The most striking displays at Josefine Lyche’s exhibition The World‘s Darkening Never Reaches To The Light of Being at QB Gallery in Oslo is a series of paintings where acrylics and paint thinner have been smeared together to form motifs that look like Monet on acid. This particular mode of expression has been in Lyche’s repertoire ever since she graduated from the art academy in 2004. Back then, art critic Tommy Olsson described the approach as an “irrational and unexpected thing to do”. Now, some years later, Lyche’s pastel puddles have become part of the zeitgeist. Nineties-inspired new age motifs are currently bubbling up on image sharing services such as Tumblr. Do an image search for “vaporwave”, “chillwave” or “seapunk”, and you will find plenty of contour-less landscapes with sunsets in pinks, purples and turquoise, often with geometric shapes, crystals and occult symbols hovering ethereally in the air. What seemed “unexpected” in 2004, at least in a Norwegian context, had by 2012 become a background effect for Rihanna’s performance of the song Diamonds on Saturday Night Live.
On the walls next to the paintings, Lyche has arranged a number of so-called cosplay wigs in various colours to form rectangular fields. Cosplay is a trend where practitioners dress up as characters from games, animation or superhero films. The link between the wigs and the paint is quite concrete: both are made of acrylics, and the wig arrangements have been placed so that their palettes match those of the paintings.
One of the series of paintings featured in the exhibition is called Untitled (Where No One Has Gone Before). Lyche’s cosmic ambitions and colour palettes present obvious parallels to one of the major new video games out this autumn: No Man’s Sky for PC and Playstation 4. The game allows you to explore a universe of 18 quintillion planets inhabited by an infinite number of different organisms. Here you will quite literally go where no one has gone before. Even so, critical reception of the game has been lukewarm: even purple skies and unlikely imaginary creatures eventually become humdrum when nothing is at stake. Lyche’s paintings and wigs are similarly at risk of merging and blurring to form a homogenous, dreamy backdrop.
Amidst all these visually simpering pastels, a charred pinewood pole rises staunchly. The shape – as well as the German title of the work, Sternwürfel (in loving memory of Peter) – links to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and his hut on Todtnauberg. Heidegger retreated to this place to lead a simpler existence in keeping with his romantic, peasant ideals. Here he found the peace and quiet necessary to think and to write portions of his major work, Being and Time. A photograph shows Heidegger at Todtnauberg fetching water from a well similar to Lyche’s sculpture, including the star-shaped cube on top.
One of the key concepts in Being and Time is that of “Lichtung” – clearing. Unlike the dense forest, a clearing allows us to see freely and clearly. The world reveals itself in the clearing. In Heidegger, and in much of the thinking he has prompted in others, humankind becomes the clearing from which being is understood and given meaning. In Lyche’s sculpture, however, the sheer materiality is very insistent, paving the way for links to less anthropocentric modes of thought such as ecocriticism and new materialism. The pine pole is marbled by white, fluffy stripes. Here humankind is not what brings the light; this can only be mould. Might Lyche’s motif then be described as a “dark ecology”, to use a term coined by philosopher Timothy Morton? Morton is critical of the romanticised image of nature as something good and beautiful to which we must return. As he points out, nature is also cruel and destructive. But then again, what could be more romantic than life seeing an opportunity and seizing it?
Bearing in mind the cosplay wigs and the cosmic escapism of the paintings, this can then be evolved into a more general critique of our time: what does it say about us when cosmic yearnings and playing with our identities have a stronger standing than our identification with the ecologies and organisms with which we share this planet? We can dream up planet-hopping adventures and superheroes who will save us from our own destruction, but we fail to take concrete action to stop global warming and reduce already-excessive extinction rates for plants and animals. This is where the darkness is festering: Within the human clearing, where our own dreams are always so much more important than the simple and complex organisms that suffer the consequences.