The first thing I noticed when researching the life of Kjartan Slettemark is that there aren’t many sources to reference. He was such an interesting artist – how can this be?? We’ll dive as deep as we can in this post, but it’s worth checking out the sources and seeing what else there is. If there’s one thing authors can agree on, it’s that Kjartan lived and breathed his art!
Kjartan’s Early Life
Born in August 6, 1932 in Naustdal, Norway, Kjartan Slettemark was the youngest of four siblings. He pursued a formal arts education, eventually teaching for a time, but he found that Academia didn’t suit him and moved to Sweden in the mid-1960s.
Playing with Plastic
The 1960s marked the rise of plastic. As a material in the daily life of the average person it replaced more expensive materials. For the art world, it was a new medium to explore. In 1964, Kjartan took a course on in plastics engineering. He made many pieces from plastic, including a cake, eggs, and masks. He even cast his own form in plastic and was wrapped in plastic wrap.
Tool for a Hero, Vacuum-packed Collage. 1991.
One of his most famous (and controversial) pieces was a collage made from plastic that protested the Vietnam war.
In 1965 Norway, Kjartan burst into public view with plastic, politics, and controversy. As part of a project titled “Image of the City”, he created a plastic collage. The composition was an open mouth – inside were the letters VIETNAM, a tiny American flag, and a small figure representing an injured child. With it he included the text, “From a report from Vietnam: Children are showered with burning napalm, their skin is burned into black wounds and they die.” The work was based on a newspaper report that detailed how children were burned to death with napalm.
On Reports from Vietnam, 1965.
The collage was put on display (along with other artists’ works) in front of the Storting, the Parliament of Norway, in Oslo. It was vandalized at least three times by different people, but it wasn’t taken down. The art remained in its display case for the rest of the show with police protection to prevent further vandalism.
More importantly, the attention garnered by the Vietnam collage got people talking about US involvement in the war and debating art as a platform for protest. Some authors highlight how intense the public reaction was to the piece, but it did was good art does – it started the discussion and brought out peoples’ raw feelings. The Vietnam war was already controversial and polarizing. The art gave the public a target for their stance on the issue and a platform to express how they felt.
On Sweden and Being “Borderline”
Kjartan became a Swedish citizen in 1966 after living in Stockholm for 6 years. He was an art teacher for a while, but was fired for refusing to give the students grades (he gave them colorful drawings instead!). As a result, he had to file for social services in 1964. Four years later, he showed up at a social services meeting in an “eccentric outfit” with red and green caps on his teeth. The agency questioned whether Slettemark was simply unemployed or mentally ill. He told them he was an artist that was diagnosed as “borderline” and was prescribed anti-psychotic medication. They tried to commit him, but he refused.
Kjartan’s battles with social services over his mental health was a situation he often explored in his art. He dove into what it meant to be “borderline” and what it meant to be “somewhere between healthy and sick, normal and deviant.”
In 1969, Kjartan put his medication and other items on display in an art show that showcased his mental health struggles. He printed the invitations for the show on welfare application forms. But what truly made this a Kjartan event was that he sent the bill for whole show to social services.
News coverage of the show brought enough public attention to finally bring the situation with social services to an end.
Kjartan was staunchly opposed to Richard Nixon and the war on Vietnam. However, after Nixon resigned, Kjartan claimed to feel some sort of connection to him. Kjartan just happened to need to renew his passport, so he took an image of Nixon taken from a 1971 campaign poster and put his own hair and beard on Nixon’s face. He capitalized is name as KjARTan to “sign” the art and submitted it with his passport renewal. The application was processed without incident. He used the passport to travel Europe and to and from the United States several times and was never stopped.
Around the same time as the passport, “Nixon Visions” was born from the same Nixon campaign image. Kjartan turned the image into a coffee advertisement and processed the image over and over again throughout the years. One version shows blood running from Nixon’s mouth and cup while another depicts him with a Hitler mustache. Some iterations deconstruct the image, such as one where the eyes are cut out in triangles, switched, and flipped upside down. Another removes the face completely and replace the coffee cup with pieces of the face.
In 1976, Kjartan created his infamous poodle costume. He had once again been summoned by social services, but they mistakenly told him to report to hundmottagningen, which translates to “dog reception”, instead of kundmottagningen, “customer reception”. He spent six months creating the costume, which included built in jackpot sounds and a fluffy codpiece.
At one point Kjartan made passports for his own country of Kjartanistan, producing about 500 of them for anyone that wanted to be a citizen. It was a “non-territorial state with planet Earth as capital city, and himself as prime minister.”
In 2003, he donned a Marilyn Monroe wig and created a Warhol-style collage series titled “Self-Portrait with Marilyn”. He had to give a speech after receiving an award from the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and asked if he could wear the wig, to which they said “Of course!”
This is just a small capture of Kjartan Slettemark’s work. The Poodle was only one of many costumes he wore to blur the lines between life, art, and public discourse. Later in his career he explored his view of the world through video. Nixon Visions continued well into the 2000s. Kjartan was an active artist to the end, stirring the pot until he died on December 13, 2008 of heart failure.
I wasn’t kidding when I said information about KjARTan was sparse. There are some sources that provide additional details about his life, but I don’t include information that I can’t cross-reference with something else. My sources always have more than what I include in my posts, so please give them a click if you want to learn more. And don’t forget about the other artists we’ve covered this year! Thank you for reading!