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Focusing on the Unmentionable

By Nora Ceciliedatter Nerdrum

"The real discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes" - Marcel Proust

Piece by piece, the history of Nyksund-a tiny fishing village in the municipality of Øksnes in the Vesterålen archipelago-reveals itself to me during the three days I spend with artist Charlotte Thiis-Evensen where the fjord meets the open sea. Valborg, a local historian and the protagonist of Thiis-Evensen's and Lisa Karlson's film Valborg in Nyksund, conjures up images of her childhood village. She recalls being forcibly moved from the area in the 60's; she describes dilapidated docks and rusty machinery. She remembers deserted houses and the looting and pillaging of abandoned property. She shares her tales about the young Germans, the summer guests who kept returning year after year to study the peculiar fate of this ghost town by the sea. But above all, she tells us about life in Nyksund. Life before everything went silent in this once-vibrant fishing community.

Lisa and Charlotte Share Their Story

Lisa Karlsson and Charlotte Thiis-Evensen were commissioned to create an artwork based on Valborg's native village. The result is the short Valborg in Nyksund. The seven-minute long documentary starts with beautiful sceneries from Northern Norway accompanied by Tungtvann's rough, mesmerizing rap rhythms: "Uninvited hordes/crashing the house/poisoning the air/swilling the beer/so spouts split and snap/bashes-the best/mangling the rest." The present makes its way into the past; the fishing community is entering a new era as an unspoiled coastal gem for tourists. Valborg's voice takes over; calling forth with great enthusiasm and sensitivity the Nyksund she remembers from her youth. She shares tales of everyday life in what she calls a "urban community" where nobody entered a house without knocking, but people greeted one another on the street. She describes a natural reservedness, a community without gossip and badmouthing.

Images of Valborg in the living room of "the old house" in Nyksund alternate with close-ups of Valborg gutting fish. With great precision and well-practiced movements, she slices off head and tail and cuts the fish into fillets ready to be prepared. Initially, the film resembles a TV news story: A matter-of-fact portrayal of a woman from Northern Norway. To an unsuspecting viewer from the outside, it is therefore quite a shock to discover her deformed left hand that suddenly becomes very visible under the camera's probing eye.

The film's concluding sequence presents stark contrasts: Valborg's perfectly shaped right hand is in striking opposition to her left, which ends abruptly at the point where her fingers should have started. The butchered fish and the gleaming knife's edge add to the feeling of discomfort triggered by this body part, which appears alien and strange. The viewers are challenged to confront their perception of their own bodies; to reflect on themselves and their own vulnerability. In her book Extreme Bodies: The Use and Abuse of the Body in Art, Francesca Salfano Miglietti examines the representation of pain and bodily deformities in art: "This sort of 'impurity' of the body terrorizes and frightens, almost appears as a threat, as a demonstration of the precariousness of our own body." Here, the artists place the focus on our fear of physical abnormities; it would have been so much easier if Valborg simply hid her arm or wore a prosthesis. But do we want a society that conceals everything that elicits discomfort? Thiis-Evensen /Karlson also call into question the traditional perception of art as a representation of 'the beautiful'. Who says a deformed body cannot be just as beautiful as a well-shaped one?

The Body as Subject

Over the past few years, the artist duo Karlson /Thiis-Evensen have collaborated on several documentary pieces. A number of their works operate at the intersection of art and news media. Charlotte Thiis-Evensen's background as a culture journalist shapes her role as a mediator; the artworks draw on the traditional narrative techniques familiar from radio and TV. But the films are also starkly visual. Trained as an artist, Lisa Karlson adds a light, romantic and almost naive touch that makes the works fall within the boundaries of art. Like the artist duo's earlier pieces, Valborg in Nyksund is a documentary project. As many of the other works, this is also the story of an individual, but the short can also be read as social commentary or a depiction of a wider-ranging theme. This is a recurrent characteristic of Karlson/Thiis-Evensen's works: Without drawing any moralizing conclusions, the artists allow us to partake in social taboos and prejudices surrounding the body, gender and sexuality.

"Shame" is a central notion in the artist duo's oeuvre. Shame requires belonging to a community; it is an emotion that arises in interaction with others: The feeling of deviating from the norm grows much stronger when the abnormality is pointed out by an outsider. The protagonist of Thiis-Evensen/Karlson's documentary is puzzled by people's lack of curiosity: "Nobody ever talked about it...Can you believe they didn't?" We don't know whether Valborg actually felt shame, but since she constantly seeks to hide her hand, it may appear as though the suppression of the topic has resulted in a tacit agreement that the handicap may not be mentioned. Hence, Valborg in Nyksund is perhaps primarily a comment on the shaping of identity, calling into question the factors that contribute to forming an individual's position in society.

Documentarism in Art

In his classic book The Return of the Real, Hal Foster maintains that following the idea of art as text in the 1970's and art as simulacrum in the 1980's, we are now witnessing the return of the real, to art and theory based on actual bodies and actual places. Valborg in Nyksund can be seen as a documentary work of this kind, as it shirks its right to be read as an autonomous artwork delimited to the sphere of art in the traditional sense. Challenging the Modernist mantra stating that art can only be self-referential-meaning that it must exclude everything not concerning the artwork's intrinsic qualities-the film comments on something larger, something beyond the work's own existence.

