Kurt Johannessen
works 1996-2000

text: Dag Sveen


For what will soon be 20 years Kurt Johannessen has worked with performances and installations, and his imagination when it comes to creating new and striking situations and images seems without end. The continuity

and context is nevertheless striking in all he has done - from his first tentative works in the early 80s to his latest work. This is also true of his pictorial productions and his «Artist Books».
In what, then, does this continuity consist? In content - to the extent one can distinguish between form and content - it is found in the creation of situations, images and events that are often experienced as existential and primary, frequently connected to the emphasis on man’s connection with the elements. This is, however, never turned into cliches about Man and Life. The relation to the surrealistic-dadaist tradition with its absurd «pictures» and situations, the irrational juxtaposition of events and objects make his works manifold and demonstrate a will to create realities which escape categorizations. His art is more about suggestions and indications that place demands on the co-narrating creativity of the spectator.
In form, or rather, in enactment, continuity lies in the actor’s concentration and presence in the situation, and moreover in the knowledge of the esthetical potential of the limited, not to mention the minimalist props. These are central to the poetic and visual qualities that characterize so many of his works, and they are important for the credibility of his poetic statements. Quiet speech carries more authority than loud words.

A striking feature of KJ’s production has long been his will to visually structure his works through forms such as the circle and the globe, a feature that shows how difficult, not to say impossible it often is to separate form from content. Both the circle and the globe are highly symbolic forms that are central to the content of the work, yet at the same time they are pure and simple forms with an esthetical quality in and for themselves. They are also appropriate for KJ’s minimalist discourse.

As symbolic form
To structure the visual «picture» through the circular shape is to add a visual frame to an installation or a performance. The first time this was done was in 1987 in Performance O, which he did together with the base player Rolf Prestø. With a globe he drew a circle on the black floor in a darkened room. The «drawing» was a scratching in the paint so that a subjacent, fluorescent circle emerged. In The Second Air, from 1988, 12 small and bowl-shaped objects were placed on the floor. They were made of ice, shaped as turned-over igloos and filled with black marbles. As he began his performance the bowls had started to melt and the marbles rolled out and made sound. In Ogo (1993) he was laying and slowly turning his body in the middle of the circle. 18 snails placed on the floor constituted the circle, which gradually dissolved, as the snails began to move. In the performance Seventh Journey, connected to the installation Untitled in 1999, he repeated the same slow circularmotion, this time with the head on a «pillow» of plaster dust, the only time, however, he has combined the two genres. For those with some knowledge of Renaissance art the two latter works evoke associations of Leonardo da Vinci and other artists’ drawings of the male body in a circle. They were meant to visualize that the human being (=man?) was a small cosmos (microcosms) in the large cosmos (macrocosms).
KJ hardly used these drawings deliberately as references when he turned his own body in a «cosmic» shape. This, however, is not important. The event and the picture easily evoke these connotations, without thereby implying that KJ’s inscription of his own body in a circle has a significance as clear and unison as the human being in the circle has to the renaissance artists.
Moreover, the differences are also too significant, not least because of the somewhat «absurd» elements like the snails in Ogo - which in effect dissolved the circle - as well as the plaster-dust pillow in Seventh Journey. A characteristic feature in all of KJ’s works is the premeditated multitude of meanings which never determine the interpretation, but always leaves it open for the spectator’s further contemplation. The meaningless titles, which he most often applies to his works, are part of this strategy.
Sometimes, however, we are steered towards an obvious symbolic understanding of the circle and the globe, like for instance in Performance O, Second Air, Ogo and Seventh Journey. It is of course also a matter of a minimalist expression with an intrinsic esthetical value, but our attention is as naturally directed towards the circle’s signification as subject matter. On a certain level it concerns human beings’ relation to a larger whole, to put it in somewhat round and vague terms, This is also the case, and visually emphasized in To draw an invisible circle with the head just above a glacier (1998). Alone on the Jostedal glacier (not counting photographer and assistants), he is hanging by his legs in a custom made frame equipped with a motor which slowly turns him around in a circle right above the ice. In all its simplicity it is a stringent image, with the plain steel skeleton and frame of a shape reminiscent of the dome, and the body vertically pointing down towards the white snowy surface of the glacier. It is a suggestive, visual «image» delineated with a minimum of props and with great symbolic force.
This act is repeated in the dark of night in a forest in Kvarnfors, Sweden - To draw an invisible circle with the head in a forest at night - and, in a black desert-like landscape close to Hekla, Iceland - To draw an invisible circle with the head just above a black desert, both from 1999. To all of them the context is important to give the symbolic dimension - an 8000 years old glacier, the forest night, and the Icelandic desert-like landscape shaped by the volcano Hekla.

