"Why am I doing this? That is a good question…” Behzad laughs as we sit down for coffee in the back room of MELK. MELK opened its doors in 2009 and Behzad describes the original space where it all began as a small spot, on Oslo’s East Side, starting out with one exhibition a month for the first two years. The current space is much larger and operates on a three month on, three month off schedule allowing time for themselves to use the location as a playground for creativity and also to work on their own projects.
Upon starting nine years ago the only idea they had for creating a gallery was to have something different from institutions like Fotogalleriet, or the big galleries. For Behzad and Bjarne having a spot where you could hang out and the get the vibe of the contemporary scene was very important. They felt a space like this was something that was missing in Oslo and for those that may have studied abroad there was not a place to meet and show new progressive photography in different ways. MELK has since become a platform for artists to use, or as a project space, to work on ideas which, to Behzad, makes it more than a gallery. This philosophy also runs through the employees of MELK and the team are all active artists from assistants to curators.
“To work here you have to use the space and it is a school in that way.”
To date they have done over 60 exhibitions with more than half of these being artists exhibiting for the first time. From its inception the gallery has drawn an audience that is more artists and students, rather than collectors. The concept of having a space for progressive photography has strengthened over the years leading to more applications from artists and bigger projects which has kept the team active and on their toes as they continue to become more professional and recognised. By constantly focusing on the new you have to do a lot of leg work and for Behzad and his team this means keeping their ears to the ground, looking at the academies, going to art fairs and listening to other artists to see who they are looking at. It is a constant and long process to find new material, something he says they will continue to search for as they strive to keep that element of surprise - “You don't know what you will get when you come to MELK.” Given that they operate under the umbrella of ‘Progressive Photography’, the options are not limited as this is a very broad topic and one of the things that makes it fun for them and the artists they work with.
Being a novice in the art and photography scene one thing I was curious to know, based on my own experience of attending exhibitions and “not getting it” was the importance of having accompanying text with a project or piece to give the audience some context. “Photography is the new language and we are trying to experiment with that much more,” he replies before telling me that what they are trying to do is kill that part of photography so the exhibition becomes “about the physicality and visuality of seeing.” There is of course some information, he admits, but this is kept to a minimal with the aim being to push the boundaries of what is photography. They have showcased photography projects that may include more painting, sculptures, installations or videos, than photos, but have labelled it as a “photo exhibition” because, at the core, the dialogue is photography. However, they have also shown artists with some text and an upcoming exhibition is almost purely text, but this is not the main kind of art they work with. “We are trying to build the opposite of that, but there is no rule of yes or no. No rules!”
Two years ago Melk released the book ‘New Scandinavian Photography’, which Behzad says was a great tool for opening a lot of doors internationally, including a show in Mexico City and they now have plans for a big group show back home in Oslo. The book was a game changer for them. As the gallery had become synonymous with first time showings and small projects, prior to the book, it was the joining of these projects together that showed the world that what they had been working on was in fact a large project. ‘New Scandinavian Photography’ was made up of 16 writers, 15 artists, 2 designers and is now part of 76 University and Museum library’s around the world including Harvard, UCLA, Princeton, MoMa, Metropolitan and Louisiana. To be able to combine their work into one project was so much fun they are now working on a second book to continue to show what it is they do to the world. Where ‘New Scandinavian Photography’ focused on mainly Scandinavian artists, the next publication will open up to include international progressive artists in what will be “more of an art project in book form.”
Behzad talks about the natural formation of MELK and how the gallery has exhibited what has been the development of photography over the last 10 years, in Scandinavia. For them what they wanted to do was to show how the word photography and how the practise of photography has changed significantly over this period leading the main context of ‘New Scandinavian Photography’ to be how contemporary photography uses the room.
“As a contemporary artist you don't take a picture and just hang it on the wall, you think about the curating and the artists are much more into activating the room and the works are kind of secondary in a way. That is what we have been working more and more on in what we do.”
The recent exhibition they curated in Mexico, called ‘Dislocating Surfaces part II’ was a continuation of their work in contemporary photography and the artists worked very physically with the photos (Part I was shown at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, May 2016). This process often included using different layers and methods such as painting, prints and photograms which surprised the audience in Mexico who are more used to the narrative part of photography. We joke that he would have fit in pretty well in Mexico which may have had something to do with why he enjoyed the trip so much saying, “Mexico is probably the coolest place I have been to. The place was very vibrant, the art, culture and the food - everything was the best I ever tasted.”
Here in Norway there is also a number of artist run spaces that are not funded, like MELK once was. Behzad believes Kulturrådet understood, after looking at other European cities, that they were important for the industry as they dare to show things commercial galleries would not. Kulturrådet also realised that there were a number of these spaces that would last a couple of years and then give up because it was too hard to continue without funding. Now there are a few more professional spaces such as 1857 and Noplace that still have the artist vibe but it is by no means easy. MELK went on for five years of self financing with numerous failed applications for funding and although they were able to receive some support project to project, it was a struggle. They really had to believe that the value of what they were working on initially would continue to grow, project to project.
