Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, Norway
At 4:30 AM on 26 November 1942, 100 taxies, protected by 300 policemen, lined up outside the Frogner Park in Kirkeveien in Oslo. Their assignment that cold winter morning was to transport more than 530 Jews from their homes in Oslo to the city’s icy harbour, where the German ship Donau awaited them. The day after, the ship would arrive in Stettin (today Szczecin in Poland). From there they went by train to Auschwitz–Birkenau. Only nine survived their detainment to return to Norway. The police inspector in charge of the operation in Oslo, Knut Rød, had received his orders to deport the Jews from Nasjonal Samling (the Norwegian Nazi party). He did not resist.
The same year, a few men led by the gardener Rolf Syversen helped more than 500 Jews across the border into politically neutral Sweden. Unlike Rød, Syversen chose to resist and to help. He was arrested the following year, and, in 1944, killed. Rød, on the other hand, was never punished for what he did and went on working for the police until his retirement in 1965.
For nearly 20 years, Norwegian artist Victor Lind has reflected upon the events and fates surrounding these two men in his project Contemporary Memory (1994–2012). He has worked with these events in a variety of media – among them sculpture, photography, video, painting and installation. This show at the Kunstnernes Hus is the first time his entire group of works revolving around the Rød–Syversen axis has been shown together. It is long overdue. Lind’s relentless inquiries into this bleak chapter of war history are unequalled in Norwegian post-war art and should be widely accessible to the public. The show also functions as a survey of Lind’s oeuvre of the last 20 years.
The works in ‘Contemporary Memory’ consist of police reports, internal memoranda exchanged among members of the Nasjonal Samling and the police, as well as legal documents uncovering details of the Rød case. Some of them are personal belongings from Lind’s own family archives; others are copied from originals now dwelling in The National Archives of Norway. A lot of this material is straightforwardly framed and hung on the wall like evidence.
By Lind’s account, Rød was guilty. Going through the material in the show it is difficult to disagree with him. The decisive work in Lind’s multilayered reassessment of the case is his sculpture, or rather his anti-monument of Rød, Monument (2005). Placed atop a massive granite plinth, the dwarfed figure of Rød reaches out in an archetypal Nazi salute. On the plinth Lind has engraved the decision of the District Court, which found him innocent. But on the opposite side we find Lind’s own verdict: ‘The monument stands until the sentence of 9 April 1948 is annulled.’ When the monument is no longer on display here, it will return to its home at the Holocaust Centre in Oslo (where it has been since 2006). How long, one wonders, will it stand there waiting?
‘Contemporary Memory’ is not just a statement about the wrongdoings in Norwegian post-war history and law, but about art as such. While Lind obviously would like to see a formal rejection of the Rød verdict, and is justified in his wish, the work teaches us a more wide-ranging lesson: if we probe beneath the narrative texture of how the past is remembered, other stories soon surface – disregarded events and people that, if they are properly taken into account, would alter the nature of the comforting narratives we tell ourselves. Lind tells us to look for the irregularities.
In 1998 Lind himself re-enacted the initial stage of the 1942 deportation. At the exact time and date, 56 years after the deportation, he ordered 100 taxis to line up in the dark November night in Kirkeveien once again. His video installation Who is afraid? – Contemporary memory (2001) documents this vital performance. We see taxis waiting – but nothing happens. Then a series of texts rolls across the screens: the story of Rød and the deportation is voiced, once again, like a ghost that won’t let go. The work is a reminder that art is about making the invisible visible.
Other areas of ‘Contemporary Memory’ leave the hard facts behind and introduce more exploratory versions of what happened. In Oslo by Night – the Stars (2006), we encounter an image of a nocturnal starry sky, which subsequently morphs into a map of Oslo. Now the stars mark off exactly where the Jews where arrested by Rød. They also become yellow stars worn by Jews in Nazi Germany. The harsh facts are reintroduced. Then the map becomes a starry sky again. The alternation between different layers seems to diverge slightly from the documentary heart of the show, but it is in works like these that Lind’s musings on justice point toward reconciliation and, perhaps, a brighter future where the traumas of the past are healed.
‘Contemporary Memory’ is a substantial spatial essay, which suggests that art should not so much be an end in itself as a means for targeting, and dealing with, critical inconsistencies in the authorized accounts of history. Allied with Lind, we are certainly better equipped for the arduous but necessary task of re-examining our collective as well as individual incomplete recollections of the past.
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