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The Spirit that Returns

Umělec magazine 2010/1

01.01.2010

Line Ulekleiv | The End of the Western Concept | en cs de

Metaphysical ambitions in culture have begun surfacing, also amongst young Norwegian artists. In recent years a burgeoning attraction to irrational phenomena has been noticeable, and certain parts of the art scene are showing conspicuous interest in spirituality and metaphysics, often dystopically shaded. This is also reflected in commercial culture. Such an approach to art stands in stark contrast to the focus on everyday and real-life experiences, which has been a longstanding art world activity, in the form of documental and socially involving strategies. In these new practices, institution-critical and theoretical approaches fall in the shadow of more subjective, escapist visions and personal and cultural mythologies. In many respects, mysticism as a cultural element represents the antithesis to a modern Western consciousness oriented towards palpability, capital gains and concrete utilitarian values. Perhaps this new metaphysics is akin to Surrealism’s excesses and exploration of the unconscious, paired with a romantic sincerity that incorporates the possibility of magic and paranormal experience in a forcefully turbulent world.

The exhibition as a spiritual arena
The tendency we draw attention to her does not necessarily establish a comprehensive vision or any inner connection between apparently related phenomena. Rather, it appears as an autonomous characteristic of an art scene marked by complex interests. A number of international exhibitions seen in the last four to five years have just as fully reflected a mystical aspect. Spiritual and mystical themes can be traced in certain artworks from documenta 12, e.g. works reflecting romantic codes. Nevertheless, it was the staging of the works that most expressed the tendency. Mountings were in opposition to the ‘white cube’, emotional and narratively intoned, with an atmospheric use of dark colours, light and shadow. There had clearly been a more naked technological character to documenta 11. The use of symbols in viewing art is another recurring motif in several recent curations. When Douglas Gordon put together the exhibition The Vanity of Allegory at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, in the summer of 2005, he used vanitas motifs as portals into an allegorical and artist-mythologizing thinking. Here the mirror, the symbol and the Baroque pictorial world grasped hold of a series of newer artworks and imbued them with dense meaning.
A number of exhibitions in recent years have explored the theme more directly, not least Spiritus, produced by Swedish Riksutställningar, in collaboration with Magasin 3 in Stockholm, and later shown at Bomuldsfabriken Kunsthall in Arendal, Southern Norway, in the summer of 2003. This exhibition focused on states of consciousness, ecstatic states, parallel worlds and rituals. In works by Doug Aitken, Carsten Höller, Ann Veronica Janssens and others, these marginalized experiences were explored both tactilely and mentally, in modes ranging from meditative to aggressive. The exhibition also included a collection of early twentieth-century photographs showing spiritist séances with attendant ectoplasm, a materialized substance emanating, for the most part, from female mediums in contact with a spirit world. This linkage between contemporary art and an early manipulative use of photography was interesting and inspired when seen against the more general backdrop of art’s ability to transcend the everyday – it becomes an alternative space in which art can act.

A telepathic turn?
Lars Bang Larsen has pointed out how what he calls ‘occult art’ has changed character since manipulation of photographs and paintings was used to present the spirit world:

Many contemporary artists are turning to the unseen to evoke a sense of historical space. […] Its new forms renegotiate the visible world through what is felt and intuited, rather than through what is seen and interpreted, and even if their position on the veracity of paranormal phenomena is often elusive, most contemporary artists are not ironic or nostalgic in their use of the occult in art; rather, they see it as a means by which to opt for new ways to communicate and make things happen. […] Through the occult, it seems that art can take a position at the fringes of society, and yet at the same time communicate broadly in ways that go beyond the scope of artistic codes.1

