Simplicity full of nuances

The art takes on organic and geometric shapes in the recently opened exhibition at the Vigeland Museum in Oslo through intentional disintegration, change of perspectives and a baroque masque.

Sten Are Sandbeck, Displacement, Repression, Regression and Sublimation. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

In three separate rooms of the Vigeland Museum, right next to the impressive sculptures by Vigeland himself; expressing the shifting phases of life, is the winter exhibition represented by three artists who are unwilling to be restricted by the medium they are working with. It is about art seeking its relationship to the tradition, created by artists who question themselves through their individual attempts to shed a light on different materials and their externally hidden potential. All three are simultaneously sculpting the rooms through their works, in respectively different procedures. And this is one of the reasons why this exhibition stands out – the rooms come into motion due to the self reflective state of the works, dealing with specific materials with its patterns and colours which then is put in relation to the beautifully variegated interior of the museum.

I am introduced to three Norwegian artists of the younger generation, whose artistic fundament mainly is about not accepting the so-called truths, but instead critically reflect on and simultaneously decode and dissolve the general accepted ideas into microscopic components and thus be able to see and reveal hidden qualities. It is primarily about the qualities of the material and the following transformation – a skewing of the definition of what is and what is not an aesthetic material. And this skewing simultaneously questions and expresses an inner resistance towards the tradition in which they work. Something positive – a so-called truth – is questioned, denied and hereby put into motion. The negative is not about rejecting the tradition but to create or see negativity instead of positivity, i.e. to reflect on the conventional ideas, the unconsidered – what do we really see?

Ane Graff, You Are My Marble, 2012. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

A beautiful decay
As in the first room where four frames with painted textiles by Ane Graff (b. 1974) cover one long side in an otherwise naked room, and where I immediately think about what I am really looking at. As an observer of her series You Are My MarbleI realise that I am a part of the artist’s own observation, of her view; in this piece the actual observer is the artist herself, her own life’s primary observer. Life and art are the result of her observations since she creates simultaneously as she looks upon the process from a distance, and this direct experience creates a notion of being a not altogether immaterial part of her work.

Ane Graff, You Are My Marble, detail, 2012. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

The textiles are delightful in all their fragility and darkness. Maybe in opposite to her intentions since the frames with torn and derelict pieces of cloth could indicate a subversive process in a dystopian vision of the future where entropy inevitably rules. Through the line of thought of change, degeneration and decay, one could maybe state that Graff’s works is the most philosophical at this exhibition, despite or even maybe due to her clear wishes for a detailed and scientifically rational examination of the material. There seems to be an obvious interest in making the concealed comprehensible and spiritual through displaying organic patterns on crusty surfaces, consequently revealing the universal connections we all are a part of.

She examines different ways to put a light on, and simultaneously camouflaging, the transformative possibilities of the material, and this out of the idea about decay – objects in our surrounding gradually collapse according to the principle of entropy. Through her attempts to invent the material again and again, I get an additional feeling of her profound interest in what the specific material mean to her, and to us, which traditional role it has and which conventional ideas it deals with, and ultimately how she can transform it by skewing the definition.

A numb movement
In conformity with Graff, Camilla Løw (b. 1976) is also conscious about her observers, all though not in a metaphysical transferred sense, but from the perspective of space and movement. I could simply present, and at the same time dismiss, her work by describing it as a number of square concrete plates with painted surfaces placed on the floor. But I could also suggest a poetic dimension, partly due to the title Scattered light and partly because of an edification of industrial layers in clear crystallized patterns – categorical in its mute simplicity but simultaneously enigmatic in how they occupy the room.

Camilla Løw, Scattered Light, detail, 2012. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

And even if I am not aesthetically attracted to her choice of material, form, size and colour, and don’t receive the same philosophically structured experience as in the case of Graff, this is yet a well put example of a contemporary displacement of perspectives that make demands on the observers. Her choice of material is regarded as foreign elements in the context and must therefore be put in relation to its immediate surroundings. It is consequently a question of how these objects should be presented since they already represents something else outside the room. Also, this representation needs to be taken care of to eliminate eventual risks of regarding the work as numb and square.

It is this relationship between the strained minimalistic expression and the actual showroom that I carry with me. The work does not progress or unfold, the material is numb and unattractive in comparison to the abundance of the museum interiors, and any richness in variations is absent. But it is exactly this negation that takes the work further – it has the ability to open up the perspective towards a new dimension where the room becomes present.

Camilla Løw, Scattered Light, detail. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

An over explicit play
The relation to the room is probably not equally important for Sten Are Sandbeck (b. 1969) and therefore not as present as in the two other works, at least not in this exhibition. Naturally though, he is aware of the space as he places his ensemble of figures which, according to a separate information sheet, performs a sculptural role-play where all figures has been given a specific trait in a mute satirical performance: sublimation – the artist; rationalisation – the guard: repression – the director, etc.

