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Michael Sailstorfer, ‘Zet ist keine Autobahn’ (‘Time is not a Motorway’), 2006

Under the banner of Samuel Beckett’s phrase ‘Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better’, this exhibition can’t lose. Clearing the way for both success through failure and success through success, Annette Kierulf and Mark Sladen, the curators of Momentum, the Nordic festival of contemporary art, have put together what amounts to a collection of disparate mini-exhibitions with some overlapping formal and conceptual concerns, each of which could have been presented on its own. The show begins in a converted brewery and continues at Galleri F15, housed in a mid-19th century estate across the main fjord that divides the town of Moss, some 25 miles from Oslo.

Free food marks the start of the show. The ice cream is part of ‘Lignin Vanillin, a project for Momentum 2006’ by Danish artist Tue Greenfort, which uses the same amount of the artificial flavour vanillin as could be produced from the wood used to make the exhibition catalogue. Greenfort’s interest in the relationships between nature and artifice has a resonance in Lara Almárcegui’s ‘A Wasteland in Moss’, 2006, presented nearby. Almárcegui has secured a ban on any kind of planning for a local strip of wasteland, and will leave it to the vagaries of chance and nature for a period of one year.

Lucy Skaer, Momentum installation shot
Lucy Skaer, Momentum installation shot

Ecology makes way for socio-political concerns in the second gallery, with a trio of strong works by Phil Collins, Gerard Byrne and Johanna Billing. Collins has used a recent residency in Oslo as a means to visit Kenya and mine the history of its humanitarian relationship with Norway. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Norwegians set up the infrastructure for a frozen fish industry near Lake Turkana, but abandoned the project when diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed. Collins visited the area and photographed the deserted factory, documenting the vestiges of a once-hopeful endeavour. There’s a formal and conceptual sympathy between the vast, empty spaces of these photographs and the former brewery in which they are installed. Moss itself was once a thriving industrial town, but slid into economic depression, and it is only recently that the town has begun to thrive again.

Irish artist Gerard Byrne excavates the recent past too, but with a view to an imaginary future. ‘1984 and beyond’, 2005–06, is a carefully devised installation of photographs and videos in which actors perform a conversation that took place in 1963 between famous science-fiction writers who had been invited by Playboy magazine to hypothesise on the state of the world after Orwellian deadline.

Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan, 'Oh We Will, We Will, Will we', 2005 
Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, ‘Oh We Will, We Will, Will we’, 2005

Also referencing history, this time through music, is Johanna Billing’s ‘Another Album’, 2006. The film documents a group of relaxed twentysomethings from Zagreb having a backyard sing-along of pop and rock anthems from the 1980s. They do little other than sing: there are no typical dinner-party conversations about politics or current events. One feels drawn into a comfortable zone where amateurish playing slows everything down and is a vehicle for escape, but there’s a nagging feeling that the group is repressing important realities.

Works upstairs are more formalist in spirit, and there’s an uncanny string of smiley faces running through two galleries and a screening room. For ‘Yet Untitled (Money Face)’, 2006, Sergej Jensen has ironed old currency notes onto canvas to depict a dot-matrix-style winking face. Rosalind Nashashibi’s ‘Eyeballing’, 2005, combines shots of everyday items that look like faces—plug sockets and light switches—with fixed shots of policemen hanging out on the doorstep of their station. Her anthropomorphic subjects are echoed in the next gallery by three of Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s monumental ‘thingamajigs’. ‘You have forgotten why you asked us here; We cannot remember why we came’, 2006, is a reconfiguration of elements from their formal vocabulary, which includes references to primitivism and pop art.

Lars Vilks, 'The Hedgehog', 2006 
Lars Vilks, ‘The Hedgehog’, 2006

Work at Galleri F15 is installed to optimise the house’s intimate feel. Sue Tompkins’ text pieces hang like private traces of an obsessive practice. Typed on blank sheets of newspaper, her word groupings look from a distance like the footprints of tiny birds, but conceal their capacity for sharp humour. Glasgow-based Norwegian sculptor Camilla Løw’s work responds with freshness and grace to the architecture of the gallery and the place’s natural surroundings. Occupying adjoining galleries, the works of Michaela Meise and Lucy Skaer exchange resonances through a use of pre-existing forms, found images and a concern for the way matter occupies space. Skaer has made a series of 3D renderings of Rorschach inkblot tests that conjure up a range of associations. They might be anatomical cross-sections, but they also look like inversions of Renato Bertelli’s ‘Continuous Profile of Mussolini’, 1933.

The upstairs windows of the gallery frame two of the strongest works in the exhibition: Lars Vilks’ ‘The Hedgehog’, 2006 and Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘Scandinavian Pain’, 2006, set against the scenic fjord and forest. The artists flirt with grandiosity in different ways. Kjartansson has ensconced himself in a shack, which he has filled with old lamps salvaged from local homes and a collection of ghetto blasters emitting a melancholy tune. During the show’s first month, visitors would be treated to the plaintive tones of the artist, lying in the cellar and lamenting the pain of Scandinavian Man. This wistful and strangely vaudevillian mood piece contrasts starkly with Vilks’ ‘pavilion’, a crude wooden construction that houses three exhibitions: a short version of ‘Documenta 12’ that ‘takes 15 to 20 seconds to see’, an exposé on the nationality of biennial artists and a performance area. A potent critique of biennials—including Momentum—runs through the precarious structure. But Vilks is never one to miss an opportunity to be contradictory, teasing with a rejoinder to his own work that ‘There are 100 biennials in the world and Momentum is the last serious one.’

Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer and curator