Nina Denney Ness:
On the origins of copies
Helge Jordheim: Envisioning time
Eivind Slettemeås: Nina Torp
Bruno Laeng: As above so below: Nina Torp’s space-time windows
Agnès Poitevin Navarre: Catalogue text for Nina Torp - Works 2004-2010
...the relation between remembrance and forgetfulness is not a linear process but a struggle, a tension - in every memorial, something has been left out or forgotten, in every removal, something is left behind, remembered. In both cases, it is what is not there, what is absent that causes this tension.
-Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past,
On the origins of copies
Art historical icons drowning in endless reproductions. Layer upon layer of imitations, through which we excavate, seeking sources we never find. Nina Torp’s work gravitates around a search for the origins of copies. Where authenticity cannot be traced. And all seems repetitious deception.
Numerous small photos of classical building facades from Pompeii. Juxtaposed next to photographed copies of similar facades from decadent, nouveau riche Norway. Shown like this, the facades from Pompeii also evoke false stage scenery. But then originally they were only copies. Of Greek originals, here omitted, and therefore forgotten. This imitation of past a Golden Age recalls another similarity between Pompeii and Norway’s contemporary Bonanza. Like lava from Vesuvius, Norway’s subterraneous blood, the oil, is also fluid, black and perilous. Apocalypse and destruction. Is this why the eruption of Vesuvius is seen so endlessly often as subject in art history? The subject’s original, the actual eruption, is long ago forgotten, existing only as imitations. Of imitations.
The connection to fluid lava is also noticeable in other of works by Torp, referring to marbling. On a wall, mounted layer upon layer, are shown photos she has taken of rehabilitated buildings on Unesco’s World Heritage List. The restored stucco of the buildings is itself imitated marble. Yet through Torp’s processing, are added ever more layers to the sediments of copies, memories and traces.
The theme acquires a somewhat different character when point of departure is icons by Barnett Newmann and Jackson Pollock. Copies of their paintings, made by Torp, were placed in a water bath and altered till they resembled marbling. This use of water relates to the photographic method of developing copies of originals, from negatives. In addition, the water erased the traces of the artists’ selves and egos. Thus symbolically dissolving Newmann’s and Pollock’s iconically heavy identities. In another work what seem to be stones of authentic volcanic material, proves to be industrial clay produced in Lillestrøm, Norway. Here Torp problematizes the idea of place of origin, in protest against the emphasizing of national identity.
These are works that oscillate between simplicity and complexity, the historical and temporary, labyrinthical confusion and consistent clarity. From behind a Biedermeier desk with a classical façade showing a temple-like miniature screen, a film is projected on the wall. In these moving images we find ourselves on the stage of a theatre designed by Palladio, imitating Roman theatres of Antiquity. We experience a dim, half-dark forgotten world inhabited by white sculptured human figures. Like the fossilized people of Pompeii, excavated from ash. Preserved traces from the past. We are backstage and slowly move through narrow labyrinthical corridors, while tiny sporadic glimmers of light lure us along searching for the rays ’ origins. The backtracking seems futile. Behind the stage scenery we find nothing. Just screens behind screens. Ad infinitum. Like an eternity machine. A perpetuum mobile, kept going by a continuous stream of new subjects and motives, copy-like similar, in a circle with no end.
Nina Denney Ness has a PhD in Art History and works as a curator and educator at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo. She has previously curated exhibitions with Victor Lind and Sven Påhlsson.
“One cannot enter the same river twice.” The statement is one of the fragments attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. And usually you admit he is right, for although the river flows along the same bed, the water running from higher to lower ground and finally out into a larger river, a lake or the sea itself, is always new. In addition the usual thinking is that it isn’t really the river that Heraclitus wants to say something about, but our existence as such. We live in a world where everything is constantly changing. “Everything flows”, as he also put it – in Greek: panta rhéi. But let us for a moment make things a bit more difficult for the Greek natural philosopher. What if the river is an artificial waterfall ornamenting a restaurant at Der Malerweg in Swiss Saxony around 1910? After all, in an artificial waterfall it isn’t always new water that comes running out; on the contrary it’s the same water that is pumped up to the top and sent down again, in circles, up and down. In theory, in that case, it should be quite possible to go down into the same water once and twice and thrice as long as you take the trouble to work out how long it takes for the whole water volume to run once through the system. The question is then rather how long the river can remain the same before it gets smelly and mucky-looking, so the water has to be changed.
In the project Memoirs of a Tourist Nina Torp uses photographs showing waterfalls, mechanical or real, produced as souvenirs for tourists travelling in Europe. The pictures in themselves seem to contradict Heraclitus. Nothing flows. Everything stands still. But wait a minute, does it really? If we look close at the photographs, projected on a wall, it becomes clear that there is in fact something moving, despite the illusion of complete stillness. It’s the water. It gushes, splashes and roars, cascading down over the rocks, which themselves remain motionless, as a result not only of nature but also of photography. It takes a little time for your eyes to be convinced that the water is in fact running, like a sudden sign of life from someone long since pronounced dead. There shouldn’t be motion in these old pictures. Everything should stand quite still, in a frozen moment, captured in a photograph. When the flowing river, the actual philosophical image of time passing, breaks into this frozen moment, our habitual experience of time is set aside The image no longer just has one time, it has several: a time that is over, finished – the past as ‘then’; and a time that is still progressing, and will continue to progress – the past as present, as Geschehen, an ongoing event, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, himself an enthusiastic reader of Heraclitus, called it.