The room develops into a strange static masque as we, the visitors, are moving around these, in many regards, powerful and expressively shaped sculptures. The short manuscript that is attached to this work loses a great deal of its initial idea; I assume that the text mainly was thought as a staged foolery, which sarcastically questions the predictability of a gallery opening with its specific roles and manners, but this intention is completely lost during my lonely walk in this room.

This work is primarily about culture and history. The obvious simplicity, close to childishness, in these sculptures, represents in a friendly state of mind a kind of unafraid attitude towards a widely spread conventional restriction against using unsuitable (simple, cheap, banal, childish, ugly, etc) material in the so-called serious art. In that sense this work opens up and broadens your perspective by breaking the barriers between art as a cultural product and art as a naturally integrated part of the ongoing life. Walking around these sculptures you get a notion that Sandbeck is not creating them in a detailed or meticulous manner out of a specific material or artistic parameter, he probably just picks up materials, objects and tools which happen to be within a close distance at the very moment.

Sten Are Sandbeck, Denial, 2012. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen

Moving around the room, this over-explicit resistance towards the tradition and the medium soon becomes tiresome and hollow – generally speaking – but all the more so after reading this comment in an attached folder: “Sten Are Sandbeck is a unique talent on the Norwegian art scene, through his uncompromising persistence and continuous disbelief in the medium he is working with.” Which artist of today, independent of genre or style, does not question their tradition and the medium they are working with? It’s not a very unique or innovative idea Sandbeck is dealing with when he claims to combine painting with sculptures by creating picturesque sculptures from randomly collected materials and objects.

On my way out in the solid November darkness I hesitate once more in front of the decaying processes of Ane Graff, and wonder if it is the slowly disintegrating processes of reality that eventually could have the ability to be transformed into slowly healing processes in art? Is it of importance that you never should be able to reach anything clearly defined? The conclusion for now is that there should always be a movement between the object, the notion and the observer – the movement becomes the content and nothing is defined – what do we really know?

23rd November 2012 – 10th February 2013
The Vigeland Museum, Oslo

3 kommentarer - “Simplicity full of nuances

  1. Dear Stefan, dear all,

    The text you are quoting is from an invitation leaflet for another show in another place. In any case I cannot see why someone else’s opinion should affect your experiencing my work. Now, aside from this you are wrong about the picking up material within reach notion – it is true the material is within close distance during the production process, in more than one aspect, but that is planned for, and does have a reason. I’ll tell you in a moment. And except for the onlooker and the artist, all pieces are made of oil on canvas supported by stretchers, canvas being Belgian linen prepared with rabbit glue, all in all strictly traditional materials for oil paint -and the production of art (the artist is mainly made up of oil spill on plastic cover, the onlooker an empty plastic bag- this, too, for a reason..).

    And why you might ask? Well not solely to make me seem unique and innovative as you suggest, but partly because of a personal affinity to the materials and medium (and I have been struggling with it for a few years..), but mostly because of oil paint’s very central role in art history and within the general conception of art. So you are right, it is about history. Now, there are several layers to this, one is the (now outdated but still symbolic) role of painting as the formula-one of art media, another that in our time this material serves as a kind of do-it-yourself-kit for many an amateur artist wishing to make some art, be innovative, realize their potential, for therapeutic or for whatever reason (it is wrongly conceived as the easiest way to make art, while a conceptual approach would be faster and more practical, not to mention affordable).

    Ok, so painting simultaneously has this very high and low culture status (and a very ambivalent one in our trait, which is, I suspect, part of the reason why you react as you do). Another important aspect is that, as you know, painting is dead, many a times already, so the term ‘medium’ might metaphorically take on a broader meaning, i.e. in its reappearance from the beyond -again in a lyrical sense – acquiring a quality of transcendence.

    Why is this important in this project? Well you do mention the title of the pieces included in the parallel shows in the museum. And since you argue that they have an impact on your experience of the art I assume you consider them of some importance. However, you seem to have missed the overall title of my show, which is “Opening Reception: the Gates to Hell” (it is quite clearly stated on the manuscript you refer to in addition to the regular note on the wall). This is a hint that works in connection to the cast described in the script. Firstly it tells you this is an opening – of a show, as you rightly assumed (also because of the familiar art world roles taken on by the characters of the play), but also something else – of hell, or at least of a passage leading there… And so we come to the idea of the transcending medium.

