Espen Johansen

In search of the immaterial monument – A curatorial inquiry on collective memories and blind spots constructed by public art in the North

University of Bergen, Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design / UiT The Artic University of Norway, Academy of Arts

With the notion of the monument as a conceptual point of departure, I wish to analyze the public sphere as a field of political, public, and commercial interests through research, curatorial projects and social platforms. Against the backdrop of historical monuments and public art, I will investigate the potency of contemporary art as communication in todays mediatized society, and question how art can serve as a catalyst for nuanced debate in the public sphere.

In recent years political scientists have been stunned by the shortcomings of their own predictions, as surprise election-results happened in several countries. The forum for debate is no longer in town squares or city halls, not even on television or in the newspapers, but increasingly online through unedited, easily manipulated, social medias. What does the public sphere even mean in our time and which role does public art have to play in civil society?

The immaterial monument is an oxymoron. But the concept it carries refers to a monument that does not refer to conquest, heroism or the nation state, but alludes to unifying concepts that acknowledge diversity, globalism, human rights and democracy. While the immaterial monument may never be found, its effects can possibly be traced.

This focus will allow my work as a curator and researcher to address national and regional politics through a critical lens. The term monument is a fruitful entry-point where one can discuss and address the intersection between art, civil society and its constituents. As Jorge Otero-Pailos and Mechtild Widrich point out in their introduction of the journal Future Anterior, “Monuments are signs of the power to make a mark in public space and a way of making public and foregrounding a particular construction of history.”1 Supporting their claim, I wish to investigate monuments as a means to further analyze and discuss the power relations in the public sphere and the historical constructions told through Norwegian public artworks in Northern Norway, and secondly, propose alternative artistic strategies for engaging in the public discourse.


Espen Johansen (b. 1985 in Bergen, Norway) is an art historian, curator and writer based in Tromsø and Bergen. He is currently doing a PhD in Artistic Research as a curator at Tromsø Academy of Art, and holds an MA in Art History from the University of Bergen (2011), a degree in Creative Curating from the Bergen Academy of Art and Design (2014), and a post-master in ‘Negotiating Artistic Value: Art and Architecture in the Public Sphere’ from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm (2020).

Previously Johansen has worked as curator for Northern Norway Art Museum, interim director for Kabuso Art Center, curator for the graduation show for Bergen Academy of Art and Design, assistant curator for Bergen Kunsthall, and project manager for Bergen Assembly. Curatorial projects include Monument. Vestlandsutstillingen's centennial edition, Sandra Vaka – Jugs, Daniel Gustav Cramer – five days, Terence Koh – sticks, stones and bones, Tora Endestad Bjørkheim, Bjørn-Henrik Lybeck, and the group show Nabolag which he curated together with Tag Team Studio, where different artists made site-specific works in the area Danmarksplass in Bergen.

His curatorial practice stems from investigations into the potency of art as an alternative communicative device in our mediatized society, particularly focusing on art in the public space and the power structures of the public sphere; who gets to say what and how?