Insatiable Us

In New Visions, the considered triennial at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, photography and new media are complicit in the exploitation of the planet’s resources.

Seif Kousmate, WAHA / Untitled, 2021. 

This second instalment of the photo triennial New Visions at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter boasts of addressing acutely topical themes, and it is impossible to disagree with them. The presentation dives right into the complex entanglements of present-day power politics: extraction of resources, energy distribution, and data storage, as interpreted by twenty-two artists – mainly from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Raising one’s gaze from the hitherto ubiquitous North American references is quite refreshing. The Central Asian artists in particular showcase the kind of force fields that can arise when traditions are drenched by global culture. What ripple effects does the insatiable need for resources create now that we are all trapped in the headlock of the Anthropocene?

New Visions – The Henie Onstad Triennial for Photography and New Media
Henie Onstad Art Center, Bærum

In its 2020 incarnation, the triennial comprised a number of interesting independent projects, all characterised by directing individual attention to observed phenomena. Photographic technology, the apparatus itself, contributed a complex and playful distortion of perception and imagination. The plasticity enabled by digital technology, with virtual reality as a particularly extreme form and social media as a universalised format, was highlighted. Between then and now we have seen the rise of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and this year’s exhibition incorporates structural and psychological changes brought about by these events, still diffuse in outline.

More than ever, the screen is a means of taking in the world and communicating from a distance. Neïl Beloufa attempts to cross this communicative boundary with his two video sculptures, robotic hosts that comically (and vainly) try to connect with their audience through pre-programmed tricks such as chatting and selfies. These digital critters repeatedly throw out questions about our favourite colours and similar, but their aggravating, new-museum demands for a response are met with silence – at least, mine. The intermingling of spheres was not fully realised.

Neïl Beloufa, EBB, Host B trying to reach out to its audience, 2021.

In 2023, the world is a scene of struggles for resources, cultural belonging, and the interpretation of history. It is as if the exhibition treats photography and media art more belligerently than before, seeing them as informed expressions of geopolitical and collective upheavals and crises. Even so, hopelessness does not reign supreme. An excellent example is Haig Aivazian’s engrossing video All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes (2021). The work takes its rather broad and lofty starting point in the distribution of light and shadow on Earth, and then goes on to tighten its focus by showing how lighting enables movement but also supports control regimes. Documentary material presents elements such as the extraction of whale oil for lamps as well as the structuring and monitoring of movement in public spaces. Light used for mechanical registration changes things, people, and animals, depending on who has a vested interest in seeing. Beirut, a place where no one can trust urban planning to be in the best interest of citizens, is at the centre of this eclectic juxtaposition.

The somewhat untimely media-specific way of thinking signalled by the triennial is subjected to various thrusts and parries throughout, not least by giving priority to porous borders abutting other media and techniques – often in the form of textile works. For example, Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili operates in the borderland between photography and textiles, taking her starting point in imagery on plastic bags intended for the tourist market in her home country of Georgia. Georgian Ornament (2020–21) is a series of photographs of such bags bearing ethnically specific ornamentation taken from Byzantine church architecture. Here, cultural distinctiveness is kneaded and abstracted into yet another product devoid of ecological considerations: the plastic bag is, after all, eternal and universal rubbish. A transformation of something original is also afoot in Marat Dilman’s photographs from Kazakhstan, featuring studies of folklore offset by contemporary technological frameworks. One of them shows an amulet bearing the evil eye hanging over a surveillance camera. Both objects represent a thin layer of protection, each being, in different ways, a psychological expression of superstition. 

Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine and the Soviet Union’s historic stranglehold on Eastern Europe and Central Asia form a simmering background for the exhibition. Lesia Vasylchenko shows the video installation Sensing the Near Real-Time (SNRT) (2023), one of several works specifically commissioned for the triennial. Visualisations of data from the Earth’s surface are displayed on four screens placed above curved metal hulls. The fact that the artist has gained access to this material – obtained from universities, specialised institutes, and internet platforms – is in itself rather astonishing. The satellite imagery documents changes in geology – melting glaciers in Svalbard, earthquake zones in Ethiopia, Turkey, and Syria, and nuclear power plants in Ukraine, China, and the USA. These partly abstract scenes are set within vaguely sci-fi organic metal frames that give the moving images a tinge of unreality, as if we were staring into magic mirrors. Still, Vasylchenko makes visible an all-too real world, albeit from a great distance: a place of imminent threats rendered concrete in a sculptural simulation of radioactive waste behind glass. A small pile of soil from a war-ravaged field in Ukraine is also included, and the material samples take on a demonstratively tactile effect set up against the intangible flow of images. 

Lesia Vasylchenko, InSAR image from SNRT, 2023. Photo: Andreas Kääb and Thomas Schellenberger, Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo. Copernicus Sentinel-1 data / European Space Agency (ESA).

The war is even more explicitly present in Anna Engelhardt and Mark Cinkevich’s video installation Onset (2023), where Russian colonialism is outlined through a number of cinematic devices from the horror genre, projected over some kind of demonic seal in the space. While technically convincing, the computer game-like narrative style creates a distorted and fixated approach – even if it is obviously stylised on purpose. Global realpolitik and China’s cooperation with Russia are presented with greater fastidiousness in Köken Ergun and Sasha Azanova’s musings (expressed in two maps and a video) on a new maritime route known as The Polar Silk Road, a site of lucrative economic opportunities arising as a result of the ice melting in the Arctic. The route directly involves Norwegian territory.

Although the exhibition is strongly rooted in the present, the curators Inga Lāce, Reem Shadid, and Susanne Østby Sæther reach back, via the title, to the same historical starting point as its predecessor. Namely, László Moholy-Nagy’s 1932 manifesto and the classic avant-garde outlook where the camera (machine) equates with modernity. These days, we live in a more extreme mechanised and automated visual reality where the production of images can almost be seen as a mechanical extension of the body. The curatorial interest in photography’s materiality becomes particularly poignant in this context. In the catalogue the curators emphasise how photography’s basic chemistry is materially conditioned, dependent on the extraction of raw materials: William Henry Fox Talbot supposedly invested in silver mines and developed early printing processes using gelatine from animal carcasses. Copper plates and silver are both essential components in the development of photography, and the metals reached the photographers’ studios via colonial networks. In this way, New Visions moves into actual, hands-on matter. The material becomes something far more substantial, compelling, and historically significant than the purely tactile fascination that loosely characterises the material turn in contemporary art.

The fundamental premise for the rise of commodity economies, such as Norway’s, is clearly addressed in this context. Istvan Virag’s Pixel Pitch vol. 4 (2023) is a well-made video shown on a low-resolution LED screen, giving it a coarse-grained raster look. Here, a flickering story about the oil industry and fossil fuel is told via various footage of plankton and men in suits entering into agreements; the video is both sonorous and informative in a densely compressed way. Emilija Škarnulytė’s spectacular presentation of undersea data cables and data storage on a massive scale also revolves around energy and fuel consumption versus ecology and sustainability. The video installation RAKHNE (2023) uses computer-generated images to portray an imagined future where infrastructure is hidden under water. The data warehouses look like luminous high-rise buildings. One obvious conclusion is that we are devoured by data, but corporate systems keep it at bay, preferably out of sight. A total exploitation of nature’s materials, and the violence implicit in this, is unsurprisingly at the core of this well-thought-out triennial, where visions and raw materials are tied together in a loop.

Emilija Škarnulytė, RAKHNE, 2023. Video still.

Translated from Norwegian.