In Praise of Action

Bringing together energetic painting and climate activism, Margrethe Kolstad Brekke’s exhibition at Hordaland Kunstsenter asserts the role of individual agency in fashioning a sustainable future.

Margrethe Kolstad Brekke, Radio Luftballett:
The case for hope amidst climate change catastrophe
, 2019, still image from video.

Homer Simpson’s face painted on a sail, a doctor’s environmentalist poetry as soundtrack to a video, and GoPro footage of hang-gliding legend Jon Gjerde; how might these trifling appropriated icons and voices help strengthen an exhibition about saving the planet? They don’t in themselves, but the sheer weight of Margrethe Kolstad Brekke’s subject finds reprieve in thoughtful gestures not easily assimilated. Her exhibition, Potential Exceeds the Demand at Hordaland Kunstsenter presents a body of artistic research connected to current science on sustainable energy transition, and in particular the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG).

The exhibition is one part of a series of events, organised by Kolstad Brekke and Dr. Siddharth Sareen from the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation (CET), taking place at Hordaland Kunstsenter and the Bergen Public Library that also includes talks, workshops, lectures, and actions centred on the issue of energy transfer politics. Potential Exceeds the Demand can be seen as the culmination of the artist’s five-year-long investigation into how art can contribute to the promotion of sustainable climate solutions. Previous manifestations include podcasts, hang-glider ballets, and imported wooly Hungarian pigs.

The exhibition comprises mostly new work spanning installation, watercolour, and dyed and painted textiles. Each piece is a personal construal of the often inaccessible scientific schematics, tables, and raw data that undergird the UN’s climate policy. Kolstad Brekke delivers us into a dialectic between activism and aesthetics, making it hard to peg her work as one or the other. The public has to decide for itself whether her objects operate as independent artworks, or if they must be understood as artistic means to facilitate a political process.

Three sails bathed in dye, then painted with acrylics dominate the space suspended from the ceiling: The Next Great Acceleration Pattern Block, Squaring the Circle, Rhythmic Energy Mixes: Days and years with Dr. Siddharth Sareen (all 2019). As with most modern woven sailcloth fabric, these are made from polyester, whereas in the past, sails or canvases were made from natural textiles such as linen, hemp, or cotton. Maybe it is an unfair criticism, but it seems reasonable to expect an artist asserting the value of individual agency in the face of the massive structural changes needed to meet the UN SDG targets, to use sustainable materials. This ‘ethical slip’, however, doesn’t impede the more important function of the sails, which is to serve as metaphor for the transition into a sustainable future. Indeed, a shape reminiscent of a glider’s wing or a boat’s sail also figures in one of Kolstad Brekke’s paintings, Synchronous flying at Lista Airborne Wind Energy Center (2018).

Margrethe Kolstad Brekke, Potential Exceeds the Demand, 2019, installation view. Photo: Hordaland Kunstsenter.

The UN’s brand management and communiqué about the use of the UN SDG logo and colour palette is prescriptive, almost threatening to read. Kolstad Brekke has reproduced the colour palette, but not the official UN SDG colour wheel on a large painted sail (The Next Great Acceleration Pattern Block). Did she break the rules of the UN SDG colour police? If she did, it would echo the warning in her video installation UN SDG parade, Bergen, 2018, where the University of Bergen’s Energy Director Kristin Frøysa exposes the inherent tensions and even paradoxical nature of the goals themselves. For instance, can we have perpetual economic growth, as stated in SDG 8, and simultaneously take the realistic climate action SDG 13 urges?

By ‘flying’ the colour schema used by the UN, Kolstad Brekke wants us to see her work as an ally to the UN’s demand for a paradigmatic shift in energy politics. Simultaneously, by including tokens of the ephemeral or even trivial, like Homer Simpson’s painted visage making an appearance on the highest point of one of the sails, she questions the role of individual human agency in making this move. Homer’s image on a sail is a jocular reference to the Greek epic poem Odyssey by legendary author Homer. Similar to classicists’ debate over Homer’s existence, Kolstad Brekke’s exhibition prompts the question: Who is the author of our shared odyssey? The inclusion of Dr. Siddharth Sareen’s poem and Jon Gjerde suggests an answer: climate scientist, hang-glider, or painter; everyone’s potential for action will play a role in making the switch to renewables.

Margrethe Kolstad Brekke, Synchronous flying at Lista Airborne Wind Energy Center, 2018. Photo: Hordaland Kunstsenter