For millennia, the medium of sculpture stood at the fore of Western aesthetic thought. One of the last representatives in this grand lineage of advocates for the primacy of sculpture was Johann Gottfried Herder, whose concept of touch holds the haptic experience of the plastic as fundamental to every aesthetic sensation and art form. This was in the late 18th century. At the 9th Norwegian Sculpture Biennial at Oslo’s Vigeland Museum, it is apparent that this privileged status of sculpture is irrevocably a thing of the past. As we live in neo-baroque times, sculptural works have become one tiny component of a diversified media landscape. Moreover, the medium of sculpture itself has undergone processes of hybridization and transformation. Thus, the works of the 35 participating artists range from apps, video screens and digital animation to performances, installations and relief paintings, to textile art and traditional sculptures incorporating a wide range of materials.
Steffen Håndlykken, the curator of this year’s Biennial, adopts a different perspective on sculpture’s current status. In his catalogue essay, he implicitly attempts to reanimate Herder’s dream of sculpture as a privileged art form, encompassing all the other disciplines: “Sculpture is unique because it is essentially about giving form to materials that already exist – the artist literally has the whole world to choose from. Seen this way, sculpture contains all artistic processes”. As plausible as this idea might seem, it is also very general, almost redundant, making it more of a matter of belief than a fully convincing argument.
The Biennial’s main premise, to exhibit the works of the invited artists alongside Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures, which are part of the museum’s permanent exhibition, is welcomed by Håndlykken as a productive challenge. At its best, this juxtaposition sets art history in motion, as two discrete periods characterized by differing artistic and sociopolitical conditions meet in a dialogue of forms and subjects. Daisuke Kosugi’s bamboo sculptures Gate control, pain (clumsy hand sample) – which are also used as props in a performance – appear to nestle up against the organic shapes of Vigeland’s ensemble of plaster sculptures depicting trees populated with human figures. Elegantly, their flowing curves absorb and mimic the trees’ graceful and harmonic interplay of forms, while, material wise, the warm haptic slickness of the golden bamboo bickers with the cold white and rough plaster.
Anne Guro Larsmon’s A laboratory assemblage of ethnographic components: Species, Tools and Fluid left to cool in the absence of an organized body places fluid-like glass sculptures dressed up as spooky scientific specimens next to Vigeland’s busts of the Norwegian elite. The result is a fresh and estranged look at these prestigious portraits, which suddenly appear as human guinea pigs in the cabinet of a mad professor. Uncannily, this undermines their status as distinguished figures of Norwegian history, which Vigeland was commissioned to establish and reinforce with these works.
However, the superior craftsmanship and aesthetic force of Vigeland’s work make him a dismissive conversation partner at times. As correctly observed by Håndlykken, the bronze figures of Eirik Sæther (Reports On a Shy, Humble and Wonderful Human Being, 2016) recall Alberto Giacometti, but with their microphone heads and ethno-look clothing they also appear like something one could find in one of those comic book or record stores that sell H. R. Giger posters (the artist behind the aesthetic of the ‘Alien’ franchise). Iconic art forms celebrate a sad marriage with elements of fandom and postcolonial crafts markets. Though Sæther’s tacky figures partly succeed in dragging Vigeland’s sculptures down with them into the lowlands of trivial culture to reveal their kitschy sides, they never transcend this role as a mocking supplement to Vigeland’s powerful vitalist idiom.
Much more fascinating is Marthe Ramm Fortun’s performance Walk Like a Twisted Archive during which she leads a small audience through the private flat where Vigeland used to reside in the museum’s upper floors. Apart from a pair of white velvet gloves and plastic shoe covers on her feet, she is completely naked. Like a crazy housekeeper who shows her master’s visitors around, she urges us in a slightly hysterical voice to “Come!” and “Look around!” During this bizarre scene, Fortun uses her exposed body and the shrill delivery of her speech to taunt and contest the discourses and myths of a whole bygone epoch, which manifests itself in the historically preserved flat of Norway’s artist icon. She summons the ghosts of the past (Vigeland, Hitler, Sappho) that hide in the bookshelves, desks and bedrooms and creates inconvenient associations between them, pointing to, for example, Vigeland’s relation to national socialism.
Against this, Ane Graff’s performance The Bodily Life, which revolves around bodily and creation processes, gets lost in the apathetic and spiritless chant of her voice. Possibly, the dullness of her delivery is meant to criticize grand narratives of life’s creation and transformation – or maybe Graff wants to discipline her audience. If so, her regime is either too soft or too hard on us, as it does not offer any way to engage with the content of her speech, leaving us to simply endure. Quite similar were my experiences of Camilla Steinum’s textile works, which feature what looks like scruffy and dirty carpets with Vigeland’s imagery on them, hung over metal scaffolds, as well as of Anders Holen’s two Magnetoceptic Reliefs, whose spinning motion is triggered and guided by the North Magnetic Pole, thereby forcing the viewer to discover the uninspired backside of the plaster work. Its, perhaps deliberately and ironically, crafty and amateurish appeal – but why then the grand gesture of involving the agency of mother earth? – might at first sight attract our multisensory experience of touch, which involves the haptic in all other senses (especially vision). However, it does not take long for the haptic appeal of the work’s scruffy, yet otherwise bleak, surface to wear off.
Few of the exhibited works offer much nourishment for eyes that are hungry to touch. Too often, I found myself in a haptic wasteland with vacuous, drab and seemingly random forms, offering little friction, excitement or stimulus to latch on to. All that is left is to look for signs, decipher, read, discover conceptual subtexts. However, the rewards of this cerebral activity were meager compensation for the exhibition’s haptic deficit, in my opinion. In part, this Biennial feels like a missed opportunity to fully exploit the aesthetic potential of the sculptural, that is to put touch, hapticity and plasticity back at the centre of the art experience.