Being a gallery for artists, the focus has been on pushing new artists and although not commercial, they do sell, which lands them somewhere in the grey zone or as Behzad says, “If we were focused on earning money we wouldn’t be doing so much of the fun stuff.” To work with the artists and develop a show is one thing, but then to sit down and try to sell that artist is a whole different skill set. “The contacts, the way you talk, the time you spend on it and the knowledge of the buyers. Even though I am from a Persian carpet seller background, I haven't nailed that one” he laughs. They are now working with a sales agent to become more skilled in that area. “As you know” he laughs, “Most artists are not that good with money and to be able to run this space for nine years is kind of a miracle.” What is a positive thing at MELK is that all the employees are paid, even though he acknowledges in some cases it may be minimal, it is enough to take the stress away so the team can continue to pursue their own art, but still remain hungry.
Although not knowing that they would be running MELK nine years later, they had big plans and still do to keep it evolving.
"That's the big thing. Even though you don't know where it is going you have this feeling that it is going somewhere and leading to something bigger. You have to be hungry, you don't have people that support you, you are standing alone and you can’t go back. I see that with my other Iranian friends that are artists, you don't give 100% you give 150%. You really have to push the limits because there is no way back. You don't want to settle for a maybe I will, or if not I can do something else. It is important to have a goal and see what happens.”
Behzad moved to Norway 30 years ago as a refugee of the Iran / Iraq war. The year he was born there was a revolution and the year he left, the war ended. “The nine worst years in the country's history were the nine I spent there. That has been quite important. My background has made me hungry and coming from a culture where people are much more eager and tend to think bigger.” Bezhad continues to say that you shouldn't limit yourself and his teams actions of not being afraid “To just do it and see what happens” is a stark contrast to the common practise in Norway of being careful, “lots of good ideas, but to just do it and see what happens is not part of Norwegian culture.” Here you have to be sure you are going to succeed before you do it, which he says, “It is not the way, failure is a huge part of success and we have failed many times to get to where we are.”
To live in a country, such as Norway, you have extreme opportunities and if you have an idea and the commitment it is pretty hard to fail. The creative scene here continues to develop and artists are slowly moving out of the safety net, thinking for themselves and not conforming to the limits of Norwegian society. However, one of the bad things has been the lack of competition in Norway, compared to other countries, where you have to push yourself a lot more. Here, which we agree on, people can become satisfied very early on and become lazy within their work as they may gain recognition too early. For Behzad being part of the development of a creative scene in Oslo as a curator, gallery owner and artist has been a cool ride so far.
An international student, Behzad completed his studies at Faculty of Art and Music in Prague recalling how starting the gallery was actually his way back into the art world after being a rock and roll drummer for the better part of 15 years. The band was going well and he was also teaching at Oslo Fotokunstskole before winning The Guardian Prize in 2006, for one of his snapshots. “This started the process again...Is it really that easy?” He laughs.
Upon starting MELK with Bjarne, Behzad has found a wealth of inspiration working with younger artists, giving him new perspectives and new dimensions into what his own work entails. One thing that has remained the same though has been the pairs conscious decision to not showcase their own work at MELK - “It is like taking your drivers licence and then you are the guy who gives yourself the drivers license. It doesn’t really work that way" he laughs. Lately he has mostly been working with museums and group shows as well as on an up coming personal book publication which will showcase an archive of triptychs from the last 20 years. Behzad, a self described very restless person, admits some years are more active than others and with art, you have to be patient. The development in Oslo has led to there now being at least seven galleries of high international standard. He likes to have this as his base and use the growing scene here as “A springboard to do bigger projects.”
Although first becoming noticed for their efforts in pushing “New Scandinavian Photography”, a title they own after almost a decade of contribution, the team at MELK continue to evolve their concept. “The Scandinavian part is somewhat falling apart”, Behzad says. This year they will be showing some international artists as "there is so much interesting stuff out there" and the energy / vibe of what they are pushing is not strictly Scandinavian. They would like to move beyond that niche and continue to push young artists from all over. The gallery will now also open up more to commercial sale, something that they could have done a long time ago but, this would have changed the focus of their concept. We speak about the fashion landscape in Norway and some similarities between F5 Concept Store and MELK. Behzad laughs and says, “I used to work in a store when I was 18, Bik Bok, it was summer time and I was selling bikinis. That was my only fashion job…if you can call it that.”
So why is Behzad still doing this?
“The biggest payment I get is by pushing other artists in this small creative scene.” Maintaining that perspective can be difficult at times, he admits. As, similar to F5, promoting small, up and coming artists does not always bring with it the lucrative financial rewards that are available in the larger spaces. This tends to happen as, in MELK’s case, the artists they show in what is typically their first show, are then picked up by larger galleries and companies who build on the endless ground work MELK does searching for the new. Behzad is fully aware of what is happening around him saying, “You have to sacrifice in some way and if you keep steady in what you do, you will succeed.” For him (and MELK) it is a win-win situation where they are using the space to do what they like in the art scene and the artists are using it as a hub for showcasing their work in a gallery that gives them a chance. In the end this is the reward for Behzad. One thing they wanted to achieve upon starting MELK was to take away the competition among artists and make the scene more open to collaboration, something which they have achieved and something that makes it all worthwhile.
All photography by Ronja Penzo
Slideshow of exhibitions courtesy of Melk Gallery