INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY 29th JANUARY 2012- INTERVIEW WITH UNNI ASKELAND
Norwegian Celebrity Artist UNNI ASKELAND in Malta
Norwegian Celebrity Artist UNNI ASKELAND is currently exhibiting one of her latest collections â€˜FRIEZEDâ€¦continuedâ€™ at the National Museum of Fine Arts in South Street Valletta until the end of March.
Unni Askeland is a top Norwegian artist who has exhibited throughout Norway, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and New York. Here she talks to Erika Brincat about her art and life
You have been called â€˜the enfant terrible of contemporary Norwegian artâ€™, and you seem to have shocked the politically correct establishment a number of times. Is this intentional or does it just happen?
I always exhibited in independent galleries, and already back then I had a lot of press and attention. I also exhibited outside of Oslo in 1999 at Bjarne Melgaardâ€™s Gallery â€“ NAF â€“ he is a controversial artist with great international success and we received good reviews from the contemporary arts scene. In an exhibition called â€˜Cover Upâ€™ I made money for the first time and I was featured in design magazines in Miami which led me to be in the collections of some big collectors. Also after an exhibition in Copenhagen they wrote a big piece about me in the main paper in Denmark.
However, it is during the exhibition â€˜Munch Adoptionsâ€™ that I really got in the scene. I was exhibiting in Munchâ€™s Art Gallery â€“ an auction house in Blomkvist. â€˜Munch Adoptionsâ€™ (2004) was a series of paraphrases of Edvard Munchâ€™s famous â€œsoul paintingsâ€ from the 1890s. Meddling with the nations master caused something of a scandal in the Norwegian milieu. But its important to point out that my paintings were not copies, but reinterpretations of Munchâ€™s themes, such as love, sex, and agony.
Your exhibition â€˜A Lot of Water Under the Bridgeâ€™ stirred up quite a debate about the National Museum of Art in Oslo in 2008. What was this about?
The exhibition â€˜A Lot of Water Under the Bridgeâ€™ (2008) features images inspired by the famous movie Casablanca, among others - love scenes with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. When a series from this show was acquired by the National Museum of Art in Oslo, it stirred a new debate, mostly about the museum but I was also dragged into it.
During this time they had changed the national museum and it was fused with contemporary art. Things were changing in Norway and there was a cooler arts scene. However I always did what I thought best without following any trends.
The Director of the Museum Allis Helleland knew about me from the article which appeared in Denmark which was written by a collector who bought my work and had a known publishing house. She had been the Director of the Arts Museum in Denmark for 15 years and she was head-hunted to Norway. However when she came to Norway she was treated terribly, and she left the museum in the end and became one of my bestfriends.
I donâ€™t know what it is about the arts scene in Norway â€“ the new Director of the Opera House also left around the same time. For example the old Munch Museum has about 25,000 pieces which canâ€™t be seen and we are asking for a new Munch Museum with a glass design to incorporate these pieces, but the politicians are against this idea.
You have also had an exhibition with the Princess of Norwayâ€™s husband, which caused quite a stir with the Queen of Norway. What happened exactly?
He is a famous writer Aris Behn and we had been friends for 18 years. He had some unpublished poetry and when the Norway Literature Festival was opening I told him â€œnow we have a chance to collaborateâ€ . I picked out some of his poetry and did a series of paintings last Spring. We filled all the walls with his writing and my paintings on top of them. I also painted the Royal Family which caused a bit of a scandal and made it to the front page the next day, but in the end the whole exhibition was sold â€“ a hallway which was 1 metre long between Oslo and the airport. You can find 3 videos on youtube of the paintings.
With the series â€˜Desire and Destructionâ€™ and â€˜Big Blondeâ€™ â€“ the latter shown in New York in 2006 â€“ you depict the icons of the 20th century, paraphrasing well-known portraits. Are these a tribute to Andy Warholâ€™s Pop Art?
â€˜Desire and Destructionâ€™ is about musicians in New York such as Kurt Cobain who did drugs and had a destructive lifestyle. I always felt I was naturally high so I didnâ€™t use drugs. They are inspired by Andy Warholâ€™s Pop Art and came about due to my life with an American musician with whom I have four children.
During this time you could say I was part of the Rock n Roll milleu and met people like BobDylan and Jodie Mitchell. The exhibition was about this.
I used heroes and idols and was inspired by old art posters such as the Che Guevera poster and use a projector to make it more functional. It was painted by hand and I had a lot of assistants making them.
In â€˜Big Blondeâ€™ you will find femme fatales such as Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, and Courtney Love. The technique is photo-based serigraphy, the same medium I employ in my latest paintings.
Big, blonde and beautiful. Do you feel an affinity with icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Mae West?
I donâ€™t find it hard to put myself in their lives. Iâ€™ve loved these old movies since I was a little girl. I move on to all these strong women in my art â€“ they are some of the best actresses and most destructive ones. In a way these things follow each other â€“ perhaps they were too much too handle for their surroundings.
Was your â€˜Big Big Bigâ€™ Collection all about Monroe or various movie icons?
The idea came out of the â€˜Big Blondeâ€™ series. Rolf Stavnem at Fine Art in Oslo and I went to a silk screen studio where we worked on 13 women and 13 men for this series. Movie icons like Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Elvis and Nicholas Cage - but always people that have meant something to me. Iâ€™m inspired by film, art, books and music.
You have often staged your own persona in your works. How come?
Everything I do has something to do with my personality, upbringing and thoughts. You canâ€™t always live it in your real life but Iâ€™ve had quite an interesting life. Here in Malta Iâ€™m definitely walking around as â€œthe big blondeâ€ but really Iâ€™m quite a down to earth person. My priorities are my family, husband and my pug Maya â€“ they are the most important things in my life. The glamorous lifestyle only happens on occasion and I am happy about that.
