That which remains

The romantic search after the sublime in death is still present in art and the exhibition Summer Moved On at Kurant demonstrates that the theme is far from exhausted

Sverre Malling, Souvenir, 2011. Charcoal on paper.

The summer is definitely over. Heavy fog hangs over the mountains, coating the hillsides, while the sparse vegetation is changing color from gray-green to earth brown with streaks of red. The scent of sea breeze mixed with the smell of burning firewood from the chimneys in Tromsø lingers in one’s nose. There is the same atmosphere of vital decomposition inside the gallery Kurant for the group exhibition Summer Moved On, one that is also saturated with a good dose of nostalgia and morbid romanticism.

I’ve started to get a bit tired of all these exhibitions dealing with death and decadence. It has, without exaggeration, been the dominant theme for almost a decade, at least in Scandinavia, and lately I’ve longed for life-affirming shows that clean out the decay and introduce some optimism into art. This being said, I must admit that the theme is probably far from exhausted – the apocalyptic fear of the future, the dissolution of the self, society’s terrifying mutations: these are all still prominent cultural currents. What makes this exhibition especially welcome is that the artist and curator Rina Lindgren succeeds exceptionally well in highlighting the painful pleasures of the sublime. It was already at the dawn of the Romantic-Gothic aesthetic that Edmund Burke pointed out that everything terrible, or everything that in some way is derived from fear, is the source of the sublime – perhaps the search after the sublime is art’s most unfinished project.

Thomas Falstad, Spectre III (The Architect), 2011. Oil on canvas.

Thomas Falstad’s awareness of the roots of Gothic horror is solid and he references Edgar Allan Poe and Caspar David Friedrich in some of his paintings. The dissolved portrait Citizen belongs to a series of paintings that depict different people so distorted by death and depravity that the subjects could have been affected by the same curse as Dorian Gray. In the monumental painting Spectre III (The Architect), a post-apocalyptic depiction of knowledge, culture and history as ghostly specters in a long since devastated landscape emerges. It is so overwhelming that I am glad to see it in the company of more low-key works.

I find myself almost in a trance in front of an old black and white television set. A man’s legs, wearing rolled-up jeans, run barefoot on water at a high speed. The video, Learning to Swim by Tommy Høvik, is so accurate in its symbolism that in my mind I see a whole feature film about youth, awakening and liberation in those rolled-up jeans and the perennial leap over the sea. A few steps away, I catch a glimpse of another pair of legs in jeans, also barefoot. In Sverre Malling’s drawing Souvenir, the filthy, ragged jeans stick out of a large shell, as if one of society’s rejects took shelter in the hard, decorative exoskeleton. This is often the kind of contrast that occurs in Malling’s drawings, wounded little people in an idyllic nature reminiscent of Elsa Beskow’s children’s books. But in Malling’s work, the «Children of the Forest» are Emo kids on heroin, lonely and rejected – probably exploited. «Try too hard and you will still be a loser» is written in meticulous handwriting on one of his drawings. It is poignant in a way.

Rina Lindgren, What is Left Behind III, 2011. Charcoal on paper.

The loss of innocence – so one can best describe the destruction of youth – is also in Rina Lindgren’s drawing What is left behind III. In this work a young man lies motionless, as in his grave, while nature, in the form of a grotesque tree, envelops him. It is the same sort of powerlessness that is staged in all popular cultural interpretations of the drive and desire of consumer society, from the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the vampire series True Blood, where the film monster’s consumption/penetration stages the loss of one’s own will/individuality in mass society, but also the ambivalent longing to merge into a larger context.

This intermingling with death – the inability to let go of the past – is also expressed in Elin Øyen Vister’s installation 125 years and still kicking – a duet between the spirit of Thoralf huset and the artist, where the artist sings a duet with a dilapidated wooden house standing solitarily on a heath, as ash gray and skeletal as an ancient fossil. Perhaps it can be claimed that it is particularly in periods of transition that an interest in necromancy, séances and spiritualism arises. The greatest breakthrough these activities have had, after all, was soon after the French Revolution and in the interwar period. And it has been a long time since the future was as uncertain and vague as it is today.

Lars Skjelbreia, In Our Place We Find What We Are, 2011. Video loop.

The exhibition Summer Moved On is a clear example of the inability of politics to create order in life. Within neoliberal democracy, politics, like religion, demands blind faith and I suspect that the neo-romantic fixation with death gains sustenance from the deep doubt that permeates everything in our culture. It is therefore easy to recognize oneself in the exhibition, and I certainly prefer a truly refined aesthetic over a cavalcade of expressions, but if it wasn’t for the kaleidoscopic video In Our Place We Find What We Are by Lars Skjelbreia, the heavy theme of death would feel slightly too tight and one-sided, despite being very skillfully assembled. In this work a slender spruce floats up slowly out of something reminiscent of water, bobbing with its roots up in a dance-like motion that summarizes an entire life course, expressing a fascination over life and the possibilities of existence. This can hopefully show a possible escape from all the adoration of decay and the dance macabre, without, however, compromising with the poetic experience that follows out of the painful search for the Sublime.

Translation from the Swedish by Jeff Kinkle.

Summer Moved On, installation view. Photo: Frank Ludvigsen.