The pandemic’s pervasive impact on almost all facets of life since March 2020 has left little imprint on the art shown in Oslo. Why this reluctance to engage? In fairness, there are many good reasons to be hesitant, given that the consequences and significance of the pandemic are still unclear. It’s also perfectly possible that lockdowns and the constant reporting of infection rates, having prompted discomfort and compulsive “doom-scrolling” for many, aren’t thematics that artists would feel the need to revisit immediately.
In the exhibition Among Spirits of Mineral Pitch and Other Public Apparitions at The Young Artists’ Society (UKS), Damla Kilickiran defies such reservations by engaging directly with the pandemic experience and how it has affected the body’s response to its surroundings. The artist’s nocturnal walks in Oslo during the lockdown periods – described in a sound piece – have resulted in an immersive installation. The gallery has been made grey and dark, the light from the windows facing the street blocked by heavy curtains made of faux leather. What little light appears is “doomsday orange” thanks to plastic film on the windows; I imagine something out there is on fire – maybe the whole horizon.
Crumbled asphalt is sprinkled on the floor between several sculptures, also made of asphalt. By the entrance is a shape, rocky black and charred, reminiscent of a fossil, but with rounded edges. Nearby is a steel shelf that extends several metres upwards, filled with cement and asphalt pieces that look like drilling samples. Further in, a monumental figure cast from concrete looms; its body shaped like a solid rectangle, topped by a plump head, and with four solid arms extended outward, large enough that they could embrace me. The sculpture has a cultic quality, yet comes off as personified – a troll or a cyclops turned to stone perhaps.
Taking the sound work describing the artist’s night-time walks into consideration along with the grey-black palette and the stony, hard materials – asphalt, steel, and concrete – the installation reads like a distillation of the Brutalist architecture found in the vicinity of the UKS. Perhaps the small concrete sculptures represent fragments of some of the many large concrete buildings towering above the nearby square St Olavs plass, such as the one originally built for the Oslo Health Council in 1969 after a design by modernist architect Erling Viksjø. This part of Oslo is currently dominated by construction sites and barriers stretching all the way from the quiet streets around UKS to the recently demolished Oslo Government District, of which all that remains is Picasso and Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar’s mural The Fishermen, held hostage in a grey box until it is fixed to the new building. It isn’t hard to imagine this part of the city as alienating during the lockdown, perhaps even mysterious or disconcerting on quiet, empty nights. As such, the installation itself can be imagined as an archaeological site, excavated in some distant future.
Towards the rear of the gallery, next to the sound piece, there is a cast-aluminium sculpture suspended from the ceiling on a chain; it looks like a fragment of a broken wall decoration. In the sound piece, Kilickiran reads a text that takes us to an unspecified construction site. She describes accumulations of asphalt, the smell of sulphur, and a sense of her body being doubled, but still akin to the state of a block of cement. This examination of the body and affects that arise in response to small details in the cityscape constitutes a speculative phenomenology that seems to relate to Henri Bergson’s theory of perception, which was highly influential at the beginning of the last century. Although Kilickiran does not reference Bergson directly, her interest in how perception may relate to matter corresponds with how Bergson, in Matter and Memory (1896), posits the universe as an aggregate of images that transmit movement to the body.
Kilickiran’s sparse descriptions of the setting and long-winded evaluations of how her body is affected by perception are numbing. But the way I see it, this numbing mode should also be understood as an aesthetic exploration of the psychology and affects of the pandemic. Boredom caused by nothing happening, combined with a hyper-vigilant and constant evaluation of the body’s distance to other bodies, an awareness of every surface touched, body temperature, and the constant monitoring of ones airways for symptoms – all this culminating in the inability to perceive or evaluate any sort of whole clearly. Whether it is the world or our bodies being distorted is unclear. Among Spirits of Mineral Pitch and Other Public Apparitions draws on the transformational potential of such disconnects.