As structuring form
At other times we experience the circle as a primarily esthetical and structuring form, although also with the potential for a «deeper» understanding, like in Neen and Dweeh, two performances he created together with Jørgen Knudsen. In Neen (1996) they begin by boiling honey and water on a round, edged brass plate placed on a round heater before KJ start walking backwards in circles and in the figure eight. He walks in smaller and smaller circles until he ends up turning in one spot. (While this is happening he puts his finger in his mouth, blue color comes out, and he makes sound by blowing). Jørgen. is beating round cymbals that make sounds manipulated on computer based on the sound of shooting with bow and arrow. This functioned as a ritual overture to the conclusion where an archer comes in, opens his suitcase, puts the bow together, strings it and shoots at eight small, circular targets placed in a circle on the wall. (KJ has lain down on the floor and arches his body every time the bow is strung).
In Dweeh (1999) a tape recorder plays a tape loop which runs in a circle of four diameters around the room. The sounds are arranged animal sounds and relate to KJ who is standing on a round plate that rotates with a speed of a half round per minute. From his head to the ceiling there is a column of plastic animals, fastened to a motor that rotates in the opposite direction, doing approximately two rounds per minute. The vertical column (Kurt and the plastic animals) and the big and the small circle are the components that constitute the performance as «picture». By its movement the «column» was also included in the circle context.

Circle obsession
In the installation Untitled (1999) he takes the circle and the globe to the almost absurd. 40 white porcelain plates, 700 plaster balls and 7000 drawings of circles - some elaborately done, others hastily scribbled - were placed on the floor in Gallery s. e in Bergen. They were organized around a writing-table to visualize the working room of someone obsessed with circles. The obsession overturns the circle and the globe as cosmic symbols. Here they constitute fragments of a situation that is approaching chaos. This, at any rate, can be one possible interpretation.This was the installation where he lay on the floor with his head on a circular «pillow» made of plaster dust and turned his body while the head, placed in the middle of the circle and colored white from the plaster-dust, remained still on the pillow.
As a «spin-off» product from the installation KJ also made a small Artist’s book, - 373 Circles - with tiny circles, at times so tiny that they were barely visible.

All (2000)
After the near destruction of the globe and the circle as cosmic symbols in the installation, they return in the new millennium with a symbolic force and unity they have never before had in his works. This happened in the fascinating installation All. This, however, we will return to in the discussion of the temporal dimension in KJ’s art.

Sleep (1997)
Not in any of KJ’s works has the globular shape been so intense as in the installation Sleep. And not in any of his works has this shape been so far removed from any metaphysical statement. His concern with the globe has nevertheless been a precondition for seeing a poetic potential in something so trivial as footballs. Thus, on the floor in Gallery Otto Plonk were 14 balls thinly painted with white - footballs and plastic balls - limp and sunk because some of the air had gone out. From every ball was heard children’s sleeping noises, coming out of small loudspeakers installed in each single ball.
In the installation the balls «replace» the children without functioning exclusively as metaphors for children. In a poem this could have been the case: The balls which the air has gone out of have analogous associations with children fallen asleep and no longer active and playing. Association by analogy is also at work in KJ’s installation, but the balls do not thereby become «simple» metaphors. The fact that they do not, tells us something about the installation as genre.(Performance, too, for that matter). Balls described in words or pictured on canvas have different «forms of being» than the balls in KJ’s installation. The latter are there as concrete objects with their clear identity as things and as balls with little air. If one employs the sunk down ball as metaphor for the sleeping child in a poem, it is still the image of a child who is asleep that is conjured up in the readers mind. In Sleep it is the balls that are sleeping. This brings a snug humour into a field that of sleeping children, which touches most of us - where the cliches are lurking just around the corner. As it is, the visual simplicity and the playful imagination in the connection between sleeping children and flat balls turns the installation into a piece of genuine poetry.
There are also analogous associations between sleeping children and the installation as a whole. We smile a little in our meeting with Sleep, not just because it is an unexpected meeting with pathetic, deflated balls in an art gallery, but also because they do not have the ability to conquer the gallery room. They are too few, there are lacunas of space between them - and they do not stand very tall. We are accustomed to meeting the artwork at eye level, at least with parts of the work. Here we must look down. We are big, they are small. Had the balls been placed on pedestals we would not be as conscious of this difference in size. The too small and somewhat pathetic balls in the gallery room, now as an installed entity, are therefore also analogous by association to small and slightly fragile children, asleep in their beds.