What triggers this special attraction for artists today? Is it rooted in a widespread dismal view of contemporary life? A reluctance and resignation in relation to one’s own era and its pressing challenges can surely be part of the answer, yet perhaps one could just as easily localize a need for creating individual shadowy ‘pockets’ torn from a logical timeline. By producing genuine references to Baroque vanitas art or Victorian spiritist mania, an open and utopian course is established, which is non-committal as regards strict cause-and-effect relations. It can seem rather escapist.
Although the growing interest in esoterics, magic and the occult can no longer be shrugged off as obscure underground phenomena, they are nevertheless barely discussed or theorized. The lack may perhaps lie in the matter’s inherent nature: ‘We have heard of “the linguistic turn” and even of “the social turn”, but which theorist would announce a “telepathic turn” in contemporary art?’2 The allergic reaction to veiled spirituality sits in many a professional’s backbone, not without reason. The English art theorist Marina Warner is however an exception; for several decades she has studied mystical frameworks such as cults, fairytales and metamorphoses, insofar as they come to expression in various kinds of artistic production. In The Reenchantment of Art (1991), Suzi Gablik calls for a return of spirit and soul in art, which she claims is in a sorrowful state after Modernism’s so-called cold, autonomous formalism and post-modern deconstructivism. Gablik sees the solution as being in art’s possibility to express a life-giving principle, and its taking recourse in rituals in order to find a way back to mystical sphere presently lost to view, as a consequence of empiricism, materialism, rationalism and science – all of which are Enlightenment values and intellectual baggage.
In trying to establish a possible perspective on the new and darker art discussed here, it is difficult to avoid obliquely glancing at the politicized art scene and relational aesthetics, whose defining text has been Nicolas Bourriaud’s Esthétique rationelle from 1998, for it has exercised influence on an entire generation of artists:
The possibility of a relational art (an art that takes as its theoretical horizon the sphere of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an autonomous and private symbolic space) is testimony to the radical upheaval in aesthetic, cultural and political objectives brought about by modern art.3

Subjective vision and a more reserved activity therefore stand in strong contrast to the relational art discourse. Art as a form of engaged activism and a carrier of democratic ideals has perhaps promised more than it manages to deliver. The theorist Stephen Wright claims that simultaneously as art’s factual influence in public affairs steadily wanes and its actual social role is undermined, the art world continues to make demands on art’s political possibilities – as if artistic practice were political in itself. This potential force, Wright points out, should have been visible today if it indeed proved itself to be real.4 He continues by again dystopically confirming that art either has become fully grafted into a mainstream production of symbols, or else has become completely marginalized by it. If Wright’s standpoint is about to become more widespread, development towards a more solitary expression and a longing for fictive parallel realities seems quite plausible.

Norwegian mysticism
Also in Norway, irrationality, mysticism and the occult can be identified as a ‘rising star’ or interest for a number of artists, particularly amongst the younger guard or the newly educated. This observation can also be linked to the exhibition programmes of specific galleries, especially young, un-established, non-profit galleries, e.g. the now-defunct Galuzin, later known as TAFKAG (The Artspace Formerly Known As Galuzin), Prosjekt 0047, Rakett and UKS (Young Artists Society). In addition to these gallery spaces, one can also point to certain curatorial dispositions. Examples are legion: for instance, in several exhibitions and performances, TAFKAG has dedicated itself to an aesthetic tailored towards black masses, visionary romantic mythologizing and heathen rituals. The exhibition Vodou at 0047 (curated by Lina Selander and Marianne Zamecznik, opened in late 2007) typically aims to circle in on stories about the spirit world with roots in Nordic fairytales. In bygone years these stories had a more pronounced moralizing and entertaining function, with accounts of horror, death and suffering. Today’s interest in trans-personal and supernatural myths and stories, in contrast to the personal and private history of identity, has once again returned centre stage. This revitalized narrative construction returns to us tales of epic proportion for which there seems to be a certain need.
The kind of art under discussion here can be characterized as neo-romantic, inspired by magic and the occult, and therefore comprising a wide field. In particular, figurative and narrative drawing has come into its own, and represents a return to artworks whose execution is hand-based. In the following paragraphs, I present a handful of representative exhibitions produced in Norway in recent years, focusing on Norwegian artists who engage in drawing. That drawings are well suited to this ongoing neo-mysticism is not surprising, since atmospheric accents often tend to supervene on line drawings. Meanwhile, drawing per se goes back to shamanism and primitivism, as a mystical trace of creativity. After the 1990s dominance of video and photography in most large exhibitions and biennials, both internationally and in Norway, drawing has now received a more prominent position, partly on account of artists such as Marcel Dzama and Ryoko Aoki. Drawing as a medium offers artists a particular freedom, an anti-monumentality and lightness over and above the heavier theoretical discourses on the complexity of representation and similar things. While an emotional aesthetics has burgeoned – rich in associations and irrational undertones – it has largely remained unexplored and un-discussed in an art-theoretical setting, for drawing has historically been conceived as a preliminary stage of the real artwork. The activity of pencil or pen on paper is also easily linked with literature and storytelling, not least to the tradition for drawn illustrations (e.g. Theodor Kittelsen and Louis Moe) and cartoon series. During Romanticism, in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth, drawing was the medium of spontaneity and intimacy and a well-suited tool for expressing uproar, fear and visionary ideals of freedom. One can interpret the return of drawing in the contemporary era as a post-romantic outcome of more or less the same sentiment, and a desire to explore dreams, automatism, myths and legends.5

