Oliver Ressler

(Knittelfeld, Austria, 1970)

Oil Spill Flag, 2020

Flag, 200 x 145 cm.

“Business as usual” in fossil-fueled capitalism generates countless catastrophes on a daily basis. The biggest problem is the rising global temperature. People living in the global south, the vast majority of whom contributed the least to the global warming, continue to suffer the most horrific consequences. “Any delay”, writes Nnimmo Bassey, “is just that, a delay. The problem is that some people must pay the cost. And the most vulnerable, the victims, will bear that cost through their blood, miseries and tears.” (1)

The entire chain of petroleum extraction, transport, refinery and burning is a catastrophe. Oil spills devastate marine ecosystems worldwide, and the burning of oil is the main driver of the climate disruption that threatens to end all life on earth.The Oil Spill Flag bears witness to the hypocrisy of one of the wealthiest oil-producing states on the planet. Norway is often cited as a world leader in successful decarbonization of the economy, yet this transition is fueled primarily by the ongoing extraction of petroleum. The Oil Spill Flag merges a visual representation of the dangers of the dependency on fossil fuels with the national flag of Norway.

The Oil Spill Flag was displayed on a flagpole in front of Tromsø Kunstforening in Norway in June 2020 as part of the project “Flagg Tromsø 2015–2020”, curated by Randi Grov Berger. The oil-smeared Norwegian flag provoked furious debate. Conservative and rightwing local politicians including the county’s governor wanted the flag removed. To smear the national symbol, they argued, is illegal under Norway’s flag law. Their more liberal-minded opponents defended the artwork and emphasized Norway’s contribution to the climate catastrophe.

Between June 8 and 26 the daily newspapers iTromsø and Nordlys carried approximately 20 stories about the flag, including a front page article. Further comment appeared in the Nordlys-owned op-ed vehicle Nordnorsk Debatt, in Bergens Tidende and Nettavisen, and on various blogs and radio shows (2).
The Oil Spill Flag was stolen from the flagpole on June 15, 2020 between 2 and 6 AM, apparently in response to the uproar. The theft was reported to the police and a new flag was ordered for the reinstallation of the work. Meanwhile, the controversy continued.

On June 19, 2020, retired Supreme Court attorney Gunnar Nerdrum admitted taking down the flag, saying he now wanted to return it to Tromsø Kunstforening. On the same day iTromsø ran a picture of Kunstforening director Leif Magne Tangen putting the flag back in place. By early morning June 20, however, the flag had been stolen again. No-one knows yet who took the oil-smeared Norwegian flag down the second time.

The flagpole was left empty after the second theft when production and delivery were delayed. During this period, unknown local activists installed another flag on the empty flagpole in front of Tromsø Kunstforening, seeking to return public attention to the serious reasons for raising the Oil Spill Flag in the first instance.

The letter accompanying this unannounced action read (originally in Norwegian):

“We have secretly borrowed this flag from Circle K in Terminalgata 24. We saw that Circle K (formerly Statoil) had three flags, while Tromsø Kunstforening had none. We have done this as a response to the fact that the Oil Spill Flag by Oliver Ressler couldn’t be left hanging. In this context, the Circle K flag has a symbolic symmetry with Oliver Ressler’s piece.

We have no direct relation to Tromsø Kunstforening or Circle K, and no one has given us permission to do this. We will return the flag when we are done with it.”

After Tromsø Kunstforening took this flag down, the flagpole remained bare until the end of the month, while the image of the flag continued to go viral in various formats.

 

“Oil Spill Flag”, flag, 200 x 145 cm, 2020. Installation view: Tromsø Kunstforening, Tromsø, 2020 (photo courtesy: Tromsø Kunstforening)

“Oil Spill Flag” as poster insert in the magazine “The Climate Emergency in 50 Rounds”, Fotobokfestival Oslo, 2020