway. All of these private collections are communicating international contemporary art in countries that have a long tradition of state-driven cultural politics. While the state-founded museums are linked to a defined cultural policy and even to a certain kind of ideology, and most of the national museums have a clear mission to collect and communicate their own art history in dialog with the international art world, private collections are free to create their own vision and policy. The appearance of these private institutions in the cultural landscape has wrought an effect on the consensus values driving the art world and is changing the role and the nature of contemporary art museums. Private museums, including Astrup Fearnley Museet, have added to the polyphony of artists, galleries, critics, universities, and state-driven museums that are writing the history of art.

Astrup Fearnley’s choice, for example, to concentrate largely on the acquisition of American contemporary art is unusual in Scandinavia. But as a private collection, it is able to choose its subject matter independently, concentrate all of its resources on this area for a certain period of time, and develop its research within any given cultural region. Such research then crystallizes in the form of acquisitions, exhibitions and catalogs. The museum organizes several shows each year, and maintains an ambitious publishing and public programming dimension that facilitates partnerships with today’s leading curators, critics and scholars. The museum employs specially trained invigilators to work in the exhibition spaces, who teach our public about the museum, its collection, the exhibitions, artists, and artworks. The museum also offers guided tours for school classes and the public, coordinates Art Clubs for children and teenagers, and makes sophisticated use of mobile-phone technology to broaden outreach and facilitate interaction with the collection.

Gunnar B. Kvaran
Director, Astrup Fearnley Museet

Address: Strandpromenaden 2, 0252 Oslo

© Astrup Fearnley Museet