Self-harm in Front of the Scanner

Vibeke Tandberg’s exhibition Infinite Signature at OSL Contemporary reaffirms the artist’s tremendous will to self-destruct, but is she truly ready to let go?

Vibeke Tandberg, Old Man 2015, scan #1, 2015. Courtesy Vibeke Tandberg og OSL contemporary.
Vibeke Tandberg, Old Man 2015, scan #1, 2015. Courtesy Vibeke Tandberg and OSL Contemporary.

Ever since Vibeke Tandberg hung up her camera a few years ago, she has – apart from writing novels – consistently dedicated herself to reusing her former production in inventive ways. But even though the manipulated self-portraits that established her name as a photographer in the 1990s and early 2000s have been replaced by a wider range of media and a batch of conceptual and performative strategies to complicate matters further, the thematic hub of her art remains the idea of the self as an unstable entity. As the title tellingly suggests, the exhibition Infinite Signature at OSL Contemporary is no exception.

Peter Amdam describes her as a “chatterbox” in his essay in the book – bearing an impossibly long title – published in connection with the exhibition. Even though the term is presumably primarily intended as a tongue-in-cheek description of Tandberg as a person, it can nevertheless also be taken to point to an obvious theme in her art: the conflict between the statically framed – or boxed – work of art and the dynamic gestures that alternately set these work-objects in motion or are enveloped by them. The rambling flow of words issued by the chatterbox keeps returning to the same subject, but words get changed around, things are forgotten, reshuffled. Over the first two pages of Tandberg’s first novel, Beijing Duck (2012), the opening scene is rewritten over and over, with new variations entering the equation every time. The subject barely has the time to sink in before everything is up in the air again. By reiterating previous works in new versions, Tandberg transfers the mutability and mobility of language to the realm of things.

Vibeke Tandberg, Undo, 2015. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.
Vibeke Tandberg, Undo, 2015. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.

In her previous exhibition, which took place at Lynx in Oslo just before summer, the link between identity and speech was accentuated by the title: Tim’s Voice. For that show she had pieced together a small house out of old picture frames. Similar frames also appear in Infinite Signature, empty and stacked against the wall. The title Undo points back to the former contents of the frames in two ways: it describes what Tandberg did (removing/undoing the contents), and at the same time Undo was also the title of the photographic series for which the frames were originally made. To “undo” something is an option that is usually only available while the work is still on-screen. As soon as the object emerges in real life, more drastic measures than a mere tap of a finger are required to undo it.

This time, Tandberg’s urge for self-destruction has hit her Beijing Duck particularly hard. For Beijing Duck (Shotgun) she shot a copy of the book to shreds with a shotgun and then scanned the results from various angles. These scans are presented as a decorative series of small pictures on the wall. What is more, she has encased all the remaindered copies of the novel in concrete for the work Beijing Duck (concrete). The blocks, sixty in total, are arranged in a neat grid in the middle of the room. The work is reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’ Pense-Bête from 1964, which saw him encasing forty-four of his own books in a block of plaster. “Pense-bête” means “reminder”; even though Broodthaers’ work marked a break away from his former occupation as a writer, a transition to the world of art, the title nevertheless indicates continuity. A corresponding leak connects Tandberg’s literary and artistic endeavours. Even so, the bunched-up books peering over the edge of the coarse block of cement seems rather more like an image of something that one wants to shut from sight. The motif reminds me of how the mafia gets rid of people by killing them and boarding them up behind brick walls, or by encasing their feet in concrete and throwing them into the sea.

Vibeke Tandberg, Beijing Duck (concrete), 2015. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.
Vibeke Tandberg, Beijing Duck (concrete), 2015. Courtesy OSL Contemporary.

For the series Old Man, which was also made by means of a scanner, Tandberg put on the oversized, and by now somewhat decrepit, latex mask she had previously donned in the video Old Man Walking Up and Down a Staircase in 2003. The new series shows the face being pressed against a scanner, flattening areas of the loose skin. The effect is reminiscent of the face of a child pushed up against a window, yearning to be outside. Beyond the scanner window a new existence as pure information awaits, and hence an intensification of the subject’s mobility and plasticity. A parallel, although perhaps not a glaringly obvious one, can be found between the visible traces left by the shots in Beijing Duck (Shotgun) and the pores and wrinkles of the old man’s mask: both are symbols of decay and dissolution. One of these processes is sudden, brought about by violence; the other is gradual and natural. However, the latex flesh and the book object both resist the processes of dissolution to which they are subjected. In contrast to the unimaginable deformations that await in the digital afterlife, these objects remain recognisable. Tandberg rearranges the material co-ordinates, adding new ones, but the communicative ethos of language and literature remains the overall horizon.

Tandberg’s earlier photographs focused exclusively on their visual, pictorial contents, and as such they represented something aesthetically conservative in the context of contemporary art. However, the avant-garde devouring and demolishing of her own oeuvre that she is currently engaging in is not really all that different from her old work. Like the old man with his forehead pressed against the scanner’s glass pane she remains rooted in this world, in the anthropomorphic, moored by the expectations and structures of the social space. She may be uncompromising in some ways, but even so she offers up aesthetic and narrative images, often focusing on the human figure and its more or less meaningful chatter. This, of course, in no way prevents her from being good.

1/5 Vibeke Tandberg, Beijing Duck (shotgun), scan #5, 2015. Courtesy Vibeke Tandberg and OSL contemporary.
1/8 Vibeke Tandberg, Old Man 2015, scan #3. Courtesy Vibeke Tandberg and OSL contemporary.