‘I can’t possibly tell if he was bad’: artist Lene Berg about her murderous father

lIn a darkened room of the Kunsthall museum in Bergen, visitors can stretch out on a beanbag under a loudspeaker and listen to a nine-year-old girl talking to her mother before going to sleep. “Is daddy bad, mommy?” asks the disembodied voice of the girl. Sheets rustle with impatience as the mother doesn’t answer her question satisfactorily. “Is daddy possessed by the devil?” Outside in the street, a police siren sounds. “Am I also possessed by the devil since I am his daughter?”

The girl in the recording, reenacted from memory, is artist Lene Berg, and dad is film director Arnljot Berg, an influential figure in the 1970s Norway† The reason why little Lene thought her father might have been possessed by Satan is evident from the series of Norwegian and French headlines embroidered in curtains that hang around the room. In 1975, Arnljot was arrested in Paris for the murder of his second wife, Evelyne Zammit. He took his life a few years after his release from prison when Lene was a teenager.

A miniature set of the French parking lot where her father was arrested.
Brand style… a miniature set of the French parking lot where her father was arrested. Photo: Lene Berg

In this sound system, Lene’s mother tries to assure the restless child that Evelyne’s death was an accident. Lene is now 57 and is unequivocal when asked if her father killed his wife. “Yeah, I think he did it,” she tells me via video call from the gallery. “There’s no question that he killed her. But I think he went in and out to accept the blame and say it was an accident. Before I started this project, I had the feeling that he had not accepted his guilt well. He had strong armor and one way to protect himself was to be very pathetic. I never asked him if he killed her or how she died. That’s probably because I was afraid he’d say something like, ‘I’m a very bad person, Lene.’”

Arnljot was sentenced to five years, four of which were on probation, a surprisingly lenient sentence that meant he was effectively released from trial after spending the previous 15 months in prison. Classified court documents, which Lene obtained shortly before the opening of the Kunsthall installation but chose to investigate thoroughly afterwards, show that Evelyne’s father testified on behalf of Arnljot.

“I suspect Evelyne’s death was a kind of suicide, a suicide by proxy,” says Lene. “That’s my reading of it now. But the question of whether that would be bad is still unclear to me. As a child I wondered if my father was a bad man, and I still find that impossible to answer. I think you have to feel an incredible amount of anger and rage to kill someone. And in such moments, this incredibly intelligent and warm man, who was my father, is still a stranger to me.”

Lene is known as an artist who explores the lives of others rather than her own. Encounter: Gentlemen & Arseholes, from 2006, was her first notable project, an annotated reprint of the first edition of Encounter, a literary magazine founded by poet Stephen Spender that later turned out to be covertly funded by the CIA.

A fascination with cold war culture inspired Lene’s first two art films: 2006’s The Man in the Background, about CIA agent Michael Josselson; and Picasso’s 2008 Stalin or Portrait of Woman With Mustache, about a long-lost work — sketched when the Soviet leader died — that was immediately denounced by the French Communist Party for straying from social realism. Her films share a DIY aesthetic reminiscent of Michel Gondry or early Wes Anderson, but with a dry sarcastic undertone rather than two romance. “Realism?” she asks Picasso in her film. “Is that Stalin with or without an erection?”

Fra Far prison letters.
‘I have now used the same method in my own life as with others’ … prison letters from Fra Far. Photo: Lene Berg

The exhibition in Bergen – called Fra Far, meaning From Father – is set up in her signature style. For a short film shown in the show’s first room, Lene built a miniature set of the French parking lot where her father had been arrested, complete with Matchbox cars, model railway figures, and vape smoke billowing across the scene to conjure early morning mist.

Her shift to personal memories, rather than archival material or courtroom documents, is new. “In a sense I have now used the same method in my own life as I have with others. Maybe I should. I have done extensive research on many themes and people, but this material is mine.”

Brain-driven and themed, Lene’s works break through the art world’s usual limitations on storytelling: many of her films are so much fun to watch that you’ll want to show them to your friends right away. Her 2013 documentary Kopfkinoin which BDSM sex workers share drinks and talk shops around a Last Supper-style dining table could have become a hit on Netflix.

Lene Berg.
“I never asked him if he killed her, probably because I was afraid he would say, ‘I’m a very bad person'”… Lene Berg. Photo: Thor Brodreskift

Early in her career, she says, movie people told her she won awards only because the art world didn’t understand film, while art critics complained that she wasn’t actually making art. “Art critics felt that there was too much story in my films, that it was too close to entertainment. While movie people thought my movies were totally experimental. I think those positions have changed.”

Lene’s father has directed five feature films, two of which were at the Berlin Film Festival. However, she says, “He never really found his style or form.” Arnljot remains better known in Norway for a TV program that introduced the country to modern European cinema.

When she became a film director, Lene tried for years to distance herself from her father. School friends told her that their parents had advised them not to hang out with her. “It became very important for me not to be Arnljot Berg’s daughter,” says Lene, who left Oslo to study film in Stockholm, and now lives mainly in Berlin. “But then, a few years ago, I was giving a presentation at a movie convention, and I realized that even movie people really don’t know who my father was anymore. Even those who did had no idea I’m connected to him. I was no longer defined as his daughter. Rather, it was the other way around.”

She pauses and says of her father on the show, “I’m not interested in restoring his greatness. But I also didn’t want it to be an attack, or a reckoning. I just wanted to remember him in as many facets as possible.”

Fra Far is up Bergen Kunsthall, Norwayuntil August 21.

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