Good ideas

Snorre Ytterstad's works at the National Museum offer invitingly effective production, but a didactic relation to history mars them.

Snorre Ytterstad, Launch Pad for Norwegian Spruce, 1999. Photo: Stian Gabrielsen.

Yes, Snorre Ytterstad makes much use of ready-mades in the comprehensive mid-career exhibition now showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art. But these found objects are often so radically assisted and altered that they don’t separate themselves significantly from other artistic materials. They do bring along their biographies as things, which with varying degrees of precision are illuminated in the work, but that’s not the main point, regardless of the assertions in the foreword to the exhibition catalog. The scrupulous work given the preparation and use of these found (or, I suspect, often bought) things-as-material means that one can’t say there has been any contextual displacement in the traditional sense. Instead the objects seem heavily charged components in more complex, planned constructions where their status as “ready-mades” is of less importance.

Snorre Ytterstad, Portrait of Proteus, detail, 2007. Photo: Stian Gabrielsen.

If one looks for historical predecessors of Ytterstad the parallel to Joseph Kosuth is more striking than that to Marcel Duchamp. This particularly involves the logic of tautology most of the exhibited works play with on one level or another. But the tautological conception is far less stringent and to a far smaller degree carried through structurally with Ytterstad than with Kosuth. Analytic philosophy is scarcely a main impulse. Instead this constantly recurring tautology is employed as a strategic, formal signature in many of the works, often in the relation between title and central motif in the work or between material and depiction. The small sculpture Portrait of Proteus is for example really a portrait of the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, carved out of what was originally an ebony elephant. The work is concerned to a greater degree with biographical and mythological material than with its own function as art object. (Proteus is a shape-shifting god of the sea in Greek mythology.) So this essentially self-referential figure—The Elephant Man carved from an elephant—annexes an overwhelming narrative that distances Ytterstad from concept art’s didactic-semantic scheme of investigation and instead sets in motion an almost literary production of histories and digressions.

Snorre Ytterstad, Obstruction (after Man Ray) with Hugo Boss Business Shirt-Boss Black, Enzo Pastel Blue, detail, 2010. Photo: Stian Gabrielsen.

So in many ways it is more relevant to say that Ytterstad takes the art object back to a “literariness” in which the work serves as illustration more than to demonstrate its autonomy or reflect on the institutional circumstances of art. Even when these institutional structures are indicated—as in Obstruction (after Man Ray) with Hugo Boss Business Shirt-Boss Black, Enzo Pastel Blue, a remake of Man Ray’s clothes-hanger mobile Obstruction – this remains precisely an indicative operation that resides a tad too lucidly in its own illustrative agenda. Not that it makes you miss transgression or institutional critique, but when problems bound up with an art object’s character as a ware are touched on, these illustrative and referential works come across as somewhat too sterile and tidy. The same is true when the political comes into play, as in the pubescent anagram-game of On a Tightrope a Screw Thinks Shit. The result is a kind of proto-subversion in the good old spirit of Adbusters, childishly lost on this side of the new millennium.

Snorre Ytterstad, On a Tightrope a Screw Thinks Shit, detail, 2008. Photo: Stian Gabrielsen.

As if to underscore the return to the literary, the above-mentioned sculpture Portrait of Proteus is shown in a glass installation on a pedestal. The use of conceptual art’s formal trope, the tautology, thus becomes something to think of as an informed nod to art history rather than a consistent and operative premise. The focus on craftsmanship is especially symptomatic of this emphasis on mediation of content. The avant-garde, here conceptualism, is treated by Ytterstad primarily as artistic material. Art announces the passage to a less self-referential form and works in a commenting, almost essay-like mode. This frees up an abundance of creative possibilities, but the strong wish to communicate (in order to legitimize) simultaneously creates a particular didactic pattern. The works are too helpful in exemplifying the typically artistic as they attempt to show us their occupancy of the territory of art—as in the work Recoil, in which a rifle hanging from a steel wire stretched across the room seems to have been fired at the wall. The recoil has sent the weapon the opposite way. The title homes in on the dynamic principle in the work, which also is vacant. All one is left with are the processual traces: the sooty area on the wall and the rifle’s distance to the same wall, which one guesses was less before the rifle was fired. As observer one assimilates immediately the work’s literal intention. But this didacticism brings with it no radical de-aesthetization or repoliticization of the art object. Indeed Ytterstad’s works are given invitingly effective production, are actually at times gimmicky, as if they were requisitions from the entertainment industry.

Snorre Ytterstad, Recoil, 2011. Photo: Stian Gabrielsen.

The work in the exhibition which is to the greatest degree free of the aping of modernism’s self-referentiality is the installation Launch Pad for Norwegian Spruce. What looks like a fully functioning launching ramp for spruce trees is set up in the middle of the floor surrounded by paper tubes with explosives. One tube lies burned out, indicating that something has in fact been shot from the construction. In addition to the launching ramp itself is also found a pile of photographs of a spruce tree swaying high over a forest—maybe a documentation photo (in any case meant to represent one)—together with a miniature model of the launching ramp placed on top of a well-used stepladder in actual size. We have here a concrete scenographic narrative. The objects in the installation are subordinate illustrations directed by a palpably prosaic economy. At the same time the “literary subject” remains synonymous with Ytterstad’s own artistic subject: he is the inventor of this absurd contraption. This performative blending with the eccentric who wants to shoot spruce trees up in the air, activates a cloyingly romantic nimbus.

Snorre Ytterstad, Bird in Space, video projection, 2002.

Clearly the most interesting work in the exhibition is the film Bird in Space, where a dove with a helmet camera has fluttered aimlessly around in Ytterstad’s studio. The result is a hectic little film in which the disturbed dove’s movements direct the video image. We see rapid, unfocused sweeps of the room, and now and then a man shows up in the picture, probably Ytterstad himself. Flapping and bumping against walls and ceiling make the image shake and dissolve in abstract noise with uneven intervals. Considering the rather designed authority that characterizes the other works, to here give the director’s chair to a frightened bird is a charmingly generous gesture. Of course Ytterstad doesn’t yield control completely, and the title forces the work into dialog with Brancusi’s sculpture of the same name. But this contextualizing operation is fortunately too relaxed to invade the film’s poetic and autonomous universe.

Within a homogeneous cultural practice as in the field of contemporary art, the reference to other participants is always implicit in the sense that comparisons will occur no matter how directly similarities and connections are intended. When the work of art explicitly cites art history, as is often the case with Ytterstad, it quickly acquires the character of a parasitic and forced act of belonging. Often it is playful and smart, but sometimes also hollow and defenseless. Ytterstad’s phlegmatic ways are not the problem, but more the lack of will to withdraw from clarification and oversight. It is as if quotation becomes the works’ most important motivation as they, almost chronically, forestall their own historization.

Snorre Ytterstad, Launch Pad for Norwegian Spruce, detalj, 1999. Foto: Stian Gabrielsen.

Translation from the Norwegian by Richard Simpson.