The park, the feminists and the billionaire

When Oslo billionaire Christian Ringnes announced plans to create a feminine-themed sculpture park overlooking the view that inspired Munch’s The Scream, the opposition was vociferous. Now that it’s opened, though, the naysayers have largely gone quiet

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2013)

It was, according to its critics, the park funded by a billionaire, with seven football fields’ worth of trees cut down to make room for kitsch art made by men around the theme “A Homage to Women”. Yet after Oslo’s Ekeberg Sculpture Park opened in late September, near the point on Ekeberg Hill where Munch had his ghoulish reverie, a very different story has emerged.

Every weekend, tens of thousands of people have poured into the 26-hectare park, dotted with 31 sculptures ranging from figurative classics by the likes of Dalí and Rodin to a twisted metal couple hanging from a tree by Louise Bourgeois and a series of perception-bending spaces by celebrated contemporary American artist James Turrell. And the visitors have been almost universally impressed – even Ina Blom, an Oslo art professor who called the feminine theme “reactionary”, has conceded that the quality of the art is world class.

“The overriding narrative was: rich, eccentric guy controlling part of the city. Can we trust him?” says Christian Ringnes, the grandson of one of the Ringnes Brewery co-founders, who has made most of his fortune in real estate and become a prominent art collector along the way, donating works to the city including Marc Quinn’s controversial Kate Moss statue in the reconfigured Opera Passage. He has invested around NOK350 million in the Ekeberg project, including a provision for future maintenance and repairs.

Ringnes had bought the famous Ekeberg restaurant when, in 2006, he submitted a proposal to renovate the adjoining forest, a prominent 19th-century park that had fallen into disrepair after World War II. The theme, he says, was about giving the park an identity rather than any explicit message. “We thought about what Scandinavia is known for, and peace and the relative strength of women kept coming up. We also wanted to create a counterpoint to the Vigeland Sculpture Park in the west, which is more masculine – it’s classical but brutal, with geometric lines. Our plan was to create a park where there’s no linearity and everything is organic.”

Immediately, though, opposition started forming from nature groups, heritage organisations, the art world and even feminists. “Not everyone was immediately sold on the idea,” he admits, “but throughout most of this process, around 55 per cent of people have been for the park and about a quarter against it. The noise level was much higher than the reality, but the press obviously play up criticism and conflict – and once certain groups get the idea of concrete football fields in peoples’ heads, it can be hard to shake.

“We used no concrete, only bark and gravel, and we cut down less than two per cent of the park’s trees. We spent a long time cataloguing the park’s flora and fauna. We didn’t touch 90 per cent of the park, and the 10 per cent we did touch was mostly repair.”

More importantly, perhaps, Ringnes says the whole process has been “completely democratic”. The collection was chosen and approved by a committee of city officials and art institution heads. That committee had to be approved by the city, as did every one of the 31 pieces of art, which went through a strict vetting process. “If you look at the Kistefos Sculpture Park in Jevnaker, it’s beautiful but all chosen by one man. This was nothing like that. The committee was made up of people who know a lot more about art than I do, and there was an element of ‘we decide, you pay’. I was fine with that. The most important thing is the quality of the work.”

While eight of the works – including two Renoirs, two Rodins and a Dalí – come from Ringnes’s personal collection, he admits that some were rejected because “the committee didn’t think some of my sculptures were good enough”. They also decided against bringing up the Kate Moss sculpture, a hint at how subtly played the feminine theme is. Other pieces were bought for the park – like Bourgeois’s iconic hanging couple – while six of the more ambitious works were specially commissioned, including Turrell’s Skyspace (“His best work yet,” says Ringnes) and a video wall by American installation artist Tony Oursler (“You can stare at it for an hour and constantly see new things”).

With the classic works clustered around the park’s entrance, and the rest spread around in their own spaces, the results are quietly beautiful, especially if you visit the 24-hour park out of peak times. But it’s been busy on the opening weekends, with kids getting pictures with British sculptor Sean Henry’s Walking Woman, and crowds gathering round The Dance, George Cutts’s dancing metal rods. “I was in the car listening to the traffic report on the radio, and I heard there were jams around the sculpture park,” says Ringnes. “That makes me happy, though we do need to sort the parking.”

Plans for the future include adding one or two sculptures a year, with an eventual limit of 80, and to put in a gondola that will run down to the new Munch Museum. Ringnes predicts it will be ready in “maybe 2016 or 2017”, but says there’s a lot of red tape to get through before then.

He’s most interested now in seeing people enjoy the park and its art. “Even the art professors and the feminists who were opposed have said: this is great.” It’s difficult to disagree with that assessment – whether or not it comes from a billionaire, Oslo has another world-class art destination to add to its growing list, and it’s hard to argue with that.

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