The creation of a documentary-as opposed to a staged-piece forces the artist, as well as the critic, to apply quite different criteria with regard to ethics and morals. The basis for every documentary artwork must be to avoid all engagement with the concept of "truth". The theory of mimesis-the idea of art as the strictest possible imitation of nature-is a timeless artistic phenomenon. Today, however, this concept has been replaced by the notion of the artist as an intermediary and interpreter; and in keeping with modern communication theories, the viewer has also been granted the ability to provide his or her own subjective readings of the mediated message.

A documentary work always carries underlying questions regarding its veracity. For Karlson/Thiis-Evensen, who are operating in the gray area between art and pure journalism, it is especially important to take a position in this regard. David Wingate, Associate Professor at Volda University College, stated the following in a debate on a TV montage aired on NRK: "Being a creative interpretation of reality, a documentary is-and should be-much closer to personal experiences and opinions that what is-and should be-allowed in journalism." The artist or filmmaker is always present with his or her personal reading of the subject in an interview context. In Valborg in Nyksund, Karlson/Thiis-Evensen's presence is revealed by their audible questions to the interviewee. Their cutting and editing work is dominated by the artists' subjective decisions about where they want to place their focus; in this case, on Valborg's stories about everyday life in the tiny coastal community and her unmentionable handicap.

Valborg Shares Her Stories

Saturday, June 5, 2004. The short documentary is about to be presented to a packed crowd in Gallery 8439, a modern, grey building overlooking Nyksund, which serves as home, work studio and exhibition space for Valborg's daughter Sigrid Szetu. Besides Valborg herself and her family, many of the new inhabitants of Nyksund have also showed up. An audience with close ties to the tiny fishing village is gathered to watch and listen to Lisa Karlsons/Charlotte Thiis-Evensen's performance-lecture "Art in Different Media". Thiis-Evensen talks about the artist duo's earlier projects, calling into question the artist and documentarian's role. Finally, the movie Valborg in Nyksund is screened for the very first time.

The screening becomes an emotional encounter between Valborg and those present in the tiny presentation space. After the screening, we move on over to "the old house", and Valborg, who had been hiding her left arm in her sleeve until then, speaks openly about her deformity. She talks about concealment and suppressed feelings. About a mother who never mentioned her daughter's handicap, about a community where everybody was treated in the same way. But she also shares with us difficult everyday situations, burdens she could have been spared if there had been greater openness - both within her family and among the inhabitants of Nyksund.

Relational Esthetics

With their examination of Nyksund in general and of Valborg's position in particular, Karlson/Thiis-Evensen place themselves in a long tradition with the objective of studying social structures from a subjective point of view as a basis for artistic creation. During the past decade, we have seen a trend toward a new link between art and the social and political field: The artwork as a physical object is no longer in focus; its relation to time, space, and, above all, to human beings (i.e. curator, artist and audience), is now the central element.

In the late 90's, the French philosopher Nicolas Bourriaud introduced the concept of "relational art" to designate art whose theoretical basis is human interaction in the public realm. Relational esthetics (the study of relational art) are often used to evaluate works that require the audience's active participation by completing a certain task in the exhibition space. But the theory may also be applied to call into question art's participation in and direct involvement with local political or social situations, and the dialogue originating between the artist and the local population in given contexts. Valborg in Nyksund is an example of the latter; by drawing on Bourriaud's relational esthetics, the work can be evaluated based on the intrapersonal relations it represents, produces or affects.

The work Valborg in Nyksund is not only a record of the life of an individual from Nyksund. A secondary, and perhaps unintended, component of the work is the conversation in Valborg's living room after the event in the gallery, a reaction to the short by Karlson/Thiis-Evensen. When Charlotte and I leave Nyksund after three days, the village remains physically unchanged; but social structures have been upset: A well-kept "secret" has been revealed and disclosed to the public.

Conclusion Or...?

In an interview with Morgenbladet, curator Per Gunnar Tverbakk puts into words the overarching objective behind the Artistic Interruptions project: "(...) the aim is to find entry points to a kind of everyday setting that relates to the actual situation of these communities." The performance piece "Art in Different Media" and the screening of the movie about native-born Valborg in a local gallery emphasize the site specific aspect of Lisa Karlson's and Charlotte Thiis-Evensen's work. And yet, the work addresses general questions that may affect a broader audience. And herein lies the strength of this artist duo. They succeed in combining an ethnographic study of the tiny coastal community-the examination of an individual life based on a particular context-with a calling into question of ever-current issues that provide food for thought and trigger self-reflection: The sense of shame, our perception of beauty, and our relationship to our own and to other people's bodies.


Bourriaud, Nicolas: Playlist. Artistic Collectivism and the Production of Pathways Foster, Hal: The return of the Real Miglietti, Francesca Salfano: Extreme Bodies- The use and abuse of the body in art.
Publisert av: Asgeir Kvitvik

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