More than anything else, Nina Torp’s oeuvre is work with time – work that directs us away from the notion of a linear, uniform, regularly flowing time and instead explores the possibility of stasis, suddenness, repetition and a multiplicity of times that are played out simultaneously and in parallel. These multiple times are in turn associated with cultural phenomena such as memory, nostalgia, tradition, loss etc. The effect arises when we encounter motion where we in principle expect stillness, for example in an old photograph of a waterfall that is – still or once more – actively flowing. In this way the unity of time is split: the running waterfall and the still background cannot belong in the same time. But the same effect arises when we encounter stillness when we expect motion, for example in the installation An Agreeable Kind of Horror, which shows a picture from a visit to the volcano Vesuvius around 1960. Suspended in space beside the picture hang rocks, large pieces of volcanic rock that rain down over us as viewers – or at least they would if time hadn’t stopped. It’s difficult to think of any other explanation of how the rocks can remain hanging in the air. Time stands still. At least 1960 time does. In our own time we can move safely among the rocks – which are in reality an industrial waste product, made of clay from the Oslo suburb Lillestrøm – without fear of any of them hitting us. This means that our physical movements, how we move our bodies among, over and under the immobile, hovering rocks, must obey a different time than the one that belongs to the rocks themselves. Only one time has stopped, the other one makes it possible for us to move. On the other hand we are in a kind of unpleasant voyeur role, as if we could sneak through time, through history without being affected by it – to experience a volcanic eruption without getting as much as a pebble on our heads.
Someone who definitively played such a voyeur role was the German Duke Leopold III. In the 1760s he set off on a so-called grand tour, an educational journey through Europe. The journey took him to among other places Naples and the smouldering volcano Vesuvius, where he visited the recently-begun excavations of the ancient Roman Pompeii. When he came home he built an artificial volcano out on an island in one of the lakes in Wörlitzer Park, laid out as one of Germany’s first ‘English’ parks in the mid-1700s. The impressions from the excavations at Naples can be seen reproduced in the Pompeii cabinet in the small country house Luisium, which is in the same park. This space, full of images from Naples, both of the volcano and from the murals that were uncovered beneath the volcanic ash of Pompeii, has been photographed and reconstructed as a photographic stage set in the work Outside everything is immeasurable. Once more Nina Torp stages a tableau where time appears more as a dexterously woven tapestry than as a straight line. In the work, one ‘now’ is stacked above another: the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii in the year 79 AD, Leopold III’s visit to Naples in the 1760s, Nina Torp’s visit to the Pompeii cabinet in Luisium in Wörlitzer Park at some point in 2011, our encounter with the artwork. Which ‘nows’ are the most powerful? Which ‘nows’ are the ones with which we are confronted as viewers in addition to the ‘now’ of our own contemplative gaze? Again the work puts us in a kind of voyeur role, outside time rather than in it.
The viewer who is situated outside time, in a different time from the events or scenarios that he or she is witnessing, is a recurring figure in Nina Torp’s art. Usually it is the tourist who is the bearer of this voyeur gaze. To some extent the tourist becomes a version of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur who strolls around the city, in Berlin or in Paris, and looks at the buildings and the people who live in them with a kind of distanced gaze. He is never on his way to any particular place and thus stands outside the temporal rhythm of work and leisure that governs the life of the city people. For that very reason he is viewed with a certain suspicion by those who notice him, almost as a criminal. But Nina Torp’s flâneurs, the tourists of the 1800s and 1900s, do not first and foremost stroll through the cities, they seek out ‘nature’, either in the form of waterfalls, the volcano Vesuvius or the forest-clad ridges that are shown in the work Der Malerweg. What do they see? Or rather, what do we see when we look at what they saw? What was beautiful or captivating enough to be shown in collections of photographs, so-called ‘leporellos’? Nina Torp invites us to follow a gaze through history, the gaze of the rural flâneur, the tourist – to find out not so much what it is directed at, but how it is directed.
But to follow the gaze of the tourist is also to follow the media through which this gaze was manifested: the postcards, the leporellos, but also the convex pocket mirror that was used to see one’s surroundings in a particular way. This could for example be a black mirror, also called a Claude Glass after the painter Claude Lorrain. At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century tourists and painters travelled around Europe with such black mirrors, which they used when they wanted to gaze at and in some cases paint a landscape. They would turn their back to the landscape and instead look at the reflection in the black pocket mirror; here-, the same landscapes appeared in dark, slightly mellower colours, just as Claude Lorrain had painted them in his picturesque works. But the black mirror is only the most extreme example of an indirect and to some extent distorted picture of nature, governed by quite specific expectations and wishes from the viewer. A similar interaction between expectations and nature can be found in any representation and depiction of landscape or other natural phenomena. Any picture is to some extent also a reflection. But as in the convex mirror, the viewer himself or herself does not necessarily appear.
