A working knowledge of the oeuvre of Slettemark is enough to convince anyone that the national stereotype of Norwegians as cold-blooded and aloof is nothing more than that: a stereotype in need of reappraisal.
Then again, Slettemark, better known as KjARTan (which – one may note in passing – is not a typographical error), remains technically Swedish rather than Norwegian, having decided to take refuge in the land of Abba after the public fallout from his explicitly anti-American riposte to the use of napalm, contra Bill “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Kilgore of Apocalypse Now fame, in the Vietnam War.
That Slettemark has yet to outstrip his napalm-loving antithesis Kilgore in fame, notwithstanding such outrageous gimmicks as a poodle suit and a self-proclaimed appointment as the prime minister of the fictional state of Kjartanistan, is more a reflection of the Anglophone tendencies of the typical cultural consumer than of Slettemark’s want of trying.
All in all, only mortality itself could have provided the upper limit to the scale and verve of this man’s artistic ambitions.
Slettemark’s love-hate relationship with all things American appears to be firmly rooted in the Norwegian psyche, for indeed familiarity breeds contempt. One cannot overly stress the close historical ties between Norway and America: one-third of the Norwegian population left for the open prairies of the United States from the 1820s, matched in number only by the Irish diaspora following the potato famine.
After the Second World War, Norway received generous grants from America as part of the Marshall Plan, and joined NATO in the wake of the Cold War, whence the impetus for Norwegian troop involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has generated much debate and even influenced the sub-plot of a recent Norwegian film, Upperdog .
Slettemark’s anti-American stance is matched by Knut Hamsun’s Teutonic disapproval of Anglo-American culture, and qualified by Inger Sitter’s steady imbibing of the influences of American Pop Art. Slettemark’s polemical use of a fake passport involving a photo of Nixon in 1972 resonates deeply with a biometric era governed by fears surrounding border controls and possible breaches of security, apart from the fact that it compounds Nixon’s duplicity in the Watergate scandal in the 1970s (ironically also involving a security breach) with a more facetious and tongue-in-cheek form of duplicity by the artist wielding the licence of the jester.
Slettemark’s recourse to performance art also bears consideration. In performance art, the work is situated in time and space, and involving bodily interactions which alter the reception of the work. Art in the performative mode tends to provoke a reaction, since it foregrounds the act of reception between the performer and his audience. Art as monument yields to the notion of art as bodily co-presence. The text – and by implication the hermeneutical enterprise – extends from the boundaries of the frame traditionally circumscribing the artwork to the artist’s own body as experienced in time. If you think the miniaturized and blood-stained American flag between a pair of open red plastic lips in Slettemark’s ‘From a Report from Vietnam’ (1965) savage, you will most likely suffer a politically correct knee-jerk reaction to Carolee Schneemann’s film ‘Fuses’, completed just two years later, wherein Schneemann is portrayed engaging in coitus with her boyfriend James Tenney.
Slettemark’s performance art introduces time and motion into hitherto static forms in Norwegian visual art, and may be compared to such watersheds as Hamsun’s jettisoning of the Ibsenite realist tradition in favour of the psychological complexities of modernism, Fartein Valen’s jettisoning of homophonic musical structure, predicated on the logic of harmony, in favour of atonal polyphony, and Munch’s jettisoning of the naturalism of his mentor, Christian Krohg, in favour of expressionism. Hamsun’s psychologisms, Valen’s atonal privileging of expression over structure, Munch’s expressionism, and Slettemark’s polemics all serve to foreground the human psyche and its workings in the wake of the Freudian revolution at the turn of the century. Freud once summed up the psychoanalytic endeavour thus: “Where the id was, there shall the ego be.” The Freudian ego, armed with psychoanalytic tools, will ultimately surmount the problem of the unconscious. Slettemark’s art appears to be illuminating on more trivial and rather egological terms: “Where the ego was, there shall Slettemark be.”
KRC’s Arts Correspondent Melvin Chen is on an exchange program in Oslo, Norway.