It’s sometimes forgotten that the gruesome, bewildering murder of 69 Norwegians, mostly teenagers, on the island of Utøya was not the only terrorist act that took place on 22 July 2011. Anders Behring Breivik, since convicted as the sole perpetrator of the attacks, also detonated a car bomb in central Oslo, outside a modernist tower block that houses the prime minister’s office. Eight people died, and the bomb did significant damage to the building. Inside that building hung a tapestry by the self-taught artist Hannah Ryggen: Vi lever på en stjerne (We Are Living on a Star), completed in 1958, which depicts a nude man and woman embracing in a the centre of an oval from while faces, fish and abstract forms drift in a field of blue. The tapestry, gashed on its lower right corner in the explosion, also had to be cleaned of glass shards, plaster and dust. The conservation has been successful, but it has left a wound that could not be sealed.
As the fulcrum for this searching, understated and deeply affecting exhibition on normality and crisis, history and freedom, the tapestry carries a tremendous weight, which it bears without any difficulty. Ryggen, whom visitors to the most recent Documenta will remember for her antifascist tapestries of the 1930s and ’40s, was a left-wing pacifist whose work frequently depicted current events or patriotic themes. Yet her We Are Living on a Star exists in a hazier, more meditative realm. It wears its political convictions lightly, as do other works here from Norwegian artists such as Marthe Ramm Fortun and Per-Oskar Leu, as well as foreigners including Doug Ashford and Javier Téllez. In Ryggen’s tapestry, the nudes are of the world but not in it, sailing through time and space. Its title may evoke a community and a stellar home, but its form is impermanent if not ungraspable. So it is for many of the contemporary works in this show: social life and politics inform art but do not straitjacket it. Art, even in such a loaded context as this show, is able to function, politically or indeed apolitically, on its own terms.
A spectacular, labyrinthine new work by Eva Rothschild, Nature and Culture (2014), vacillates between centripetal embrace and centrifugal explosion. An elegant hanging sculpture by Hanne Friis comprising densely packed layers of denim, Nyanser i blått og svart (Shades of Blue and Black, 2013–14), recalls Ryggen’s tapestry but speaks in a far more elegiac register. Eline McGeorge’s wall hangings, woven from plastic emergency blankets used by accident victims, shimmer in the gallery light even as they imply multiple unknown disasters. All of these works could have been instrumentalized by less subtle curators, but here Tone Hansen, the Henie-Onstad’s director, and Marit Paasche, an independent scholar writing a book on Ryggen, ascribe no therapeutic power to art. Nor do they seek to illustrate trauma or tragedy even in the few works that directly touch on the attacks: Jumana Manna’s cast replicas of the load-bearing columns of the damaged building, say (Study of the Government Quarter: Columns from Høyblokka, 2013), or a survey of the architectural history of Oslo’s government quarter by Martin Braathen, Even Smith Wergeland and Marius Engh (Ekkoklamer, Echo Chamber, 2012–13). Nor does it devolve into a tired defence of supposed Western liberal values, imputing to art an inherent antiterrorist message. (One might fear this, given the show’s sponsorship by Fritt Ord, a noted Norwegian free-speech organization; what’s more, Breivik explicitly targeted Labour Party members, and while the rhetoric after the attacks was one of national mourning, the actual crime was directed at a specific political movement.) The show’s ambitions are at once more modest and more impressive: to let art speak for itself, acknowledging that if the events of 22 July 2011 will inevitably inscribe themselves upon any exhibition broaching the questions of identity and politics in Norway, then the only worthwhile stance is to assert art’s autonomy and build out from there.
‘We Are Living on a Star’ thus invites comparison to another, quite different exhibition: ‘September 11’, Peter Eleey’s bluntly titled show at New York’s MoMA PS1 in 2011. That exhibition used several pre-2001 works, from a George Segal sculpture of a woman on a bench to a Diane Arbus photograph of a floating piece of newsprint, to insist on 9/11’s omnipresence and overrepresentation, yet it ended up reducing art to a sort of high-class illustration – precisely the thing that Eleey hoped to avoid by excluding literal representations of the attacks. ‘We Are Living on a Star’, a far superior exhibition, never indulges the temptation to put art in the service of commentary or therapy. Instead, the exhibition’s curators trust the artists to speak for themselves, and that generosity can be felt throughout the show. The open, at times abstract response to 22 July 2011 might feel too loose to viewers less disposed to contemporary art, I concede, and in a small country still contending with a massive trauma it may even seem extraneous to some. For this foreigner, though, ‘We Are Living on a Star’ looks like a breakthrough: a rethinking of the relationship between art, politics and everyday life so that all those terms get the care they deserve.