Bo Bjerggaard

A K Dolven

14 Oct - 17 Dec 2011

© A K Dolven
vertical on my own, 2011
16 mm film transferred to HD, large scale projection with sound
Sound: Eldbjørg Raknes, kamera: Jakob Ingimundarsson, recording: Stian Westerhus. Støttet af Norsk Filmfond
vertical on my owm
14 October - 17 December, 2011

Grids and Echoes

"To make a shadow means that you are vertical. When you are horizontal you don't make a shadow anymore."

This statement A K Dolven made to me during a studio visit sums up the existential condition of her new film vertical on my own. In this panoramic film projection the viewer is engulfed by a horizontal shadow stretching along a glistening, white and cold snowscape. The moving shadow shortens and elongates, falls in and out of shape; then suddenly a section pulls off, the form parts and becomes momentarily perforated only to reunite with its amorphous self(s) again.

The verticality of the bodies represented in the horizontality of the shadow symbolise the two fundamental vectors in art history: the vertical and the horizontal line. Combined they built a cross, trans-cultural symbol for human life cycle; multiplied they form a grid, the 500 year old backbone of the perspectival modern painting. For the North American art historian Rosalind Krauss the modernist grid is what could be described as the 'Grundrisse of visual economy': an ordering principle that structures and controls (or in Krauss' words "represses") our 'optical unconscious'.[1] What is the 'optical unconscious'?; a kind of visual chaos, the optical equivalent of the unconsciousness in psychoanalysis. Krauss uses the metaphor of the sea to approximate this deep structure. But maybe Arthur Danto is more helpful for understanding this somewhat mysterious concept. For him the optical unconscious is "a visual plenitude that is somehow heightened and pure, both a limitless expanse and a sameness."[2]

It is interesting (although unusual) to relate Krauss' art theoretical observations to recent findings in neuroscience. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger describes 'consciousness' as a massive feedback system that from the moment when we first sense (maybe the mother's heartbeat or the placenta in the womb) 'feeds' information to the brain, which then reacts to the new input with an action, the effect of which is fed back again which causes another reaction and so on. Metzinger makes the radical argument that there is no 'self', but that in fact human consciousness is an echo that throughout thousands of years thickened up to a sound we call the 'self'.[3] For Metzinger, consciousness is the mere experience of the coherence of time and space. The evolving 'reality effect' is nothing but the perfect organisation of otherwise chaotic data. So when the painter stands in front of a new blank canvas, it is not a nothing that she sees, but the field of vision (that is the canvas) is already busy with the feedbacking, flimmering, vibrating hustle and bustle of neurological brain activity - or Krauss' 'optical unconscious'. The grid is the structure that allows our eyes to make sense of this chaos. It assigns to the modern subject a central, centring place in the world. The subject is grounded in the geometrics of the grid and the self is restored.

"My work circles around how to find balance in life. Balance both personally, politically, and socially", Dolven states. vertical on my own talks about a physical balance, a body that is erected, steadfast and strong and hence can produce a horizontal shadow. But the bodies are also a metaphor for the I-/eye, literally representing the artist's 'Rasterfahnung' for balance and harmony.[4] The grid returns in change my way of seeing, a series of small cadmium-orange white paintings presented in this exhibition. However, far from repressing the optical unconscious Dolven allows it to breathe through in the vastness of the whiteness, a characteristic we encounter regularly in the snowy landscapes and wide horizons so key in Dolven's aesthetic. Her fragile grids always enter in a dynamic relation with the white expanse, the 'visual plenitude of the sea' (and the snow, we have to add here) that so clearly haunts the eerie background in change my way of seeing and vertical on my own.

