Morten Viskum


Written by Gedvile Bunikyte
15 Monday 15th November 2010
Morten Viskum is considered one of the most provocative and controversial contemporary artists from Scandinavia. The artist’s unconventional choice of materials, themes and artistic expressions often seduces and invites the viewers to experience a range of unexpected emotions, causing shock, amazement and uncontrollable curiosity. Don’t Panic caught up with the artist to talk about his first solo show in London, pickled rats and the difficulties of sourcing dead people for his art.
You are generally regarded as one of the most controversial contemporary artists in Norway. How do you describe what you do to people who don’t know you?
I usually start by describing my background as a veterinarian before I started at the Art Academy in Oslo. At the same time I tell people that a lot of the things said about me originates from the tabloid press. The projects written about here only make up a small portion of what I do as an artist. Many of my projects concern everyday phenomena within medicine and science, things that the public are not used to seeing and hearing about.

One of the first pieces of yours that grabbed newspaper headlines and gained controversy was Rat / olive project. Where in the course of two days you replaced the content of 20 olive jars with newborn rats across 20 grocery stores in the five largest cities in Norway. Tell us a bit more about the concept behind this piece.
As a boy I was very fascinated by and interested in anatomical collections with animals preserved in formaldehyde. At the same time it was very exiting to go down into my grandmothers basement and look at all the fruit and vegetables that was preserved in jars for storage. When I started at the Art Academy this fascination resurfaced. I natural consequence of these intersecting interests (preserved animals/fruit) was to place the olive jars in regular grocery stores, with the goal of giving the public an unexpected meeting with art and this project in particular.
That the project received the amount of attention that it did was not my intention. It was an employee in one of the stores that stirred up the situation by claiming that the glass I placed there came from a sealed box that arrived directly from the factory in Spain. After this incident the factory was closed, all shipments to Norway stopped and unfortunately for me it was an American company who owned the olive brand. They filed a million dollar lawsuit against me, I was reported to the police, I lost my part time job and I had to get a studio out side of the Academy. The project was finalised in my second year as a student, so you can say my education hit it of to a rough start.
Today five museums own the glass.

Is controversy an important and intentional part of the work?

No. To shock is not interesting in it self.
But the project have lead up to a lot of interesting discussing that have made the projects worth seeing though. When the projects are exhibited for the first time, I sometimes get insecure if I have lost sight of the primary goals within the projects. And revealingly it seems that the projects get better over time. I take this as a good sign.
Your upcoming exhibition looks great. Can you tell us a bit about the work selected for the show at the Vegas gallery?
The different Hand – projects develop, both concerning concept and technique, based on the background information I have.
The hand with the golden ring is hand number 6. All the paintings are new and made for this exhibition. First the canvas is painted with animal blood, using the severed hand as a brush. Then I place some gold glitter in the palm of the severed hand. Then I blow the glitter over the blood. At the end I paint over the glitter again with different colours, again using the hand as a brush.

How easy is it to source dead people’s body parts for the work?
That is a part of the project’s secret.
The nature of your work inevitably is going to divide audiences. What is the most common criticism that you hear? How do you deal or react to it?
Most of the time the people that criticize my work are the people who do not come to see my exhibitions and who do not make an effort to enter into the problems the projects discuss. Other people fear death too much and therefore do not want to touch the subject. Others again think using the severed hands is just a cheap trick.  Luckily, a large group of people, growing after each exhibition, are fascinated by and interested in the work just because they are not made in a traditional sort of way.
The people who have been following my work over time also know, of course, that most of the time the projects are concerned with what you can not see, more than what is actually there.
Throughout art history artist have visited mortuaries and autopsies to paint and draw the human anatomy. I extend this tradition a bit further. I remove the body parts from the morgue and use the body parts directly as tools. The performative aspect is therefore the most important part of the work and what happens when the audience encounters the remains of the performance.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on an exhibition for New York in January, about Michael Jackson.
Morten Viskum lives and work in Norway. The Hand with the golden ring is on show from 18 November to 19 December 2010 at Vegas Gallery London.

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