Drive north from Oslo for seven hours and you’ll arrive in Trondheim: Norway’s third largest city and most populous urban area within reach of the Arctic Circle. Here, at a similar latitude to Reykjavik, Iceland, is the country’s largest university, a thriving restaurant scene, and, as of last month, its largest commercial art gallery.

At first glance, the commercial element of Kjøpmannsgata Ung Kunst (KUK) is not so obvious. Spread over two floors with a restaurant and gift shop, this versatile space, described on its website as an ‘art house’ dedicated to emerging art, could almost be classified as a kunsthalle, except that its business model nonprofit is largely dependent on the sale of the works on display.

Kjell Erik Killi Olsen, founder of KUK Trondheim. Courtesy of KUK Trondheim

The construction of the gallery was fully funded by its founder, the painter and sculptor from Trondheim, Kjell Erik Killi Olsen, who owes his status as one of Norway’s richest artists to his family’s wholesale business. It was the burden of that heritage that drove Killi Olsen to New York City in his twenties to devote himself to art, he says, comparing his heritage to “a noose” around his neck. But now he wants to give back to his hometown: “When I started doing my art in the 1970s, local kids weren’t allowed to see it. But Trondheim, as conservative as he is, has changed since then and I want to show his young artists that they can create avant-garde and provocative work here and make it appreciated, ”he says.

Elizabeth Ravn’s painting of her partner installed in It’s Just a Phase at KUK Trondheim. Courtesy of KUK Trondheim

True to form, the exterior of the KUK is now adorned with an image of a woman giving birth with her coronation newborn baby, by German photographer Heji Shin, who is one of 31 artists participating in the inaugural exhibition. Organized by Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset (better known together as the duo Elmgreen & Dragset), and Danish curator Rhea Dahl, It’s just a phase (until February 13), brings together new and recent works that respond to stages in life such as birth, death, aging and coming out.

Spread across eight galleries, many of the exhibited artists have not yet received institutional solo exhibitions, and some have no commercial representation. These include Berlin painter Elizabeth Ravn, who shows intimate interior scenes made up of broad brushstrokes, and British artist Nikhil Vettukattil, whose installation of moving images fills the basement. from the gallery with the muffled sounds of hardcore techno music.

For the inaugural show, the KUK provided each of the participating artists with an undisclosed exhibition right, completely separate from the sales made, for which they take a 40% commission. It also provides production costs for specially commissioned works, such as an installation by Mahmoud Khaled, of Egyptian descent, who converted a basement gallery into a white carpeted den with a Hugh-style leather bed. Hefner from the 1960s.

“Norway is very different from other Western European countries, there is still a huge gap between commercial and institutional funding, which generally makes it more difficult for young artists to show their work,” says Dahl. “What is most important is that this space is involved in all stages of a work of art. An artist needs support long before they are ready to exhibit their work, which is only the tip of the iceberg, even if that is all the public sees.

A gallery converted from a former automobile store at KUK Trondheim. Courtesy of KUK Trondheim

“When I was a kid, we didn’t even have an art museum here,” says Dragset, who grew up near the city. “The fact that Trondheim now has a space where artists can sell experimental works indicates how far they are evolving. “This wave of local interest in contemporary art is the one that precedes the arrival of the KUK; as Dragset points out that a veritable kunstalle dedicated to contemporary art opened in Trondheim in 2016. However, while the kunsthalle tends to hold exhibitions of more established names in the contemporary art world, the KUK focuses on “emerging and younger experimental voices”, explains its artistic director Cathrin Hovdal Vik. She adds that she is ” complementary, not competing ”to the ambitions of the kunsthalle.

To this end, it has established a partnership with the Academy of Fine Arts in Trondheim, allowing its graduates to exhibit in space. Among the youngest performers on the inaugural show is a recent academy graduate Samrridhi Kukreja, who practices under the pseudonym Tuda Muda. Born and raised near Delhi, India, Kukreja moved to Trondheim three years ago to study. His work, located near the downstairs toilets, shows a video projection of the artist observing his body in a mirror. “Before KUK, I can’t imagine where I could have sold a work like this in Norway without going to Oslo,” she says.

Constantin Hartenstein’s resin works refer to popular imagery from his childhood in the German Democratic Republic. Courtesy of KUK Trondheim

And while Trondheim still doesn’t seem like the most likely location for the art trade, a number of artists made deals on the gallery’s opening weekend, including Berlin-based artist Constantine. Hartenstein, who sold a blue resin mural based on popular East German images to a Trondheim-based collector.

However, the most important patron to visit space, Queen Sonja of Norway, has yet to purchase a work from the exhibition. She did, however, according to Dahl, take a particular interest in a performance given by Agata Wara, which involved the artist climbing a staircase and leaving traces of red paint behind. Subsequently, Wara discussed her work in the context of blushing, likening the involuntary bodily process to a “facial boner,” to which the Queen replied, “I blush all the time”. Perhaps experimental art is not as daring a proposition as one might imagine.

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