Volcanos (1997)
The installation Volcanos followed immediately after Sleep. Five cone-shaped «volcanoes» in brass, ca. 50 cm tall and a diameter of ca. 90-cm, had replaced the balls on the floor in Gallery Otto Plonk. The tops were cut to represent the crater and to release the boiling «lava»- a mix of honey and water - which seethed and spilled out onto the floor. (A water boiler inside the cones heated the water and honey).
The installation gained some of its meaning from its contrast to Sleep: active volcanoes as opposed to sleeping children and deflated balls. Here, too, however, there is a slightly humorous edge, this time in the contrast between the «dangerous» volcanoes which were seething and boiling, and their modest size, placed on the floor and subjected to looking from «above,» just as the balls were in Sleep.
Installation and performance are sensuous genres, sensuous because they expound concrete objects, including the human body. KJ plays further on this sensuousness, not only by emphasizing the visual, but also the auditive and olfactory, that which concerns the sense of smell. In Neen, where he and Jørgen Knudsen boil water and honey as an introduction to the performance, they play on all three senses, as KJ also does in Volcanos, but now with the smell as a far more central factor. The intensity of the slightly sweet smell was an important component of the installation. I will return to the use of sound at a later point.

In the fall of 1998 a strange event took place in Bergen Society of Fine Art. In one of the hall rooms KJ had engaged approximately 300 students from 10 different elementary schools and high schools in Bergen, Sotra and Osterøy as participants in a performance that lasted for three hours a day in one week. They were to alternate between lying under each their paper tract and whisper about something they thought significant, or about something of special importance to them. The shape of the funnel can render various associations, from a flower to an oldfashioned record player. Perhaps the latter one - also an instrument for sound - would come to mind most easily. That opens up for the perception of the children’s whisper not only as words, but rather as sounds, as a piece of modern music where whispering voices replace the traditional tunes. In Sleep, too, the children’s sleeping sounds can be perceived as a choir of sounds.
KJ frequently uses sound deliberately in his works. In Dweeh, with Jørgen Knudsen, it is the strange computer manipulated animal sounds that attract our attention. In Neen a silence of anticipation is created as the bows man arches his bow, a precondition for our experiencing the force of the impact when the arrow hits the target on the wall in great speed. In Sleep and Whisper it is the contrast with ordinary human communication - with respect to the form as well as thelevel of sound - that sharpens our awareness of sound. When we listen to ordinary speech, in daily life or in a performance, we listen without being conscious that we listen. Word and sound must be removed from
their traditional contexts of communication in order that we consciously experience them as sound.
Whisper, in addition to being words and sounds, also has an element of secrecy. We whisper about that which we cannot talk openly about and which we only share with our confidants. Children have more such secrets than adults do, maybe because they live in a phase of life where they are subject to more restrictions than are adults. The choice of whisper in a «flower-funnel» therefore also becomes a statement about children, just as the sleeping balls were in Sleep.
The whispering children lying under the large funnels could be conceived of as an independent performance. They were also part, however, of a larger whole. In the major hall 10-15 older people between 60 and 80 years old where wandering around and reading silently from a book of their own choice given a white cover for the occasion. They were walking around a large pool withice-blocks from the Jostedals Glacier, which gradually melted in the course of the six days this went.
About this event KJ said: «I have gathered the extremes of life, the young with their thirst for knowledge and their wonder, the old ones with their experience, with long time behindthem. Like the ice blocks from the Jostedals glacier.» (Bergensavisen,28.10.98).

