Sissel Tolaas

Dressing Nature

Born and raised on an island in Norway, where life is still so closely connected with nature, particularly the sea, Sissel Tolaas joined the Nordic art tradition early, in which the landscape genre never ceases to occupy a special place. However, Tolaas never developed a real interest in any representational approach and always refused to make artworks informed by the idea of the “finish fetish”. Instead of presenting nature as picture, she already in the beginning of her career in the early 1980’s, started working with natural materials, exposing them to chemical agents and presenting them in natural sites. Such a choice had at least two consequences. First, in both her indoor and public works she is primarily motivated by the time process and change; this means that the visual “consumption” of her works necessarily implies the viewers’ patience as well as time. Second, in choosing to employ those materials that are un-representable because they are invisible, like air, scents, or human smell, she intentionally bypasses the art tradition in which the human eye was used as the main organ for perceiving art. In a number of gallery installations produced during the 1990’s, Tolaas places her visitors in situation in which they have to perceive her works physically: she exposes them to showers of cold or hot air, or situates them in plastic cabins where they experience various noisy bangs.

When invited to produce a work in Alstahaug, Tolaas certainly reexamined many of the dilemmas that over the last decade surrounded the issue of “art in nature,” which were shared by both the practitioners (artists) and the theoreticians. The essential skepticism reoccurring in these discussions may be summarized simply: Does it make sense to create an artwork in a natural site, given that this “site” – Nature – already has a beauty of its own? Taking into account this basic doubt, which is always involved in the issue of natura naturata, Tolaas made, I believe, a proper decision: instead of producing a self-sufficient art object which would make the given natural site look more “attractive,” she has chosen to conceive a work that would show how Nature “works.”

Seen from a distance, House of Winds affects the viewers visually first. The constant, the unchangeable part of her site-specific piece, is an elegant, cylindrically shaped body that recalls the thinking of architect Carlo Scarpa, who believed that building a house meant – “dressing the air.” Once approached, the House reveals itself as an artwork that is also a source of knowledge for both the inhabitants and visitors of the region, because it carries information about the natural conditions of the island.

This solid body made out of concrete contains twelve circular openings with metal propellers: each of them is activated by one of twelve different winds existing in this part of Nordland. The size of each opening is always dependent on the intensity of the respective wind. The preparations for this work required close collaboration with the meteorologist working on the island, who supplied the artist with both the data concerning the strength of the winds, and the necessary equipment used in the House. Beside this, Tolaas researched and studied early navigation maps. Thus, the Latin names of the winds, written under the windows, were taken from the first navigation system ever made and they are accompanied with the winds’ names in Norwegian.

The movements of the propellers – the active and always changing parts of House of Winds – are signs that can be indexed. In his semiological theory, Charles S. Peirce differentiated three families of signs he named icons, symbols and indexes. The indexes are the signs made by natural processes (such as smoke being the sign of fire, movement of a windmill’s sails being the sign of wind, or sweat on clothes being a sign of the body). Tolaas implicitly points out that the wind is that natural element which we can only perceive physically, yet it eludes our efforts to actually see it as well as paint or photograph it. What our eye can catch is only the trace of Nature, the effect of the wind. In Sissel Tolaas’ House of Winds, the wind is, as it were, the “artist” that is continuously “finishing” her artwork.

Bojana Pejic

Sissel Tolaas

: 1959 Stavanger, Norway
: 1980-85 Vestlandets Kunstakademi, Bergen, Art Academies in Warsaw and Poznan, Kunstakademiet i Oslo
Live and work: Berlin, Germany