A-ha’s Magne Furuholmen on being a visual artist

Magne Furuholmen (left) brings his retrospective to Edinburgh's / Dovecot Studios. Picture: Contributed
Magne Furuholmen (left) brings his retrospective to Edinburgh's / Dovecot Studios. Picture: Contributed
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MAGNE Furuholmen is now at peace with his dual identities as a respected artist and one third of A-ha. He talks to Andrew Eaton-Lewis about the retrospective of his work in Edinburgh

The word ‘A-ha’ is conspicuously absent from the press release for Magne Furuholmen’s new exhibition at Dovecot in Edinburgh. On one level, it’s easy to see why. While Furuholmen will rejoin his bandmates later this year to mark the 30th anniversary of their debut single Take on Me, Peeling a Glass Onion looks back at what, on the face of it, seems a very different aspect of his life – his career as a visual artist.

The omission feels unnecessary, as does the throwaway description of Apparatjik, the supergroup Furuholmen formed in 2008 with Guy Berryman of Coldplay, Jonas Bjerre of Mew and producer Martin Terefe, as merely “a collective of collaborating artists”. Like all pop stars that have attempted to establish themselves in the art world, Furuholmen has encountered snobbery in the past, but even by 2004, the year of his first Scottish exhibition, he’d decided to stop worrying about his “high profile luggage” and just do whatever the hell he wanted. For Payne’s Gray, at Edinburgh Printmakers, Furuholmen cut up lyrics from his debut solo album and rearranged them to give them a different meaning. When we met that year he compared the process to “building a sandcastle… you spend all day perfecting it and the real fun is jumping up and down on it”.

“It was the most liberating project I’ve ever done, in terms of breaking down the borders between the interests in my life,” says Furuholmen now. “I don’t really know where one ends and the other begins now. It’s almost like wearing different masks in different settings.” Sometimes literally; Apparatjik perform wearing gas masks, antlers and wrestling costumes or space suits, inside a giant semi-transparent cube. In interviews they wear masks of each other’s faces. They’ve been described as too pop for the art world and too arty for the pop world, which pleases Furuholmen. “We fall between the chairs but we’re happy in the fall,” he says. “That’s one of the really lovely aspects of it. We’re not trying to make art, we’re not trying to make pop music. Sometimes it can be both. In that there’s a tremendous freedom of borderless artistic expression.” Furuholmen has used A-ha music in his art world endeavours too. His 2010 piece Word Symphony cut up Morten Harket’s vocals from A-ha’s final album Foot of the Mountain, word by word, to create a capella sound collages. He described it in similar terms to Payne’s Gray, as “music and havoc… taking apart something meticulously constructed, then melting and moulding it into something else”.


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Peeling a Glass Onion also ties together Furuholmen’s musical and visual interests, with a nod to A-ha. Glass Onion, the tapestry that forms the centrepiece of the exhibition and was created at Dovecot last year, is named after a Beatles song, as is Norwegian Wood, the series of Furuholmen woodcuts that provided a starting point for the project. “Without the Beatles there would be no A-ha,” says Furuholmen. “We didn’t really have pop radio in Norway at the time, it was all about albums.” Norwegian Wood came about via an admiration for Lars Saabye Christensen’s novel Beatles, published the year before Take on Me’s release. “It’s a fantastic book about growing up in Norway as a musician, modelling yourself on the Beatles,” explains Furuholmen. “It’s basically how I grew up and when I grew up.” So when a film adaptation was planned, Furuholmen became involved, initially to lobby Paul McCartney to let the filmmakers use Beatles originals, but later as composer of the soundtrack. He had fun, he says, “digging out microphones that Paul and John used and having young kids with me in the studio that were 1960s freaks recording on old equipment”. That process, in turn, “sort of bled into my visual practice”, and he found himself returning to woodcuts, a medium he had first experimented with in the early 1990s while paying tribute to his late father, a jazz musician.

This brought up another Beatles connection – Peter Blake, who designed the iconic cover of Sgt Pepper. Blake and Furuholmen share the same gallerist, Paul Stolper, and Blake has exhibited at the gallery Furuholmen co-owns with Stolper in Oslo. “I talked to Peter Blake when he came to Norway to visit and I told him about the new woodcut series I wanted to make. He said, ‘I have a set of woodcut tools I haven’t used since the 1960s, if you want I could lend them to you.’” As it happened, Furuholmen had tools already, but the symbolism “was too good a little windfall to miss”. “He sent his tools over by courier in a nice little velvet case,” Furuholmen recalls fondly. And so Norwegian Wood was created “with Peter Blake’s tools and a Norwegian chainsaw”.

The result of all these connections is a show that is part retrospective, part step forward. “I started out with the idea that I’d have a mini-retrospective in the one room and newer work in the bigger room but it might be that it kind of bleeds into one.”

Furuholmen is due a retrospective. He’s been exhibiting since 1989 (Peeling a Glass Onion will be his 25th show), has works on permanent display in Oslo and Bergen, and has been commissioned to transform 11 floors of a cruise ship, a hotel room in Oslo (a typically idiosyncratic Apparatjik project) and, famously, the Christmas tree in Oslo Central Station, which he chose to decorate with his 14,000 kroner fee. This year will see the launch of his biggest ever commission, for Scandinavia’s largest ceramic sculpture park.

He continues to challenge himself by collaborating “with people who have a knowledge or a skill-set I don’t have. Something like the Dovecot project allows me to look at my own work in a different way, it gives me a new angle.”

That said, he’s also happy to indulge in nostalgia from time to time. In September he’ll be in Brazil, reunited with Morten Harket and Pal Waaktaar-Savoy five years after A-ha’s farewell tour, to celebrate both their own 30th birthday and that of the Rock in Rio festival, which also began in 1985. A-ha first played Rock in Rio in 1991, breaking records by performing to almost 200,000 people – more than Guns ‘n’ Roses, Prince and George Michael, who all played the same year. “It’s a much celebrated moment,” says Furuholmen. “They invited us over to show us around and try to convince us to celebrate the anniversary with them. They sort of pitched it like ‘you wouldn’t be coming to your own birthday if you said no.’” So A-ha said yes. Are they reuniting just for this one show? “Offers keep coming in,” he says, but won’t be drawn further. “I’m sorry for being a bit coy.”

Furuholmen celebrated his own 50th birthday three years ago. How was it? “It was pretty great actually. I’ve been collecting wine since we’ve been successful so I have a wine cellar. I had no idea what was drinkable and what was past its prime so I invited 100 friends round to drink the cellar dry. And now I can start again.” I sense, as he says this, he’s not just talking about wine.

Peeling a Glass Onion is at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh from 6 March until 25 April. Magne Furuholmen will discuss his work with arts journalist Gaby Hartel on 5 March. To book, visit www.dovecotstudios.com