TEXTS BACK TO BASICS BY EVA REM HANSEN
The text Back to basics accompanies the exhibition with the same title, curated by Eva Rem Hansen with new works by Frøydis Lindén, Inger Wold Lund, Tore Reisch and Anngjerd Rustand.
The exhibition Back to basics opens on Friday the thirteenth of the first month of 2012 – a year saddled with a multitude of doomsday prophecies, among others based on interpretations of Nostradamus’ mythical predictions, historical arguments such as the end of the Mayan calendar, and pseudo-scientific contributions claiming that changes in the world’s magnetic field will in the near future cause a pole shift. The exhibition is in this regard situated in a landscape where the borders between the rational and mystical are examined, where the future is insecure, and where humankind’s relationship to natural forces is highlighted.
The works in Back to basics are free from direct doomsday symbolism, but nonetheless touch upon a number of the existentialist propositions highlighted by the perception of impending doom. By the artists taking rational categorisations, collective convictions, and individual experiences of natural environment as their point of departure, the works converge in a space between science, faith, and superstition. Further, the works reflect historical and potential relationships between nature and culture, and express concerns about a growing cultural colonisation of our surroundings. This notwithstanding, the exhibition testifies to the possibility of more natural and immediate interactions with the world.
Anngjerd Rustand’s piece Hvelvingen/The Firmament hovers over the little universe created by the exhibition Back to basics. The Firmament installation, consisting of glistening metal roofing sheets, is reminiscent of a reptile’s carapace or a fish’s scales, and thus resonates with the mystical and pre-historical. The title alludes to the Old Testament’s physical cosmology and its accounts of the firmament as a solid, possibly metallic shell, an image which was subsequently adopted by science and dominated the pre-Copernican worldview.
Rustand’s firmament does not, however, encapsulate an outdated worldview, but rather three works that appear to fit within the still reigning modernist scientific paradigm. Tore Reisch’s work entitled The Fat of the Land is an imitation of a stratigraphic layer, a cross-section of soil from Trøndelag, and thus refers to geological dating of organic material, or to the archaeological dating of culture. Inger Wold Lund in her work I wished all stories untold uses the botanist’s system of classification in her presentation of a selection of charts from her collection of herbariums, adorned with factual information such as Latin name, date and place of origin. Further, Frøydis Lindén’s work, Livsmyldring I – II (Immeasurable life I - II), which presents the natural reactions occurring as a result of the artist exposing ceramic apples to various fungal cultures, is an experiment that conjures up associations with the biologist and geneticist’s laboratory work.
Back to basics therefore contains a clash of two seemingly opposed world-views: a pre-scientific, religious, and symbolically determined consciousness, which is juxtaposed with a rational and scientific approach. Hence the mystical, represented by the firmament, may be seen as an oppressive threat weighing upon reason. Conversely, the firmament may also be thought of as a sheltering frame that embraces the scientific, and praises this newer, more modest understanding of the world. The exhibition, though, does not make such extreme assertions: in Back to basics that which fills the air between the down-to-earth and the elevated is rather a desire for increased exchange between rationality and intuition, between objective science and personal conviction.
A closer inspection of the other three works, apparently representing scientific methods and mind-sets, reveals how simplistic the interpretation of Rustand’s firmament as a shining halo over the modernist project is. All the works contain criticism of mankind’s colonisation and categorisation of nature, which the scientific approach to the world may be an example of.
Both Reisch and Lindén’s works are politically motivated and have a critical sting. Lindén, through ‘infecting’ ceramic apples, hopes to draw our attention to how our consumption standardizes the production of foodstuffs. Consumer surveys demonstrate that customers prefer red apples to green or yellow ones, a fact that leads to fewer varieties being grown and preserved, a homogenisation which also results in fewer varieties becoming resistant to plant diseases. The artist hopes to reverse this sterilising manipulation of nature, and does this by reintroducing natural fungi to apples to ensure they are immune. Fungal pests are one of the most common problems when cultivating crops, but at the same time the invisible fungal mucelium is fundamental to the maintenance of fertile soil. In so doing, the artist confronts us consumers with the contradiction existing between the aesthetics of marketing and the maintenance of biological diversity.
