Reconstructing nature

Andreas Bennin has just opened an exhibition at Fotogalleriet, showing his ongoing project A Nation Restored. KUNSTforum asked him some questions on the exhibition and his artistic practice. 

Andreas Bennin, Under Storestygge Svånåtinden, 2013. ©Andreas Bennin

Andreas Bennin, Under Storestygge Svånåtinden, 2013. ©Andreas Bennin

Can tell us about your current exhibition?

This exhibition, Domestications, is part of the project A Nation Restored, which I have been working on for more than three years. It’s based on the restoration of a former shooting/artillery range at the mountains in Dovre. Across a 165 square kilometre area, all traces of military training and testing of weapons will be erased, the aim being to restore/reconstruct nature. This gigantic landscaping project, with a budget on approx. 500 million NOK, has been named ‘Back to Nature’ by Forsvarsbygg [Norwegian Defence Estates Agency]. Waste will be removed, remains of weapons melted down, roads and other infrastructure removed and covered with soil and vegetation from the surrounding, and large topographical features constructed. Much of the work will be performed by unmanned machinery, controlled — for safety reasons — from a bunker some kilometres away.

I find the whole thing extremely interesting and therefore worth reflecting on: how so much money and effort are being spent to alter the landscape, and what the motifs and consequences are of — in my view — rewriting history. Of course, there are benefits to clearing away shrapnel and waste, but to tear up gravel roads and military installations and literally construct a new topography seems like so much more.

Andreas Bennin, Domestications Mount, stills, 2013. ©Andreas Bennin

Andreas Bennin, Domestications Mount, stills, 2013. ©Andreas Bennin

In the show Domestications at Fotogalleriet, I have worked with what I see as romantic ideas about nature: as something untouched, wild, more real than anything else — ideas that I think have had on impact on this restoration project. Those same ideas were significant in the Norwegian national romantic period, and that focus on nature as wild and untamed was effective when defining Norway 200 years ago, after the country got its constitution. The idea of Norwegians as practically carved from the mountains and risen from the seas has to a large degree shaped our national identity, and I wonder if the potential of these wide, wind-swept landscapes, in this case the Dovre mountains, is again are being brought in to reinforce that identity. Norway has changed a great deal, not only since 1814, but even just in the last 20 years. We’ve gone from poor to wealthy and have participated in two wars, despite promoting ourselves as a peace-promoting nation. In 2011, we were listed by the UN and the Norwegian National Statistics Office as the 6th largest weapons exporter in the world. Seen from that perspective, there may quite possibly also be some redemptive aspects to this restoration effort.

What is it about this particular Norwegian landscape that you find intriguing enough to do an art project on?

Generally speaking, it’s not important to me that the landscape is Norwegian, but I do work a lot with nature, often on how it borders culture pretty much everywhere. But, of course, as a Norwegian, I am influenced by the narratives constructed around the importance of nature in Norway. Even in comparison to our Scandinavian neighbours, the position nature holds as part of the very identity of our nation is unique.

Andreas Bennin, Over Grøndøl, 2013. ©Andreas Bennin

Andreas Bennin, Over Grøndøl, 2013. ©Andreas Bennin

In a way, there is something absurd in using a national park as a military shooting range, a contradiction in terms that is, in a way, also apparent between the title you’ve given the project, Domestications, and the act that the Norwegian government is now performing — restoring the area. What are your thoughts on this? Is it possible to bring the nature back the way it was?

To me, the title Domestications is a play on how human cultures have aimed for and gained the control of their surroundings in a physical way — domesticated species of vegetation and animals. But the title also uses this term to describe how language has power, whether it’s verbal or visual. What’s peculiar in this case, though, is how the ongoing project at Dovre aims to make nature wild, as opposed to normal domestications, which are more about taming nature. The military landscape at Dovre will be wild, at least for future generations, because it is being constructed to be that way.

What is your next project?

I’ll be continuing work on A Nation Restored. With the 200 year anniversary of the Norwegian constitution coming next year, I’m working on the book for A Nation Restored, but I also plan to have an exhibition that brings together all the pieces of the project. To bring all the different aspects and gazes at the landscape together has been a goal throughout the entire process. I am curious about how we seem to construct reality as we would like it to be, a kind of social constructivist approach.

I have also been working a while with the forests in Sweden. I live in Värmland, part of the Swedish forests, and I’m interested in the relation between the romantic feelings Swedes have for their woods, and how artificial most of the Swedish forests are. They are basically large planted tree fields, but called untamed nature and experienced as such. The feelings of solitude and wilderness experienced there are a peculiar reflection of the level of cultivation that’s at play.

Andreas Bennin, Mot Flathøi, 2012. ©Andreas Bennin

Andreas Bennin, Mot Flathøi, 2012. ©Andreas Bennin

How would you describe your process from idea to product?

It varies a lot from project to project, but in this case, it all started with a short piece on the restoration work on local television in Hedmark/Oppland. I was intrigued by the paradoxes inherent in the belief that nature can be constructed; in particular, I reacted to the words ‘nature reconstruction’. I started investigating how this project had come about, who was actually doing the ‘construction’ work and so on, and managed to get access to the area from Forsvarsbygg. Throughout the project, I’ve been frank about my reservations concerning the implications of removing all traces of the area’s military history, but Forsvarsbygg have been both interested in my comments and helpful the whole time. It seems to me that many of the contributors to the restoration project have also reflected on the more philosophical aspects of such a large alteration of nature. They have been given instructions according to what was voted for in Stortinget [Parliament], and it seems that the ideas concerning environmental thinking have changed a lot since this was decided in 1996.

As for me, my process has consisted of equal parts research, talking with everything from biologists, historians, locals and employees of Forsvarsbygg, and physically working there as much as possible, diving into the landscape. Nature has played as a big a role in this project as my investigations and research into the mechanics behind the restoration.

What are your main influences when creating a work of art?

I think artistic practice for me is usually about long term projects. I need to focus on the same ideas over a long period of time, reading and physically creating things to see how time influences my thoughts on them. I read a lot about archaeology, history, ecology, and botany, but feel a need to balance the intellectual with physical work, or else I go funny in the head. A lot of the time, I live in the Swedish forests, where I grow my own vegetables and dig in the dirt. I photograph more or less daily, and some of the time the results of that trigger new ideas.

Andreas Bennin, Domestication, Mine, stills, 2013. ©Andreas Bennin

Andreas Bennin, Domestication, Mine, stills, 2013. ©Andreas Bennin

Can you name an artist/work of art or exibition that has inspired you?

The filmmaker Emir Kusturica has been an inspiration for a time, but also Richard Long and Robert Smithson have been important inspirations, and recently also Mark Dion. And I just saw some works of Antti Laitinen that I really liked.

Is there an author or a book, fiction or theory, that has inspired your works?

For this project, I have been reading texts by Sverker Sörlin on military landscapes, which have influenced me a great deal, but also American Technological Sublime by David Nye.  Right now, I’m reading texts by Ian Hacking on social constructivism.

Why is art important?

I think it would be arrogant to claim that artists hold a position from which they can reflect on the world more objectively than others, but I do believe that art has a way of constructing spaces, physical and mental, where everything can be turned upside down, regardless of whether that ends up calling for action or reflection.

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