Construction site

2006

Presentation speech Held in the museum wardens' new lunch room at the National Gallery, Oslo

The space we are standing in is one of my art projects. The renovation of the lunchroom at the National Gallery has been carried out in connection with my recently concluded solo show at UKS, and is a gift from me to the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. The interior was designed by architects Jim Dodson and Mikael Pedersen, and the construction work done by Jørgen Vidnes and Arne A. The architects have based their plans on the wishes and needs of the museum attendants, who spend their working days at the museum and are the most frequent users of this room. The museum itself has covered the costs of the furnishings and materials, while I myself have paid the wages of the architects and the building workers. In total, the renovation has cost me just under 130,000 kroner, not a massive sum in the broader scheme of things, but for an artist such as myself, it amounts to almost two years’ earnings.

 

The starting point and inspiration for this project was my own experience as a museum attendant at the National Museum. I no longer work here, but I look back on the time when I did as a positive experience in many ways. A job that I took merely to earn some money turned out to be very rewarding and inspiring also from an artistic point of view. Most of my former colleagues are highly qualified in the cultural or academic fields, having taken jobs here en route to other career destinations. Although these people represent a big resource for the museum, they are employed at the lowest level of the institutional hierarchy. As the director himself has called them, they are “the crew”. Certainly, it became clear to me that the museum is in fact aware of the attendants’ skills and knowledge; it is just that they do not always acknowledge the fact. In some respects, it is as if the very opposite finds expression. The condition of this room prior to the renovation offered a clear picture of the mismatch between competence and acknowledgement thereof within the museum as an institution.

 

And this situation is by no means unique to the National Museum. The over-production of academics and artists relative to market demands means that there is often a lack of genuine correspondence between a person’s education, qualifications and ambitions on the one hand, and the position that person achieves in society’s economic hierarchy on the other. The fact that it can take time for cultural capital to translate into economic capital is something that most artists and society in general are accustomed to viewing as self-evident. There is also a very widespread conception that artists, and to some extent academics as well, should be prepared to live in relative poverty and without social recognition. “Inner motivation” is often called upon in our fields. Our career choices are assumed to be based on convictions and a sense of inspiration that are strong enough to compensate for the lack of so much of what so many people regard as important. What we fail to achieve in terms of power or financial rewards is supposedly compensated by gains in the form of veneration for cultural capital. And it is quite true; we have chosen exciting and challenging fields of activity. But even so, this cliché still remains a cliché, and it can be hard and unpleasant to live with when it is converted into everyday reality. The contention that we choose our careers freely and that those who are unwilling to pay the price can choose to do something else is absurd when transferred onto other professional fields.

 

The notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk – a fusion of various art forms (in this case art, architecture and design) into a single large-scale, unitary experience – arose around the middle of the 19th century, and went on to acquire considerable significance for the history of art. This museum itself is no stranger to this idea, which we actually find encapsulated in the name of this very institution: the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. The notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk also lay behind the major undertaking organised by this museum to mark its inception as a unified institution: the project “Kiss the Frog!”. The exhibition pavilion was designed by a respected firm of architects, its highly innovative architecture meant to function almost in symbiosis with the various artworks it was built to accommodate. Visitors should really experience art. The rehanging of the museum’s design collection was conceived by another firm of architects, and in this case as well, architecture serves both as a frame and a commentary on what it frames. It grows directly from the exhibition’s primary concept and amounts to much more than a practical solution to the problem of providing a space.

 

As a concept, the Gesamtkunstwerk is optimistic in relation to aesthetic pursuits in general. Collectively, art, architecture and design (along with music, dance and literature) can offer both the individual and society as a whole a better and more exciting life and a broader and more profound understanding of one’s own position and role in the world. Aesthetics can offer a kind of awakening and a new consciousness in relation to ourselves and the world around us. The links between socialist utopias and the place of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the art world have often been pointed out (even though the originator of the concept, Richard Wagner, can hardly be called a socialist). In its entirety, this museum helps to promote the idea of art as something relevant to society on a day-to-day level, and I am sure we all agree on the importance of its responsibilities to promote a better understanding of art among a broader audience. Art can be of immense significance to people’s daily lives, and the same is true of architecture and design. The museum is investing considerable energy in bringing these fields of activity to the widest possible audience. But is it not paradoxical then that renovation and design solutions seem to be of less relevance within the working environment of the institution itself? Do we cease to believe in our subject the moment the general public turns its back? Should not art, design and architecture be just as important at the bottom of the hierarchy, where the attendants and technicians happen to be, as they are higher up in the institution? Is the museum less than serious when it professes that art should naturally occupy a central place in everyday life and among the working population? Do we think that, when it actually comes to it, the significance and function of art and aesthetics is limited to superficial trimmings and decor, while that which is structurally meaningful and genuinely productive is formless and occupies another realm? For what we cannot deny is that there was a glaring aesthetic discrepancy between this room as it was and the canteen for the administration, with its Eames chairs, its views out over the town and its sponsored organic menus – all of which is off-limits to the museum attendants. To step from the exhibition spaces where the general public move into the backstage areas accessible only to employees is also a bit like stepping from one world into another.

I am very happy to be able to hand over this lunchroom in its present, newly renovated condition to the visitor services department at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. It is my hope that it will contribute to greater appreciation of the attendants and other people who use the room and to their own well-being. I hope they are pleased with the result. They deserve it.

 

Marianne Heier

March 2006