Text by Lucille Howe
If arty waterfront Tjuvholmen is Oslo’s renaissance district, then Magne Furuholmen is its renaissance man. Though he’ll always be most famous as A-ha’s guitarist and keyboard player – the man who played the famous opening of Take On Me – he’s done a far better and more idiosyncratic job of re-inventing himself than most ’80s pop stars can reasonably hope.
In the last few years alone, in no particular order, he’s opened an art gallery in Tjuvholmen and persuaded Damien Hirst to cover a nearby warehouse in butterflies; designed a disco suite at The Thief hotel; and started a supergroup called Apparatjik with members of Coldplay and Mew, in which the band members perform in a giant semi-transparent cube.
A-ha’s Paul Waaktaar-Savoy once wondered of Furuholmen, “Is he a complete fool or a genius?” – and you can see where he was coming from. Before we meet at The Thief – the new hotel which symbolises Tjuvholmen’s arty modern makeover as much as the next-door Astrup Fearnley Museum – I wake up in the Apparatjik Suite, the suite he designed, which is decorated with stag horns on the wall, disco balls, a wearable silver space suit and a projector that allows you to choose a member of the band to project onto the bed linen. The one thing the hotel wouldn’t let him do is fill the toiletry bottles with bodily fluids, but it’s arguably weird enough.
So before I meet the man, I have spooned a naked image of him while listening to Apparatjik’s songs on the suite’s vinyl record player. Luckily, I like the music – the quirky electronica sounds a bit like the lovechild of Daft Punk and Human League, and nothing like you’d expect from a band featuring Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman.
When Furuholmen does come through The Thief’s silent revolving doors for lunch, there’s none of the double denim and hamster-like hair that made girls swoon in the ’80s. He’s wearing a dapper flat cap, the requisite Nordic neck scarf and a pair of giant aviator shades that don’t come off until a full 37 minutes into our interview. He’s suggested sending doppelgängers to replace him at gigs, so for a while I wonder if it’s really him.
Furuholmen is not easy to read, even once the aviators eventually come off. He’s said before our interview that he hates journalists harping on about how he does a lot and has “lots of energy”, and he’d rather talk about the art collaborations he’s involved with. He’s also a little uncomfortable having his photo taken. »
He clearly wants to be an artist rather than a personality, though his personality tends to get in the way of that.
He prefers talking about ideas and is drawn into quite a few musing monologues, delivered with lingering looks into the middle distance as he polishes off his steak sandwich: about the ill-fated “Irony-Free Hour” he instituted in A-ha – it “irritated the hell” out of lead singer Morten Harket, apparently – or his considered opinion that “Norwegians are just Viking peasants greased with oil”.
He finally takes off the aviators and gets on topic when I tell him that Apparatjik’s Combat Disco Music, an upbeat pop-synth track punctuated by kung-fu grunts, has made it onto my summer 2013 playlist. “We made that track because, one, none of us can dance and, two, none of us likes disco music,” he smiles – not the only time I wonder if he’s being serious.
Furuholmen’s favourite quote about the band came from the director of Berlin’s National Gallery, who said: “Apparatijk are too much like pop musicians for the art world and too arty for the music world.” Furuholmen agrees, saying they’re “happy to fall into the space in between”, and citing Lars von Trier, James Joyce and Edvard Munch as his influences.
Wikipedia will tell you that Apparatjik formed for a charity album in 2008 and consist of Furuholmen, Coldplay’s Berryman, Swedish producer Martin Terefe (who’s worked with the likes of James Morrison and KT Tunstall) and Jonas Bjerre, singer/guitarist of Danish alt-rockers Mew. Furuholmen points out that Bjerre comes from a film, animation and painting background (see jonasbjerre.com for some of his darkly bizarre creations).
They’ve since produced two well-received albums, but they’ve become just as well known for their live shows, usually in art galleries, in which they take to a giant semi-transparent cube called the Light Space Modulator, wearing bizarre costumes that hide their identity as the cube is bombarded with projections. They recently replaced their astronaut outfits with comedy muscle suits, shiny gas masks, war helmets topped with antlers and bejewelled jockstraps – or “disco balls” as Furuholmen says they should be known.
