Art between Oblivion and Intervention

“What! You here, old man? You in such a place! You the ambrosia eater, the drinker of quintessences! This is really a surprise.”
“My friend, you know my terror of horses and vehicles. Well, just now as I was crossing the boulevard in a great hurry, splashing through the mud in the midst of a seething chaos, and with death galloping at me from every side, I gave a sudden start and my halo slipped off my head and fell into the mire of the macadam. I was far too frightened to pick it up. I decided it was less unpleasant to lose my insignia than to get my bones broken. Then too, I reflected, every cloud has a silver lining. I can now go about incognito, be as low as I please and indulge in debauch like ordinary mortals. So here I am as you see, exactly like yourself.”
“But aren’t you going to advertise for your halo, at least? Or notify the police?”
“No, I think not. I like it here. You are the only person who has recognized me. Besides I am bored with dignity, and what’s more, it is perfectly delightful to think of some bad poet picking it up and brazenly putting it on. To make some one happy, ah, what a pleasure! Especially some one you can laugh at. Think of X! Think of Z! Don’t you see how amusing it will be?”
Charles Baudelaire, Loss of a Halo, in Paris Spleen, XLVI, Paris 1869

This text has always struck me, ever since I was a boy, because next to the reality of my everyday life, it gave such a good description of that particular impression of schizophrenia bestowed by the art taught at school. On one hand, I was surrounded by the world that we live in, while on the other I was learning that art is something else, far away in a poetic sense, a sort of world unto itself caught up in an obsolete past which, as I had learnt, was not able to describe what was happening to and around me. In books and sporadic exhibitions, whenever I happened upon recent avant-garde art it had an unusual ability to generate bewilderment and interest, like some things that had impressed me in the Arte Povera and Conceptual Art movements of the 1960s and 70s.
The exhibition Kunst mellom glemsel og intervensjon (Art between Oblivion and Intervention) compares a series of photographic portraits by Elin Andreassen (b. 1965), and a selection of sketches taken from the drawing pads of Gunnar Haukebø (1909–1993), two completely different artists in terms of era and location, technique and gender.
The most apparent point of contact between their works is a certain likeness in their choosing themes inspired by the world of work.

Almost by chance Elin Andreassen comes into contact with the crew of a Russian trawler docking in the port of Trondheim to make some repairs. She exchanges some words with the men from the quay; she asks if she can take some photos of them. The meeting gives her the chance to make new acquaintances and to access a workplace in decay, Trondheims Verft AS, the town’s shipyard. The experience has repercussions on how she acts as a person and as an artist in the world – it is an experience that stimulates research and empathy with the employees’ circumstances of social insecurity, as their job, profession and skills are constantly in danger of being supplanted by other kinds of business activity. The resulting photographic project can also be regarded as an archive of ethnographical and anthropological interest – her documentation becomes an attempt to keep a hold on an industrial setting under dismantlement in contemporary Norway for just a little while longer.
Gunnar Haukebø was a respected artist from the aftermath of the Second World War onwards. His career as an artist began at the end of the 1920s and ended with his death at the beginning of the 1990s. Often reappearing as the subject of his paintings is the daily life of farmers and fishermen – the surroundings that had shaped the artist as he grew up – depicted with attention and affection, against the background of an idyllic world. Haukebø’s art reflects a notion of art where art and life are separate and distinct, perhaps irreconcilable dimensions.[1] A painting is a window on the world, a depiction defined in space by the sides of the canvas, and external reality only gains access in a figurative form, after passing through the sieve of style. The place confined within the sides of the canvas, the sheet of paper or the pedestal was the area where the artist had to limit his human commitment, outside this area the artist did not dare to go.
While Elin Andreassen’s photographic project is the documentation, designed go on public display, of a prior process of meeting and making acquaintances, Gunnar Haukebø’s sketches are fragments of a very personal diary belonging to the private sphere of the artist’s profession, so they were not meant for public display. These sketches, exposed to the public’s gaze for the first time, connect up to the finest classic drawing tradition. Here, in the product of an action not meant to satisfy the public’s requirements, we can make out the artist’s thoughts, expressed freely here, much more than in his paintings. It is probably thanks to the private nature of the work that the artist manages to escape the mission that the new political regime’s propaganda machine gave to artists after the war, that is, to celebrate a world under reconstruction that would replace the memory of the recent disasters of war with work, progress and social security.
Haukebø’s sketches are also the testimony of a way of doing and thinking which may have been lost forever: the contents of an image do not reside so much in the chosen subject, instead the motif becomes the opportunity to express an independent form rooted in tradition.

By art we often mean the product of a practical and intellectual experience that through a long process of confirmation and separation from the specific context of production is elevated to the rank of object/good, exhibited in appointed spaces such as galleries, fairs and museums or biennials.
The artistic product comes into being when, by placing it on display, a dialogue is established between the work and the spectator. According to Marcel Duchamp’s explanation, the creative act is not «performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.»[2] Contemporary art may make some shake their heads – and some really angry – but much more often it meets with success among the public visiting the galleries and museums. It is the raw form of art, not yet digested by the historians and smoothed down by time, which often also recounts the inconvenience of living in a particular time.