In most cases the landscapes that are depicted still exist. And often it will be possible to find them again, to recognize them from the old photographs and postcards. But the gazes have been lost. The people who saw the landscape in this particular way are dead. The photograph thus becomes a kind of memorial that can put us on the trail of these lost gazes with their related bodies and patterns of movement. For if there is a gaze, there is also always a body. The cultural history of the gaze is also the cultural history of the body. The body and the gaze always move in time with each other, walk and look, stand and see, travel and see, in cars, trains, boats or planes. The tourist is a historical figure, from the grand tour of the aristocracy in the 1700s to the increasing mass tourism of the 1900s. What about the landscapes they visited and regarded, have they changed just as much? And if so, in what way? In some places roads have been constructed, telephone or power lines have been erected or houses have been built. Other landscapes have remained untouched for centuries. Are they then the same?
Nature has its own time. If we go back to Memoirs of a Tourist, it is easy to relate the natural waterfall to a slow, steadily moving time, a longue durée, as the French historian Fernand Braudel called it, unlike both the quick shifts of political events and the slower waves of social and cultural processes. But when all is said and done, this waterfall too has been staged and photographed as a pretty sight for tourists; it is as much a product of human activity, ideas and expectations of how a waterfall should be as the artificial one. The artificial waterfall, for its part, recalls a rather brief period in European cultural history, from the turn of the twentieth century until World War II, when this type of invention and spectacular machinery was the latest thing. In this way the history of the landscape differs from the history of the gaze and of experience – they have different times, they follow different rhythms.
In the encounter with this multiplicity of times – some move fast, some move slow, some have lasted a long time, some have just begun – the question arises of whether any such thing exists as a fixed point, an anchor for the subject, a protected, unbudgeable lookout point. Perhaps it could be compared to the idea of the eye of the storm, where everything stands still. It would have been nice, of course, if these many times had been something we could observe from a distance, but which did not actually affect us – outside, everything is simply chaos, in here there is calm and peace. A work that grapples with this illusion is Outside everything is immeasurable. Down in the basement of a tower block, pictures of the view from the windows farther up in the building are projected – not only of the view, also of the windows themselves, their frames and the lace curtains, so that we get the feeling of actually looking out of a window, some way up the storeys. But the world outside is untouchable, immobile. Looking out of the window normally involves experiencing movement, people, cars, birds, all of them moving in one direction or another. Looking out is looking at time passing.
As with the waterfalls in Memoirs of a Tourist and the volcanic eruption in An Agreeable Kind of Horror, Nina Torp lets us experience what happens when the relationship between what moves and what stands still is turned upside down. As we look out over an immobile, static surrounding world, the movements within ourselves and in our close surroundings – standing in a windowless basement space in a tower block at Carl Berner in Oslo – become all the more powerful. The least change, a shifting of weight from one foot to another, a breath taken a little too quickly, a leap of thought – these all feel like great, sudden changes. And we must abandon any hope of being a fixed point, an anchorage, a calm rhythm or pulse, around which the world can whirl with all its diverse and changing times. Instead it is the world – as photographs projected on a basement wall – that falls calm, while we ourselves experience all these times flowing through us: I have to make it to the kindergarten; I must begin to exercise more; I ought to save money; I wonder how many years we have left before the earth becomes uninhabitable, etc. The meeting and nodal point for the many times of existence is always ourselves. It is up to us to get our bearings in the different horizons, rhythms and speeds if time, to choose which of them are to be normative in our lives.
Nina Torp’s works convey an experience of standing outside time, outside the now of unfolding events. This is the position of the tourist. The tourist’s gaze and movements have their own quite specific rhythm separate from the rhythms of the places to which the tourist comes, from the rhythms of work, everyday life; different too from the rhythms of nature and the landscape. The gaze of the tourist is associated with a paradoxical longing, a longing to be part of, to belong to, but also to remain in a kind of eternally unaffected spectator role. In all the works we find objects of memory, souvenirs in the true meaning of the French word, first and foremost in the form of photographs. In these photographs the longing of the tourists survives, their yearning gaze, as a kind of nostalgia, a nostalgic memory. It is difficult to look at old souvenir photographs without recognizing the longing for a lost Paradise. Paradise itself is the prime example of the timeless and motionless; because everything is perfect, because happiness is absolute, there can be no change either. Nina Torp’s works do not lapse into nostalgia; rather they bring it into play as one of many different experiences of time that it is up to the viewer to relate to and accommodate.
Helge Jordheim is dr.art. in German Literature. He currently works as Research Director for the interdisciplinary research program Cultural Transformations in the Age of Globalization (KULTRANS) at the University of Oslo. In 2012, he was editor of the book All verdens kunnskap. Leksikon gjennom to tusen år [All the world's knowledge. Encyclopedia through two thousand years].
