Art Exposed

Passing by a hill near Saltdal, drivers are intrigued and baffled by four concrete containers dug into the slope a few feet above road level. In this part of the country, such a sight is unusual – there are but few traces of human interference with nature’s order. Since these drivers cannot see what, if anything, has been put inside the containers, they pull up and climb the hill. And then they are indeed taken aback... Three of the containers are full, though with strange objects: first, a bird’s nest cut in marble (This is not the material of which bird’s nests are made, is it? The chicks wouldn’t feel particularly comfortable in a marble nest, would they? But, isn’t that marble nest more pleasing in a way than the genuine article?); second, an oar cut in granite (Oars are meant to move a boat on a surface of water; granite is a heavy substance of the kind a suicidal person would tie to his neck in order to drown himself; the form and the matter do not go well together, do they?); and third, a ski, which comes almost as a relief, an ordinary object, similar to the skis we all use (Though having just seen a marble nest and a granite oar, we may ask what exactly “being ordinary” means?). The only puzzle which remains is that of what an ordinary ski is doing here, alongside these brazen art pieces. What are its credentials to be included in their company? Who or what gave it the right to be “on exposition”, like the other two?

If these three exhibits have not yet stretched your wit to the limit, the fourth container surely will, it is empty. This fourth container illustrates the void waiting to be filled, a readiness to accommodate what the artist decides should fill it, and the promise that whatever is put into it will, like the granite oar, marble nest and the lost/found ski, become an exhibit – a legitimate resident of the house of art. The drivers spend more time looking at the emptiness of the fourth container than they do over the other three together – looking and thinking, contemplating the mystery of art.

The kind of question Urbonas forces the travelers to Saltdal to contemplate is that of the chicken-and-egg variety: do objects earn the right to be exhibited because they are works of art? Or is it the other way round – is it rather the fact of being exhibited that makes the object a work of art? Just as in the case of other chicken-and-egg questions, there is no straightforward answer to this one. And yet the question needs to be asked – it is after all, for the arts, the life-and-death and the meaning-or-absurd matter. Urbonas` Four Exposures ask this question loud and clear.

Zygmunt Bauman

The passage of life

From the road we see four cubicles,
overhead fly a flock of seagulls.
From the right we see the beginning of life
In the next one something strange
The progress of life goes on skies
This does not provide a glide.
When the empty moments come,
and loneliness encloses us.
The hard strokes with the oar of life
give us strength to be our loved one’s stretcher.

Hedda Eldøen, Hege Pernille Aaslid Edvardsen and Line Johansen

Between document and monument

In the early summer of 1994, I spent some time on a bus along with a number of artists and fellow critics, travelling through parts of the (at the time) almost completed Artscape Nordland. The bus drove at high speed through a dramatic and much-changing landscape, stopping only to allow us to take in a new artistic project, then moving on. One sublime vista was rapidly exchanged for the next, each stop confronting us once more with the different artists’ varying – but often also surprisingly similar – attempts to grapple with the immensity of the sky, the mountains and the sea in the county of Nordland. After a while, the brutality of the perspective we were offered started to make itself felt. It was as if we had been thrown back to some primal condition when all humans could do was to make some simple, and hopefully magical, markings that either would or would not ally them favourably with the overwhelming forces of nature. Singular gestures, simple lines, raw materials, primary conditions of reflection or mimesis, prevailed. Projects that alluded more specifically to the existence of human society and its communicational complexities were few and far between. At this point, the rapid bus-trip made us even more conscious of the artificiality of the very viewing condition we were now parts of: “Normally”, we thought, these artistic markings in the wilderness would not constitute an “exhibition” for anybody. They would be left more or less alone with the elements; and beyond that take on an inadequate second life in photographs and postcards.

It was perhaps against the backdrop of this experience that I experienced a curious sense of release as the bus came to a halt in a small mountain valley, where the road passed directly beneath a sand quarry before a turn would lead it into a slow descent. By chance, the sun was out, creating sharp shadows which allowed us to get the full effect of the work on offer. In the sand quarry above us, four niches, reinforced by concrete, had been carved out in the sand, three of them containing objects that anyone with the slightest ethnological interest would identify as a generalised take on the type of primary tools that transcend most cultural differences. The fourth niche was empty.

From where we were standing, however, the play of light made the niches appear not so much as three-dimensional spaces containing real objects, but as flat images, as photographic black & white prints, for instance, with their stark contrasts between light and shadow. As it happened, the title of the piece underscored the plausibility of this impression. Urbonas had named it Four Exposures – a name obviously evoking the flash-like rapidity of the photographic procedure. Moreover, the reference to photography also seemed to reflect in a cannily realistic way the particular viewing condition of our group of dizzy bus-tourists. The quick snap which freezes and flattens three dimensions into two seemed perfectly aligned with the visual effect of a rapid drive-by vision, which is of course how the work is mostly going to be seen. The stark dichotomy between too-unique marks and too-emphemeral documentation that haunts most site-specific work had here simply dissolved into thin air: This work was, already, at the outset, its own documentation, recording (perhaps) the feverish activities of a modern documentary culture set on recovering in the greatest possible detail any trace of those primal passages between nature and culture. And as a piece of documentation it included what could now be celebrated as one of the finest achievements of any moderately sophisticated sign-language: the possibility to mis-communicate. The fourth niche was empty, empty as a frame in a film that has failed to develop, or as a sentence in which a word has gone missing or been misunderstood. The fourth niche was a zero in the system, showing us, with great humour and understanding, the limitations and frailty of the big art-nature game we had all been drawn into. We were now free to move through the rest of the “artscape” as the big image, the spectacular widescreen panorama, it had of course been all along. I remember the rest of the trip as being absolutely free of worry.

Ina Blom

I found this gravel roof to be quite striking. I look at it as a cinema screen. It is entirely square from a distance.
Gediminas Urbonas. Nordlands Framtid 02.09.93

What is the use of placing four stalls in the bush? Sure, there is a point. In that way inspiration and counterbalance are provided against all that which is edible.
Lars Andreas Larssen at the opening. Nordlands Framtid 06.09.93

Watch out for the chicken wire!  
Headline in Nordlands Framtid, 02.07.1996