I RING THE DOORBELL BUT NOBODY ANSWERS. The morning is still young and warm, so I turn towards the sun and wait for the next move. After a couple of minutes, I see a tall man in dark sunglasses and dark clothing walking towards me. I assume it’s Behzad. We shake hands and he tells me that Bjarne is on his way, and that last night was a long night. They held the opening of Kristina Bengstsson’s latest exhibition. He opens the door and we immediately enter the gallery room.
Three steps down and I am surrounded by art. Behzad says that he will make coffee, and I am left alone in the gallery room. I hear somebody shout hello from the street. Someone who is also wearing dark sunglasses and dark clothing, surrounded by the sun, which is hitting the smoke of his cigarette. I think to myself, that this must definitely be Bjarne.
While I am getting ready for our conversation, they both talk about yesterday’s opening, while also talking about art, name-dropping different artists, and finally agreeing to pick up the thread later.
While the coffee is brewing, in what turns out to be the first real coffeemaker they’ve had since opening the gallery, they go outside for another cigarette. The room gets filled with an interesting collision of smells from yesterday’s party, the cigarette smoke, and the freshly brewed coffee.
There are three chairs lined up in a circle in their small office, and I assume this is where our talk will take place. The guys return from their smoke and we take the first sip of our coffees. Behzad jokes about the small cup I am holding, it’s a new stunt so that the artists won’t stay too long. «You know, freelancers», he says and laughs.
Melk first opened back in 2009. Behzad had found a small space in Grünerløkka, which was only seven square meters. He had called Bjarne to ask if he wanted to share the room as an atelier, but they quickly turned it into a gallery since they wanted to hold an exhibition at Oslo Open one month later.
Following his studies abroad, Behzad felt like he didn’t quite belong to the group of otherwise like-minded people in the Oslo art field. This became a main driving force for wanting to start Melk.
«PEOPLE WERE IN DOUBT WHETHER WE WERE CURATORS OR ARTISTS, AS IF IT ONLY COULD BE ONE OR THE OTHER. TO ME, THAT’S NOT REALLY A RELEVANT QUESTION.»
Behzad: In the beginning, we felt there was a lack a community in the photography circles. There was only Fotogalleriet and they didn’t have the unity we felt we could be a part of. So the idea, initially, was to start a place where people could show their work. We wanted it to be low-key and hoped that people would hang around, and we were eager to create a conversation that would open up the potential of what photography was. We also hoped to create an environment that was different and maybe a bit more experimental than what was already out there.
As they write on their homepage: «The aim for the initiative is to raise awareness of the scene of contemporary photographers in the region and the position of the medium today, in a contemporary context.»
Behzad: We had one exhibition a month during the first two years. We found more artists than we expected and so the program naturally developed itself.
Bjarne: Yes. It was a bit much.
Behzad: It was a small venue, so it wasn’t as difficult to make it happen.
Erika: Did you only exhibit Norwegian artists?
Behzad: No. We have shown Scandinavian artists since the very beginning.
Bjarne: It was part of our idea that we would link Scandinavia together because it was such a small community. We were always keen on building a bridge between the three countries.
Behzad was born in Tehran. He studied photography in Prague and experienced a jump-start to his career when he won The Fall Saloon Exhibition and The Guardian Photo Prize back in 2006. The prizes were awarded for the same picture that was displayed on the facade of Oslo Central Station, a 6×9 meter long picture called l.t.u. But then one day, he suddenly quit.
Erika: Why did you want to leave the art world at that point in your career?
Behzad: All of this should have made me excited, but it actually became too much for me. I think it had an opposite effect and I didn’t feel that I was ready for it. So I quit and continued as a drummer in many bands such as Madrugada and Midnight Creeps Kitchie Kitche Ki Me O. It was sort of a crazy time. One of the bands I played with, actually won the Spellemannspris.
After a few years, Behzad gradually found his way back to the art world and decided, to quote his own words: «To kill reality by making abstract art». He also worked a few years at Oslo Fotokunstskole as a teacher, and it was there he met Bjarne when he was a student at the school.