The connection between optical inventions and figuration has contributed to a distinct tradition in landscape painting that has emphasized plasticity and the optical as a stylistic and representational form. But there have not only been aesthetic arguments for indexicalizing and categorizing nature as landscape form; within scientific disciplines like early physiology (the study of the functioning of living organisms) people also attempted to read the external features of nature as universal explanations and definitions. In the works of Nina Torp we glimpse a need to understand the meaning of this legacy today, when the romantic / sublime representation of nature – and the nostalgia for concrete, tangible objectivity – have fallen short. The duality of these works arises in the dynamic between optics and aesthetics, while at the same time they explore the longing for the Arcadian and timeless in sequestered worlds beyond time and space. They ask: What lies behind this particular gaze at nature? Where does this mode of seeing come from? Among other things Nina Torp draws her representations from early encyclopedic science (and its successors in European travel literature and accounts of exploration) in order to show how a specific view of nature has been imprinted on us and continues to affect our ideas about the world. But the works also investigate transitional forms and connections among craft traditions in Italian landscape painting, Abstract Expressionism and visions from popular culture of the late industrial and technological marking of the landscape, just to mention some of the representations of which we are made aware as viewers.
In the wake of a Romantic view of nature and the use of the sublime as a prime artistic motif representing the power and potential violence of nature, a psychologized and anthropological image of mankind’s place in nature, as opposed to ‘cultivation’, was established. For Torp, on the other hand, the gaze at the sublime is subordinated to the exploration of a recurring representation of the ‘Arcadian’ throughout history. For example, An Agreeable Kind of Horror, But outside everything is immeasurable, Memoirs of a Tourist and Der Malerweg tackle cultural representations of nature taken from different epochs and styles where the pastoral motif is central. The most important element in this exploration is the incorporation of “the Claude Mirror”, as in the installation Dissolving Paintings, while at the same time the reference to the Arcadian can also be recognized in other variations with the aid of dark mirrors, reflections and illusionistic views with references to the scenography of the Baroque master Andrea Pozzo, where the weightlessness and depth of the firmament are reproduced in painted roof vaults. Torp’s use of The Claude Mirror refers to the historical function that the mirror had as an instrument among landscape painters, first and foremost those who wished to imitate Claude Lorrain’s landscape subjects, but also among those of the European upper class of the nineteenth century who sought visual diversion on their walking tours. By means of convex mirrors formed in various stone materials the landscape could be reflected in a wide-angle lens with a dark tinge. The distortion of colour and perspective was particularly cultivated as an aesthetic preference among the circle of the Lake District painters, to whom Nina Torp also refers in her explanation of why she began to take an interest in The Claude Mirror, a interest that comes from its continuity as a cultural artefact:
“The Claude Mirror is considered the precursor of portable versions of the Camera Obscura. The amateur painters who travelled around in the Lake District and used the mirror on their walks turned their backs to the landscape and were only interested in painting the reflection of the landscape (the representation) in the black convex lens, in order to achieve a painterly expression that was as similar as possible to Lorrain’s. In Landscape and Memory Simon Schama writes: “Landscape is culture before it is nature; it is an imaginative construction projected upon forests, water, stone”. I see the pastoral landscape / ideal landscape as a reference to the tourist views; these images are in turn shown in a linear perspective that refers back to the scenography of antiquity.”For Torp the movement or oscillation between the known and the unknown in nature is echoed in the artistic experience and reflections of earlier epochs. A recurrent theme in the history of art has been to construct effects and understand how nature as a phenomenon corresponds to the mental (psychological) structures that history embeds in us. Not only does nature function as a symbol of the ritual and magical source of creative action (spontaneity, creative power); it is also repeated in modern art’s process-oriented and conceptual search for openness in language, logic and eco-based models. The process of creation as cult and contemplative activity, from religious iconography to Abstract Expressionism, is often associated with rites of passage and points of contact with the immediacy of nature, where reflection, objectivity and interpretation fail. Such a contemplative investigation of mankind’s other, alienated nature is presented in classic art from Oedipus Rex to Hamlet and from The Odyssey to Don Quixote, where the problem of the relationship between inner and outer nature not only challenges the distinction between dream and reality, but is also related to the concept of maya in Indian philosophy. Nature and the world are in themselves illusion and mirage, where the consciousness of the individual forms only one part of this dream fabric. The contemplative tradition of landscape painting registers the passivity, unwilled motions of nature as the contrary of the Romantic, willed idea of nature in ‘sublime’ art. With her interest in this tradition Torp gives us an expanded understanding of the correspondence between past and present, viewer and art object, and of the connection between pictorial representation and the reproductive devices of the nineteenth century. In her works, through what can be called a poetic approach to the conceptual tradition, Torp brings out the relationship between language and the absence of language, and the rules of the game that determines what is called sacred (culture) and what is called profane (nature) in artistic experience.