The «unfolding» text
«I got the idea for the project (Whisper and Silence) after writing the book 28 persons lastyear», KJ said in an interview. (Bergensavisen 28.10.98). It may be worth mentioning this, not in order to trace the source of inspiration for the original performance, but to say something about the significance writing holds to KJ as an artist. KJ is an artist who creates visual poetry, whether through children’s mouths under a flower funnel, or the suspended body of an artist over the glacier. KJ himself accentuates the importance writing has to his work in that it «unfolds.» The freedom which the word gives to move in the past, present and future, to describe the most peculiar situations and illusions, liberates the imagination and to the artist KJ opens up for unknown possibilities.
Time as time plays a central role in KJ’s art, as it also does in Whisper and Silence. Here we find not only the dichotomy of youth and old age, youth and thirst for knowledge against age and experience. The melting glacier speaks of process and change and contextualizes the experience of the two ages as stages in the circle of life. This is about cyclic time. The 8000 years old glacier ice, brought to the Museum of Art in order to become water carries in it, however, two other temporal dimensions which are effectively and dramatically contrasted, namely the lasting and the vanishing temporalities.
Soft whisper makes us aware of the sound; slow movement directs attention toward movement as movement, but not with their inherent esthetics, as we witnessed it in the installation Dance from 1996. Here objects reminiscent of church bells were suspended over two low dining tables covered with white damask. There were magnets placed under the table and inside each object, thereby making the bells move in strange and apparently random ways.
Yet the movements in Dance are not typical of KJ’s works. He will rather employ movement to visualize time, highlight it, as it were, as a quality of a performance or an installation. This is why he often dwells on the slow motions. Thus, in Ogo (1993) 18 snails broke out of the circle they had originally formed at the beginning of the work. In the middle of this lay KJ, slowly turning his body in the center of the circle.
In the performance Dweeh (1997) time is also visualized through the measured movements of KJ slowly rotating with the plastic animal column placed on his head. The rotation of the body was even slower in Seventh Journey from 1999. It took two hours to move it the 360 degrees of the circle. In a time where there is not time for time anymore, slow time could hardly be made more apparent and visual.
To draw a invisible circle with the head just above a glacier is also about time: It is about the inscription of the circle - symbol of that which rests in itself and possesses eternity - in the 8000 years old white surface of the glacier.
All (2000)
KJ was naturally enough one of the artists who where engaged to participate in Bergen Society of Fine Art’s exhibition «Time, Susped Your Flight», which took place from April to May 2000. His contribution was an istallation in three parts, distributed in three places. In the Museum of Natural History he constructed a cylindrically shaped exterior wall around an interior circular room with a column in its center.
The room was dark, and the only source of light was the letters and numbers in a text that ran in aspiral around the column:
«Immediately after the «Big Bang! Planck time began. The explosion took place approximately
15 000000000 years ago, and Planck-time was the first 0,0000000000000000000000000000000000000
0000001second after the bang. The entire universe was then contained within an area with a diameter less than 0,1 mm.»
Having left the room, wondering at the dimensions of the column`s text, we are lead one floor up into a room where we meet a bronze globe with a diameter of 50 centimeters. The globe is like a mirror reflecting the «entire world», a world which is the preliminary stage of that process which started with «The Big Bang.»
The installation ends in Bergen Museum of Art with a book that has a silver circular plate on its cover. The pages are all black and with no text, except for one. Against the black background we meet the following writing in white letters:
«Planck time began immediately after the Big Bang. The explosion took place approximately years ago, and Planck time was the first 0,0000000000000000000000000000000000000
0000001 second following that. The entire universe was then contained by an area with a diameter less than 0,1mm. It was all there. The same way the seed harbors the "thought" of how it will become a flower, one could say that the idea of us all and everything that has been, is, and will be, was there, in that tiny little volume of space. years later a small part of that substance would end up as you and me. Did the substance know this? Did it know about you and me? Did it know that I would be writing this? Did it know that you would read this now?»
After repeating the first introductory lines, we are gradually lead towards philosophical reflection, but then abruptly thrown into an experience of the here and now of the moment. In only a few glimpses we move from the perception of temporal eternity - incomprehensible to thought and imagination - to the temporally instantaneous.
All distinguishes itself from what he has previously done in that it lacks the plurality of meanings which otherwise characterize his works. More than usual the installation determines our experience and our imagination. Yet it does not finalize. On the contrary, the installation is a directed scene which opens up, more than an isolated text could, to the overwhelming dimensions that can hide in a 0.1 mm point, and it invites to reflection over how the moment connects to the universe.
Several critics have mentioned the use of so-called basal elements as a characteristic feature of KJ1s works, even if we also find plastic - as buckets, spade and animals in Performance 190885 (1985), and as plastic animals in Dweeh (1999). Then, however, they are not associated with the trivial and modern, but with children and the playful.