Bjarne: I was the only one who failed the exams.
Behzad: I said that you didn’t have anything to do at the school and that you should have continued traveling instead.
Bjarne: It was a period of about five years that I was traveling a lot. I was away for six months and then worked as a bartender for the rest of the year.
Erika: At the same time as you went to school?
Bjarne: Yes. So I wasn’t there a lot, you could say.
Erika: Why didn’t you want to go to school?
Bjarne: I still don’t want to go to school (he laughs). But now I am currently taking a Master’s degree in art at UCLA. Before that, I got my Bachelor’s degree at Kunstakademiet in Oslo. But I have never been a bookworm.
Bjarne tells me that he feels privileged because he is now represented by the gallery Osl contemporary gallery in Oslo. He got on their roster a year ago.
Bjarne: I am very happy about that. They are extremely professional and they do all of the practical work for me in Norway. Like production, transportation, and storage of my work, at the same time as they exhibit my art.
Behzad: We are very lucky because both of us have received a lot of attention. We haven’t exhibited our own art at Melk, only the one time when we first launched the gallery back in 2009.
Erika: The question that keeps popping into my mind, is why you asked Bjarne to come and join you when you clearly didn’t think he had anything to do at the photo school?
Behzad: Because I knew that he was hardworking, very interested and curious about art. And a cool guy to party with.
Bjarne: At that time I ran an underground club. The space was a gallery before I took over the contract, so I kind of lived there. And since I had to pay the rent, I decided to start this club that became very popular. It was crazy times.
Both gaze at each other with a look I assume is a quiet acknowledgment of the fun times they used to have.
Behzad: Yeah, the gallery you took over was called Galleri Galuzin, which was an important gallery at the time. I had been to the club a lot, but we also had a good connection before that. And actually, when I think of it, we haven’t had one single fight these seven years we have worked together.
Bjarne: No. Not even when we have been traveling.
Behzad: And we have traveled a lot together. We are both very different, so that may be a reason why.
Bjarne: But we’re both Scorpios.
Bjarne laughs while serving some more coffee. He spills some coffee on the floor and comments on how clumsy he is today. I tell him that it would look cool on the picture since we’ll be doing a shoot for a coffee magazine, but a few seconds later he is obviously disturbed by the mess and cleans it up.
As they write in their book New Scandinavian Photography, Scandinavia hasn’t had much of a photography history compared to the rest of the world. It has traditionally been about storytelling and documenting. However, during the past decade and a half, the borderlines have been tested and extended in an evolving process of experimentation that has made photography one part schizophrenic, dynamic and fresh. It is obvious that Bjarne and Behzad have been important contributors in taking Scandinavian photography to the next level. At the same time, they have continued to nurture their own individual careers as artists – never compromising at all.
Bjarne: Well, to begin with, people were in doubt whether we were curators or artists as if it only could be one or the other. To me, that’s not really a relevant question. It’s more about being an artist and working with art on many different levels. We are both happy to work a lot, and we like to invent new ideas. We thrive working that way.
Behzad: You have to remember that we are Polish and Iranian, we are used to working a lot.
They both laugh.
Behzad: I believe that we have helped shape the direction of photography that we are part of as artists. I think that our own art and mindset has been fed by that. It has helped us to push our limits and questions on what photography is. So being a curator and an artist, kind of feeds on and inspires the other. Starting Melk has been the best idea I’ve ever had in my life.
Bjarne: Photography has, in my opinion, got a stronger foothold in the last five years, but it’s not just because of us. In Norway, photography as an art form has gradually increased since the 60’s, which was very late compared to the rest of the world. The first time a photograph was admitted as art, and included in the annual fall salon in Norway, was in 1971 with Kåre Kivijäri, establishing photography as a form of art.