The relationship between pictorial tradition and optical instruments is manifested as commodity-produced experiences, but can also be traced in the travel literature, in the self-stagings of the bourgeois public sphere, in the means of reproduction and in the artefact production that grew up at the beginning of the eighteenth century. At the beginning of the industrial revolution the very idea of producing dreams was launched with methods that led to quicker, more accessible experiences, with modern communication technology that could present exotic, foreign worlds as if they were close by. For the ordinary person the inaccessibility of and distance from these experiences made it all the more important to reconstruct representations and manufacture the imaginary in purely technological ways. As a concrete expression of this, in Nina Torp’s work we find the installation But outside, everything is immeasurable and the video work Memoirs of a Tourist, which takes its point of departure in artificial (and mechanized) waterfalls. Specifically, the video work refers to the Amselfall, built in 1851, which is on the tourist trail in Swiss Saxony, where Caspar David Friedrich painted his signature work Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. If you give the operator 20 cents, a waterfall will be started up that lasts for one minute. Nature is consumed, not as a deferred commodity, but as a concentrated experience where the crossing of the boundary between past and present is repeated in the relationship between the original and the representation. Other such examples from the same epoch show that the imaginary served to transcend the here-and-now by means of optical devices such as the diorama, artificially built volcanic islands, or reconstructed ruins which both recreated and established the monument as event – both pointing to the present and expressing optimism about the future. The development of this cultural monument production in the nineteenth century merged with stereotypical modes of production in the travel novel, with the subjects of romantic prints and with the ‘natives’ featured in spectacular world exhibitions. At the same time we can note that the idea of an authentic life-mode gradually disintegrated as idealized, xenophobic or exotic conceptions of ‘the others’. In the new foundation mythology of nation-building it is true that the artist, the national character and nature were given the most spectacular and self-referential roles, but when the cabinets of curiosities and the travelling circuses displayed their rarities against payment, they functioned as the prime purveyors of a far more popular and exotic alienation strategy.
The representational forms of modern printing technology, and especially the lithograph, strove to represent nature ‘objectively’, in contradistinction for example to the religious manuscripts and illustrative art of the Middle Ages with their renderings of imaginative motifs, mythical figures and fabulous animals inspired by nature (while at the same time they expressed serious and religious insights). The art of printing contributed to intensified exchanges, to the verification and dissemination of knowledge in science, art and political control, in parallel with the development of optical instruments such as the microscope and photography. The need to discover and expand knowledge of the world was also accompanied by the idea of being able to create, manipulate and not least regulate it with spatial visual technologies, as in Jeremy Bentham’s famous architectural sketch, the Panopticon (the prison building where in theory everyone sits in isolation and is observed from a central observation point). It was therefore not primarily from the need to depict the world that innovations and inventions like photography arose; they arose from the need to register and archive it.
What does this mean for the introductory question about the way nature is viewed? The explorer and the tourist, with their historical starting point in landscape painting and travel accounts, and with their technoculturally installed optical inventions, become co-producers in historical development, as self-appointed pathfinders for an extended or molecular sensory apparatus. A mountain must be broken down into its components to become a mountain; the mountain as such is only mass, a cut-up, ragged piece of nature which in its original state is without character or conscious cropping. National Romanticism created the Norwegian “fell” in the same sense as Harald Solberg created “Rondane” or Snøhetta created “the Opera”. The central feature is that neither culture nor nature can be used as a neutral lookout point, since the viewer with his or her ‘lens’ helps to ensure that the places in the end surround one another, overlap and grow together in a new, great fabric of the world. Fells become artificial opera stages and operas become artificial fells, to use the example from architecture. In this way we ourselves become encapsulated as tourists in a technologically through-composed nature in which we recognize, register and express nature as metaphors in a history we directly share and “recreate”.
Tourism as a form of action, whether it seems like intrusion, exposure or manipulation in its relationship with the natural and genuine, may constitute a critical study of how taxing it is to achieve detachment and autonomy from the repetitive reproduction process of the apparatus. The risk of transforming places into reproductions rather than preserving them as the scenes and images of authentic experience rears it head. For the tourist, finding escape routes and substitutes for a dying mythology of the wanderer – the travel mode of the adventurer and explorer – becomes like a search for new traffic arteries in the place-less and object-less. This placelessness is acknowledged and linked with a global declaration of bankruptcy by the French author Michel Houellebecq, in his descriptions of sex tourism as a metaphor of civilizational collapse, where the demand for self-realization and immediate gratification does not attempt to cover up the underlying cynicism. If we return to landscape painting as an early source of inspiration for the tourist as a character type, it is nevertheless other types of narcissism than self-realization that underlie the pastoral-subject tradition. In the Arcadian we find the consciousness of death, and the attempt to harmonize the close present with the inaccessible, and history with the immediate. The nineteenth-century tourism that began with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Italian Journey set out with the aim of re-forging a lost link between nature and its image, but in its quest for authenticity and genuineness instead became suspicious of the emptiness of this promise.
