New Soul of the Astrup Fearnley Museum

Photo: TNP

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A new
building of the Astrup Fearnley Museum of modern art has been opened in Oslo –
the creation of the world-renowned architect Renzo Piano. The museum complex,
which was built in three years and cost 90 million Euros, is now showing its
premier exhibition entitled «To Be With Art Is All We Ask», representing the
international art scene stars.

The
perception of contemporary art, to a large extent, depends on the way it is
presented – even a novice curator knows this. Questions as to the quality or to
the meaning of any opus when placed in spectacular “friendly” spaces
may not disappear. However, to rhetorically exclaim “What the hell?”
could be morally complex. The museum not only legitimizes art through its
status, but in theory also aims to add a kind of entertainment to art. In many other countries, especially in Europe,
this issue has already been translated into reality.

The government
strongly supported the idea

And that’s
what is amusing: it is often easy to observe almost brotherly union between government and business. The situation with the Astrup Fearnley Museum is a clear illustration of this fact. Actually the museum is private: it
was founded in 1993 by two funds, representing the family of rich shipbuilders
– Thomas Fearnley Foundation and Heddy and Nils Astrup Foundation (a little
later the funds merged). Since 1993 the museum was located
in the Dronningensgate street, but the area it covered was not large enough, and the ship captains
conceived an ambitious project. The government strongly supported the
idea, although a special bias towards the national art collection is not visible at the Astrup
Fearnley: it is international by principle.
However, the Norwegian authorities considered that strengthening the museum’s weight in the world to be beneficial to the country in all respects, and after
Breivik the country really wanted to regain the title of the ‘well-being oasis’.
State support is palpable in many different aspects – from the participation of
the local Ministry of Tourism to promote the new museum to the visit by Queen Sonja for the opening.

However,
the building was set up solely on private money, government
grants have not been asked for, although the crisis did slow down the construction for a while.

In the end it was finished in time. Now,
together with the owners of the collections
exhibited, officials are
willing to say that the new museum in Oslo is one of the
best on the planet.

The museum is located
on the edge of the promontory jutting out into the waters of the Oslo Fjord

The fact that the author of the complex is Renzo Piano – one of the best and most renowned
international architects – gives
self-confidence to the proclaimers of such statements. It
is enough to recall that Renzo in tandem with Richard Rogers created the project
of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Since then,
that is, from the beginning of the 1970s, Piano was author of
countless projects around the world, but he still didn’t lose his interest in creativity.

In any
case, maybe not to challenge the well-established European tastes but a specific impulse is felt in his Norwegian project. The backdrop for the museum is fabulous: the museum is located on the edge of
the promontory jutting out into the waters of the Oslo Fjord. This area (quite
central – just a short walk from the Royal Palace) is Tyuvholmen, is being built up intensively. The Piano-designed
building is not the tallest, but it has the right to claim dominance because of
its visibility from many points in the surrounding area. Architecturally open into the water- this is where land and sea are joined the most. Three buildings, lined with
unpainted wood, united by a common glass roof intricately shaped like a bird’s
wing or the wave of the rift. Steel columns resonate with vertical masts on
yachts moored nearby and a channel situated
between the buildings with a bridge thrown over it strengthens
the impression of a “city on the water.” The museum is adjacent to a small sculpture park with works by Louise Bourgeois, Franz West, Anish Kapoor.

Contemporary
Art has one of the most important tasks

Perhaps
Renzo Piano’s accomplices in the art field will find something to complain about – both outside and inside, but the landscape, ecology and psychology elements he has implicated are almost
flawless. The promenade around the museum awakens in the
viewer a sense of comfort and serenity.

It is possible to say, however, that there are no grounds for placidity while looking at the museum collections. The above-mentioned
shipbuilders collect not only expensive art, but pieces that are also an acute,
non-trivial, sometimes shocking masterpiece. These days, however, the time lap from the first shock to the grateful
recognition of peace being evoked from the same work can appear in a person with a gap of a second or even sometimes a few moments and are enough to make recent mental harmony disappear. Actually, contemporary art has one of the most important tasks which is to reload the mind with emotions, relying not on
the standard, but
on the real.

Such an operation is not
always painless.

The premier
exhibition «To Be With Art Is All We Ask» was formed by Gunvar Kvaran, the director of the museum who
comes with an Icelandic
origin. The exhibition does not depress the visitor,
but it would be better to have a special
attitude before coming. I mean, instantly be ready to jump over the whole octave of intelligent
shades to keep pace with the curatorial moves. Say you should be able to more or less experience, evaluate, and even (it is possible)
to admire the plastic polyptych by
famous British duo
Gilbert and George (work titled «Was Jesus Heterosexual?»), and a tractor by
Charles Ray standing beside it – almost like the real one, except with screws
made from aluminum – which immediately makes you change the mind set to think
about how humanity should get along with the industrial products it manufactures.
Such differences between artists messages are here at every step – the
untrained visitor may be obstructed. But Europeans in general (and the
Norwegians in particular) are more or less accustomed to seeing exhibitions of
such calibre.

Maurizio
Cattelan could easily put naturalistic dummy in a coffin

The main
thing is not to be caught on the first available provocation by the author, or
you may not have the mental strength to analyze the provocations of a later
more complex piece.

If the list
of artists is known in advance, that would be a great help for the experienced
visitor to this  international exhibition.
It could be estimated, for example, that a sawn cow preserved in alcohol by
Damien Hirst will cause a slightly different reaction than the porcelain statue
of Michael Jackson with a monkey on his lap (work of Jeff Koons). While
Maurizio Cattelan easily puts a naturalistic dummy in a coffin and Richard
Prince could necessarily ironize in the spirit of conceptualist cliches and
banalities of life, and at the same time ridicule conceptualism itself… makes
having this knowledge especially important when the exposure is based not on
flows and periods, but on particular names.

The Astrup
Fearnley Museum collection has just such a similar style – striking, but not
too systematic. Museum workers, who receive salaries from the Norwegian state
budget, could probably explain to the owners of the collections that it would
be better to buy certain works so as to display them in a certain sequence. But
they do not and never will do, as they are raised with a soul of respect for
other people’s ideas. The state, by the way, did not support a private museum
based upon a dependence on a particular ideological or aesthetic reason. There
is freedom here, in the collection, in the settings and in the themes. While
the scenario of the new museum opening in Oslo may look to challenge it is
however, very organic to the socio-cultural situation from which it grew from.

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