Complexity Needs Limits

The third instalment of The Hannah Ryggen Triennial prompts the question of society’s technical justification.

Hannah Ryggen, We Are Living on a Star, 1958. Tapestry in wool and linen. Photo: Thor Nielsen.

In the last decade, Hannah Ryggen (1894–1970) has played an important role in the restoration of a more overtly socially-engaged art than was generally seen just a generation ago. Her tapestry We Are Living on a Star (1958) hung inside the Høyblokken government building in Oslo that was bombed in 2011, and the gash that the work sustained has been incorporated into the image as the sign of an artwork that has transcended art’s separation from social reality – a literally participatory art. The Hannah Ryggen Triennial, which opened in Trondheim last weekend, is the second time that this charismatic tapestry has formed the hub of a curatorial project exploring the relationship between art and society. (The first time was the exhibition We Are Living on a Star at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in 2014.)

The Hannah Ryggen Triennial 2022
Hannah Ryggen-senteret, Kjøpmannsgata Ung Kunst (K.U.K.), Kunsthall Trondheim, Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum, Trondheim kunstmuseum, Trondheim

Solveig Lønmo, the curator of the triennial’s three-part main exhibition Anti-Monument, has emphasised the political calls for action voiced by Ryggen’s tapestries and given We Are Living on a Star a central position at Trondheim Kunstmuseum’s main venue at Gråmølna. The second part of the main exhibition is located at the Hanna Ryggen Centre in Ørland, where Ryggen lived most of her life, an hour’s boat ride from the city centre. The third part, at Austrått Manor, also in Ørland, will open in May. The triennial also includes: a Hege Lønning (1961-2018) retrospective at Trondheim Kunstmuseum’s satellite venue in Bispegata; a group show featuring Julie Ebbing and The Hannah Ryggen Army at KUK (Kjøpmannsgata Ung Kunst); and the group exhibition Unweaving the Binary Code at Kunsthall Trondheim.

The triennial is arranged by the National Museum of Decorative Arts and Design (Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum), owner of the largest collection of Ryggen’s art. This third instalment is the first that involves other actors from the Trondheim art scene. Ryggen’s tapestries anchor the somewhat jarring parts of the triennial’s core: one work by Ryggen has been set aside for each of the auxiliary exhibitions, while the main exhibition is practically wallpapered in them. The discordance suggests that the triennial is infected with the organisational opportunism typical of the biennial format. Naturally, one of the triennial’s purposes – besides highlighting Ryggen’s contemporary relevance – is to use the artist’s allure to generate a local event of some magnitude. This is fine in itself, but it tempts me to pass over those parts that feel most tenuously connected with the centre, such as the otherwise excellent and extensive Hege Lønne retrospective and the exhibition at KUK.

Jonas Dahlberg, Memory Wound, 2014. Illustration: Jonas Dahlberg Studio.

Anti-Monument I at Gråmølna is a dense hang. Several of Ryggen’s tapestries are presented on curious pieces of display furniture that jut out from the wall at an angle, helping to accentuate their monumental character. The walls are painted a deep grey-blue, giving the room a church-like feel. The discreet voiceover from Jonas Dahlberg’s essayistic documentary Notes on a Memorial (2018), in which he reflects on his winning, but ultimately rejected proposal for a memorial commemorating the Utøya terrorist attack (perpetrated by the same man who placed the bomb outside the government quarters in Olso), seeps soothingly into the exhibition. The Dahlberg controversy relates to the triennial’s overarching focus on monuments and the problem of representation as a case study in how democratic mechanisms can put a spanner in the works of such projects. Even (or perhaps especially) for a critical and self-reflective monumentality – characteristically called a memorial – such as Dahlberg’s planned incision in the landscape. Without rehashing the story in too much detail, the realisation of Dahlberg’s memorial was stopped after pressure from local residents in the area where it was to be created.

