TEXTS DOUBT, LIGHTNESS AND MULTIPLICITY
Doubt, lightness and multiplicity by Thomas Hestvold accompanies the exhibition Palinca Pastorale by Sveinung Rudjord Unnelan.
There may be certain works of art that neither should nor can be interpreted, only experienced. Perhaps. We might try to imagine a painting of a natural scene that is just beautiful. Low light painting silhouettes of naked tree trunks against the sky. The sun is setting in the west, leaving a tinge of pink and red, the girlish hell of the world of colour. But our picture is facing the east, where a deep blue hue lingers, the only memory of all the colours which moments before covered everything. This colour has been growing for a while, now it has turned to blue magma, deep and solid, as much sound as light. Our picture is about holding on to this light. That is all. We need say no more.
Well, I wonder. After all, shouldn't we be asking whoever is responsible for this work why he creates something like this in 2010? A touch of irony, perhaps? Etc. It is always possible to interpret, read what's behind the surface. But how important or necessary is it? That may vary a great deal.
Sveinung Rudjord Unneland has given one of his works the title On Thomas' lightness. Two bronze hands touch a transparent, potentially invisible surface, but are injured in the attempt. Is that all? This Thomas happens to be the one known as Doubting Thomas from the bible story, one of Jesus' disciples. The story is found in John 20:24ff. The other disciples have seen the risen Jesus and they have told Thomas about the experience. But he refuses to believe it, unless he can touch the wounds of Jesus' hands and side. Then, after a few days, Jesus visits them again, and this time Thomas is present. Jesus asks him to touch his wounds, saying "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
On Thomas' Lightness opens up an unexpected pair of concepts, doubt and lightness. Both Sveinung Rudjord Unneland and I are the son's of priests. In fact, the sense that doubt weighs on you is not something I learnt at home, but something I became painfully aware of during years spent in Christian youth groups. Thomas was far from an ideal for them. Quite the opposite, he was a let-down. He should have believed, without hesitation, like the others. Arne Garborg's novel Peace is a shocking story about how this kind of doubt, doubt as the lack of faith, can consume a person. Doubt can destroy people. I'd say Rudjord Unneland is aware of this, too. But somehow, his work is about the Doubter's lightness.
Italo Calvino has written about lightness in Lezioni americane. This book is a collection of five lectures Calvino was unable to hold at Harvard University before he died. The first one is about lightness. Then there are beautiful discussions, based on literary examples, of quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity.
"I soon noticed that between – on the one hand – the realities of life, which should have been my raw materials, and – on the other hand – the bright and biting suppleness with which I wanted to infuse everything I wrote, there was a chasm, which demanded an ever greater effort to bridge. Maybe that was when I discovered heaviness, inactivity and the non-transparency of the world, those characteristics which immediately grab hold of your writing, unless you find a way of escaping them." Then Calvino considers the relationship between lightness and heaviness, suggesting that one might settle for heaviness. Even Dante, whom Calvino is so fond of, becomes its representative, while he finds lightness in an author who is unknown to most, Cavalcanti. Dante's heaviness is revealed in his elaborate, precise descriptions and locations, while Cavalcanti achieves the linguistic lightness Calvino is looking for through his choice of open metaphors "which don't force upon us a solid item."
Lightness is then connected with speed, precision, visibility and multiplicity. All these concepts have contrasts which you might want to advocate. You could obviously defend slowness. Also that which is dim or hidden. When Calvino settles for what he does, it is because he has learnt that there are certain qualities he quite simply prefers to others. These are qualities that should in no way be confused with frivolity, sloppiness or shallowness. Rather the opposite. Lightness and progress presuppose planning, training and economy. In connection with what he says about multiplicity, Calvino writes that he would like to say as little as possible, but write all the more, as he can then return to his sentences and reshape them over and over again until they are just the way they should be. Calvino connects lightness with precision and progress, with certainty.
It may not be possible to connect the kind of lightness which is idealized by Calvino with the consuming doubt which is the cause of Enok Hove's breakdown in Garborg's Peace. So we should perhaps approach doubt from a different angle. We may have to take sides with Thomas and defend him against Jesus' undiscerning criticism. After all, wasn't Thomas the only one who more or less kept his cool during a rather special situation when a dead man was rumoured to be alive again? After all, posterity has used Thomas' literally tangible way of looking for assurance as the strongest evidence about the resurrection. We may suspect that John the evangelist had to invent a doubter who was actually allowed to feel the wounds, in order to affirm the story of the resurrection. The other gospels, all of them older than John's, make no mention of this episode.
