A report from SOPPEN, Oslo, a performance festival uniting queer, trans and feminist artists
SOPPEN – a Norwegian word meaning mushroom, mould or yeast (including the nasty, infectious sort) – was the title and inspiration for a two-night performance festival in Oslo’s Ekebergparken Sculpture Park. Organized by Trollkrem (Tor Erik Bøe and Jennie Hagevik Bringaker) under the auspices of the art platform Oslo Pilot, SOPPEN used the metaphor of ‘diverse fungal reproduction’ to bring together queer, trans and feminist artists.
Throughout the early 2000s, the neglected park, famously depicted in Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893), was a hotbed of prostitution and drug dealing. That was until billionaire beer magnate and real estate developer Christian Ringnes took over the area’s rehabilitation in 2003, reopening it as a sculpture park in 2013. The park’s transformation has drawn sustained criticism from feminists as most of the sculptures depict the female form, often nude – an issue Trollkrem’s event confronted head on in their programming. As their artist statement made clear: ‘The performing bodies of SOPPEN challenge the gendered representations found in the park to spawn new and exciting fleshy sculptures.’
To better understand the history of public sculpture in Oslo, I visited the works of Gustav Vigeland in Frogner Park on the city’s bourgeois west side. The tightly ordered Vigeland Sculpture Park is the largest of its kind dedicated to a single artist’s work, and remains one of Oslo’s top tourist destinations. Constructed mainly between 1939–49, a period spanning the Nazi occupation of Norway, Vigeland’s hulking figures in bronze, granite and wrought-iron align with fascist aesthetics in their heft, ambition and violence. Vigeland sought to depict the whole of humanity, from male athletes and old women to more disturbing fare, like full-on thrashing battles between the sexes or a mother on all fours whose children gag her with a rope. If there was any doubt that the park was an homage to patriarchy, at the park’s highest point stands an erect Monolith, into which Vigeland chiselled tortured, climbing bodies.
In contrast, the works in Ekebergparken, located on Oslo’s east side, have a more complex relationship with their natural surroundings. Visitors are greeted by Sarah Lucas’s Deep Cream Maradona (2015), a huge yellow bronze sculpture of a reclining male nude with an exaggerated phallus, and winding through the park, one encounters works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Dan Graham and James Turrell, all integrated into the woodland. SOPPEN’s nightclub-meets-treehouse venue was installed in a clearing about 10 minutes from the entrance. As Bøe, of Trollkrem, explained, the site had to be carefully chosen to avoid disturbing any remnants of Iron Age settlements. The two-stage architecture, designed by Fellesskapsprosjektet å Fortette Byen (FFB), adopted traditional techniques in order to conform to park regulations: They used horses to transport timber and secured the stages without the use of screws.
Though billed as an international festival, SOPPEN was heavily influenced by an American-style investigation of identity politics. Of the 17 featured artists, 10 were from the US, while the remainder hailed from Norway. Virality was a subtheme, with many artists operating between the spaces of art and entertainment. Fittingly, many invited artists live in Los Angeles, such as Transparent producer Zackary Drucker and artist-comedian Casey Jane Ellison, whose expert California-girl deadpan regularly gives way to hilarious misandry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, American politics was a key order of business. Early on the first night, Drucker (in absentia) presented a video where she mimicked three white cis Donald Trump voters. One character, with a heavy Southern accent, described herself as a proud ‘shit factory’. Marthe Ramm Fortun, a Norwegian artist, performed a lecture condemning Marina Abramović for her recent Tagesspiegel statements, which questioned women’s ability to juggle a career in art and a family. In the age of Trump and his dangerous anti-abortion agenda, Fortun said, it was a missed opportunity to assert a progressive mandate.
Other US artists addressed brutal histories of colonialism. Marcel Alcalá, bedecked in Juggalo-inspired makeup and accompanied by backup dancers, recited a text condemning imperialism and corporatization in witty hashtag-friendly language, making reference to the ‘Nazi graves’ of Ekebergparken’s makeshift cemetery during World War II. La Porscha, an African-American artist, performed a short, intense noise set while she dangled from the stage from platinum-blonde braid extensions – a Rapunzel-esque nightmare-as-lynching. Elysia Crampton, a Latinx producer, presented video and music related to her project Dissolution of the Sovereign: A Timeslide into the Future. The science-fiction pop epic is loosely bound together with the story of Bartolina Sisa, a murdered 18th-century Bolivian revolutionary, the plight of trans people in Mexico, and the future takeover of an AI consciousness. Agatha Wara, raised in the US but now based in Oslo, followed similar science-fiction themes about distortion pills and designer emotions in her text and sound collaboration with DJ Ill Tariq.
Nightlife culture and high camp were celebrated throughout the weekend. Norwegian performer Nils Bech took up residency in James Turrell’s hillside cathedral-like installation and sang melancholic love songs in falsetto, while LA-based event ‘co-host’ Tyler Matthew Oyer introduced other performers as he embodied queer icons like Grace Jones and Kembra Pfahler. Singer and video artist Actually Huizenga pumped up the crowd in the tradition of Peaches with her exhortation ‘You don’t have to shave it’, while New York–based Narcissister brought down the house with her cabaret-style act combining sexualized moves with a critical attitude to the fetishization of female and non-white bodies. She presented a handful of vignettes, from her Burka Barbie (2014) video to the live act Upside Down, in which she contorts and spins while wearing masks on both her face and crotch.
Largely affirmative, sex-positive and a lot of fun, SOPPEN was as much a queer community-building event as an performance festival. Here, hard lines weren’t drawn between fine art and pop culture, criticality and complicity; like many strands of recent performance, the artists selected by Trollkrem embedded theory and politics in a telegenic package. Of course, the easy marketability of queer and trans bodies has occasionally come under attack, but here Trollkrem’s intentions were clear and sound. The multiplicity of bodies gathered together at SOPPEN served not only as a response to Ekebergparken’s questionable identification as a site that pays ‘homage to women’, but to Vigeland Park’s ordering of the human race, and the forces that threaten to homogenize or suppress Otherness in an era of rising rightward politics.
Main image: Genevieve Belleveau and collaborator performing at SOPPEN, Oslo, 2016. Photograph: Birk Thomassen