Morten Viskum: Holding Hands with History

Morten Viskum in conversation with Jean Wainwright.This article was first published in the book MORTEN VISKUM, Works 1993–2016, published by Skira Books

An excerpt from the conversation is published below. The entire text is found in the book MORTEN VISKUM, Works 1993–2016. The book can be purchased at Buer Gallery 


Morten Viskum: Holding Hands with History
Morten Viskum in conversation with Jean Wainwright


I. The Dead Birds and Other Stories
Jean Wainwright: When was the first time that you thought about mortality?
Morten Viskum: It was probably when I saw dead birds on the terrace of our family house in Norway. That is the first clear memory I have of death. There were huge 2 x 2 metre windows which reflected nature, these confused the birds and they flew into them breaking their necks and dying. I remember being particularly aware of this when I was six, the year before I was in school: there were thirty-five houses in the development and every one had a similar problem. I found the dead birds when I woke up, it seems that they flew into the windows early in the morning.
JW: At what stage did you feel you had to arrange a burial for the birds?
MV: I am not sure what I did for the first ones; maybe I put them in the garbage, as you couldn’t leave them on the wooden terrace. There was no blood, but if you didn’t clear them away the insects would come and it was unpleasant. I remember that I started to make a graveyard under some trees in a small wood quite close to the house, although as a child it seemed much further. I buried the birds and put down small stones, a wooden cross, and then arranged some very small fresh flowers (to fit the scale of the grave) on top. During that summer the graveyard became bigger and there ended up being more than fifty graves, as I also collected the birds from the neighbours’ gardens, carrying them to the burial place in my arms. Some children keep pets and bury them when they die of course, but I was doing the ritual alone with wild birds.
JW: They sound like miniature installations. Much of your work is about quantity, ten thousand candles… a million pieces of jewellery… it’s a big statement, and a big commitment to bury all those birds; but it also makes one think of the collecting as an art. Were you always interested in art?
MV: Yes, in my early school books there are lots of drawings filled with colour.
JW: Did your parents have works of art on their walls?
MV: Yes, but it was my grandfather Oddgier Hagen Viskum who was the collector. He acquired a large amount of mainly Norwegian art in his house; he was the Director of Education in Moss, and one of the people who began the Art in Schools project. He wanted to use art to educate people and to foster a greater understanding of it. My parents also had some paintings and I remember thinking that it was normal for every home to have art. However my grandfather was concerned that the artists he knew were often poor, so he advised me that it was important to pursue my dream but perhaps to think that as well as being an artist I should have a stable profession. So I made a decision when I was young that I wanted to be a vet and an artist but not as a profession, that changed later and I don’t regret it. When I went to art school my grandfather was very happy but also worried as I was producing art that seemed strange to him. He was open to all kinds of paintings and he liked abstract art, but he was concerned when he started to read about the crucified rats and my conceptual work, but he soon changed his opinion.
JW: Your mother was a teacher and your father an architect, so you came from a professional family. You were extremely upset by your father’s premature death.
MV: I greatly admired my father Ola Viskum, but he died of brain cancer. I was scared to see his demise, which began when I was sixteen, the loss of speech, being unable to eat, the endless hospital visits… but somehow you almost think to the bitter end that the person will survive. My father was interested in city planning and then when he was a young architect he was made the chief of the city planning department of Drammen, he was very successful and well regarded. When Oslo needed a new city planner my father applied for the job, it was a long drawn out process and he won with a small margin. However, in January 1982, when I was sixteen and he had been at his new job for a few months, he was skiing alone outside our house when he collapsed, someone found him and brought him home, it was the first indication that something was wrong. He was diagnosed with cancer of the brain which he lived with for fourteen months. He was very scared, but didn’t want to show it to his children. I was at home one day and the doctor telephoned and said there was “no hope”. I heard the conversation from outside his study and his silence, or his answer—he told me it was the doctor afterwards. The doctors tried everything that was possible at that time to save him.
JW: You have commented in the past that you were scared of death, was your father the reason?
MV: I was scared long before my father died but I am not scared any more. I was scared of not living, I loved life and was terrified of no longer being alive.
JW: Witnessing your father’s demise and suffering must have been very hard, do you think it affected your decision to become an artist?
MV: Yes I think it did, it made me listen to my inner dreams, because my father would talk about his dreams of what he would do when he retired. He was in and out of hospital and the last time he came home I took a photograph and later I made a Viskum Box (Viskum Boxes, 1993–1997), one of the seventy-two that I made as an art student with the last picture I took of him inside it, but I can’t look at it. In the photograph my father is sitting on the sofa, he is bald because of chemiotherapy and trying to eat, and we have some friends visiting and they cannot speak with him as he cannot speak anymore. I don’t remember what else I put in the box but I do remember the photograph.
JW: So your father was the first person you ever saw dead?
MV: We were at the hospital and my brother and I were walking outside and when we came back he was dead, which was a shock. I have seen four people dead in my family, my grandfather, father, grandmother and my mother-in-law, but not all of them died like this—they all had cancer but two were very, very old and they looked near death for the last few weeks. In contrast my father was only forty-nine, he died nine days before he reached fifty and was buried on his birthday. It has been my goal for so many years to be older than my father. A goal I have now reached.
JW: There are many references to death in your works: for example, one that perhaps could be related to your father is the Cancer Cells series.
MV: I can see why you might make that connection. But what is interesting about those works, and for example about Cancer Cells ABI – 11841 (1998), is that when you look at the series it’s not really possible to know how they are made. However, I did a performance on video which showed the act of making the works and then people realised. The art came about because I was working with laboratory animals and at the weekends I worked on experiments that couldn’t be completed during the week, so I finished them on my own at weekends. I had to take cancer cells out of the stomachs of the mice, which I first had to kill and then dissect to remove the cells. So the materiality of the work is the actual cancer cells, which have fallen onto the papers that were used to cover the areas where the experiments were conducted. They were stacked in such a way that as my series progressed there are fewer and fewer cells. I was using the normal practice of the laboratory and making art from something that is customarily discarded as medical refuse. When I showed them in an art exhibition they became something different, but it’s real and it’s about our society, but people found it difficult to relate to.
JW: I find the Cancer Cells series compelling, because there’s something about the disappearance and trace that fascinates artists and cancer is something that multiplies, but we constantly work towards its elimination. I was also thinking of works like Andy Goldsworthy’s Giant Snowballs (2000): they melted over the period of three days until all that was left was the trace, or Edward Ruscha’s Stains (1969), his boxed sets of single sheets of paper, where he let selected materials such as acid and LA tap water sink down into the paper ground… Your works are powerful because as soon as you say the word “cancer”, which is not a neutral word, you create another conceptually terrifying layer.
MV: Each person brings their own interpretation, but I also gave each work a colourful background, so they looked deceptively appealing. I play with this, “You don’t want to hear about it. You don’t want to know about it”, and yet it still attracts you in a way.
JW: The work raises questions doesn’t it? There is the whole history of animal experimentation, but these animals are bred in the interests of medical science to find cures for diseases. My question is, how important is it for people to be compelled by the complexity, the links to animal science as well as the abstract artwork?
MV: For me it is important to show with my artworks—and it’s really strange for me to see people getting so angry—the world as it is. The cells have been isolated and re-contextualised and conceptually re-framed like a Marcel Duchamp, a contemporary Readymade by me, whereas normally these cells are disposed off as toxic waste, out of sight. And I really like that transmutation that art can effect.