Crystal/Rhythm
As part of the fringe program to Momentum – Nordic Festival of Contemporary Art, summer 2006, Ida Kierulf and Helga-Marie Nordby curated the exhibition Imagine the Universe Burst into Song, in which seven young Norwegian artists presented works with an irrational and spiritual character. Excerpts were also shown at Laura Bartlett Gallery in London the same year. The exhibition title – an allusion to the late romantic composer Gustav Mahler and choral music’s striving towards ever new heights – is one possible approach to the works, which are outgrowths from an immediate and graspable world.
For Imagine the Universe Burst into Song, Sofie Berntsen made a large wall composition consisting of colour pencil drawings, collages and abstract details painted directly on the wall. With various elements reflecting each other’s contents, the work is an elaboration upon her earlier production – a code-conscious and personal ‘visual juggling’ with myths and desire. The different components cover a wide range; from intimate fragility to a more enveloping monumentality. The work has total experience as its goal, achieved through gradual, sequential movement experienced over time. Seen from the context of art history, the intensely personal and romantic landscape painting is a resonating ground, and its intensity is both stimulating and disturbing. Meanwhile, Berntsen’s landscape is treated with a cool know-how, for beating waves in the finely tuned colour spectrum break against lightning-stiff lines.
Energy and the visual attraction of crystals are also present in Berntsen’s motifs. The prism effect – facets splitting light into optical fields – is a frequent motif in newer contemporary art, e.g. in works by Josegine Lyche, Ane Graff, Mikkel Wettre and Ann Lislegaard. The mineral’s status in alternative New Age contexts is beyond question, a fact Benjamin Alexander Huseby drew on for his exhibition at Fotogalleriet in the winter of 2006. Among other things, he presented a series of light-filter sculptures inspired by Rudolf Steiner and natural crystal formations. Historically, the German romantics were interested in the crystal’s ‘will to form’ in spite of its lifeless matter, for the mineral kingdom was not actually dead, but drove towards pure spirit. Or so it was claimed. The crystal phenomenon has been interpreted by romantic poets as a mineral movement in the direction of fully perfected spirit, but also as cultural stagnation – for example, by the dystopic Paul Klee, who believed abstraction contained a fundamental estrangement, an inhuman form.
Martin Skauen’s production is tuned to a darker scale. He works with pencil drawings in large formats. These describe a world out of kilter, immensely grotesque and flamboyant, yet not without humour. The style of drawing is captivatingly detailed. Scenes of raving decadence can remind us of Hieronymus Bosch’s intricate visions of Hell, with bodies enduring torment and enslaved to pleasure, as summed up in The Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-10). Skauen deploys an unusual technique when he films the drawings with a moving hand-held camera. The camera dwells on specific areas, creating the illusion of movement and an infinite yet claustrophobic room. Skauen gives voice to absurd worlds anchored in the unconscious, and throughout his works he conveys a conjuring forth of prehistoric forces, shamanism, violence and sexuality found in the world’s earliest inhabitants as well as in so-called modern human beings. Speculative sadism and an inclination towards ritual group-behaviour follow civilization like a shadow. The Polar Bear Split (2006), his work from Imagine the Universe Burst into Song, focuses on worship and fanaticism in religion, sexuality and youth culture. The camera pans mechanical and hybrid characters engrossed in an ongoing drama that follows its own inherent logic. An electrical circuit seems to load over violent and ecstatic scenes. A religious worship, in the form of a group stretching its hands in the air, is attended by hallelujahs and clapping hands.
The pendulation between ecstasy and drunkenness, violence and uproar, shares an affinity with Dan Graham’s famous Rock My Religion (1982-84). Through ecstatic experience, Graham binds together Puritan religious movements, e.g. the Shakers, with rock music and youth culture development since the 1950s. The film shows religious sects’ method of rhythmically reciting Bible texts, speaking in tongues, removing clothes and shaking and rolling on the ground in collective attempts to expel Satan. These recordings are cross-clipped with rock concert scenes in which ecstatic frenzy is achieved by similar means. Shake, rattle and roll.
In April-May 2007, Martin Skauen presented the video Felix Culpa – A Handmade Massacre, in connection with the exhibition Future Primitive at UKS. The exhibition aimed to point out connections between science, mysticism and a fascination for other-worldly and esoteric phenomena. The works took their point of departure in contemporary myths and esoteric tradition – an undercurrent in European spiritual life with roots in antiquity. Etymologically speaking, ‘esoteric’ derives from the Greek esoterikós, indicating ‘the select few’ or ‘belonging to an inner circle’. In esoteric tradition, those joining such groups underwent ritualized initiation rites. Several works in Future Primitive explored ritual mechanisms of sects and closed brotherhoods. Skauen’s video was located at the exhibition’s entryway, and its pitch-black temperament swarming with primitive and destructive forces, stabbings and obscenities, cast a pall over all the other works. The idea of evil, visualized with Old Testament dimensions, was deployed for all its worth. Skauen also presented a six-drawing series entitled Scent of a Woman, through which he explored historical representations of the woman as a gestalt that activates superstition.

