'Although I do all of these other things, the end goal is just to make my own art, nothing else. What is interesting on the way there, however, is having Heavy Books be part of my artistic practise. Having MELK be part of my artistic practise.’
Late last year two talented photographers and myself took a walk on the westside through Vigeland Park, which houses over 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. Walking up to The Monolith, Christian says ‘This is definitely my favourite piece in Norway. It is interesting, a piece of art like this can become so iconic, but you can still appreciate it for what it is and what the original was even though, now, it is just a photo opportunity.’
The photographer, artist, publisher and project coordinator, Christian Tunge, has become one of Frogner's newest residents. ‘I never even considered living in this area before’ he says as we walk the short walk from Vigeland Park to his apartment. ‘This area is so amazing, every building has its own architectural genre and I had never considered it or really been here before. So much of what we do is concentrated on the East side and the city has opened up a new area to me.’
Working as closely as he does with MELK there is bound to be overlapping with Heavy Books but ‘They are two different things’. Sometimes, for example, a fanzine he has created with an artist or someone he met at an art book fair helps them get an exhibition at MELK Gallery, but it also works the other way around too he says. ‘Both me an Bez are focusing on New Scandinavian Photography, however, I try to not be that strict with Heavy Books. It doesn’t have to be Scandinavians and it doesn’t only have to be young people. It is a plan to try and open it up a bit more’.
Christian explains that he started publishing out of curiosity and wanting a platform where he was able to experiment as well as learn about the technical details of the publishing business. ‘I learnt as I went, I had lived in so many places (New York, Svalbard, Copenhagen and Berlin) before starting the academy in Gothenburg, only to learn that the course required an exchange… I just wanted a place where I could stay and work in the studio, so I proposed starting a publishing platform instead.’ Initially publishing five titles, Christian has steadily developed his portfolio and is now one of the most experienced artist book publishers in Norway.
‘I was just at the Bergen book fair and there are a lot of new publishers who have started up. They came up to me during the fair, asking all the questions I wondered about when I started Heavy Books. It is a cool experience to be able to give that information back.’
For Christian, like many others, the Norwegian support system has helped a lot. The funding he has received from Kulturrådet has been helpful in the promotion of Norwegian art and the books he has done with Norwegian artists. 'The funding here is amazing, I really can't complain at all' he says... 'And there is so much complaining. I almost get embarrassed when I am at these international art fairs and people ask if any of the books are funded by the funding system in Norway. And actually, after the first eight, all of them have been.’ Despite the amazing levels of support it is more difficult to get funding to make publications with international artists. This is the next challenge for him and we agree that the inclusion of international artists within a Norwegian publishing house, such as Heavy Books, is a good way to increase visibility as well as opening up foreign markets to those Norwegian artists who he has already published.
One of his plans with Heavy Books has been to use it as a tool to get to ‘Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris and Los Angeles’ for example, where he can work at the book fair and then stay on to do his own photography, creating his own work from that. ‘Although Heavy Books is a business, at some point I had to stop counting money and realise the value I am getting back is not in the numbers, but in the experience, the meeting of new people and the opportunities.’ Heavy Books has become the vessel for him to explore new places, but while there he has to hustle to set up a new exhibition, work on some of his own projects or explore a project with a new artist. 'I can’t go to an art fair, come back to Norway and count the money...' he laughs, 'It doesn’t work like that.’
To me it seemed like when he gets an idea, it consumes him and he can't help but explore every detail…The investigative and analytical nature of Christians personality was evident from listening to him speak about the creation of heavy books, his approach to apartment hunting and also the detailed explanations he gave about his personal art.
‘This book here, well I’m not sure you could call it a book, but anyway, it started with me becoming interested in the Olympic colours, as a symbol, because these colours are able to make every flag in the world. The colours as a symbol represent unity and I became interested in that and how The Games have more been about rivalry and nationalism, keeping borders closed and even boycotting some countries rather than unity. It starts with an American stabbing a Russian athlete in the back, while he is standing right in front of him…There is a lot of symbolism and images with a lot of power in them. This isn’t told anywhere and it is more me trying to make a book in an unconventional way.’
Even though there are these powerful images and the artwork can be seen as political or controversial, it is humorous in the way it plays with the audience and provokes them. ‘This was the book where people had problems with me not taking the pictures’ he smiles. ‘That was the only question people wanted to ask me about this project. I tried to reply that the images are not the artwork, the book in its completion is the artwork and that is not replicated and that is my own.’
The stereotypical artist is something he believes is a myth. 'There are so many boxes you have to check to be an artist and I don't feel like I check a lot of those boxes.' The expectation about what an artist should be, how it should dress, how it should behave, how much it should drink, how much drugs it should do or what it should read has become tiresome for him. Artistry and creativity should be free and another thing that has become tiresome is the expectation or need from the public to see a red line through a creatives work. For Christian, he wants to have the freedom and the ‘Opportunity to dive into a project, research it, shoot the images, print the book and then not have to ever take a picture of that subject matter again… if I don’t want too... That is the goal.’
