The Norwegian artist Matias Faldbakken wants you to know that his current exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York is not, most definitely, under any circumstances, a retrospective. But the show, which is on view through March 30, is nonetheless, in subject, time, and physical space particularly wide-ranging. Composed of drawings, sculptures, videos, and paintings, the multi-room exhibition includes his “Screen Overlaps” series from 2016 — ready-mades and objects that question and re-contextualize advertising and pop culture — his “Fuel Sculptures” series from 2017 — sculptures made out of lowbrow materials like plastic jugs and funnels — and, finally, his installation “The Internet,” from 1999, that is simply those two words broadcast in bold font across the vitrine wall. (“The Internet,” Faldbakken told Modern Painters, came from the impulse to “sabotage interpretation by making the object of interpretation too vast, too general, too complex, and at the same time too dumb.”)
Born in Denmark in 1973, Faldbakken can at times be a difficult artist to like. “The laziness, non-commitment and disavowal that can be read into the Norwegian sculptor’s works are less remnants of actual disaffection than representations of contempt,” reads a 2014 review in Frieze. The same seems true here at Paula Cooper, with the works having few central or binding arguments, each room sometimes feeling like a whim. But Faldbakken is a talented artist, also becoming a best-selling, New York Times-reviewed author with his fiction debut last year, “The Waiter.” And, especially, with the cheeky marketability of “The Internet,” his works can be eerily prescient. In correspondence with Modern Painters, Faldbakken discussed his “Internet” installation, his success as a novelist, and the inversion of one’s political views and art.
This exhibition seems almost like a retrospective, given that it includes your series’ from 2016 and 2017 and a much-older installation — and it’s across two spaces. How did this show come together? How do you hope it’ll be viewed?
It is not a retrospective. Paula and I agreed to show works from the recent “Screen Overlap” series that hadn’t been exposed too much in New York. Then I remembered that one of the first pieces I ever exhibited, “The Internet,” had a twenty-year anniversary this year and asked if we could show this in the storefront space as a tongue-in-cheek jubilee show. I hope people will look at the works as individual pieces.
So how do all of these works mesh?
The “Screen Overlap” works and “The Internet” are both about the space of the screen in relation to the physical world of objects. The “Fuel Sculptures” sort of anchor the show — these pieces are some of the most blunt, deadpan works I have done. They are all about finding a sculptural ground zero and an opposite position of the virtual endlessness that our screens represent.
You made “The Internet” in 1999. How was it prescient — and how is it still relevant today?
The idea at the time was to take a term that was too big and technically un-interpretable and paste it on the wall, giving it the function of a sublime painting. The term “the internet” was almost already worn out back then after four to five years of hefty use, and the futuristic sound of the word already had this passé dullness about it — almost like the term “Year 2000” or something. At the same time, it was obvious that “the internet” would grow to get social, political, economic, educational, sexual, cultural, criminal, personal — you name it — consequences beyond any imagination. As I remember it, my impulse to produce the work was to sabotage interpretation by making the object of interpretation too vast, too general, too complex, and at the same time too dumb.
Relevance today? Well, I thought it might be funny to look back at “the internet” to underline that we’ve just seen the start of this thing.
You’re also an acclaimed novelist, even landing a review for “The Waiter” in The New York Times last year. How do your two artistic practices — art and writing — interact?
They are pretty tied in together since I’m the person doing both, but my working methods and approaches are often in conflict on the two fields. So it’s just as much irritation and disagreement between them as fruitful cross-pollination.
Do they require different parts of you? Which do you find more demanding?
On some basic level of idea production they can be similar. For instance, to really know if an idea is visual or verbal is very hard to figure out if you think about it. But in execution they are demanding in different ways. Art-making involves a lot of logistics and organizing of stuff, whereas writing is an immaterial, mental exercise that you have to stand to repeatedly go back into for weeks and months and perhaps years at a time.
I read a review of this current exhibition that claimed, “Faldbakken is a nihilist, maybe a borderline anarchist.” Is this true? If so, what does that mean for you, exactly?
If that is from Forbes it weirdly read like those frustrated reviews I got back home in Norway when I debuted as an artist and writer around 2000. I think quite a bit of my practice was, and still is, an attempt to locate value. In order to do so I’ve sometimes utilized — how to put it? — the ‘energy of the antagonist’ and gone to places that might represent some kind of rock bottom value-wise.
In any case, how do your political views inform your art?
I fear my work is the only politics I do, so perhaps the question should be the other way around: how does your art inform your political views?