A Surprising Chapman Brothers Acquisition at Oslo’s Idyllic Ekeberg Sculpture Park
It’s a damp, grey afternoon on the Oslo Fjord, where a small group huddles under umbrellas bearing the Ekebergparken logo to watch Jake Chapman as he pulls away a sheet shrouding Sturm und Drang (2014). This is one of three sculptures by the British artist and his brother/collaborator, Dinos, that were recently acquired by Ekebergparken, or Ekeberg Sculpture Park, and have now been unveiled for the spring season. Addressing the group, Chapman describes the work as “a bad approximation of something serious” and thus positions the piece—which continues the Chapman brothers’ long-standing raid on Francisco de Goya’s “Disasters of War” (1810–1820) imagery—as a test of the boundary between the profound and the absurd.
In a typically jarring juxtaposition of form and content, the Chapmans’ monumental bronze depicts a tree stump decorated with dismembered body parts that have been stripped to the bone. The addition of joke-shop trinkets brings the work further into the territory of the macabre; devil ears and a clown’s nose adorn the skeletons hanging from the tree, pushing the sombre pathos of Goya into the realm of the puerile. Chapman explains this as an attempt to “rob Goya’s original of its seriousness and scale”—which this new work undoubtedly achieves.
Installed near a bucolic manmade lake, the Chapmans’ artwork is an unsettling sight—a rupture within this carefully constructed idyll. It’s an especially placement strange because Ekebergparken was originally conceived as a hymn to nature, beauty, and femininity. (Among the 30-some sculptures situated throughout the property, many represent the female form.) Arguably more at home in the park is Damien Hirst’s Anatomy of an Angel (2008), another recent acquisitions and a comfortable fit with the feminine theme. That work depicts a partially dissected angel and ticks the usual Hirst boxes of death, science, and religion, with a lack of vigor.
Set within 63 acres of land, Ekebergparken opened to the public in 2013 as a gift to the city of Oslo from Christian Ringnes, an eccentric real-estate tycoon who began collecting art at age 21. Ringnes envisioned that the park would set itself apart from others of its type (Vigeland park, also in Oslo, in particular) by way of a unifying theme: “a homage to femininity.” This leitmotif has since been modified to read more inclusively as a celebration of “femininity in all its facets,” a rebranding initiated by a small advisory committee of art historians, sculptors, and employees of Ringnes’s foundation.
Managing director Ina Johannesen joined Ekebergparken’s staff when it was agreed that a series of site-specific works would be commissioned. Since then, she has since overseen the installation of contributions by Dan Graham and James Turrell, among others. Located underneath the manmade lake, Turrell’s Skyspace: The Color Beneath is one of the greatest successes of the park: a glowing vault transformed by neon light leads to the main chamber, and then that warm and earthy space beholds the framed sky and encourages conscious engagement, gracefully facilitating a communion with nature.
While Ekebergparken does not focus exclusively on site-specific works, the dialogue between each piece and its natural surroundings is integral to the way the organization envisions its function. Sturm und Drang, then, is not an obvious choice for the park, especially given its lack of concern for “the feminine.”
The Chapmans’ grisly bronze seems at odds with the arcadian landscape, so when I spoke to Jake Chapman later that afternoon, my first question concerned the relationship between the sculpture and its location. “The integrity of the work of art, for us, needs to be hardwired,” was his initial response, suggesting a relative immunity to context-based interpretation. “I’m suspicious of the idea of art embracing a kind of liberal polity,” he went on to explain. “It seems like networking to me. It feels like it loses its integrity by somehow apologizing for its materiality.”
There is an uncompromising materiality to Sturm und Drang; its imposing presence abjectly refuses to enter into polite conversation with its surroundings. The sculpture also activates a tension between material and subject, a technique familiar to those who have followed the brothers’ career.
For example, the Chapmans previously reimagined Goya’s violent scenes in their work Disasters of War (2003), but that time the medium was toy soldiers. The effect of both pieces is similar: the weight of human suffering taken on by Goya is poured into materials in which it doesn’t belong. Chapman touched on this when discussing another earlier piece called Hell (2000).“These subjects are adorned with pathos and sublimity. And yet, when you look at them, they collapse under their own weight because they can’t support that magnitude of human investment,” he says. “Art just doesn’t have that function.”
Humanity’s penchant for destruction is perhaps the most recurrent theme within the brothers’ oeuvre, and their work often seeks to make visible destructive forces within art—an endeavor that goes against the classic understanding of art as defined by beauty, permanence, and the eternal.
When asked about their ongoing relationship with Goya’s “Disasters of War,” Chapman says, “When you look at the ‘Disasters of War,’ they have been often seen as this humanist version of the notion of beauty, idealism. But when you look at the castrations, the eviscerations, there’s too much pleasure in those things for them to support that kind of reading, so we keep going back to them. They undermine the very project of modernity, this idea that the work of art, by being beautiful, tells us something positive about the world.”
If you consider art, beauty, nature, and humanity as defined by the drive toward destruction, then perhaps the themes of Ekebergparken and Sturm und Drang find some common ground, although perhaps not in the way the art committee envisaged.