12 November 2023
No. 1, November 2023
No. 1, November 2023
GEORGE MORGENSTERN AND MARI SLAATTELID
UKS – Forum for samtidskunst was UKS’ highly esteemed members’ magazine, which first appeared as UKS Nytt. Throughout the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, its editors George Morgenstern and (from 1987) Stian Grøgaard were among the first to introduce theories of postmodernism to a Norwegian readership, as well as producing and initiating the translation of central theoretical texts into Norwegian. Under the duo’s leadership, the magazine was transformed from providing purely union news, to becoming the main provider of theory and art criticism for the Norwegian art scene.
From the mid-1990s, the magazine had an assorted cast of artist-editors, such as Bjørn Bjarre, Gardar Eide Einarsson and Matias Faldbakken, and Halvor Haugen and Marianne Zamecznik. In 2010 the magazine launched its first and only online issue, edited by Marie Buskov, Victoria Pihl Lind and Steffen Håndlykken (current Chair of UKS). After 13 years, UKS Forum is launched anew this autumn in the form of a long-read newsletter, featuring artistic and theoretical contributions.
To rekindle the format, UKS’ Interim Artistic Director and editor of the digital relaunch, Live Drønen, speaks to two of the mainstays in the magazine’s 1980s and 1990s heydays – former editor George Morgenstern and editorial member Mari Slaattelid – about the magazine’s first ten years as the art theoretical heart in the Norwegian context.
Live Drønen: If we rewind to 1983, the year that you became editor, George, what was the magazine that then was named UKS Nytt? And how did the art landscape look when you took the helm?
George Morgenstern: As is well known, the art scene was highly politicised in the 1970s, and in the early 1980s, UKS Nytt was a members’ magazine with lots of art politics and little art. There weren’t any journals for contemporary art in Norway, no museum for contemporary art, no Astrup Fearnley and certainly no Kunstkritikk. The critics in the daily press were not particularly well informed about the international art scene and what young artists were doing at the time. So there was a vacuum to be filled.
The early 1980s were also marked by a gap between Norwegian art and art discourse abroad. Access to international contemporary art was rather limited. OCA (Office for Contemporary Art Norway) did not exist. At the time, all five professors at the Art Academy were Norwegian. Today, there are nine professors, and only one is Norwegian. Opinions vary on this development, but in any case, the situation back then was very different from today. At that point, a new generation started becoming interested in current trends abroad, such as German Neo-expressionism and Italian Trans-avantgarde. Young artists returned from studies in Europe. Several of them formed part of the editorial team and contributed to bringing the Norwegian art discourse more in line with what was happening out there.
LD: You were the editor of a total of 24 issues over ten years.
GM: Yes, with Stian Grøgaard as co-editor from 1987. I still have all the issues, except one from 1991, in which we published three reviews of Gerd Tinglum’s exhibition at Galleri Heer.
LD: Three reviews of the same show sounds interesting. What was the thought behind that?
GM: We did that once before and should have done it more. The thinking was to give thorough attention to what we perceived as important exhibitions, allowing for a number of perspectives. One of the ideas with the magazine from the beginning was that we wanted it to function as a forum for debate – a place where different and professionally well-informed views could be expressed. Gerd’s exhibition was reviewed by myself, Åsmund Thorkildsen and Marianne Bratteli. There were objections to these in the following issue, which was good.
Mari Slaattelid: I would think it was a gift for an artist to get such a thorough and broad critique. But it did make the criticism quite concentrated, and the relationship between artist and critic was perhaps more tense at the time.
LD: When and how did you get involved, Mari?
MS: I came to Oslo from Bergen in 1987 and got involved in UKS Forum through Stian. I was a student at the art academy, and working with the magazine gave me access to a wide milieu of artists and others who I shared interests with. I translated texts when needed and was especially interested in artists’ texts. With a graphic education from Bergen, I could also work on the layout, which was pre-digital, on the dining table at home.