Cycles and Rituals

Dolven's art is inherently ritualistic and performative. change my way of seeing was produced in the form of a morning ritual by which the artist would start every day in the studio with the production of a few paintings. Dolven once told her art students that the process of making art is the most exciting, thrilling aspect of artistic practice. I remember thinking: but where does this leave me, the viewer? If the artist's investment ends with the completion of the artwork, then we, the spectators, have come in at the wrong end of the deal! But what we need to understand is that the art work continues to be performative even when it leaves the artist studio and enters the gallery space of the white cube or the private home of the owner. change my way of seeing is deliberately installed the way the work was hanged in the artist's London studio, where a selection of paintings are scattered along five horizontal rows, almost like musical notes on a sheet. The wall is covered in writing and scribbles suggesting a spontaneous improvised notation of thoughts and ideas. This installation is not 'set in stone' - the gallery visitor is invited to change the hang according to her individual taste. With the accessibility of the paintings and the flexible hang Dolven challenges traditional ways of art presentation and as such follows Jean-Luc Godard's well known claim that "it is not about making political art, but making art politically".

Equally, Dolven's films are often performative in content as they involve the movement of a body, as well as performative in form - film is a time-based medium. The split screen Super 8 projection self portrait Berlin februar 1989 Lofoten august 2009 is truly ritualistic as it celebrates the female body politic within a cyclical time frame. In 1989 Dolven, who was living in Berlin at that time, rotated the Super 8 camera around her own naked body while standing outside in the freezing cold of her balcony. What we do not see in the film projection, but is fascinating to know, is that her apartment bordered right on the river Spree, the official border between West and East Berlin (in fact, while her balcony's entrance was West German, the balcony platform itself belonged to East Germany). Placing her body in this zone of political tension and actual danger doubles the act of surveillance to which Dolven was constantly exposed. By turning the camera on her naked self the artist appropriates the intimacy of border control surveillance and at the same time subverts it through the opacity of the blurred image. It took twenty years for this film to find its place in Dolven's practice: it was only in 2009, during the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, that the artist decided to repeat the performance in the open space of Lofoten, a remote area in the arctic North of Norway. Cyclical, rotating movements have a long history in ritual dance traditions as they are linked to the rotation of the planets. The dynamic equilibrium achieved through rotation and spinning counter-balances the staticism of the grid and plays an important part in Dolven's visual vocabulary.

Voices and Bodies

For Dolven the body plays an essential part in the process of the production of the image. Only recently she turned her creative attention to one of the most mysterious sources of bodily expression: the human voice. In vertical on my own Dolven uses the shadow in combination with an off-voice in a powerful way. The relation between shadow and voice has a long history in classical cinema; Fritz Lang used this effect in his first sound film M - Eine Stadt such einen Mörder from 1931. In one of the most memorable moments in early sound film history we are introduced to the main character (a child killer played by Peter Lorre) through the following scene: we see a ball bouncing on and off an announcement board calling for information about a local murderer. While we do not see the child who is throwing and catching the ball, we do witness with growing anxiety the shadow of a man in a hat that gradually fills the frame. We hear his voice deliberately clear and slow: "You have a got a nice ball. What is your name?" The girl replies: "Else Beckman:" Cut, the scene ends here and the horrific story unrolls.

The French musician and theorist Michel Chion describes the voice that speaks from the off as an 'acousmatic' voice. The acousmatic sound that draws our attention outside the frame has a powerful, uncanny effect as it hides the body it inhabits.[5] Herein lies the metaphysical potential of the acousmatic voice: it refers to a para-normal, almost god (or devil)-like presence-without-a-body. The Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar recently shed new light on the relationship between the voice and metaphysics. For Dolar the voice is a "vanishing mediator",, it "goes up in smoke in the meaning it produces."[6] Since the voice does not contribute to the meaning of what it says it is always in excess and points to an immediate, mysterious presence; this is why we feel uncomfortable listening to our own voice and why hearing 'voices in my head' is considered 'crazy'. Dolar concludes that the voice sits in the 'infrathin' (to use another Duchampian term[7]) space between the body and language, it connects the two, it holds together matter and meaning

The voice in vertical on my own first sounds like a creaking door that slowly opens reminiscent of the throat that releases the sound into the cave of the mouth and out into the world. The cranky door opening sound becomes an animal scream that tamed and controlled accompanies the rotating shadows until this 'dance macabre' slips away beyond our audio-visual field. The famous painting The Scream by Edward Munch, an artist Dolven referred to in her early career, shows us the origin of the voice, the mouth, the orifice, the traumatic void of the body but fails to provide its viewer with the liberating release of the sound. Inversely, in vertical on my own we are given the voice, but no body. In this haunting work Dolven debases the human condition to the animalistic (voice) and the 'informal' (shadows), which is at once celebratory (I am not dead!) and threatening (I am barely alive!).