The elements
In many of his early attempts as a performance artist earth was his material. In Earth War, Earth Love, Sacred Earth and Body-Earth Triangle (1983-84), he buried himself in it, poured it over himself, lay down on it, put it in his mouth and made
«earth sounds». Later this has become sand and stone. In 1994, in Head with closed eyes, he filled a cellar from the Middle Ages in Bergen with white sand which he buried himself in. Only the head was visible, and with closed eyes he lay immovable for three hours every day for three days accompanied only by 22 black goldfish swimming in each their own glass placed on the sand. The same year, in Head with open eyes, he sat on the water’s edge by the lighthouse at Lista, buried among rocks and gazing at the ocean through a plastic tube fastened around his head that was filled with swimming flounders and water. This is only to mention some of his earlier works that deal with the human being/the human body’s relation to elements, that is, if we can consider sand and stone as elements. More could be mentioned, some that also include air, fire and water where their qualities as elements carried obvious significance.
In First Speech from 1996 it is also about body and stone. Yet this time he does not bury himself, but stands on them and walks on them, from one to another on the stones that were laid out on the floor. (In some showings this lasts for 15 minutes, in others almost two hours, but then simultaneously as other performances in the same room). At the end he walks out on the floor and starts beating his body, faster and faster until black sand comes out. This is the last act before he leaves the room.
Sand is crushed stone, and thus is suggested a connection between the body and the stone, which of course does not exclude entirely different paths if one wants to find meaning(s) beyond the immediate experience.
Perhaps a psychoanalytical approach to KJ and his relationship to the elements could offer some interesting perspectives, even if it would be problematic at the same to do justice to the ambiguity and plurality of meanings in his performances. That these works, however, speak to human beings’ sense of belonging, or wish to belong to some fundamental realities and worlds exterior to themselves is hardly a controversial allegation, without that necessarily meaning that there are not also other levels of significance in these works.
That this sense of belonging - or the yearning for such - is directed toward nature is also a possible interpretation of the works that center on the body and the elements. In that case they tie up with a strong and still living tradition from 18th century romanticism. In an earlier mentioned work on KJ I have pointed out a possible connection between Head with open eyes and the great German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich’s pictures of human figures on the beach, looking at the sea, a picture of the longing for eternity. In Head with open eyes KJ sits buried in the stones on the beach, looking at the sea through a plastic tube filled with swimming flounders. He «sees» the sea with the eyes of the fish, but the plastic distorts the vision, and they are both trapped: the fish by the plastic tube, he by the stones. Here we find longing and entrapment in the same «image».
A longing for belonging with nature, or with a world and reality symbolized by nature, is most clearly reflected in the performances First Speech and To draw an invisible circle with the head just above a glacier from 1998. In First Speech it is the feet - naked as always with KJ - which are in touch with the element, in To draw... it is the head, and now without really physically touching its element. The head - the intellect, or what we chose to call it - has a different relation to the glacier’s historical landscape than the feet have to the stone. The circle that is drawn is also not directly edged into the white surface of the glacier. It is drawn as a mental picture in his imagination.
This entire performance conceived of as an "image" has obvious connections to the image that is created when he lays down inside the circle and rotates with the head in the circle1s center. This is to write oneself into a closed and whole frame with a momentous symbolic potential. Perhaps this act is, too, about belonging, in some sense or other. What then about the snails which leave and dissolve the circle in Ogo? Are they destroying that unity we are invited to in the initial image where the circle is intact? And why snails? And what is it that is expressed by the body’s slightly crouching shape inside the circle, and by the dye powder and plaster dust in the hair (in Ogo and Seventh Journey respectively)? I raise these questions in order to suggest the complexity of his works, and to point out the dangers of attempting to force his works into too rigid models of interpretation.
One must also make ample space for the playful in many of his works, like for instance in Zeth 2 from 1997, a continuation of Zeth 1 from 1993. Then he stood in Bergen Kunstforening with a small tower of Brio rings on his head and an anthill in front of him. In Zeth 2 he stands in the middle of the forest, like a tree amongtrees, with his feet buried 15 cm in the ground and with a 7.7-m tall Brio ring tower of varying thickness on his head. (The «seance» took place in Umedalen in Sweden in connection with the opening of a summer exhibition.) Rooted like a tree among trees it is possible to place the work (performance, installation, land art?) in the category of «belonging», possible but nevertheless somewhat forced.