People often remark that you look like Marilyn Monroe because of your blonde hair and style, and you have painted several portraits of the icon. She was a sex symbol who yearned to find true love. Do you relate to her in some ways and what is it about her that inspires you as an artist?
In 1992, I did an exhibition in memory of her â€“ it was 30 years since she died and 30 years since I was born. She has fascinated me and the rest of the world. If she lived now sheâ€™d probably have been more respected and taken care of instead of abused the way she was. When she did her last movie the Misfits with Clark Gable she was in her mid-30â€™s, one can say her career started when she died at 36. She was a very nice and open person and I find her more interesting then Greta Garbo for example. The roles she was given portrayed her as a bit silly but it is quite unfair to describe her that way. If you listen to the song she sang to the President it is so beautiful.
Do you consider sex and love to be recurrent themes in your art?
Yes it seems so. For example my â€˜Cover Up Exhibitionâ€™ was about my love affair with the man I am married to now. This was in 2001 and we were married in 2006. He is an artist too and doing really well in the New York arts scene. He will have an international career. Living with me and my family he was able to focus 90% on his career. I guess we get different things in life but it still has to have some meaning â€“ so love is the most important thing.
In â€˜Friezedâ€™ and â€˜Friezed Continuedâ€™ you turn to landscape art.
What kind of landscapes does this series depict?
The series depicts the surrounding KlÃ¸fta outside Oslo, where I live in a late 19th century house together with my artist husband Sverre Koren BjertnÃ¦s, three of my four children, several cats, and a lap-dog.
The paintings came about when I was walking the dog day after day along the same path taking photos with my mobile phone. I then went into my studio and started painting the series. Itâ€™s a different way of painting â€“ very simplified which makes it harder in a way. I am creating a continuous landscape â€“ it is a neverending series and Iâ€™ll continue doing it. Next year is Munchâ€™s Anniversary of 150 years and I want to prepare a continuation of Friezed for it.
The original exhibition was called â€˜Friezedâ€™ and some of the paintings are in New York. In â€˜Friezed Continuedâ€™ some of the paintings form part of private collections and others are new. These are 50 paintings. Itâ€™s like a diary. The story of my life. They are 90cm by 90 cm and if shown in a continuous way they become like one big piece.
On the other side of the National Museum of Fine Arts you will also find prints from the Big Big Big collection. Some of these are for sale from Christine Xâ€™s Art Gallery.
Your landscape paintings are more serene and contemplative compared to the boisterousness of previous paintings. Do they signify a new stage in your life?
Yes, after what happened with my exhibition â€˜A Lot of Water Under the Bridgeâ€™ I decided to tone things down a bit and started painting Friezed as I needed some space.
Four years ago when I first started them it was a form of meditation, simplifying the romantic stories â€“ and it was good for me to do it â€“ to remove the people and leave the silence.
A Norwegian composer Marianne Thomas made a piece for the exhibition â€“ it is somewhere between classical and contemporary music. She calls my exhibition the â€˜Frieze of Lifeâ€™.
This is your first visit to Malta. What is your impression of our way of life â€“ are we uptight or liberal?
A little bit of both maybe. I havenâ€™t had any big reactions yet. People are nice, polite and sincere. Christine X the curator of my exhibition and the people at the museum have all been very nice to me. I also think itâ€™s a beautiful island and all the ancient stuff keeps us feeling young! It is important to age with pride in a natural way and I have seen some very attractive older women here.
CHRISTINE X of ARTITUDE GALLERY is curating the exhibition FRIEZEDâ€¦Continued, which is open everyday at the Museum of Fine Arts from Monday to Sunday from 9am-5pm, until the end of March 2012.
The exhibition is being sponsored by Heritage Malta, Hotel Phoenicia, Atlas Insurance and Marsovin. Free Entrance.
For more information please contact the curator on email@example.com or (00356) 21316708/ 9984 4653.
Limited edition prints from the artistâ€™s BIG BIG BIG collection are also being sold at Christine X Art Gallery in Tigne Street, Sliema.
Unni Askeland â€“ The Artistâ€™s BIO
Born in 1962 in Bergen, Norway, Unni Askeland is the enfant terrible of the contemporary, Norwegian art - shocking the politically correct establishment not merely with her works, but also with her sometimes bohemian, sometimes glamorous lifestyle.
After a year in the Art School in KabelvÃ¥g, Northern Norway, Askeland started at the Academy of Western Norway, Bergen (1983â€“84). In 1987 she entered the National Academy of Fine Arts where she graduated in 1992. At the Academyâ€™s Graduate Exhibition Askeland showed â€œWaiting for Picasso,â€ a painting depicting herself in the company of artists such as Edvard Munch, Frida Kahlo, Lena Cronquist, and Francesco Clemente. Apart from the obvious lack of modesty the painting could also be read as a manifesto of her artistic ideals.
Staging her own persona in her own works and within the art historical tradition has ever since been a central element in Askelandâ€™s oeuvre, as seen in the â€œMunch Adoptionsâ€ project. Furthermore, the artist here demonstrates an awareness of her belonging to the expressionist tradition. Expressionist ideals dealing with personal, often erotic, experience, are present in most of her works. The 1980s saw a revival of these ideas with the so-called Neo-Expressionist movement. For Askeland, visits to New York studios of Brice Marden and Francesco Clemente were crucial to this development.
With the â€œObituariesâ€ project around 2000, the artist turned from figurative to abstract painting. The project dealt with death, and the paintings had the shape of coffins, painted in subtle blue and violet hues. After a few years of abstract expressionist paintings, the artist once again turned to figurative painting and to art historical ideals.