You are something else

10. November 2017 – 21. January 2018

When Vanessa Baird’s largest exhibition yet – You Are Something Else – opens at Kunstnernes Hus this November, an entire skylit exhibition hall will be filled with a site-specific installation comprising her monumental chalk drawings. Baird’s art is mordant and unsentimental, and the exhibition dives straight into the heart of the most urgent political issue of the day, namely the refugee crisis in Europe. With its monumental dimensions, the installation seems both embracing and claustrophobic, both inclusive and confrontational. There is no escape for the spectator, but a dark, underlying humour is ever-present as a liberating and multifaceted element.

Baird weaves a sizable catalogue of figures, events, and narratives, both familiar and foreign, into the wider tapestry of current affairs. We recognize figures from the world of folk tales and fables, from the news and cultural scene, from the private sphere and the history of art. The installation bears a kinship with traditional public art, from Mexican murals and Munch’s friezes to the frescos at the Oslo City Hall. Personal matters become intertwined with political matters to form a composite portrait of the relationship between private and public life, between the present and the past.

With their characteristic capacity for rich detail and ornamentation, Baird’s works grow in size from the small to the large in extensive landscapes and tableaux, often with an implicit mood of the ominous and grotesque. The hues are bright and harmonious, the undertone is murky and surrealistic. Recently, the artist has shifted her attention from caricatured, exaggerated depictions culled from the private sphere – not least the deterioration and powerlessness of the female body – to the external political world and the exercise of violence and power. By employing a style that draws on established narrative traditions and well-known folktale illustrations, Baird plays on both archetypes and stereotypes we are all familiar with. Her art takes a deep dive into our cultural subconsciousness, into our collective traumas and sense of guilt.

All this came to a head in 2013 when the artist created To Everything There Is a Season, a major work intended for the terror-struck Government Quarter in Oslo. Parts of the work were rejected by Norwegian authorities because it triggered reactions of anxiety and sorrow among the employees. The decision sparked off a major public debate on the effect of public art, and Kunstnernes Hus displayed the work the following year to the public’s great interest.

In recent years Baird has collaborated with the acclaimed Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, illustrating for example his novel Om høsten (Autumn). She also runs her own independent press, Brunt hull, with her colleague Mette Hellenes, with whom she also collaborates under the name Kebbevennene. They cooperated on a major photographic work entitled Oslo Portraits, which will hang in the lobby at Kunstnernes Hus during the exhibition.

Vanessa Baird (b. 1963) lives and works in Oslo. She took her education at the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry, the Royal College of Art in London, and the Norwegian National Academy of Fine Arts. She has held exhibitions at venues such as the National Museum (Oslo), Trondheim Kunstmuseum (Trondheim), the Gothenburg Museum of Art (Gothenburg), OSL Contemporary (Oslo), galleri c/o Atle Gerhardsen (Berlin), and Tegnerforbundet (Oslo). In 2015 Baird received the Lorch Shive Art Prize, Norway’s largest prize for visual artists. Her works have been acquired by several public and private collections.