Mysterious botany
In February-March 2007, Gallery Haaken presented drawings by Sverre Malling, whose art many had noticed at Oslo National Academy of the Art’s graduate exhibition in 2004. There he showed works permeated with dark, gothic death-romanticism, deep night forests replete with occult scenes of reptiles, devils and pursued adolescent girls. This consummate fantasy world was carried further in his 2007 solo exhibition, which suggested the feeling of trying to negotiate one’s way through a dense, tangled wilderness. Malling’s motifs are richly detailed – their surfaces crawl with death and muddy botanical culture.
The sugar-sweet character of illustrated children’s books and beautifully rendered botanical drawings in the spirit of Carl von Linné provide a fresh backdrop for apparently innocent actions suggesting more explicitly decadent scenes. In several drawings we spy strange miniscule flower children with hidden faces; naked but with unidentifiable sec, they crawl on the stalks and leaves of plants and carry burnt matches. Crawling upwards, they stretch towards something out of sight, in a kind of perverse divine yearning. The thematic focus on children’s potential for unfathomable cruelty is reflected in skewered flies, wasps and ladybugs lashed to plants. The mood recalls horror films, the evil mental motor of which is a child’s mind (a phenomenon the artist Susan Hiller has successfully explored). The idyll breaks into occult undercurrents with visual references lodged in black magic and Hippiedom. Nature and remnants of a wrecked culture amalgamate into almost Baroque tableaux with insects, amphibians and gnarly tongued toads, all hinting at transitory life. Nature’s ruin is underscored in a drawing showing a gloomy, half-dead Cappelenesque coniferous forest, amputated by a bombastic black circle. Malling takes recourse in a wide range of references: for example, he points to the use of hallucinogenic substances and the overstepping of time zones, dissolution of historical chronology insofar as lost time is juxtaposed with the present. This effect is also achieved by devoting attention to conspiracy theory literature, the occult and insights into hidden worlds.