    There are more hints. The cast of the play does consist of the usual suspects at an artshow opening – artist, director, curator, onlooker etc.. However, they are foremost assigned as terms that make up a categorization of psychological defense mechanisms (originally classified and described by Anna Freud) – denial, intellectualization, projection etc. Now, these are mechanisms we use every day, more or less and to different extents. We use them to avoid being confronted with something we either of personal experience or by cultural restraints consider too difficult or painful to face. Of course this also might reach a level of becoming pathological. Again you are right, it is about culture- so you were on to it (but stopped there, I don’t know why).

    You say the intention of the play was lost during your walk in the room. Was it? No, that’s the point. The sculptures are characters in a play- you hold the script, by you and you only they might come alive (The drama unfolds, in the space surely, but also in your head. It’s mute yes, unless you activate it. Envision it as a kind of enlarged puppet play where you are the hands, and the voice). Through their dialogue -and their resistance to communicate, and more…

    You also say the whole thing becomes hollow and tiresome, but you assume it’s because of the persistence of the medium issue. I think not only that – it IS hollow, and yes! – tiresome. (let me get back to that). Let me guess – and I might be totally wrong, but just to make a point – that your feeling of loneliness and that of the space being of less importance, that these feelings combined come from an awareness of emptiness. There are (at least) to kinds of emptiness deliberately present. One is that, within the drama, there are no artworks – there is only the different characters of the ensemble playing it out. But their focus, or what should have been their focus, i.e what appears to be the reason for their coming together – is absent. Secondly (and even if you do bring them alive), the characters themselves project a sense of emptiness. Partly due to their physical hollowness, partly because of their appearance as theatrical props and the looks of masks and masquerade. And also, if you read the script, because of how they act.

    There is one last thing, essential to a deeper understanding of the work, and since the overly shallow critique hardly touches the surface when it comes to look for a reason behind (you might say in accordance with the general characteristics of the show, and you would be right, and still be wrong..) – I am obliged to elaborate on just one more important aspect (I’ll be short). Namely exactly why the visual superficial characteristics of the characters literarily point to a deeper content: Their grotesque appearance. Again as you say- it’s all about history and culture. History, because of the role of the grotesques – the sculptures of the underworld, and their role as protection! And culture because this – with a bit of analogy again- might be seen to correspond with how repressed drives are thought to surface in a distorted manner, hardly recognizable (now this is important: It’s not what it looks like! Whatever it is was originally stays hidden). As your demons (or rather – mine), so to speak.

    So we are back to the comparison to ‘hell’, surely an artshow opening might bear enough similarities to make it feel hellish, but ‘hell’ is here a metaphor for a personal underworld, the subconscious – into where all we can’t handle is thought to be suppressed. – Or even to the actual surfacing and the monstrosities created by this, the world present before us. For every once and again, parts of this soup does surface (to what extent we can only guess) – only we might not be aware of it. Now, how much does this affect our lives, what we do, our culture, and art? Now- this is where it gets tiresome, for real.. What the h… are we doing!? And why? You tell me. I simply pose the question. Or am I answering it?

    Very best


    (Incidentally- the title also refers to Rodin’s central piece ‘the Gates of Hell’, which Vigeland himself was enough inspired from seeing to create his own ‘Hell’, a piece which is to be found within the museum. Interestingly -and this only came to my knowing a few weeks before the opening, so it really wasn’t part of the concept- the work of Rodin was commissioned to serve as an entrance to an art museum… )

  2. Dear Sten,

    Initially, I would like to thank you for a sincere, long and well put response. It is always nice to get additional second hand information from the artist personally.

    It seems that we agree on many things despite your obvious disappointment concerning my critic. Here in your comment you develop many of your (and even so my) thoughts about your work. This would have been very useful to have in hand when walking round your figures. But this is often the actual facts when perceiving a new work for the first time – what do we really see?

    Regarding the additional folder text: It was not primarily the source to the overall experience of the exhibition; it just suggested and amplified the actual experience walking out of the room.

    Regarding whether you pick up your actual material within a close distance or not: It is of less or non-significance; that’s a method and has nothing to do with the actual ongoing experience, it was plainly a guess from my side and it was obviously partly incorrect.

    Regarding your references: The title pointing towards Rodin, this I was aware of but thought it was too obvious, but couldn’t anyhow see the parallell. But! The connection to Vigeland was not to my knowledge – thanks for the information. Concerning the psychoanalysis aspect, sure, why not, but it didn’t enhance my experience.

    Regarding the unique and the innovative: Oh, but of course! You are absolutely unique and innovative; as a person and as an artist, as we all are in one-way or the other. But when it all comes down to basics, there are persons or works that we all subjectively find more or less interesting and powerful to fit in to our own ongoing life – whether they are soul mates or provoking something unfinished in us. But this was not the fact with your work.

    Regarding your thought that my sentence of history and culture was unfinished or not developed: I don’t agree. This idea was the basic fundament to my experience of your work and I partly think I was right and I partly think this was explained, not by screaming it all out, more like a hint (to use one of your words) and as in pointing the direction. And it seems that at least you acknowledged it since your comments more or less circles around these conceptions.