Goldfish, butterfly, ants and snails
In both Head with open eyes and in Head with closed eyes - works where he buries himself in stones and sand - fish are integrated in the production. They also reappear in later performances. In Blu 6 (1995) he spoke with seven black goldfish in a plastic tub, both when he circled around the tub, speaking in strange sounds, as well as when he intermittently put his head down into the tub. In Performance with fish (1998) he lies on his back, immobile, with eyes closed and with a glass bubble the shape of a pear sticking out of his mouth. The bubble is filled with water, and in the water there are fish swimming for the 20 minutes the performance lasts. The glass is an extended part of his body, and the connection to his body is further emphasized by the fact that his breathing is visible as air bubbles in the glass holder. The shape of the glass holder brings to mind the text bubble in cartoons, and since the closed eyes seem to suggest sleep, we may be watching a dream.
The associations can also be of a balloon that is being inflated, not just because of the shape, but also because of the air bubbles in the holder. Both these and the extension of the glass into his mouth indicate a physical connection between the fish and KJ’s body.
Various associations open up for various interpretations. The different contexts in which the work is placed will also influence our understanding of the performance. One such possible context is that of his own works. He has «talked» to fish before, and in First conversation (1995) he had incomprehensible conversations with a dead butterfly. In Performance with fish the fish are coming out of his own body. We have previously seen how many of his works can be seen as attempts to establish a belonging(s) with fundamental realities beyond that of himself. Is it not reasonable to also include fish, butterflies, snails and ants in this? Belonging thus searches further, beyond nature and elements, to also encapsulate all living things.
This being said, I do have certain reservations. The above can easily become too bombastic in relation to all the wondering, the contradictions and ambiguities in his works. Yet I nevertheless feel that «belonging» touches on something basic that lies at the heart of so many of his works, and which overrides the hierarchy of meanings in his production

According to Michael Fried, a recognized art historian and modernist theorist, the thematization of the contemplator’s role has been an essential feature of European art from the mid 18th century and onwards. In the first phase of this history, the French writer and
philosopher Denise Diderot is central. He fought a battle against the theatrical and declamatory in his period’s theater and painting. To him the solution was actors on stage and in the painting who were completely absorbed in the main plot of the play or painting. They were to act as if there were no audience to their actions, a precondition for the piece of art to touch the contemplator and also absorb him/her into the world of art. (Diderot wanted actors who acted as if there was a wall between stage and audience). The absorbed actors absorbed the contemplator. The declamatory art form, however, turned him/her into an estranged spectator.
Absorption to Fried means that the picture closes around its own reality and assumes an ontologically determined «form of being» which anticipates modernist art with the abstract painting as the most marked symbol - the picture that closes itself into its own artistic reality. To Fried the absorbent picture closure is the central theme for the «great» art - that which lead forward to the modern painting - from the middle of the 18th century and into the 1860s. At that point Manet destroys it as central theme, although the thematization of the contemplator’s role remains an interesting feature in great parts of modern art. Fried himself leads the battle against what he defines as the theatrical art of the 1960s (i.e. art which does not absorb the contemplator). It is first and foremost the minimalist sculpture, a «place-specific» art form that makes itself dependent of its environments and a contemplator’s look and reflection in order to be authoritative as art. The minimalist work alone does not have the necessary force to keep - to absorb - a spectator. .........