Britta Marakatt-Labba’s embroidery Past – Present (2021–22) represents an art that, like Ryggen’s, is based on a continuation of tradition rather than a break with it. It depicts an elongated scene made with small densely arranged stitches in boldly contrasting colours against a shiny white background. The narration moves from right to left, and like other embroideries by Marakatt-Labba juxtaposes Sámi tradition and modern technological infrastructure – in this case, wind turbines and railways. Marakatt-Labba’s linear pictorial space corresponds with the literary tendency in Ryggen’s The Sinner (1926), placed nearby.

The Sinner illustrates a biblical story as a commentary on the era’s discussions about contraception and abortion. The scene is more conventionally narrative than the artist’s later works. A band of text runs along the lower edge, identifying the exact story for those conversant with the Bible. However, interpretation is required in order to see the work’s function as an entry in a discussion of sexual politics. A curatorial approach which aims to emphasise the political messages of art cannot leave all mediation to the image alone, unless one exclusively chooses works that, like Dahlberg’s film, quite literally explain themselves. Anti-Monument solves this communicative challenge by providing detailed accompanying texts explaining the works’ historical context and intentions as social commentary.

Hannah Ryggen, The Sinner, 1926. Tapestry in wool, linen, and metal. Foto: Anders Sundet Solberg.

The insistence on Ryggen’s role as a political chronicler and debater inevitably overshadows other aspects of her tapestries. One of them is the role abstraction plays. In Ryggen’s work, obviously representational figures often vie with ornamental content and a trend towards reduction. This can be due to several things: an adherence to a traditional decorative mode of depiction that flattens the subject matter; the influence of the abstract tendencies in modernist art; or an economy of detail necessitated by the physical heft and constraints of the medium. In some places, abstract elements become figuratively legible, for example, as representations of a systemic brutality that surrounds vulnerable (and often naked) human figures. There is something strikingly morbid about the fields teeming with disembodied hands and faces in We Are Living on a Star (1958) and in the dissolving human figure in front of a brick-wall-like grid in the centre of the late tapestry Grey Figure (1961). In both cases, the ornament seems to stand in for a system that challenges the bodies’ integrity.

The exhibition also includes Arthur Jafa’s The White Album (2018), a montage of found video footage showing situations that at times appear as unpleasant diagnoses of a divided North America. A white man in handcuffs directs repeated racist insults at a seemingly unaffected Black female police officer. Other clips are less conflict-ridden, serving more as curious or mocking observations of obscure corners of culture: a grainy close-up of a ridiculously dressed-up keyboardist gesticulating during a gaudy outdoor event. Occasionally, the footage is interspersed with high-resolution portraits where the camera circles inquisitively around white faces, making them the objects of what appears as an ethnographic gaze.

Lønmo describes the anti-monument as a displacement of “history written by the victors,” which it replaces with a different history that accommodates a wider set of perspectives. This multi-perspective approach – which typically promotes the voices of the historically disadvantaged – opposes the notion of the traditional monument being a representation of an actual shared experience, instead revealing it as an instrument of uniformity, exclusion, and oppression. Ultimately, however, a truly consistent anti-monumentalism would replace everything that we recognise as significant meaning-making symbols with a wealth of documents and testimonies which make no claim to any particular ideological or aesthetic relevance beyond their anthropological value. The anti-monumental is perhaps best understood as a process that renegotiates society’s self-image, an object created or arising in the transition between an old and a new order. In terms of media and content, Jafa’s montage resembles a draft for an anti-monument by suggesting a process of endless levelling. The poignant soundtrack that ties the images together is as elegiac as it is hopeful.

Arthur Jafa, The White Album, 2018. Still from video.

One of the inherent paradoxes of artists’ antipathy towards the idea of the monument is that a work almost always implicitly claims to be something to gather around. Even in its most negative version as the destruction of existing symbols, the artwork fulfils a social function that temporarily takes the place of the monument. Presumably, Ryggen did not aim to abolish the monument in the broadest sense, meaning the possibility of a symbolic manifestation of shared values, even if she was critical of hierarchical organisation. The scale of her tapestries suggests that she considered them to be of public interest. Indeed, that is how they are treated. Rather, she wanted to replace an oppressive monumentality with one that symbolised progressive and humanistic values, that is, a monumentality which expresses values associated with culture’s ideal inside rather than symbols of national strength – the opposite of fascism’s cult of war.