Let it be clear: Doubt and scepticism is the prime prerequisite for cultural and intellectual development. Where distrust, criticism and wry looks are suppressed, you get stagnation, surveillance and terror.
I have always felt a kinship with Thomas the disciple. For reasons best know to my parents, they named me after him, and being the doubter has been somewhat convenient as it has become more difficult to give my assent to the declaration of faith. But my main reason for liking him has been his exemplary attitude in the face of undocumented claims.
But doubt is not without its costs. As we know, doubters can easily fall out of favour. Giordano Bruno, who placed the sun, rather than the earth, at the centre of the universe, thus expressing doubt about the teachings of the Church, was burnt at the stake. History abounds with such heroes, and it is not very difficult to find contemporary examples of what questioning truths can cost.
The Thomas of Sveinung Rudjord Unneland's work appears to be investigating something he doesn't quite know what is, something see-through and indistinct. He doesn't seem to be much of a Giordano Bruno. Maybe he is too easy-going, not having prepared himself well enough, therefore cutting himself. We may have to admit that Thomas' lightness is of another kind than that advocated by Calivino, that we could be dealing with a kind of sanguine frivolity. Maybe he feels that doubt has been taken too far, missing rootedness, that he is floating about, weightless and without direction. The places where he puts his hands just turn to holes. Maybe this Thomas, as presented here, lacks weight, something strenuous to be anchored to. But perhaps this whole discussion is a bit beside the point of Rudjord Unnelands work. I am open to that possibility.
Calvino's last lecture is about multiplicity. There he defends the polyphonous text, a text which opens for a multiplicity of readings at different levels, a text that by its centrifugal power liberates thought.
If we approach Rudjord Unneland's work as a text, we should approach it in the hope of being able to read it in many different ways. One of which is the one we explored initially, that of pure experience. We gain that experience by looking at it, moving around it, watching and perceiving its parts, gaps, colours and surfaces. All works of art are visual in one sense or another, they present something direct and self-actuated. But they also carry a further meaning, they hide something which can become less hidden. With Sveinung Rudjord Unneland there is much of this. The titles open and shut, depths and surfaces both past and present confer significance on pictures and objects, and they involve us in fluid interpretations and different levels of reading.
Rudjord Unneland's interest in that which we are not quite conscious of, that which must be given a significance before it can be significant, is also apparent in the work Lost signal (Hermann Roscharch) where a pile of newspapers partly obscure a picture of Herman Rorschach. You may well have heard of the Rorschach test somewhere. It belongs within that large story of common cultural thoughts that form the base of our thinking without our knowing a whole lot about them. Einstein, Freud, Descartes, Spinoza, Abel. Most of us can only string together a few sentences about what their contributions were, so here's a short summary on Rorschach and his test. The patient, or the tested, is asked to interpret abstract blobs of ink, the therapist then interprets this interpretation, thinking he can learn something about the patient's unconscious mental life from it. So the patient, who might be myself, is not able to understand his own interpretation. Sveinung Rudjord Unneland grabs hold of this man, hides half of him, revealing the other half. Where is this taking us? The spin dryer of meanings?
Why not, let's put it that way. And let's put the title of the exhibition into this spin dryer as well, Palinca Pastorale. In visual art, the pastoral is the peaceful scenery where the shepherd keeps watch over his sheep. Palcina is an Eastern European homemade brandy.
Translated from the Norwegian by Egil Fredheim.
Thomas Hestvold (1957)lives and works on Vestre Sandøya outside of Tvedestrand, Norway. Through an active career and a long series of exhibitions Hestvold has positioned himself as an important painter. Until February 14th 2010 he holds his latest solo exhibition at Kabuso in Øystese, Norway. Hestvold is in the collections of the Contemporary Art museum, Arts Council Norway and Sørlandet Art Museum, and was educated at the School of Visual Arts in New York, National Academy of the Arts (Vestlandets Kunstakademi) in Bergen and the Art Academy in Trondheim.