Although not having a 'red thread' through his work so to speak I would argue that his ability to weave in personal jokes into his art that sit just below the surface is a recurring theme. The humour of his work requires a little bit more attention and thought from the audience, something his most recent project is definitely a testament to and also to his detailed work ethic.
Christian showed us the book from his latest exhibition Too Familiar To Ignore, Too Different To Tolerate. This, he explains, was his first proper one man show. As someone who finds a great deal of amusement in the comedic nature of fake news propaganda the story of how this project came about bought a smile to my face...‘I started three years ago, because I read the bees were dying and I found out it is not actually true’ he starts, before explaining the process of how the farmers have used the commercial honey bees (Which are dying) to become a symbol of climate change. This information was all that was needed to spark Christians curiosity further, ‘I did the bee keepers course and then I got to know Ragna from Bybi. On two occasions I called her up for one and half hour interviews, writing down ideas for images and fun facts to look into. Yeah I like my research’, he laughs. ’Thats how I get inspired to take the images. I like to find ideas that are so banal, yet interesting. It can't be too complicated or too theoretical. I am making images and that is what is on display. There is too many people making super theoretical work which is just an object laying in a studio. It doesn’t look intriguing and you have to take that responsibility to make images that are somewhat interesting to look at.’
As we flick through the book, smiling, he says ‘For example these are not bees (points to picture) these are wasps, it’s just a joke I made in the book which no-one will know because you are in “this bee world”…For this one I put honey on a mirror which reflected the sky, then I photoshopped away the reflection of the honey, but left the reflection of the wasp, so you are in this kind of weird space. Also, it is a reference to what I think looks like chemtrails. The whole book explores different stories and fake news relating to honey bees and their symbolic force, if you will.’ These kind of ‘jokes’ were also present during his show where dead bees where placed inside the frames or stuck to the frames. ‘All of those bees were killed by other bees, there is no need for male bees in the hive after mating season so the females bite off their wings and throw them out of the hive. That was also me, not telling this to anyone, because people think “Oh the bees are dying because of environment” but it was actually something else.’
The book and exhibition was made in collaboration with Flemming Ove Bech, and was the first he hasn’t made completely by himself. After curating a show with Bez for Gallery Golsa in 2018, Tuva had commented how nice it was to get someone in and to have that fresh perspective on a space. ‘You have this pattern of how you do stuff. I think all of my books start with one image, portrait, on the right side,’ he smiles. Flemming runs Lodret Vandret which is one of the top publishers in the world for photography and artist books. Him and his partner Johan Rosenmunthe also run an art book fair called 1000 Books which started at a Rema 1000 where ‘They cleaned up a fruit and vegetable area and invited 10 publishers to come there. I went there when I was an assistant at MELK and presented our artists and thats when I got to meet him and he kind of inspired me to do Heavy Books. It was nice to get work with him again.’
He explains how Flemming divided the book into sections or ‘chapters’ opening up different directions which he really enjoys. ‘Its funny, when you stand at a booth people will pick up your book for five seconds and they only get this little chapter, so everyone gets different pieces. It is also good to feel done with Bees now’ he laughs. He admits it was a lot and the topic ‘Is so up in pop culture and fashion now’ that it became exhausting trying to explain after a while. ‘It is not a political project where I am standing up for the bees or trying to save the environment. It’s much more about the photography and I used the bees and the bees environment to showcase my take on photography.’
I had to ask the publisher one more question he was also sick of hearing…'Is print dying?' I knew full well this was a baiting question but even so I needed to hear his thoughts…
‘Im a bit tired of that question, I feel like every event I go to I hear the same, “Is the photo book dead? Is print dead? Is it going away?”... Maybe’ he laughs. ‘I think the thing is a text online and text in a book are two different things. It’s a dog and a cat. For sure I don’t think the online format will out compete the print format and thats not why it is going to die. I think it will be other reasons, environmental reasons or a change in how we consume. But, I don’t think it will die due to online. The books I make, for example, they can’t exist online. It is a completely different thing. A book is not a .pdf. It is silly. An interactive book or online book is not a book and it is not very interesting either... Is this a photograph? Is this really art? Is this a painting? Is this a book? I don’t care, it’s not important what you call it, in a different language it’s a different word. Again, my opinion is it’s a way for people to just discuss the surface and not dig deep. We can discuss a general question “Is the book/print dying?” or "Is this art?" It is an opinion and you know you will not get a final answer.'
Christians latest work is available to view at QB Gallery as part of the group exhibition 'Still Life'