In Anti-Monument II at the Hannah Ryggen Centre, the artist’s loom is prominently displayed. Dense and heavy, a tapestry renders visible the labour and time that goes into producing it. Ryggen’s tapestries are emphatically not snapshots; their record of the artist’s time lies deep within the picture. The delay imposed by the process of weaving helps reaffirm the latent monumentality of the image by giving it added weight. A woven detail is more precious than one that is painted. Abstraction becomes a virtue born of necessity. Ryggen made no effort to overcome this limitation; she incorporated it. In Ethiopia (1936), created in response to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the image is depicted using a strictly pared-back grey-beige palette while the representational subject matter, including Mussolini’s decapitated head, is placed in a frieze at the top and the lower two thirds of the work are devoted to a sparse, nonfigurative composition.

Jennie Bringaker’s nine stone sculptures Nos. 1–9 (2020) are divided among the two exhibitions, with three on display at the Hannah Ryggen Centre. They reference the story of nine women who escaped from an internment camp for “Kraut girls” (“tyskertøser,” Norwegian women who were romantically involved with German soldiers) after the Second World War. Bringaker’s figures resemble child-sized versions of ancient fertility symbols, all with their faces distorted in the same caricatured grimace of suffering. On the wall opposite hangs an enlarged low-resolution photo of a boy standing next to a birdcage, his hands folded and his eyes turned to us. The photo was taken with a disposable camera smuggled into Afghanistan by aid workers twelve years ago. The boy and Bringaker’s archaic child-women presumably represent the anonymous gaze that the wall text demands we seek out – and be affected by – in Ryggen’s tapestry. The confrontation between the tapestry and the enlarged photograph tentatively lets the pixelated image take the place of the woven texture, inviting a quasi-photographic reading of Ryggen.

Marilou Schultz, Navajo Weavings’ Lens Through Technology, 2022. Tapestry, 69,85 x 63,5 cm. Foto: Daniel Vincent Hansen.

Curated by Stefanie Hessler and Katrine Elise Pedersen, Unweaving the Binary Code at Trondheim Kunsthall delves deeper into this link between weaving and the digital. In her essay for the exhibition, Hessler refers to British mathematician Ada Lovelace, who wrote the world’s first computer programme, which was used to streamline the textile industry in the mid-19th century. Lovelace’s programming of the loom is a symbolic watershed moment, marking the historical break between a human and a mechanical pace in production. The technological revolution of the textile industry in the first part of the 19th century, also gave rise to Luddism, a workers’ movement pitted against the reign of the machine. In a sense, modernity is the story of man’s replacement. Ryggen’s humanism is not without connection to this historical complex: she seems to observe a correlation between industrialisation (the replacement of man) and militarisation (violence against man), two prominent features of her ideological nemesis, fascism.

But how does such coding inscribe itself in this historical model as an ally of Ryggen’s “luddite” insistence on consideration for human needs and a restitution of craft? Is not the codification of digitisation a continuation of the abstraction and alienation of industrialisation, albeit by more sophisticated means? This conflict is outlined in Marilou Schultz’s traditional handwoven production of digital figures in the form of a QR code (Navajo Weavings’ Lens Through Technology, 2022) and a stock market chart (Stock Market Digital Image, 2022). The handmade pace of weaving is abolished by the digital. Share prices describe a phenomenon that fluctuates in value at speeds so high that we need technological assistance to capitalise on the changes. Schultz’s weaving of the QR code and stock market chart translate visual representations of an information sphere increasingly isolated from a gaze that cannot keep up into relatable and slow images – art.

Pearla Piago and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley join up textile and digital media. Piago’s Wave Shaper (2021) consists of two long, sheer, light-green fabrics with metallic elements that hang from the ceiling and some thigh-high transparent plastic cylinders containing water. Moving in front of the textiles or stirring the water creates an atmospheric sound composition. Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s The First Trans Thought (2021) is a tapestry onto which a succession of slogans and visual effects are projected, intended as an “archive of Black trans thoughts” that rectify their absence from recorded history. Similar intentions underpin Tabitha Nikolai’s Ineffable Glossolalia (2017), an interactive installation where viewers can settle down at a desk to play a computer game where they explore an interior inspired by the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a German research institution which sought to improve the living conditions of transgender people. It was burned down by the Nazis in 1933. Nikolai has reconstructed the institute in an interpreted version that includes rooms which the artist remembers from her own childhood.