Every period of history has taken shape through signs, gestures, situations and settings, words, images, sounds and movements.
«Ever since it has existed, art has never been used to describe the outer and most pleasant aspects of existence alone, but also and above all to narrate the whole of reality, good or bad. It has been used by religion, politics, love, psychoanalysis, power and violence to give shape to ideas, madness, dreams and reality without which it would never have found a manner of expression.»[3]

The art that still makes an impression on us despite the passing of centuries once was the product of the urgency to recount the world as we live and experience it, which adapted the language and the experience inherited from others to each new situation and point of view.

The title of the exhibition refers to the different ways of conceiving of art, and alludes to a before and an after – a past and a present – a passage, back and forth in a period of history which, in all truth, is ideal in its inclusion of two centuries, where the before and the after are marked by an evident break in both the way of organising society and the way of depicting it.
In his analysis of contemporary society Zygmunt Bauman distinguishes a ‘solid’ modernity from a ‘liquid’ one: the first is the part of history that we are seeing come to an end, which began with the industrial revolution; the second is the constantly changing continuation and metamorphic variation of the former, the present day.

The consolidation of capitalism during the twentieth century led to a mass restructuring of labour institutions and organisation, through the regulation and mobilisation of civil society based on the large-scale production of consumer goods and growth of the owners’ capital, which would culminate in Welfare,[4] the meeting of capital and social democracy. In the era of ‘solid modernity’, time developed in a linear manner, marked by the hooters of increasingly large factories bordered by high walls where access was regulated and monitored, which took up bigger and bigger areas of the land. Inside and outside the factories, the destiny of an increasingly broad section of the population was decided by the fast pace of the means of production. The ideal of this period was the rationalised division of work introduced by Henry Ford, where the relationship between worker and machine was studied down to the smallest detail to increase profit and avoid wasting resources which would reduce the production efficiency. By becoming consumers themselves, the workers would in turn ensure a continual demand for products and the propagation of a system which would progressively come to reign in all areas and at all levels of geography and the human condition.
At the assembly line the former craftsmen lost all love and pride in their work. In the era of technical reproduction and the industry of culture, art also lost its historic purpose and the endless attempts to regain the public function that it had held in the past became an obsession.
Our times, the times of ‘liquid modernity’, are difficult to define. It is the era of temporary identities, where the speed of means of transport and communication has overwhelmed the conception of space and time by cancelling out geographical distances between here and anywhere, while making others insurmountable. Whereas the old economic system may have tended to absorb wider and wider areas of territory to include in the production system, glossing over the difference between city and country, and affecting new parts of the planet, the new has consolidated its hegemony with the authority of a natural phenomenon, dissolving all bonds between economy and territory.
Nowadays it is almost impossible to imagine the world represented by Gunnar Haukebø, when people’s lives were strictly connected to a single place, and where the survival of one depended on the survival of the others; for many it will instead be easier to see themselves – perhaps feel empathy for them – in the destiny of the workers depicted by Elin Andreassen.
Today it is almost embarrassing to speak of the dehumanisation of society. Not because it is not a burning and topical subject, but because separation has become the common existential condition. Even the sound of the word ‘progress’, which in the past sounded like a programme, has now taken on an uncertain value. It no longer points forwards, but instead takes on a frighteningly retroactive value. Immersed as we are, each of us inward-looking, in an eternal present, swaying between the obsession of buying one consumer product and the next, the dimensions of past and future become improbable and tend to disappear from the horizon.
Perhaps this is why I felt the urgency to put two production methods into historical context by placing them alongside each other, and to try to single out the common thread that, beyond the differences in time, intentions and technique, unites the two poetics under what for simplicity’s sake we can call art.
On one hand we have a self-fulfilling art that relegates raw everyday reality to a different dimension; and on the other hand we get another that feels it has to intervene directly in life, perhaps in the hope of helping to change it.

10 May 2009

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NOTES

[1] «The four sides of the painting are  thus an abrupt leaving off of the activity, which our imaginations continue outward indefinitely, as though refusing to accept the artificiality of an “ending”. In an older work, the edge was a far more precise caesura: here ended the world of the artist; beyond began the world of the spectator and “reality”.» Allan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, 1958
[2] Marcel Duchamp, The Crative Act, Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19th, 1961. Published in: Art and Artists, 1-4 (July 1966)
[3] Francesco Bonami, Lo potevo fare anch’io – Perché l’arte contemporanea è davvero arte, Milano, 2007
[4] Zygmunt Bauman, Work, consumerism and the new poor, Open University Press, UK 1998

Arte tra oblio e impegno
Kunst mellom glemsel og intervensjon

Read texts by Elin Andreassen e Marianne Haukebø in the catalogue (Norwegian)
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See the catalogue here