Thus in the history of the landscape we cannot ignore the tourist who in his semi-unconscious pilgrim formation and semi-mechanical armour constitutes a modern trickster – the shamanic clown figure known from North American Indian mythology. In the same way as the mythological trickster, the tourist appears as a transitional figure between sacred and profane, and has the indeterminate quality which, with his ability to register differences and neutralize dissimilarities, bears the subject both with him and within him and manifests the landscape as ‘scene’ by seeking it out and reproducing it as subject. In the unclear role between charter tourist and explorer, between conformist and adventurer (what would Thor Heyerdal have been in the collective memory without the suntanned body in old colour photos?) this distinction is not an objective, but a self-corrective form of knowledge. The journey is the art of adapting oneself to the situation with a map that is so unclear that in time it too matches the terrain. In spite of different approaches to travel, the tourist, the backpacker and the explorer have the same role in the conversion of chaos into culture, nature into landscape. Cultivation, cartography and the accumulation of information are in this view perhaps the most universally human need for mastery to which we resort in the encounter with nature’s unboundedness and the experience of powerlessness. This is the encounter to which Nina Torp points in the title For we are where we are not, and which may well serve as a kind of introduction to the relationship between the static and the dynamic that Torp believes she can find in an image:
“When we look at miniature pictures, the places that are reproduced in travel literature and tourist brochures, we enter a place that does not exist. We dream our way into an image of a place, the representation of a place, a miniature of a world. A place to dream oneself into, which is only possible to understand in miniature. When one arrives at the destination it is as if one has been there before, the subject has been used up.”
“Memoirs of a Tourist”
“Outside everything is immeasurable”
“An agreeable kind of horror”
Eivind Slettemeås is an artist. He has published Art and precarity at the Torpedo Press in 2008 and is editor of the book series Karavane and publishing manager at Torpedo Press. Slettemeås works as a curator and consultant with art projects in public spaces. He is also the daily manager of the Harpefoss hotel overseeing various projects as Art space and Harpefoss poetry festival. He has contributed as an author and editor of several Norwegian and international publications and catalogues on contemporary art.
One often thinks of illusions as failed attempts to “perceive” the physical world but in truth, in a biological perspective, there is no incorrect manner to see the world other than perceptions that are incompatible with the life of the species. In fact, the whole world of perception may be a “grand illusion”, quite remote from the physical world which remains unknowable and immeasurable (as a score of pre-Darwinistic philosophers had already reflected upon; e.g. Galilei, Berkeley, Kant, Schopenhauer). In other words, we all live inside a “virtual reality” which is bounded by the workings of our physiology1. Today’s psychology and neuroscience agree with the above sketched philosophical stance and view perception as reflecting what is, at times, a simplified understanding of physical laws by our brain or, in other cases, a radical transformation of this physical information, as when light gets transformed into colors in our heads. Hence, art cannot imitate the world (or nature) but only our perception of it. Nevertheless, we rarely confuse an artistic image (or any two-dimensional representation) for the concrete 3D scene it represents and even striking deviations from realism, where there is no familiar or well-defined form (as in some Rothko or Pollock paintings), are still made sense by our brain as combinations of space and light3. The reason an artistic illusion works as it does is that for the viewer the physical laws are optional in representational art. We can look a long time to a Renaissance painting of Fra Carnevale2 and wonder, as the Florentines of his time did, at the realism of the scene, almost as if we were peeking from a “room with a view” in Firenze out and into the piazza below3, and yet not be bothered a bit by the fact that the patterns of shadows of the people in the scene and the shadings on buildings and objects could only be produced if Firenze had two suns in the sky, not one. In the Trattato della pittura, Leonardo equaled the visual art of painting to science. Indeed, all works of visual art can be seen as experiments with human vision and perception. In other words, the visual arts represent an intuitive form of perceptual psychology or neuroscience4,5. The visual arts (be a Renaissance painting or today’s photographs and videofilms) are powerful means for creating visual illusions. That is, what we experience in the artistic image can be very much like reality, as we see it.
In some cases, the viewer does not know that what is seen is actually a representation of reality and not the world, so that the observer faces a potent illusion. Nina Torp uses light as a tool to conjure-up illusions in her installations. In Outside everything is immeasurable6 part I, hosted in Carl Berner Square subway station, colored photos are invisibly projected on the walls of a dark room in the passageway, deep inside the station; the room’s fourth wall is made of glass and separates the corridor where everyone moves rapidly in or out, up or down, from/to the station and the streets. The passerby within the station is thus allowed to peek, often for a few seconds, into another “reality”. The photos represent windows, including their frames, and are positioned on the walls so that they instantly - though illusorily - give the impression that “the room has a view”. Through the impalpable windows one can see the sky, other buildings, and trees. It is important to note that Nina Torp’s installation takes place in a subway station, a subterranean place, an underworld, deep beneath the hill and the apartment blocks of Carl Berner Square. Within the room and from it, inside-outside and above-below loose their geometrical oppositions as in a dialectic interaction. The passerby, who glances to the projections while in motion, may briefly see “windows” that reveal a place that cannot be there but it is in fact there: The projected image and the station are both the same place really (i.e. Carl Berner Square). The act of being in the “same place”, above-below and inside-outside, generates a phenomenological mesh between the subterranean place and the images (memories) of the place above. Thus, the projected light constitutes a “visual” metaphor of the place, because the (photo) image is that of an existing window of the towering building over Carl Berner Square. A physical window would let light enter the interior while framing the vision of the exterior, but in the installation light is the inside-out illusion of real windows. This “window” catapults the passing viewer’s view up above, stretching one’s sight into the immeasurable and works as a powerful “cognitive” metaphor because the passing viewer must associate inside (or under) to the outside (or above, aerial) environment. It is a mental shortcut, appropriately described by the words of Hermes Trismegistus: “As above so below”. Here the various levels of physical space are related, so that what happens at one level happens also on the other, the microcosm of the subterranean station becomes the macrocosm of the view from above, so that within one lies the other. In the darkness of the subway world, our visual brain is also starved for forms, something needs to be made out of the senseless or repetitive neutral background. Psychological studies of states of sensory input deprivation have shown that without a stimulus the brain will eventually make up its own ghost forms7. Thus, the ‘ghost windows’ in the subterranean windowless room of Carl Berner's are a metaphor of the human condition within the bowels of the city.
