‘I can’t tell if he was mean or not’: artist Lene Berg on his murderous father | Art and design

In a dark room in Bergen’s Kunsthall museum, visitors can recline on a beanbag under a loudspeaker and listen to a nine-year-old girl talking to her mother at bedtime. “Is dad mean, mom? the girl’s disembodied voice asks. The sheets rustle with impatience as the mother fails to answer his question conclusively. “Is dad possessed by the devil? A police siren is heard passing on the street outside. “Am I also possessed by the devil since I am his daughter?

The recording’s daughter, reconstructed from memory, is artist Lene Berg, and dad is director Arnljot Berg, an influential figure in 1970s Norway. being possessed by Satan is evident in the series of Norwegian and French newspaper headlines that have been embroidered on curtains hung around the space. In 1975, Arnljot was arrested in Paris for the murder of his second wife, Evelyne Zammit. He committed suicide a few years after his release from prison, when Lene was a teenager.

Brand style… a miniature set of the French parking lot where her father was arrested. Photography: Lene Berg

In this sound installation, Lene’s mother tries to assure the restless child that Evelyne’s death was an accident. Now 57, Lene is unequivocal when asked if her father killed his wife. “Yeah, I think he did,” she tells me, via video call from the gallery. “There is no doubt that he killed her. But I think he accepted his guilt and said it was an accident. Until I started this project, I had the feeling that he hadn’t accepted his guilt well. He had strong armor, and one way to protect himself was to be very pathetic. I never asked him if he killed her or how she died. It’s probably because I was afraid he would say something like, “I’m a really bad person, Lene.”

Arnljot was sentenced to five years, including four on probation, a surprisingly lenient sentence that meant he was effectively free after trial, having spent the previous 15 months in jail. Classified court documents, which Lene got hold of shortly before the Kunsthall facility opened but chose not to properly review before, show Evelyne’s father testified on Arnljot’s behalf.

“I suspect Evelyne’s death was some kind of suicide, suicide by proxy,” Lene says. “It’s my reading now. But whether it would be wrong is still unclear to me. As a child, I wondered if my father was a bad man, and that’s always something I find impossible. to answer. I think you would need to feel an incredible amount of anger and rage to kill someone. And at times like that, this incredibly smart and warm man that my father was is still like a stranger to me. .

Lene is known as an artist who investigates the lives of others rather than her own. Encounter: Gentlemen & Arseholes, from 2006, was his first notable project, an annotated reprint of the first edition of Encounter, a literary magazine founded by poet Stephen Spender that was later found to have been secretly funded by the CIA .

A fascination with Cold War culture inspired Lene’s first two art films: 2006’s The Man in the Background, about CIA agent Michael Josselson; and Picasso’s Stalin in 2008 or Portrait of a Woman with a Mustache, on a lost work – sketched when the Soviet leader died – which was immediately denounced by the French Communist Party for departing from social realism. His films share a do-it-yourself aesthetic reminiscent of Michel Gondry or early Wes Anderson, but with a dryly sarcastic undercurrent rather than twee romanticism. “Realism?” she asks Picasso in her film. “Is it Stalin with an erection or without?”

Fra Far Prison Letters.
‘I have now used the same method on my own life that I used to use on others’…fra far prison letters. Photography: Lene Berg

The Bergen exhibit – called Fra Far, meaning From Father – is designed in his trademark style. For a short film shown in the first room of the show, Lene built a miniature set of the French parking lot where her father was arrested, complete with Matchbox cars, miniature railway figures and vape smoke blowing across the stage. to evoke the morning fog. .

Its shift towards personal memories, instead of archives or court documents, is new. “In a sense, I have now used the same method on my own life that I used to use on others. Maybe I had to do this. I have researched many themes and people, but this material belongs to me.

Cerebral and theme-driven, Lene’s works break free from the art world’s usual constraints on storytelling: many of her films are so fun to watch that you instantly want to show them to your friends. His 2013 documentary Kopfkinoin which BDSM sex workers share drinks and talk shop around a Last Supper-style table, could have been a hit on Netflix.

Lene Berg.
‘I never asked him if he killed her, probably because I was afraid he would say, ‘I’m a very bad person”… Lene Berg. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

Early in her career, she says, film people told her she only won awards because the art world didn’t understand film, while art critics complained that she didn’t really do art. “Art critics felt that there was too much history in my films, that it was too close to entertainment. Whereas cinephiles thought my films were totally experimental. I think these positions have changed .

Lene’s father has made five feature films, two of which screened at the Berlin Film Festival. However, she says, “He never really found his style or his form.” Arnljot remains best known in Norway for a television program that introduced the country to modern European cinema.

When she became a director, Lene spent years trying to distance herself from her father. Friends from school told her that their parents had advised them not to hang out with her. “It became very important to me not to be Arnljot Berg’s daughter,” says Lene, who left Oslo to study cinema in Stockholm, and now lives mostly in Berlin. “But then, a few years ago, I gave a presentation at a film convention and realized that even the people in the film industry didn’t really know who my dad was anymore. Even those who made him didn’t had no idea I was related to him. I wasn’t defined as his daughter anymore. It was more the other way around.”

She pauses and says of the show about her father, “I’m not interested in restoring his greatness. But I also didn’t want it to be an attack or a settling of scores. I really wanted to remember him in as many facets as possible. »

Fra Far is at Bergen Kunsthall, Norwayuntil August 21.

About Monty S. Maynard

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