Morten Viskum: Emerging Identities

By Renata Domitran

Morten Viskum (1965), is a Norwegian artist primarily known for the use of controversial materials and challenging artistic expressions. His work includes installations, performances, paintings and photography. Viskum is often accused of creating scandalous works purely for the sake of publicity. He first hit the headlines with his work Rats/Olives (1995), where the olives in 20 olive jars were replaced with baby rats. He then put the jars back on the shelves in 20 grocery stores in different towns throughout Norway. A series of paintings feature a severed human hand: in The Hand that never stopped painting (1998) and The New Hand (2008), he uses a severed human hand as a paintbrush, a sort of everlasting performance in death. 

Morten Viskum, Rats/Olives, 1995
Courtesy of the artist.

However, in spite of accusations that he deliberately provokes and shocks, Viskum continues his form of aesthetic communication with the audience, and argues that his works are intended to provoke a reaction to the presence of a general indifference in society.  And once the viewer steps away from the simplicity of the first impression, the surface of seemingly provocative works, the subtlety and abundance of Viskum's work emerges. One such work is the ongoing installation series started in 2004, Self-portraits, which features life-size silicon casts of Viskum's body that he uses to represent various identities related to a particular context in time. Every year, on his birthday, he produces a cast of himself, thus expanding the nature of his own self-definition by adding new identity elements to it.

Morten Viskum, Immortal, 2004 
Courtesy of the artist.

Immortal (2004) portrays Morten Viskum as an artist, but dressed in the neutrality of a grey suit. The dullness of his appearance evokes associations with an anonymous bureaucrat more than an artist, disturbing the viewer's preconceived expectations of the artist's physical appearance.  Even though the silicon sculpture features all of Viskum's physical characteristics, there is a sense of absence, a slight disconnection between the personal and artistic elements of Viskum, captured in this artificial representation of both. In this installation, the figure of the artist faces a white wall where the word IMMORTAL is written in animal blood. Positioned against the wall is an old organ and an organist’s stool, evoking the image of a silent Bach symphony at an ongoing funeral ceremony. On the side wall hangs a vintage phrenology head illustration, in both front and side view, coated with animal blood. The illustration shows a diagramme of the brain that in its time was believed to be accurate, and which therefore serves as a reminder of the inevitability of change. All these elements allude to the artist's recognition of his own temporality when faced with the notion of immortality. The use of animal blood in Viskum's installation connotes a sacredness of life that fades away as the blood's colour assumes a pale brown tincture. However, by the act of facing the wall, Viskum confronts his own inevitable impermanence, while at the same time awakening the potential immortality of his own work. 

Morten Viskum, Imagio Dei, 2006
Courtesy of the artist.

Imagio Dei (2006) depicts Viskum as Jesus. Dressed in a long, light pink robe with a blue shawl, he holds a human skull in one hand and a shrunken human head in the other. In Latin Imago Dei is a theological concept found in the book of Genesis 1:27: "God created man in his own image. . ."  which asserts that all human beings are created in the image of God with inherent equal value. Viskum uses the same term but purposely misspells it Imagio Dei, giving a somehow twisted image of God's creation. Since the idea of equality is far from being widely anchored throughout the world, this image represents a human desire for that equality. By portraying himself as God's son, Viskum adds to his identity as an artist a trace of his own human imperfection, highlighting the illusionary reality of images. Identifying the part of himself that desires such grandness and pointing to its imperfection, Imagio Dei is Viskum's way of taking the liberty of creating his version of an image that emphasises the imperfect realm of human belief. 

Morten Viskum, The Clown, 2012.   
Courtesy of the artist.

The Clown (2012) is perhaps one of Viskum's most complex works. It embodies the  combined identities of a clown, Viskum and Norwegian terrorist Anders B. Breivik in a single representation. The figure is dressed in chequered black and white trousers and clown shoes; with a pink Lacoste polo shirt and red Lacoste sweater point directly to Breivik's style of dress. The face is painted like a clown, but the hair-style and trimmed beard resemble Breivik.  A plastic flower in one hand and three balloons in the other accentuate the elements of the clown, while an old brown suitcase next to the figure refers to a departure - perhaps the departure of moral standards. This is a very complex identity fusion, as Viskum combines three layers of seemingly incompatible elements into one entirety. The fixed features of the clown convey an underlying sadness. Fusing the recognisable characteristics of a clown and the terrorist into a grotesque figure carried by Viskum himself reveals the artist's ability to confront the cruelty of committed atrocities. Viskum diminishes the face of terror, transforming it into a face of disturbing sadness, in an acknowledgement of the events caused by Breivik's loss of human compassion.

All of  Viskum's self-portraits are daring confrontations with the harsh side of reality and its unfiltered representations: Believe (2003), The Scientist (2005), Son of Abdullah (2007), The Perfect Sculpture (2008), No Way (2009), Scarlet (2010), Gaddafi (2011), The Collector 2013- (2013) and his last self-portrait to date: 1986-2013 An Artist Collecting Art (2013). Viskum plans to continue the series of self-portraits as long as circumstances in his life permit; and he wishes to make a reverse series of self-portraits based on photo documentation, running from 2004 back to the year of his birth in 1965.

The context of Viskum's life will eventually be complete with all the different pieces of experienced reality presented through an exploration of his identity. This fusion of identities evokes Zygmunt Bauman's thought of liquid modernity transmitted to our identities. In today's society where everything is rapidly changing, preserving the definitions of the various forms of our identities is constantly being challenged. The continuing transformation of the experience of oneself in different contexts of reality is what Viskum is alluding to, as he is dedicated to his quest of accepting reality regardless of its degree of unpleasantness. An instinctual discomfort is a primordial reaction when something provoking and shocking arises - though it is not Viskum who creates shocking art that insults and provokes the audience. It is instead the reality of existence that provokes Viskum. Assured of his own identity, Morten Viskum intentionally confronts the audience with the less desirable representations  of ourselves and the world around us.