GM: Stian became co-editor that year, but he had contributed already the year before with the two articles, ‘Fremskrittsmyten og den postmoderne tilstand’ (The Myth of Progress and the Postmodern Condition) and ‘Modernismen – Bildet for de lykkelige katastrofer’ (Modernism: The Image for Happy Disasters). It was a big boost for the magazine to have Stian on the editorial side with his interdisciplinary insight, imagination and not least his humor.
MS: Stian translated a large number of texts from German and English to Norwegian. He had a background in literature, philosophy and sociology as well as an art education. He could bring texts from a wide field and compile them in ways no one expected – before Google and before social media. As I see it, this ability to combine, as an editor, is closely linked to what an artist does.
LD: So, you and Stian initiated the translation of a series of important philosophical and theoretical texts about art. Could you give some examples of what you translated?
GM: We started translating around 1988. Some of the first texts that Stian and Mari translated were by Nietzsche and Martin Luther for the ‘Prohibition of Images’ issue, together with texts by Mondrian, Kandinsky, Rothko, Newman and de Kooning – classic texts on art by artists. We also translated newer texts. These might be something by Donald Judd or another renowned artist, a review from Artforum or an essay from October; texts, regardless of genre, that we thought were of interest for the local art discussion.
MS: The translations were perhaps some of the most important work we did. We had to translate what didn’t exist in Norwegian. It means something to be able to read a classic or iconic text in your own language. We thought about it the same way one thinks about literature: the best things must be translated and be available in Norwegian. I think this is politically important – also today. Even though many people read English well, there are still two Norwegian written languages. It goes the other way around too: Norwegian texts are being translated into countless languages. That artists see their own language in use is empowering. It doesn’t narrow the conversation, it widens it.
LD: In UKS’ anniversary publication, published in 2021, Mara Horvei contributed a text about the magazine, mentioning that the 1980s and 1990s were the magazine’s heydays. She quotes from an article in the newspaper Dagens Morgen from 1992, where Erik Egeland wrote: ‘A circle of more or less likeminded people has formed around “UKS – Forum for samtidskunst”. This is the journal’s strength and weakness. In any case, it has elevated the publication to a position as indispensable in the barren reflective function of Norwegian artistic life.’
Horvei also wrote about Jonas Ekeberg’s book Postnordisk: Den nordiske kunstscenens vekst og fall 1976–2016 (Postnordic: The Rise and Fall of the Nordic Art Scene 1976–2016), in which he describes the magazine as a key reference for Norwegian art discourse at the time, but also as theoretical and without coverage of current events.
MS: I have to disagree with what Jonas writes there. We included reviews of everything from Norwegian and Nordic exhibitions to international biennials and Documenta.
GM: Alongside the translations, there was a predominance of texts written by visual artists – more than 50 of them in my time as an editor. The magazine was a do-it-yourself initiative, created mostly by artists for artists, but there was, of course, also room for a new generation of art historians. Lotte Sandberg and Jon-Ove Steihaug both wrote their first articles for UKS Forum.
LD: When I went through the old issues of the magazine, I came across a fantastic text by Marit Lyckander, who had been in New York and almost by coincidence made a studio visit with Louise Bourgeois. She described Bourgeois and their meeting with rare intimacy.
MS: Yes, we published several of those kinds of artists’ meetings. The magazine was a democratic writing space, where there was room for a variety of voices. People understood that they could write for us even though they didn’t come from Blindern [University of Oslo].
GM: Our ideal audience was the art community. It was for them that we translated and wrote texts, whether it was an interview with Jean François Lyotard or a review of a local exhibition in Oslo. One example was when Hilmar Fredriksen and Gerd Tinglum together covered Bård Breivik’s exhibition at Galleri Riis in 1985. It was rare to be reviewed by fellow artists at that time, and the criticism was quite sharp.
MS: When two younger artists reviewed an older, esteemed artist, there was risk involved for everyone – more than if we gave an art historian that space.