    Once again, I really appreciate your comments! This will be very useful for the forthcoming viewers of your work, as a compliment to my experience.

    All the best,


  3. Dear Stefan,
    Thx for your response. But this is not about creating any users-guide for the show, it’s about pointing to some obvious flaws in your review, some evident discrepancies between what you describe and what is actually there. And also to what implications that means you have been missing out on, which again would have enhanced your experience! It is also not about me, or my presumed uniqueness, but the qualities of the show, which I consider to be of importance, otherwise I wouldn’t bother – to respond for sure, but also to make a show in the first place.

    You say we largely agree, but really we don’t. My circling above – around the projects historical and cultural connotations was largely due to what seems was your only clue, your key to enter, but which you did not use and therefor from which you did not derive any further considerations. You repeat your rhetoric question from the introduction to your critique, asking “what do we really see?” – well, I wish you had asked yourself that while still in the show!

    Now, there are several other ways in. Why not try the closest at hand, the show being in the Vigeland Museum, with the sculptors work very much physically present. The connection to Vigeland doesn’t necessarily have to go via Hell (and Rodin), but may be observed in the quite explicit and direct connections between his work and mine – visible within the museum. These works draw on a sculptural approach to express existential issues that basically depicts a subject, alone and in a group context or both. This is all the more apparent because of the prominence of the art object in contemporary art practice, being exactly that – an object as a signifying ‘thing’, seemingly dead and lonely but stuffed with ‘radical’ implications. Now, you must admit (and this is where the innovative aspect comes in..), there isn’t that often you see what someone at the opening part rightfully termed ‘statues’ in a contemporary art show, and certainly not as an ensemble acting it out in an enclosed described theater play.

    One might follow this connection just a little further, seeing that the symbolism and theatricality of Vigelands work is mirrored in the ongoing play within my show. Especially that of the neighbouring room, of the fountain, with its surrounding reliefs and figures in treelike structures, depicting a frieze of life from cradle to grave. Of course, there are some as obvious dissimilarities! But one may see that Vigeland gets more expressive the closer his theme gets to death. And that his work circles around profound existential issues.

    (One might also mention the fact that the artist’s once studio, now museum, also serves as a mausoleum, since Vigeland is buried there. In the other adjoining room, his self-portrait stares at us, interrogatingly, as if asking who we are and what we are doing here – and also into the space of this show. There is also a large reproduction of a photo there, of the artist sitting in his chair in his studio -looking out at us. Remember, we are visiting. That is the gaze from history, and also, from the beyond.)

    The most striking differences between our works would be that of material and degree of caricature. But these features are so confrontingly present in the works – we needn’t go all the way through Vigeland to notice. You say that materiality is method, and of zip importance to your experience. Really! You’ve really lost me there.. Wouldn’t you say that the output of a piece relies on the input? (Incidentally, you where the one bringing this up, and if I got it correctly, that was your main objection, that the method didn’t correspond to that described the text, the one belonging to another show.. However, it did! And it does have significance. I tried to further some of the implications in my response above.. ). And is it not possible to think or even feel there is some significance to this, a reason behind, or within that material of choice? In this case, the role of painting has to do with the historical memory of art, it goes all the way back, see. Metaphorically speaking, it takes up a substantial part of the subconscious of art! Together with sculpture, for sure. Now, the show’s characters are painting-merged-sculptures that have been incorporated- made into bodies- and integrated – made into subjects. Spirits and ghosts from the past materialized in front of us- as players of unmistakingly familiar roles on the contemporary art scene. Yes – exactly, ‘scene’.

    The step from caricature to character in a play isn’t all that long, and connects to the satirical script at hand. You say “Psychoanalyses, why not? But that didn’t enhance my experience..”. But THOSE ARE THE TERMS (!), so to speak, the characters literally play the roles of psychological categorizations of ways NOT TO relate to that which is mentally antagonizing (the terms as given names are also to be found on engraved on a brass plate attached to each sculpture). This should become clear also by actually reading the script’s dialogue and acting. It might just be a funny coincidence that I am accusing you of NOT relating to the factual characteristics and palpable implications of the show! However it would make sense – as ultimately, the project raises questions as to whether art may be seen as a grotesque expression of repressed drives, inflicted upon us by culture. It’s the mirroring effect, and partly the reason why there is no way out.. Now that would be painful recognition to accept for all of us within the field, no? However, for now I personally cling onto the other possibility – that art is the scene where we are able to play out all our subconscious registers, laying it all out so that we may see – and hence where the human tragedy might find its redemption.

    Which I am currently trying to do. But it does call for some personal willingness to play the game from the other party..

    Merry xmas!


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