At the brink of horror
In November 2007, Tegnerforbundet (Drawing Association of Norway) opened Vanna Bowles’ solo exhibition Prudent, Vain and Devoted. In addition to drawings, on show were individual mechanical sculptures on paper. Bowles’ works are characterized by a material fragility, the motifs turn in the direction of burlesque scenes, vaudeville and film noir, in which murder and shadowy sexuality play key roles. Magritte-like psychotics, nineteenth-century props and an inter-war patina allude to dramatic film stills – the knife is at the throat and innocence is no more. Perhaps the most eye-catching were technically impressive drawings combined with three-dimensional reliefs, their papier-mâché figures about to fall from flat fictional space. A male figure in pinstripe suit clings tightly to a woman encased in a tight, claustrophobic pictorial room. Bowles masters the dramatic and formal tension between fictive depth, real depth and flatness. The theatre’s classic ‘peep box’ illusionism is an important precursor, just as are entertaining effects and the technical contrivances of movable pictures predating film.
Art historical trompe l’œil compositions run through our heads at the sight of these precise motifs, encased in drawn frames with overwhelming floral ornamentation and references to Victorian and Historicist visual language. These frames sometimes transcend the imaginary capacity of narrative figuration, underscoring that in this case, the presentation and the work are of equal weight. Through her illusions, Bowles establishes history as a fictional precursor. This is a selective retro style found in works by several young contemporary artists. Bowles’ control of the pencil point and her historical popular-cultural anchoring perhaps first of all demonstrate Romanticism’s strong, enduring influence on the art scene and consequently, drawing as a medium both for caricatured desire and nostalgic longing.
Concurrent with Bowles’ show at Tegnerforbundet, Oslo Kunstforening (Oslo Fine Art Society) presented a solo exhibition of Liv Tandrevold Eriksen’s precise drawings in ink and acrylic paint. Thematically, their point of departure was cinematization of intermediate states between dream and reality, and the young girl’s transition from child to adult, situated in a terrifying fictive universe. Here popular culture’s references assume deeper relevance. The iconic American musical The Wizard of Oz establishes one outermost point; horror films such as Poltergeist, The Exorcist and Ringu establish another. Insofar as drawing is seen as the most authentic and personal artistic medium, leaving direct traces of the hand, it comments on commercial mass media. Tandrevold Eriksen recreates the characteristic television flicker, with the screen’s fuzzy grain and stripes seen at close range. The horror films referred to all concern victimized young girls in close encounter with supernatural forces. Characteristic portraits of main protagonists, such as Caron Anne and Regan Teresa, appear rather like movie stills exuding a kind of perverted innocence, yet it is most of all the two Ringu works that crystallize discomfort. Through an almost three-dimensional black thickness, iconic long black hair becomes a horrifying imaginary emblem of hidden horror – with the frame as a container for demonized visuality. A thin stripe of black paint runs down the inside of the glass. The Ringu films’ plots revolve around the assumption that seeing is more than a passive, innocent act; seeing entails a kind of death – merely by watching a video, one signs one’s own death warrant. Vision’s fatalities cause the eyes to become the most powerful and sinister of film segments, as witnessed in Poltergeist. Living pictures are ascribed evil powers by virtue of their own medium. Thus the screen, Tandrevold Eriksen suggests, is merely a membrane between our world and the other side, a boundary that could rupture at any time.



1 Lars Bang Larsen, ‘The Other Side’. In Frieze, no. 106, April 2007.
2 Ibid.
3 Quoted in Claire Bishop (ed.), Participation (Cambridge MA: Whitechapel / The MIT Press, 2006), 160.
4 Stephen Wright, ‘Tid uten egenskaper, kunst utenfor radaren’, in TXT (KORO), no. 1, 2007, 27-28.
5 This link to Romanticism is developed in Emma Dexter (ed.), Vitamin D – New Perspectives in Drawing (London: Phaidon Press, 2005).




01.01.2010

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