GM: It wasn’t unproblematic for an artist to write about a fellow artist, but for us it was important to make the discussion public. Artists sat around the tables at Kunstnernes Hus anyway, expressing strong opinions on this and that. Why not do everyone a favor and make it an open discussion? That was part of the meaning behind the magazine for me.
LD: Are there any texts or writers that especially stand out for you, from that time?
GM: The text by Marit Lyckander, which you’ve already mentioned. And many others are still valuable reading. Andrej Nebb’s ‘Manifest (Fest-Mani)’ from 1988 gives a telling picture of the times. Marianne Bratteli was in the editorial team for several years, and her text on sisters Harriet Backer and Agathe Backer Grøndal from 1989 is worth reading again in light of the National Museum’s current exhibition of Harriet Backer. Frits Thaulow contributed several classics, among them ‘Dillettanismens Djevel’ (The Devil of Dillettanism). Reidar Kraugerud was an important and original contributor…
MS: Reidar wrote with a natural confidence, as artists can – we are the first to break clichés and norms for how to write about art.
GM: Once, Reidar responded to what he saw as rather self-indulgent, sombre piety in an artist interview by writing a poem in the next issue titled ‘Kallet fra Katakombene’ (The Call of the Catacombs). Another time he wrote about painters’ ‘substance abuse’ – that is, the mixing of sand and other debris in paint in the attempt to give the pictorial surface an appearance of content and depth. It was both generous and brave to write like that about fellow artists.
MS: Yes, artists have often been able to write in original and independent ways, also in the face of any consensus or zeitgeist. I’m not sure if the space to write freely is as large today.
LD: In a Norwegian context, UKS Forum was one of the earliest platforms to write about the concept of ‘postmodernism’. How do you remember the conversations around this? Was there a particular need for art theoretical discussion in such a time of transition?
GM: I wrote an article on postmodernism in 1984, and after that they kept coming. If you were to cover what was happening internationally at that time, the term automatically came up. Parts of the discussion had limited relevance here, since Norwegian art wasn’t marked by the same late modernist positions that dominated in, for example, the US. Neither did postmodernism become its own style, as in Norwegian architecture. Luckily. At the same time, there was discussion about, among other things, images’ relation to reality, about progress in art and the avantgarde, about originality, about canon – overarching questions concerning visual artists’ practices. But postmodernism was not a theme of its own that artists were thinking of while working in the studio.
MS: ‘Postmodernism’ was a term that circulated and became a mantra – something everyone was suddenly talking about, without us completely understanding or caring that much.
LD: UKS is growing older as an organisation – one that also has a rich archive, with inherent gaps and shortcomings. When I go through old UKS Forum issues, I find much knowledge production that would be interesting to republish – particularly if combined with new texts reflecting on this history – both from your time on the magazine and after. Part of the idea behind the relaunch is to also produce new theory, artists’ texts, interviews, etc. What format do you think this could take today?
GM: You could start by asking what needs exist that have not already been met. Look for angles and themes that are not necessarily immediately evident. When looking at these old issues, I had to laugh sometimes – some texts seem like they fell from outer space, such as Henrik Sørensen’s ‘Norske farger’ (Norwegian Colors) – an erudite, speculative text from 1960 that suddenly appears between a review of an international exhibition outside Rome and a text on the postmodern condition. A ‘mal à propos’ that is its own justification for being there. That was the great thing about UKS Forum: we decided what was important, without having to oblige ourselves to cover issues that were being dealt with everywhere else. I think it would be interesting for UKS to think about that question: What do you decide for yourselves? What are the issues for you?
MS: One goal could be to encourage new writers, and engage older ones too, so that the forum is mixed. To avoid making the content internal, so that UKS doesn’t only address a narrow segment of people that read each other and have the same opinions.
GM: I hope you make the new, digital edition as irrelevant as possible! That would be something to look forward to.