Reisch’s work contains an analogous criticism. When studying his strata it is clear that the uppermost layers of soil, those most proximate to the present, are depleted and polluted. The soil is changing from breathing freely to becoming poorer in nutrition, but ever richer in cultural waste. Further, in the ruins crowning the sculpture, we see how concrete displaces and destroys long-established building practices, before it in turn is destroyed as nature encroaches on the cultural influence with retrospective force in order to re-establish a natural balance. The crystals protruding from the concrete allude to the fact that crystallisation takes place as uniform environments are exposed to protracted change, and thus suggest that prolonged use of new and efficient building materials frequently containing chemicals leads to changes that are potentially damaging to the surroundings.
Wold Lund does not explicitly criticise progress and cultivation. Nonetheless she questions scientific objectivity and classifications by expanding the fact-based information on her charts with small epistles where the plants are positioned in situations associated with mankind’s – and the artist’s own – emotional drama. The private sphere, personal reflections, and the individual experiences these works expose us to are posited as an alternative to scientific categories, and offer, similar to Rustand’s firmament, a more intuitive and fabulist approach to that which surrounds us.
The works in Back to basic present an alternative to a purely scientific world-view, not just by virtue of their theme, but also through their material form and mode of presentation. The modern world-view may be traced back to Cartesian dualism, which, simply put, identifies a division between subject and object, and the tendency to prioritise the former. Cartography, linear perspective, and landscape painting must be highlighted as the primary visual expressions of this scientific worldview. The mapping gaze which views the world from above, and the panoramic gaze which look forwards and outwards, correspond to the overview formed by the subject’s elevated position. In these visual forms of expression the surroundings are entirely filtered through the rational, nature is objectified, while humans are placed in the world’s centre. On the other hand, a person subject to the scientific paradigm always looks inwards to the centre, and is in this sense outside or distanced from objects.
In Back to basics a scientific overview and distance is replaced by an intuitive and close interaction between subject and object, the viewer and the work. The bodily experience, the haptic quality, and the vain beauty of materials emerge as central in the works presented. Each of the projects elevates nature’s simplest constituent parts as atomised and isolated entities. Material elements such as earth, metal, and plants are torn from their natural connections and circulation, and placed before us as in a direct and confrontational manner. To use what has over time become a clichéd term in art history, nature is here stripped bare, undressed, and presented as a readymade or a component in an assemblage. In this way we are confronted by the natural as an independent thing or concrete object. This objectification is however of a different nature to that which may be found within modern science and its visual forms of expression, for, in Reisch, Lund, Rustand and Lindén's direct presentation of nature, the viewer is placed in a position where, rather than gazing into a landscape, the observer enters it and sees from or through it. By offering such realism rather than representation, the works place humans in the real centre, where we stand in close proximity to, and exist in unison with, the objects around us.
This intuitive and sensual meeting with natural raw-materials contrasts starkly with the distanced views of landscapes in the tradition of painting. As the Arte Povera works created in Italy towards the end of the sixties, the works in Back to basics rather share their materiality and immediate tangible nature with crafts and that often termed primitive art. This may again be seen as an illustration of how the artists presented through this exhibition aspire to an extra- or pre-scientific discourse, free from modernity’s demands of a distanced and disinterested aesthetic.
In a modern, scientific paradigm, where the subject is contrasted with and placed above objects, the human’s gaze and language shape the frame through which we see and understand the world: humans are in this sense a transitional medium, they articulate their surroundings and attribute rational meaning to them, that is meaning exclusive to humans. As mediated, the objects around us are part of a communicative system, but if dualism is assumed, then surroundings are subject to a human monologue where they lack their own voice. The surroundings are therefore not something we communicate with, but across. The works in Back to basics distance themselves from this linguistic colonisation by offering a model of communication where the objects themselves have the right to speak. When nature is not represented in the works, but is to a real extent presented as unmediated ‘found objects’, a situation ensues where motif, material, and medium collapse, and where any distinction between addressor and message, object and attributed meaning is blurred. In this arises a confrontation between the work presented and the addressee, where the addressor or collocutor appears to be no one other than the work or the material itself.