Tabitha Nikolai, Ineffable Glossolalia , 2017), installation and virtual landscape made in Unity multi-platform game-engine. Words by: Crystal Castles, Max Beckman, Gaius Valerius Catullus, Heinrich Heine, Magnus Hirschfeld and his institute, Jorge Luis Borges, The National socialist German Student Organisation (Deutsche Studentenschaft), and Tabitha Nikolai. Music by Rani Baker. Photo: Daniel Vincent Hansen.

Transgenderism is also a theme in Mercedes Azpilicueta’s The Lieutenant-Nun is Passing: An Autobiography of Catalina, Antonio, Alfonso and More (2021), a machine-woven collage based on the story of the Spanish nun Catalina de Erauso (1585/92–1650), who presented herself as a man and became a violent conquistador in the New World. Presented as a wavy, propped-up display on a low podium reminiscent of a folding screen, the tapestry is a flowing combination of fragmented and partly pornographic images which illustrate Erauso’s life.

Euraso’s story creates a rift in the programme of solidarity that Unweaving and the triennial as a whole revolve around. A planetary solidarity – which Hessler has spoken out in favour of, both in the context of this exhibition and elsewhere – wants to create equivalence between all wills, to appropriately or inappropriately paraphrase Nietzsche. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means no suffering for anyone. The programme finds a counterpart in an ideology equally fed-up with human concerns that wishes instead to abolish the requirement for all-encompassing care and give free rein to the exercise of power. Euraso’s biography exemplifies such antisocial liberation while at the same time abolishing the alliance between a reassessment of a heteronormative (binary) order and the imperative of care. Instead, it becomes a symptom of a self-assertion freed from biological and ethical restraints, which counter-intuitively perverts the kind of transgression of binaries Unweaving seems to want – a paradox that the exhibition precipitates.

In her catalogue essay, Hessler highlights a statement made by IT scholar Letizia Jaccheri, who says that data coding is only a translation; it cannot capture the full complexity of reality. But the critique of the veracity of reductive binary representation systems should not really be particularly controversial. As the story of Euraso illustrates, the real disagreement is not about whether complexity is real – even bloodthirsty conquistadors and fascists can feel trapped by their biological sex – but about how such complexity should be handled. In other words, how we should organise our social systems. There must be a limit to complexity (and some monuments).

Mercedes Azpilicueta, The Liutenant-Nun is Passing: An Autobiography of Katalina, Antonio, Alfonso and More, 2021. Jacquard tapestry in wool, cotton, and metal, 160 x 400 cm. Photo: Daniel Vincent Hansen.

The article is translated from Norwegian.

The Hannah Ryggen Triennial 2022
Hannah Ryggen-senteret, Kjøpmannsgata Ung Kunst (K.U.K.), Kunsthall Trondheim, Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum, Trondheim kunstmuseum, Trondheim

Participating artists: Hannah Ryggen, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Marsil Andjelov Al-Mahamid, Marit Helen Akslen, Jennie Bringaker, Jonas Dahlberg, Anne-Karin Furunes, Matilde Westavik Gaustad, Arthur Jafa, Britta Marakatt-Labba, Veslemøy Lilleengen, Marthe Minde, Per Kristian Nygård, Frida Orupabo, Threads of Innovation, Anusheh Zia, Hege Lønne, Julie Ebbing, Hannah Ryggen Army, Mercedes Azpilicueta, Charlotte Johannesson, Ann Lislegaard, Tabitha Nikolai, Allison Parrish, Thania Petersen, Pearla Pigao, Marilou Schultz, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Himali Singh Soin, and Vaimaila Urale.


Curators: Stefanie Hessler, Solveig Lønmo, Katrine Elise Pedersen, and Marianne Zamecznik.