Illusions abound also in the other examples of Nina Torp’s art, where viewers are led to shift their gaze through space and time. In Memoirs of A Tourist, one sees a dynamic image of a slow-motion waterfall. If one peeked long enough to the water flow and then shifted the gaze to the blank wall, then one would see the waterfall in reverse, a motion after-image or illusion that Aristotle had already pondered about and seen as a forceful example of how our mind constructs and shapes the world. In Outside everything is immeasurable part II, a giant Leporello8 opposes at each fold views from two opposite windows of the towering block of Carl Berner Square; so that outward view of the East window faces that of West window (and so North the South) but at a 45° angle instead of the 180° degrees of the physical world. Thus, space and time are curved in this Leporello and opposites views are brought closer to one another. Finally, in the ”Pompeian cabinet”, a room from a German castle is recreated by lifesize colored prints on theatrical panels, rendering an illusion of a space which is not there and that, in its original physical form, already referred - by its furniture, paintings and etchings on the wall - to another space which is not there but in fact gone. The visual arts (as well as literature) are our wonderful portals to mental time travel.
Bruno Laeng is professor in cognitive neuropsychology. Research on perception, mental imagery and visual memory. He has a Bachelor in experimental psychology from Universitá La Sapienza (Roma, Italia) and a Ph.D. in biological psychology from The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA). He has previously held positions at the University of Bergen, University of Tromsø, University of Guelph (Canada), Harvard University (USA) and he has been a Clinical Research Fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston (USA).
Nina Torp’s conceptual art practice has a delicate touch that reveals the poetry of her vision with many references to art history [from Renaissance painting to Abstract Expressionism] and various art disciplines. The Ariadne thread between pieces such as “Still Life White”, “Dissolving Paintings”, the “Ponds” series and the “Agreeable Kind of Horrors” installation is the process of metamorphosis, the elegant deconstruction and reframing of the memory beheld in fluids, still or solid objects, in art materials, in landscape composition, in ephemeral moments and in the editing of themes featured in art history books. Her fascination with perspective and parameters [be it physical or psychological] is palpable and contagious. And so is her ability to experiment and amalgamate rigid genres [a cusp between photography, painting, theatre sets, installation and sculpture] that ensures her audience will be seduced and recompensed for its engagement.
For Torp is a generous yet demanding artist, she is expecting her audience to come along on a journey of discovery. Her fluency in translating archetypical subject matters into fresh poetic pieces requires attention and time. She does not adhere to formulas. She resists the trend in an art world where one trick ponies methods are repeated and marketed ad nauseum, by consistently moving forward, pushing boundaries, and sharing her brilliance whilst retaining her integrity.
Looking at “Still Life White”, we immediately get the pun. Fruits have been used in the still life format to demonstrate an artist’s ability to paint, using oils. The Dutch and Venetian schools encouraged generations of masters and apprentices to learn the trade of capturing the ephemeral moment of life at its peak, with fruits an allegory for life’s beauty and decay. Having casted fruits drenched into an artificial coat of acrylic paint serves as a critique of the interference of mankind to control food production with the health consequences that will be passed down generations. By casting the fruits, she strips them to their aesthetic essence devoid of their original taste, smell, colour and ultimately physiological purpose. By adding the white paint, she masks and reveals the sensual gustative pleasure that is lost, sealing it within the memory of its form, ie. indigestible clay. “Still Life White” epitomizes the notion of convergence between art forms as, in its finality, it was shown as a sculptural installation and as a photographic series.
Forward five centuries from the Renaissance period and with new technologies and post war dynamism, painting departed from figurative to Abstract Expressionism, from Europe to America and influential golden boy Jackson Pollocks is the fil conducteur of “Dissolving Paintings”. The process of repeating the bold and liberating American gestures onto a large canvas was the starting point of an experiment that Torp undertook to ‘see where this would lead to’. Just as Pollocks was ‘fiddling with nature’, re-enacting organic methodologies, Torp parted from imitating his iconic swirls into another territory by putting the canvas into a bath of water. Acrylic painting dries fast but creates interesting patterns whilst wet. Paintings on that scale are for interior spaces. Water, snow, rain bring the outdoors into the indoors. The monochromatic quality of grey steers our imagination from the Pollockian swirls [a record of human energy] to evoke volcanic residue, lava that has dried [a record of the meandering path of the magma], the essential core of our planet. Pollocks’s painted gestures, championed by the art critic Clement Greenberg, symbolized post-modernism and sold the American dream to a worldwide audience. Through the experimental process, the Pollockian reference is gone though, metamorphosed into a Torpian signature piece, brimming with Norwegian flair and sensitivity.
