16. september - 31. desember 2011
Trees that fall (Trær som faller) – a 3-screen video installation
There is one thing has always interested people, namely how we appear to others – and to ourselves. Ever since Antiquity, this self-reflection has been linked to physical ideals; collocations such as youth and vigour, vitality and beauty, bravery and character, age and wisdom, fertility and sensuality, have inspired artists in a variety of ways, resulting in the many representations found throughout the history of art. In more modern times – in parallel with women’s liberation – there has been an increasing focus on the relationship between femininity and age. For a while now, the ideal that has been found in the West’s media culture has been youthful, flirty femininity. This has fed the masquerade of contemporary plastic surgery, and an entire beauty and training industry has developed. In contrast to this trend, which attempts to combat the unavoidability of ageing, there is an alternative, one where the body and ageing is linked to health and wellbeing. In this counter-culture, women say to themselves and others “Woman, love your body.” It is precisely this trend that Thiis-Evensen captures in her new video work, in which three, casually-dressed, mature women, dance freely or with a hula hoop. They don’t hide their age, instead they naturally express their bodies’ musicality and wellbeing, a wellbeing that can be seen in their movements and facial expressions.
Thiis-Evensens work is created in a modern medium, one that is used for filming interviews and other features for the television, which is the world of Thiis-Evensen’s everyday work as a journalist at NRK’s arts department. This is not an unimportant link, because it is through her background as a television professional that she has developed a form of communication in which the people she meets for features or interviews enter a situation that is basically natural, honest and revealing, and also somewhat artificial. It is impossible to be filmed by a modern video camera without knowing it will be shown via a mass medium or in an exhibition hall. Thiis–Evensen has her own way of getting people to relax and making them appear as genuine as it is possible to be in front of a camera, and this quality is cultivated in her artistic projects.
As long ago as 1976, video art was defined as a narcissistic medium by the renowned art historian and critic Rosalind Krauss. The basis for this was not just that video art pioneers, such as Peter Campus, Hannah Wilke, Martha Roesler, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci and Dan Graham used their own faces and bodies as motifs, but also that film is in general an egocentric recording instrument, where recordings can immediately be seen on the screen. The adult women in the work “Trees that fall” are naturally aware of this, and they also use insights they gained in their pasts, as younger girls, from gymnastics and training, with hula hoops and other training equipment. They are also conscious of their training clothes, and generation-wise they fit in well with the hippie movement’s structureless free-dancing and the exercise studio boom that Jane Fonda symbolised. It is fairly typical that it was a film star whose career in front of the camera was declining who was responsible for this; the lack of roles has been a much discussed problem for middle-aged actresses. A few older women have remained stars, such as Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn, and recently Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Sally Field. It is this age group that we meet in Thiis-Evensen’s work. Women aged 60+ now have clear role models, even if we hear that age can remain a problem for women in front of the television camera in our era of image consumption and image eroticisation.
The title of the work, Trees that fall (Trær som faller), is taken from the Norwegian title of a novel by the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard (the book’s original title is Holzfällen, and its English translation is called Woodcutters). Trees, like bodies, age, and are finally broken down and fall, just like the skin of the face, breasts and waist. But melancholy is not what characterises Thiis-Evensen’s work; instead we encounter pleasure that the increased leisure of the early retirement years can be used to continue with activities from earlier in life. Training is good for body and soul, and a hula hoop is excellent for keeping the waist in shape. The expressions on the worn, slightly wrinkled faces display confidence and joy in having a body that works and which can move rhythmically and to music. The work also shows that femininity is better placed in nature than in urban surroundings. All three women hula-hoop and dance outside, each in her natural habitat. One hula-hoops on a rock with the noise of waves in the background, one stands in a meadow and hula-hoops, like in the Norwegian fairy tale “doll in the grass” or a bird in the meadow. The third woman, not as slim and well-trained as the others, dances in loose, reddish robes, where her figure is vaguer and crosses the border from a clearly defined body to the robes’ flowing movements and the orchard’s branches and leaves.
All three situations emphasise the time-honoured and strong traditional link between femininity and nature, between women’s bodies and the landscape. And we are reminded that it is a free, fluid, rhythmic, folding and continual flow – that which comprises “the mechanics of fluids”* – that is the most accurate expression of womanhood. This is a way of seeing womanhood that characterises parts of the most radical 1970s feminism; in other words, feminist theory from the time when these women were in their 20s and 30s and were formed as adult individuals. A very important part of this ideology was differentiating the feminine from the masculine, which was defined as something logical, rigid, phallic, and clearly defined. It was just as important to remove the definition of femininity from theories on the meaning of gender difference, as femininity was something that was decided on the basis of its relationship to masculinity. Through a fairly crass criticism of the psychoanalytical emphasis of the significance of genital gender differences, there was a showdown with the perception that femininity was not something in itself, but was to be defined through dependency and contact with masculinity.
In more recent feminist theory, it is emphasised that femininity is naturally something in itself, something that exists and unfolds without referring to or being conditioned by something masculine. And this is what is visible in this work. None of these three women is in relation to a partner, there are no couples dancing and no mixed doubles, no flirting or attempts at connection to another body. They are alone with themselves, each in her natural surroundings. And, judging from their facial expressions, this can almost be an ecstatic experience.
In the exhibition in the Nøstetangen Room, this brave, proud sensuality is played out against the old, fragile heritage objects in the room. Thus, some of the hope that underlies this project, the Solo project at Drammens Museum, is yet again fulfilled. The aim has always been to provide contemporary art with the opportunity to play out against an ocean of historic art treasures, and that this meeting gives back movement and sensuality to these beautiful artefacts, all of which were made to be used and physically touched by hands and lips in social contexts where people met to celebrate. We can rediscover the fluid movement that was long ago taken from the glass and silver in Charlotte Thiis-Evensen’s three graces. There is also a contemporary generosity in presenting them side-by-side. No one here will Paris the Trojan, who had to choose between the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite and give a golden apple to the “fairest.” Such competition, which implies flirts and curtsies, is not necessary here. It is a bygone age, not just historically, but also personally – here we hear another song.
Åsmund Thorkildsen, Museum Director and curator for the Solo project
*The concept of the “Mechanics of Fluids” is presented by Luce Irigaray in her book This Sex Which is Not One (1974).