Behzad: Photography, in general, has exploded. That makes our job even more exciting, especially seeing what happens in the field of photographic art. I would certainly say that we have helped to challenge the idea of what has been seen as traditional photographic art and the correct way of doing things. We have been able to showcase that photography is a young medium, there are no limits, and that the artists that have followed traditions have really just been limiting themselves. Some have argued that we have helped kill photography. It was more conservative before, with very few collaborations, but now we can see that more galleries have popped up, and the idea that artists can be supportive of each other is more prevalent in Oslo than earlier. It is a positive development.
Bjarne: Yes, more openness.
Behzad: Mm, we need more openness.
Bjarne serves yet another round of coffee and we all indulge in some seconds of silence.
Bjarne: Melk has been a great help for us personally. Anyone can make something happen on their own and there are so many artists out there. To just do something extra and show initiative, makes one become more visible.
Behzad: We have now worked with 56 artists and we have garnered new knowledge every time. Running the gallery has sort of been my Master´s degree, one might say. It’s not a lot of cash in this, but the most important thing, I think, is that we have learned so much and gained great contacts. I have found so much inspiration running Melk, and that is the most important thing for an artist. And to not stop working.
Erika: Since you mentioned the topic of money, I see that you are supported by the Norwegian Art Council?
Behzad: It was only recently that we received a grant from them. But we are now in a pilot phase and I hope to be as lucky as to continue receiving support the next three years. If that happens, we will be paid for working 50% as artists and 50% as gallery owners. We have received support earlier, but it has only been for particular projects. The first six years of running the gallery, we were idealistically driven and basically used money from our own pockets. Now we are lucky and receive both wages and vacation pay.
Bjarne: Yes, that’s very funny. It is still a symbolic payment, but it means a lot after all these years, both as artists and curators, as well as us being private people. The most difficult thing these years has been that we haven’t had the opportunity to plan far ahead. Everything has been uncertain and we have lived from day to day.
Behzad: I think the reason why we have received support is that we have been around, exhibited new artists and had a major focus on promoting them. We’ve gotten a lot of knowledge in this field, so the people who are being exhibited here receives a stamp of approval in a way.
Erika: You had to close your previous gallery because of fire safety, and it took you nine months to find this place. What is new after the move and your small break, and what is your focus going forward?
Behzad: From the beginning, the dream has been to have a printer and a workshop, in addition to the gallery, so that people can work together on the premises. We haven’t had this opportunity in the other galleries, so we hope this place can be even more active. It is important to us that everyone who works at Melk are active artists, doing their own work. I think this is something they all appreciate, that we’re not just gallery owners or curators. Having a playful tone is important to all of us, and we support them in the process of pushing their boundaries.
Bjarne: We don’t actively work on sales, so our goal is to push the people who work for us forward, as well as trying to be a bridge for artists.
Behzad: Being an artist is in many ways a lonely path. You live in your own bubble and it is a self-centered way of working and living, and it seems it has to be that way. So for us, Melk is a way to puncture this, by helping others with their art.
Suddenly, it is time to wrap up our conversation. For me, as a photographer myself, it has been inspiring to listen to Behzad and Bjarne’s openness, and their effort to help other artists grow, at the same time as having had parallel careers as artists.
I admire them for what they have achieved. It is easy to call it a success story, but after our conversation, I can’t help but think that there is no such thing. It took them six years, and probably countless failed applications before they received the grant from the Norwegian Art Council. It’s so easy to focus on the stories of success, as one might call theirs, but that undermines the reality of being and living as a creative person — it can be really hard. You continuously have to question your intention and motives, and a lot of the time, not even coming up with any answers. In every successful story, there is struggle and parts of the journey where you didn’t know where you were headed.
Erika: What do you think is the reason why you have kept together all these years?
Bjarne: I have been thinking you might ask that question.
He looks towards Behzad, and I can see they are unsure if they should answer or not.
Behzad: Well, I don’t know if you should write this. It’s a bit embarrassing.
They both laugh.
Bjarne: You know, I think the reason might be because we have different tastes in women.