If it is true that all human beings used to be musical and that our bodies are really musical instruments, then Dolven is a performer sounding her art with her body. Let's try and listen to the paintings in change my way of seeing. What do they sound like? Does listening to objects change the way we perceive them? Do the paintings change your way of seeing? The horizon 'in' these paintings is a space of deep abstraction, like the 'OM' sound in yoga that is produced through the complete movement of the breath from its lowest point, the diaphragm through to the chest and by closing the mouth up into the nasal area and ending in the highest point, the skull of the head. The musicality of the work is no coincidence as the title suggests the influence of John Cage who claimed that: "Change my way of seeing. Seeing is about thinking." change my way of seeing translates the vertical flow of breathing into horizontal movements. The paint is applied through the pressure and movement of the artist, who with a spatula applies gesso and classical oil paint onto anodized aluminium plates, which are placed flat on a table. Occasionally, Dolven makes small bumps in the back of the plate, which creates an uneven surface and allows for darker areas to manifest.

Post Scriptum

'Post Scriptum', from Latin 'what comes after the writing' relates to that which cannot (yet) be fully expressed in language and which hence has no place in the main body of text. This Post Scriptum is in excess of the art historical and theoretical discourse that informs my writing above. It seeks to circumvent seven voices, Dolven's most recent work in a series of artistic investigations of the voice. By pushing down a Cry Baby foot pedal the gallery visitor activates a recording of the famous Socialist anthem The Internationale, which sounds from two speaker that are installed high up on the gallery wall. One male voice and six female voices join together to sing the Norwegian version of one of the most translated songs in the world. This interactive installation directly relates to Dolven's most recent bell works, out of tune and the finnish untuned bell, both from 2011, where the artist re-installed a so-called bell clapper that like a tongie gave these discarded instruments their voice back. While seven voices developed from this new work, it also has a story of its very own. I cannot help but notice a deliberately direct 'message' in this work. Its overtly political intention represented in the content of the song stands out in Dolven's otherwise indirect approach to politics and prevents me from writing about this work in a theoretical fashion. On 22nd July 2011 a right wing fanatic bombed the Oslo government building before shooting dead young representatives of the political left. How to continue the artistic practice once it has been interrupted by such a traumatic event? In the time of increasingly aggressive pressure of neo-liberal corporate capitalism onto an already fragile social body The Internationale gains a new meaning and it seems fitting to end this text with its chorus line:

So comrades, come rally,(
And the last fight let us face.(
The Internationale,(
Unites the human race

By Maxa Zoller
Translation: Wordmaster


[1] Krauss, Rosalind: The Optical Unconscious, MIT, Boston 1992. The term 'Grundrisse' is my personal playful reference to Karl Marx's 1858 Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy).

[2] The term 'plentitude' describes the sate of abundance or the condition of being full, ample, or complete. In psychoanalysis it is used as a counter part to the Freudian notion of the lack. It is often used to describe the maternal plentitude of the symbiotic union between mother and child. Arthur Danto: 'The Optical Unconscious', in: Artforum Magazine, summer 1993.

[3] Thomas Metzinger: The Ego Tunnel: The science of the mind and the myth of self, Basic Books, New York, 2009

[4] The term 'Rasterfahnung' (German: 'grid-manhunt (or-search)') refers to the German 1970s police strategy to track down RAF members. This is a fascinating search method, which was developed in face of the lack of an identified individual criminals.

[5] Michel Chion: Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, New York Columbia Press, 1994

[6] Mladen Dolar: A Voice and Nothing More, MIT, Boston, 2006

[7] Duchamp described the 'infrathin' in the following example: "When the tobacco smoke smells also of the mouth which exhales it, the 2 odors marry by infra thin."

Tags: John Cage, AK Dolven, A K Dolven, Jean-Luc Godard