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The Art of Melodrama

By Kari J. Brandtzæg

Porsgrunn Kunstforening (2007)
A woman is trying to enjoy a newspaper in the sun. She has a child on her lap. Every time the woman attempts to read, she is disturbed by the child, who demands her attention. Finally, the child snatches the paper out of the mother’s hands and flings it angrily to the ground. The mother gives in and begins to read a comic book to the child. Harmony and tranquillity are restored.

All of Me (2001) was Charlotte Thiis-Evensen’s first art film, but it already exhibited some elements and themes that would become important in her art: the trivial, the private, self-exposure and reflections upon women’s opportunities to realise their seves. Her use of Billie Holiday’s song with the same title underlines the melancholy tone of the work.

Charlotte Thiis-Evensen did not enter the art world along the beaten track. As a university student she took a degree in literary science, but she also moonlighted as a journalist, and that experience earned her a job in televizing. Soon she was covering cultural events for the NRK and working with different program formats. Gradually she became more preoccupied with the relationship between artistic content and journalistic form. Her breakthrough came with the project titled Dominans (Dominance) in the autumn of 2002. Working as a journalist for the art program Safari, she let seven different artists use her as an object for their art in seven consecutive programs. The journalist was depicted, staged and incorporated in various projects. The title Dominans referred to the new structural relations that emerged between the artist, the journalist and media reality.

Within a Norwegian art context Charlotte Thiis-Evensen is still quite unique in having entered creative art via journalism, and in her earliest works the collaboration with video artist Lisa Karlsson played an important role. The combination of roles (journalist and artist) and genres (art and a documentary approach)I are particularly characteristic of their collaborative works May 7 (2003), Being Here (2003) and Valborg in Nyksund (2004). Thematically, these films reflect the film media’s capability to convey emotions and identification with private, intimate moments … in this case related to shame and dysfunctionality and being exposed to ”The Other’s” gaze and assessment.

Thiis-Evensen’s works are characterized by their special feel for the unpronounced or ”unmentionable” aspects of an individual’s life situation or history. They serve as documents and reminders of existential states that may be trivial but all the same are deeply human and socially problematic. They often unfold within the family and appear like silent dramas, where unspoken power structures seriously limit the individual’s freedom of action. In Sannhetens øyeblikk (Moment of Truth) from 2004, we meet an elderly woman hos has never been to the hair dresser. Gradually we understand that her mother wanted her to have long hair because her ”neck was so beautiful”. Now, the mother is long since dead, but does that mean that the woman is finally able to regain control over her life and have her hair cut? Oh no, after a couple of minutes in the hair dressing salon she admits that she is afraid and exits the premises with her long, grey hair intact.

The film Valborg in Nyksund (2004) was commissioned by the project Kunstneriske forstyrrelser (Artistic Disturbances) in Nordland. Once again, a classic interview situation uncovers something ”unmentionable”. Thiis-Evensen asks Valborg to recount her childhood memories from Nyksund. The elderly woman gives a lively rendition of the small community and recalls how important it was to ”not be a tell-tale”. Beautiful images of the magnificent landscape contrast with Valborg’s tale and her mother’s demands that she had to be independent and learn to knit like other girls. One scene zooms in on Valborg as she guts a fish, but it is only at the end we notice her malformed hand. And we realise that her small handicap has been a suppressed topic, perhaps along with numerous other things in the small, local community.

In the wake of its first viewing, the film caused a sharp discussion and debate about ethical conflict zones in art and film documentaries. Finally, the film was banned, supposedly because Valborg’s family reacted to its content. But where does the line go between fiction and reality? And who decides how text and image should be conveyed within an artistic context? What is the difference between a documentary and a work of art? With her unique background as a journalist and an artist, Thiis-Evensen is daring and competent enough to pose these questions.

In recent years, Thiis-Evensen has worked alone. She still portrays individual destinies, usually women. In the film Flaskepanter (Bottle Refund Collector) from 2007, we meet Jorunn Aanderaa. The opening text informs us that Anderaa was one of Norway’s leading poets in the 1970’s. But in the 1980’s she became a slave to debt, and today she survives by collecting empty bottles. The camera follows her through a cold winter day as she rummages through rubbish bins and railway stations, searching for empty bottles. In a voice-over Aanderaa is heard saying ”if people stare at me, I stare back.” Again, the film touches on a fundamental theme in Thiis-Evensen’s work: The Other’s gaze is also the media’s gaze. She invites us to use our own eyes and recognize the portrayed individuals on our own premises.

In addition to their characteristic raising of genre questions, the films have a more intimizing trait that makes it tempting to place them in a feminist perspective. I opened by describing the film All of Me, which shows a mother-child relationship. There, the child takes control over the mother, denying her what Virginia Woolf once called a woman’s right to ”a room of her own”. The work Duken (the Table Cloth) from 2007 also shows a woman making sacrifices for her child and for society’s demand that a woman must bear children. But in this work Thiis-Evensen adopts a more conceptual approach. A wall text lets the first person narrator tell us about her mother’s endless embroidering while she lay in bed through three pregnancies despite the doctor’s warnings against getting pregnant. She died giving birth for the third time, but the embroidered table cloth still exists. A flat screen shows images of a young girl working with much concentration and effort to cut up a white lacework cloth. The only sound is the sound of the scissors cutting their way through the fabric. The scene is unbearably melodramatic, and it turns the mind to ruminations on writing, self-reflection and the narcissistic power of the image.

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