II. Remains From Heaven: An Art School Training
 JW: Can we talk about your decision to become an artist, you felt the need to train, it was very important to you to have a formal qualification.
MV: Yes. In Norway two things matter: whether you have been to the Statens Kunstakademi [National Academy of Fine Arts] and whether you have participated in Høstutstillingen [The Autumn Exhibition]. If you have, then you are accepted as an artist whatever you do. I’m talking about general opinion. At that time I already had twins who were two years old when I started art school; my girlfriend at the time had got together with me when I was a student training to be a vet, which I had been doing for six years at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science. So of course when I told her that I wasn’t going to be a vet but wanted to be an artist, with four more years of study, it was a bit of a shock. But it was very clear to me that I had this one chance to be an artist, and I wanted the best education that you could get in Norway. Of course, like many artists, I could have taught myself, but in Norway it’s much harder if you don’t have the right education.

So when I went for my interview [at the Academy] I thought, “I can’t make any mistakes”, because at that time over one hundred people were selected for interview but only twenty were accepted onto the course. Getting into veterinary school is also very difficult, if you don’t have good enough grades you know you won’t get in, but with art school I just didn’t know, because the selection process was subjective. So I really felt that if I didn’t do it then, I would have to work as a vet, and it seemed unlikely that I would go back to being a student once I had taken that path.

I was told by one of the students already studying at the Academy: “You have to be very honest, and if you want to make something big such as an installation—you have to get there early, because it’s very crowded”. So on the morning of the practical I arrived early and sat in the middle of the sculpture hall, with my jacket on the floor. All the other students were sitting against the wall and they made smaller things. I was different from the very beginning, I made a huge installation, Real Love (1993): it was partly because I was afraid that people would see that I wasn’t an artist, that I had this background as a vet, so I didn’t want to do anything with animals. The installation had sex advertisements from magazines with big golden frames, and blow-up dolls from sex shops in different positions on tables around the room. They told me that was the first time the caretaker had ever shown any interest in a new student’s artwork! Many years later I asked them why they let me in, and they told me they didn’t let me in because of what I had made, but because of what I was going to make.
JW: In 1993 when you applied to the Academy there was all the publicity around AIDS which was reflected in the art world in artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe (who had died in 1989), Andres Serrano and Cindy Sherman’s 1993 sex doll photographs: so actually it was a very provocative piece to have these images—the “fantasy love”—, your blow-up
dolls with pornographic images.
MV: I think it was the right time. I don’t think five years earlier it would have been possible, also I am not really interested in drawing people. The work is not something I am proud of today, however it was interesting in terms of the process. In my interview the Professor of Art Theory, then Stian Grøgaard, said: “Oh, this is a really interesting one”, because I had all these years of theoretical education in a different discipline, so he was very curious about me. I had written a very special proposal. I said that I wanted to make art and do something for ordinary people, to put contemporary art in society and promote debate, something that was not only for art critics. And in a way that’s what I have done, with the Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium. But the interview was really strange, because they asked me whether I was interested in having a veterinary practice at the Art Academy, and whether I had any problems with my dogs… and I was thinking: “I will never be accepted”. The next week I had an exam at Vet School, and I was thinking: “Should I quit? Should I revise for the exam?”, but then I thought that although it might be my last week there, I
should at least continue until the artwork was finished.
JW: Because at this point you hadn’t made the installation?
MV: No. The interview came first.
JW: But what were you basing your idea of being an artist on? What did being an artist mean to you?
MV: At that time I had many things that I wanted to say about what I was doing or thinking about, but I couldn’t write it down and I couldn’t write songs, so I was hoping I could do it with my hands. When I got the letter offering me a place I was crazily happy, it was my dream.

This is an excerpt from the text. The entire text is found in the book MORTEN VISKUM, Works 1993–2016. The book can be purchased at Buer Gallery