Sounding Death

Arrested on glass vitrines at Oslo Kunstforening in the chilly manner of laboratory specimens, Camille Norment's tender baby skeletons still bubble with becoming.

Camille Norment, Refrain (Melted Ribcage 1), Refrain (Melted Vertebra 1), and Refrain (Melted Ribcage 2), 2017. Photo: Christina Leithe Hansen.

I inspect a collection of small human bones neatly arranged on a glass vitrine. They are part of a series called Refrain (2017) included in Camille Norment’s first Norwegian solo exhibition, taking place at Oslo Kunstforening. The bones, too, are made of glass. They are so elaborate, so delicately crafted that they appear like solidified water. It is as if they might at any moment burst with a splash or morph into a new form. Parts of the bones are apparently already melting; a puddle has formed next to them. From another pool, tiny cusps seem to emerge, as if the material is giving rise to new life forms. Instead of showing traces of a life inevitably lost, Norment’s variations on skeletal and liquid forms might as well present us with a frozen moment within the ever-transforming cycles of nature.

A far cry from the emblematic and ironic death cult of Damien Hirst’s work, the Refrain pieces are not something you want to print on a T-shirt. Rather, I catch myself wanting to pick up one of the bones, feel the glass, clench my fist and then press my thumb against the bone until it snaps like a brittle stick. But at the same time I also want to protect and preserve this vulnerable pile of remains; or even more, I want to rebuild it and breathe life back into it. This urge to ‘get to work’ on the bones might be prompted by the glass vitrines on which the works are exhibited. Like in a laboratory, the bones are laid out in the manner of scientific specimens to be scrutinized. Dragged into the light, they wait to be analyzed, rearranged, categorized and theorized by a paleontologist or a crime scene investigator.

For the Refrain series, Norment was influenced by thanatological investigations into the different value of male and female infants in human cultures, which also referred to findings of discarded bones of unwanted babies. Moreover, the choice of glass as material for the bones continues Norment’s investigation of glass as a vehicle for sound, music and vibration. Particularly, her performances on the glass harmonica (for example at the Venice Biennale in 2015) – an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin and occasionally forbidden because of its assumed somatic effects – rest on extensive research on topics such as the relation of sound to women’s sexuality and hysteria as well as the phenomenon of dissonance as a threat to the conventions of Western music.

Camille Norment, Fountain, 2017. Photo: Christina Leithe Hansen.

Having a substantial body of conceptual and historical baggage attached to a piece – frequently documented in text publications, seminars or talks – is quite typical for Norment. But there is a difference between her scholarly activities, the material creation of a work and the effects it has on our bodies. The conceptual thinking behind Refrain was in the making for ten years, whereas its ‘actual’ production only lasted a few hours. Drawing on the help of specialists, the liquid glass was shaped into form in a collective struggle with the resistant material. An entirely different matter is how our senses react to a work like Refrain. You do not need to be a scholar or read up on certain contexts to be immediately affected on a visceral level by its mix of beauty and morbidity, allure and repulsion.

Norment is often described as a music and sound artist, which makes it somewhat surprising that only one work in the exhibition features an auditory element. In Fountain the idyllic gurgle of an unembellished water fountain is rhythmically distorted by feedback sounds. A sonic space that would usually connote safety, comfort and familiarity is haunted by dissonant and disrupting glitches. Last year, with Lull – So Ro (2016), Norment went for a similar effect by sonically deconstructing a lullaby. Compared with Lull’s arresting, swinging motion, Fountain gives the impression of being slightly unfocused, an afterthought to its hypnotic predecessor.

Even when they are absent, sound and music seem to permeate the works in this exhibition. In the drawing series Magnetic Trace (2017) tiny metal pieces are arranged in rhythmic patterns, making the paper buzz and vibrate with a silent auditory sensation. In Untitled Skin (2009) thousands of tiny ink dots weave a dense and foggy visual fabric, as if the echo of Fountain’s feedback sound miraculously manifested on the paper. Perhaps, if only I were more attentive, I could also see this sound vibrating in the infants’ bones, in the form of tiny eruptions clouding the glass. But such seduction would only last until I once again realized what I am actually looking at – the dead remains of a baby, disturbed in vain by the invasion of sonic waves.

Camille Norment, String Theories, 2016. Photo: Christina Leithe Hansen.