Ane Hjort Guttu’s solo exhibition at the contemporary art centre Le Quartier in remote Quimper on the edge of Brittany is a thought-provoking and varied demonstration of a living critique.
A Living Critique
Unitary Urbanism, staged at Le Quartier, Quimper and curated by its director Keren Detton, is Ane Hjort Guttu’s first solo exhibition in France. The show’s title is borrowed from a manifesto of sorts, the 1961 Basic Program of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism, signed by Raoul Vaneigem and Attila Kotanyi, both of whom were closely associated with Guy Debord and the Situationist movement. The co-authors of the Basic Program contend, among other things, that modern city planning precludes the possibility of what they call “unitary urbanism”, which they define as a “living critique of this manipulation of cities and their inhabitants, a critique fuelled by the tensions of everyday life”.
A “living critique” of this kind is exactly what the well-judged selection of works on view at Le Quartier, spanning the last seven years of the Oslo-based artist’s career, amounts to. Spread over four rooms, the eight works included in the show range from silkscreen posters and architectural models to video works and sound installations. By and large they relate to the overarching theme of the city, and concern themselves with city planning more specifically, though not exclusively.
The one exception to this – the earliest of the works, from 2007 – is a series of 31 black-and-white photographs of women sculptors shown with their sculptures in a number of prescribed poses or attitudes that apparently, according to the wall label, contrast with how their male counterparts are typically represented (though, in the absence of parallel photographs of male artists, we have to take this on trust). In any case, the link with “unitary urbanism” is not at all obvious in this instance. However, the photographic series does connect to the poignant portrait of an unknown female artist in Untitled (The City At Night), first shown at the Bergen Assembly in 2013, a video projected in the final gallery space.
Guttu’s video work perfectly illustrates the ideas set out in the Basic Program, like where Vaneigem and Kotanyi, under the heading “An Indivisible Freedom” spell things out in the fifth point of their manifesto, “A living critique means setting up bases for an experimental life where people can come together to create their own lives on terrains equipped to their ends”.
The anonymous artist, whom Guttu interviews in Untitled (The City At Night), starts by relating what prompted her radical break with the art world, paralleled by a personal crisis that resulted in her rejection of family life. By severing professional and personal ties, the artist created the conditions for the “experimental life” envisioned by the Situationist program. Her nightly peregrinations around Oslo, in search of specific situations that feed into a single long-term project – a series of abstract geometric drawings confined to a filing cabinet – has led to what the artist views as “genuine encounters” with a community of night strollers.
Like many of Guttu’s video pieces, Untitled (The City At Night) is a composite and layered work. The 22-minute video comes in three formally distinct parts. For the first six minutes, we only hear the voices of the artist and her interviewee; we see nothing other than the subtitles that appear against a black background. This bleeds into the main section in which the ongoing conversation is illustrated by photographs of the filing cabinet and its contents. The film’s three sections build on each other to create an allusive and unsettling account that leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination.
Conversations are at the heart of several works in the show. Made with Unitary Urbanism in mind, the sound installation Charlotte and Pierre (2014) is a softly spoken dialogue between two characters whose foreign accents belie their common French names. The quasi-philosophical, dreamy and a tad self-indulgent exchange hinges on Charlotte’s inability or lost ability to perceive the world as it is, that’s to say unmediated, the way it appears to a child. It unfolds against a backdrop of faint traffic noises, of a piece with the simple black wooden structure whose minimal black awning and benches intended for visitors to sit on as they listen to the recording are meant to evoke a bus shelter. The black colour effectively picks up on a recurrent motif of the dialogue as well as visually complimenting the black-and-white photographs of the women sculptors mounted on the walls in the same room.
Four Studies of Oslo and New York (2012) likewise begins with a briefing between two real estate agents on how sun exposure affects the price of a flat, played over a panoramic shot of an apartment for sale. This is echoed, about halfway through the film, by a longer discussion between two Norwegian architects (Guttu’s father and one of his friends in the guise of Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot). In what could be seen as another instance of “unitary urbanism” advocated by the Situationist program, they bemoan the way Scandinavian housing regulations set up in the 1970s to ensure that access to light is factored into planning decisions have since been diluted, as they bask in the sunshine on a bench facing the Oslo harbour with stacks of books piled besides them from which they occasionally read out.
Commissioned by Le Quartier, the two-channel HD video The Adults (2014) makes a strong visual impact at the outset of the show, owing to the sheer size of the projection and its bright flickering colours. As if to balance out the discursive modes of communication privileged in the above-mentioned pieces, the two boys who are the silent protagonists of The Adults (2014) seem to understand each other without needing to speak. In an interview with curator Keren Detton, Guttu invokes the Danish architect Palle Nielson who saw children at play as “a model for a qualitative society”. The Adults shows the two young boys as if prematurely aged by the invasive, artificial lights of the moving image displays advertising a medley of instantly recognisable products – a blatant case of “the manipulation of cities and their inhabitants” denounced in the Basic Program.
Yet unlike the remaining passengers waiting on the platform or sitting inside subway carriages, dwarfed by the larger-than-life effigies that they either ignore or look at absent-mindedly, the boys give them their full attention and use the pulsing lights as visual cues for a perfectly synchronised choreography à deux, in which they alternatively face and turn their backs on the advertisements. Where adults passively absorb the content of the messages, their concerted play is a way of breaking free and a living embodiment of unitary urbanism.