The Light Space Modulator is inspired by Hungarian Bauhaus painter and photographer, László Moholy-Nagy, who in 1930 created a pioneering cube sculpture called Lichtrequisit einer elektrischen Bühne (Light Prop for an Electric Stage), essentially a set of kitchen utensils creating shadows around a light bulb, which was later known as the Light Space Modulator. Furuholmen calls the band’s performances in the modern version “something like an amateur dance group coupled with shadow theatre”, though the visuals projected onto the cube are more akin to Space Invaders on acid.
Things get more discombobulating when Furuholmen starts talking about whether the band members really are in the cube: “We’re playing around with that. Sometimes it might not be me – I mean, maybe there’s a better me than me.”
Identity is clearly a theme in Furuholmen’s work. In some of Apparatjik’s most recent shoots, band members wear paper masks of their own faces, though the idea has been going longer than that. In 2007, Furuholmen asked his fans to send in dolls of himself as they’d like to see him in his next incarnation. The dolls were then exhibited to a soundtrack of him talking about art. Some were creepy, others beautifully handcrafted. None, thankfully, were pierced with voodoo needles. “I wanted people to be involved,” he explains. “Is it enough that I stand there and you watch?”
Hours have gone by and we’ve barely scratched the surface of Furuholmen’s art, which stretches to six pages on his online CV, dating back to 1994, when A-ha went on a hiatus (they reformed in 1998, and played on and off for the next 12 years). Most notably in the past few years, he has become co-owner of Stolper & Friends, a Tjuvholmen gallery that opened in 2011, with gallerists Paul Stolper and Hugo Opdal. The gallery’s roster of artists includes Furuholmen, English pop artist Peter Blake and Damien Hirst, who Furuholmen also persuaded to cover the nearby Shed 13 warehouse with huge butterflies to mark the opening of the gallery.
The warehouse is now covered by motifs from Peter Blake’s The Oslo Suite and Furuholmen tells me he’s been trying to get the warehouse reworked by Shepard Fairey, the American skater-cum-graphic artist behind the iconic Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Then there’s the Apparatjik Suite at The Thief, although he says his » influence was “mainly cosmetic. We screwed around with the decor and created an atmosphere that is surreal, odd and disturbing.”
When he’s not approaching artists and Norway’s big-money art investors, Furuholmen’s been creating rather a lot of it himself. In 2002, there was the Christmas tree at Oslo Central Station he decorated with money, deciding to use his NOK14,000 fee as a replacement for tinsel. There’s Climax, the recycled aluminium pyramid sculpture that’s greeted visitors entering the Nobel Peace Centre since 2007; the Norwegian postage stamp he designed in 2001; and the 11 storeys of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship he decorated with glass works in 2005. This month he’s got a show, Norwegian Wood, at the Paul Stolper Gallery in London, which features ten huge woodcuts inspired by The Beatles.
After leaving The Thief, we head to the Tjuvholmen branch of hip restaurant chain Bølgen & Moi, where one wall is already covered in Furuholmen’s Confusion, a series of ceramic tiles covered in scrawled letters, spelling out barely intelligible words. Today he’s mentoring three artists from Oslo’s National School of Art, who are painting a wall by the restaurant’s entrance with a panorama of mountain peaks in bold acrylics. Twentysomethings Johan Carlsson, Carl Segelberg and Helena Lund Ek greet Furuholmen like a fun uncle and, as he encourages them to be bold and make mistakes, I think I see the side of him that simply enjoys art and collaboration.
Yet he throws me again when he takes his leave to go home and walk his dog. “The more time I spend with the dog, the more I dislike people,” he says over his shoulder as he walks out. Like many of his comments, it seems designed to provoke and obfuscate. After a fascinating, scattergun few hours, I’m still not sure I know who Magne Furuholmen really is – and I suspect that’s how he likes it.
Magne Furuholmen’s new show, Norwegian Wood, is at London’s Paul Stolper Gallery from 3 May until 1 June. Apparatjik play the National Gallery of Art in Copenhagen on 3 May