Torp’s conceptual practice is indeed an investigation into her own cultural heritage and background that extends into the greater dynamics of a Western cultural paradigm. Evidently an art education [including a couple of residencies] spent in England, France, The Netherlands and Norway has enriched her artistic pedigree. What makes Torp a great contemporary artist though is her gift for capturing what Gaston Bachelard coined as a sense of ‘Intimate Immensity’. She is able to poeticize the land stillness [“One Act Play”], the daylight movement [“Morning Piece” & “Evening Piece”], the meanderings of an art experiment [“Dissolving Paintings”]. In these particular artworks, her limited palette and choice of material prompt the audience to enjoy a sense of contemplation and reverie that completes the piece.
The “Ponds” are taking us on an adventure with a new material in Torp’s visual vocabulary, that of dainty and delicate porcelain. Here, the artist investigated the possibilities of creating shapes and forms by pouring porcelain clay directly onto the kiln plates. A shift from liquid to solid, through the firing process, takes place and is subsequently frozen in time via photography. The “Ponds” are also ironically placed upon wheels when displayed horizontally, as a floor installation, hinting at the incidence of erosion shaping the geology of the landscape. The colour grey mutes the vertical reflection into the sky, cancelling the lyrical dialogue to the Greek myth of Narcissus [ the hero glimpsing into the pond, doesn’t compute that he has caught the sight of his own reflection, falling in love with himself] , just as the water bath did earlier to the Pollockian reference. Instead it cleverly suggests the knowledge of a mysterious realm underneath the surface, in the deep vacuum of the unconscious.Numerous trips to reference libraries and museum crystallized an interest in allegorical landscapes [with natural and artificial waterfalls] and the idea of the sublime. “Memoirs of a Tourist – Waterfalls I, II, III & IV” takes as a starting point a vintage postcard framing a tourist vantage point. Through the preserve of a global cultural heritage, an extension of the XIXth century Grand Tour, people are encouraged to experience certain places of interest and the tour is carefully planned so to stimulate an upheaval of emotions, the elusive wow factor. In order to surprise her audience, Torp collaged a video footage of the same cascade that is featured on the original postcard. Within the same video artwork, one area is a still and the other features the movement of water pouring downwards. It takes a few seconds to understand this visual trick that transcends notions of time passing and water pouring for eternity. The flow of the vertical liquid line works with the implicit horizontal fluidity of people moving, stopping and leaving the touristic location. Indeed, generations upon generations of people have repeated the same ritual of standing at that very spot, marveling at the waterfalls and the beautiful feeling it engenders.
The act of freezing time and space, framing it in a beautiful composition is perennial to artistry. Staging it in a controlled manner enables the moment to be experienced time and time again before its decayed finality disappears. The installation “An Agreeable Kind of Horror” exemplifies that very theme. The lava that was decoded in the earlier “Dissolving Painting” is now shaped into seemingly heavy rocks suspended on strings. The effect is spellbinding.
“An Agreeable Kind of Horror” is about being aware of the core rather than focusing on the surface. The installation was site specific hence its requirement to respond to the limitations of the interior project space with precision. The perspective lines draw your attention on a horizontal plane whilst the suspended rocks, like the “Ponds” series earlier, evoke a vertical dialogue between the pull of earthy concerns and allegorical skies. Capturing an exterior experiences and staging it indoors is a post modern take on the Sublime tradition of painting. But the twist lies in the knowledge that what looks like volcanic rocks are actual industrial waste products. This gives an environmental dimension to the piece, a warning that the ecology of the landscape is important to preserve its beauty.
In her latest work, the “The Morning Piece” & “The Evening Piece”, Torp departs from the liquid theme to focus on ephemeral movements. In this most accomplished work, she captures traces of daylight, the magic of time passing. One can identify an obvious link between the seduction of the perspective lines as seen in Sabbatini and her record of light passing in an industrial space. The stillness and quietness of the piece, even its title, evokes music, rhythm. It is visual poetry mixed with scientific knowledge that the earth is on an axis and forever is turning, engendering seasons, affecting landscape and the way society operates.
Nina Torp’s art work engages us to think about the reality and reflections of our life’s archetypical experiences, by reframing notions of beauty, authenticity and the sublime within the visual vocabulary of post-modernism. The skin of the fruits, the layer of applied paint covering the blank canvas, the ridge of presumed water, the faked volcanic rocks, the traces of sunlight onto the floor and walls of a disused factory celebrate the paradigm of high and low, above and below, inside and outside, literal and symbolic, the visible and the invisible. Those are the universal dynamics of man versus nature, traditions versus innovations that inform the body of work of an artist that is worth her salt.
Agnès Poitevin-Navarre s a French conceptual artist based in London, England. She completed her MA in Mixed Media at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1997. She has worked on a number of educational projects with the Institute of International Visual Arts and Tate Britain. Her last commission by the London Transport Museum was part of a touring exhibition entitled Mind The Map linked to the London Cultural Olympiad of 2012. Her art practice is focused on notions of identity and categorization.