In Cutting-Edge Video Installations, Bjørn Melhus Investigates Surveillance and Fear

Artsy Editorial
Feb 3, 2015 10:00PM

“The Theory of Freedom,” an exciting new undertaking by gallery West Den Haag and Kunsthal Rotterdam, aims to shine a brief but intense spotlight on cutting-edge, topical work by socially minded artists. Who better to kick off the first edition of the initiative than Bjørn Melhus?

The German-Norwegian artist is, after all, well-known for his provocative short films and video installations—he’s exhibited at the Tate Modern, MoMA, and the Centre Pompidou, and shown his work at a variety of international film festivals. Now, various iterations of his three-part project The Theory of Freedom (2015) will be shown across the Netherlands at West, Kunsthal Rotterdam, and the International Film Festival, Rotterdam this winter. In this work Melhus explores themes of freedom, mass culture, globalism, and the media. The second part of the series focuses more specifically on government surveillance and the politics of fear.

Filmed on location in Istanbul, The Theory of Freedom takes place in a vaguely familiar setting—namely, the sterile sphere of gated communities. Melhus plays all the roles himself, from a character talking directly into the camera in a weirdly game show-like setting in Deadly Storms (2008) to a religious figurehead in The Castle (2007) and even a corpse in Sudden Destruction (2012).


Melhus magnifies reality in these videos, infusing each scene with his own particular brand of dark philosophy and playful humor. In The Theory of Freedom, his critique of Ayn Rand lives side-by-side with his fondness for American-made mainstream movies and sci-fi TV series—a fondness that’s evident in the visual style and familiar quotes and images he pulls from TV or the internet. Where else could Rand, portrayed as a “tyrannical mistress,” be juxtaposed with a melodramatic scene from the blockbuster movie Armageddon (1998)? It’s a deft and highly original approach to a timely topic—who’s watching whom, and why, when, and where? How does our anxiety about being watched manifest itself in our mundane daily lives? What’s the difference between our own reality and the “reality” engineered for the big screen?

It’s no wonder Melhus was named “Professor for Virtual Realities”—yes, that’s a real job title—at the Art University in Kassel, Germany. His show with “One Project” is a one-off operation that goes on for just a few short weeks, adding, it seems clear, to its overall impact.

Bridget Gleeson 

The Theory of Freedom by Bjørn Melhus” is on view at Kunsthal Rotterdam, Jan. 24–Mar. 1, 2015.

The Theory of Freedom II by Bjørn Melhus” is on view at West Den Haag, Jan. 31–Mar. 1, 2015.

The Theory of Freedom II by Bjørn Melhus” is on view at International Film Festival, Rotterdam, Jan. 24–Feb. 1, 2015.

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Artsy Editorial