Symbols are considered conventional and culturally determined, and what the works in Back to basics communicate will consequently depend on which observer they address. However, the forms and material elements presented in the exhibition are so general that they can function as a form of ideas or ideal forms. The apple, the flower, the soil, and the firmament may perhaps be seen as the language of nature responding to geometry’s squares and circles, they are building blocks that contain and construct meaning. It is possibly incorrect to maintain that these forms have a completely natural meaning, but they may be considered to have an almost universal cultural symbolic value based on essential characteristics. In such a context Lund’s plants, frozen between a state of vitality and putrefaction, and Lindén’s apples, gradually devoured by ever expanding fungi, come to represent not only variation and vanity, but implicitly also the predictable repetition and promise of new life that is inherent in nature’s cycle. A somewhat corresponding relationship is embodied in the contrast between Reisch and Rustand’s works, where the soil in the former represents something simple, stable, firm and sensible, something close and accessible, while the firmament in the latter is more often associated with the vague, the fleeting and anticipatory, the new and the unknown. Through the symbolism of nature the works express themselves about different periods of time, discuss relations between the contemporary, that which has been, and that which will come to be.
A time for everything
In the sixties pop-art gained notoriety by bringing simple and everyday materials into the gallery. The works in Back to basics may be said to share pop-art’s use of banal materials and direct presentation techniques, but where the earlier artistic movement was littered with social commentary, Lund, Lindén, Reisch and Rustand have generalised their works by removing virtually all cultural markers and time-specific characteristics. This absence of temporal references ensures that the works don’t merely discuss or make topical the break between different time periods, but situate themselves outside the boundaries of time and space. The works are simultaneously pre-temporal, post-temporal, multi-temporal, and timeless, and in their presence the distinction between the erstwhile, that existing here and now, and the forthcoming comes to naught. In such a timeless vacuum a disconnect emerges with any idea of progress, and consequently also a fundamental contradiction both of the on-going process criticised by some of the artists, namely the ever increasing cultural exploitation of nature, and of the endpoint or doomsday scenario as such. Fear of the future is suspended as temporal space is frozen or bereft of chronology.
Through the coalescence of different ages the works contribute to an exchange between entities that were initially presented as polar opposites, then as science and religion, nature and culture. A common point of departure for religious and scientific thinking is precisely this exploration of the link between history, the present, and the future. The juxtaposition of temporal distinctions also introduces an element of the unfathomable and fabulous into the otherwise so physically present and materially sound works in the exhibition, which in the process, it must be said, bear the hallmark of magical realism where the distinction between the rational and the mystical is blurred. By seeking a temporal point zero the artists succeed in balancing the fetishisation of progress which for a long time has dominated both art and science, and the nostalgia that characterises parts of the environmental movement. The works thus do not appeal to specific audiences, and neither do they idealise any chosen period, but instead invite us into an essential and always relevant landscape where each and every one of us should have the opportunity to reflect freely upon how to treat our physical surroundings, as well as our intuitive persuasions and natural emotional reactions.
 As with Rustand’s piece, the name of this work may also be said to contain a reference to the Old Testament, as the expression ‘the fat of the land’ (or ‘the fattest of the land’ in the 2011 Norwegian translation of the Bible) is used in Genesis 45:18 where Pharaoh says to Josef ‘and take your father and your households, and come to me, and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you shall eat the fat of the land’ (English Standard Version, 2001). In the vernacular the phrase ‘living off the fat of the land’ means to be rich enough to have the best of everything (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus).
 For an explanation of the terms ‘panoramic gaze’ and ‘mapping gaze’, see for instance the review of ‘The Art Seminar’, held at Burren College of Art in 2006 and reproduced in James Elkins and Rachel DeLue (eds.), Landscape Theory, New York; Routledge, 2008 (pp. 87-157)
 For an account of modern science’s objectification of nature, se for instance Alf Hornborg, ‘Animism, Fetishism, and Objetivism as Strategies of Knowing (or not Knowing) the World’ in Ethnos, vol. 71/1, March 2006 (s. 21-32).
 The term haptic refers to tactile perception. The term may be traced back to the art historian Alois Riegel (1858-1905), who introduced a divide between the haptic, clearly defined form, and the optic, defused form.
 ‘Stripped bare’ is a reference to the English title of Duchamp’s La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. This work has for art historians such as Thierry de Duve emerged as a symbol of Duchamp’s transition from painter to artist, and the expression ‘stripped bare’ has come to symbolise the direct and naked in the unassisted readymade.