KURT JOHANNESSEN’S PERFORMANCEART

Audun Eckhoff


Performance art developed during the 1960s, in a field of tension between pictorial art and human self-presentation. The American Allan Kaprow, a pioneer of that era’s new avant-garde, explored space and action through enigmatic happenings that were somehow linked with Jackson Pollock’s inscrutable drip paintings. Kaprow called it “action painting, without the painting”. Yves Klein, famous for his single-coloured blue paintings, orchestrated happenings in a Parisian gallery, where nude women were slathered in blue paint and rolled about on large canvasses, such that direct imprints of their bodies were created.

Performance art flourished in the 1970s, and was the favoured form of expression for that era’s strong feminist, culture-critical and political engagement. Provocative gestures, threatening and, at times, poignantly self-compromising acts were carried out in the USA and Europe.1 The antitheses to these intense expressions were, firstly, analytic or minimalist initiatives, characterized by a critique or deconstruction of the pathos found in late-modern art, and secondly, freer formal investigations of the possibilities of performance art. Charles Ray hung himself on a wall with a single diagonal plank, and thereby drew associations to art as well as religion (Plank Piece I & II, 1973). Meanwhile, Bruce Nauman examined the relation between the body and space in videos made in his own studio, where he danced and paced along straight lines. In one of his most famous photos, he spouted water out of his mouth in a way that alluded both to spontaneous painting and to male sexuality (Self-Portrait as a Fountain, 1966–67).

Joseph Beuys, the later post-war era’s towering multi-artist, carried out actions and happenings characterized by quiet withdrawal and symbolic strength. In his first gallery exhibition in Düsseldorf in 1965, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, he locked himself into the gallery room, his head golden-flaked and honeyed, and talked quietly about the paintings on the wall to a dead hare he carried in his arms. In his action I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), held at René Block’s Gallery in New York, he lived in the gallery for the entire five-day exhibition period. Clad in a felt cape, his one companion was a coyote, the symbol of the American Wild West.

Compared to this highly diverse field of historically striking performance art, Kurt Johannessen’s art appears quiet-mannered, poetic, experimental. His actions and productions do not seem heavily loaded with significance, and can scarcely be said to hold the sort of specific meanings many of the well-known performances from the 1960s and ‘70s held. Nevertheless, his artistic practice – begun in the 1980s in an artistic outpost, with few parallels and precursors – is clearly anchored in the short tradition of performance art.

Marking the limits of the body and its rootedness in the physical world are traits from the performance tradition which also mark Kurt Johannessen’s work. He can be buried in sand, hold his breath under water, or let himself be hung upside-down and rotated from a machine. He has laid in the ebb and flow and let waves wash over his body, and stood still for long periods of time with compositions piled high on his head. In Kurt Johannessen’s works, this bodily concentration usually entails exposing himself to nature and its elements – water, ice, sand, salt, air and earth. Kurt Johannessen has carried out performances at nature’s outposts: beaches, headlands and along the open sea, in deserted landscapes (Iceland), at the Jostedal Glacier, in a Swedish forest, and in the Norwegian mountain wilds.

Johannessen’s relation to nature can be viewed in the context of Land Art, an art form that arose out of the 1960s avant-garde, as an expression for art’s radically innovative actions and newly-developed conception of space: out of the painting, away from the studio and into nature. The American Land Art pioneers went to drastic lengths. Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria changed the landscape by using multi-ton power shovels to rearrange nature according to a cultural cannon: straight lines, proportionate relations, spirals and other geometric structures.

For other artists in Europe, and, not least, in the following generation of artists, the relation to nature changed considerably. In one of his most well-known early nature performances, the British artist Richard Long wandered back and forth along a straight line in a field in Somerset, England, and created a visible path in the landscape. Both Long and his fellow-countryman Hamish Fulton set out on long treks, art projects in themselves, and described them with photographic and textual documentation. The Icelandic artist Sigurdur Gudmundsson also wandered through nature, and exhibited photographs where his own figure appeared as a part of nature and the cultural landscape.

The close relation to nature in Kurt Johannessen’s art shares affinities with Long, Fulnton, Gudmundsson and their field of “humanistic” Land Art. Kurt Johannessen sometimes stages himself in nature, or brings elements from nature into the exhibition room. In his debut as a performance artist he brought earth into the gallery room; he kneeled, partly disrobed, and, with wooden sticks in hand, carried out mysterious, ritual-like acts (Body Earthtriangle, the Annual Autumn Exhibition, 1985). Part of a recent project involves sandblasting texts on a rock near his childhood home at Dale, Western Norway. Kurt Johannessen can leave small traces in the landscape, but his project does not concern changing nature. In a fundamental sense he leaves nature alone.

The relation to nature is what most conspicuously links Kurt Johannessen to the Norwegian and Nordic art tradition. Through his performances, he renews and expands the spectrum of nature-experience. While this has always been a key aspect of Norwegian art, it is seen first and foremost in pictorial media.

A significant aspect of the relation to nature is Kurt Johannessen’s interaction with animals. He has laid still on his back, with a small fishbowl inserted in his mouth. The fish have swum around and at times entered his mouth. He has been buried in sand up to his neck and surrounded by a series of drinking glasses with goldfish. He has stood atop an anthill, with a column of toy rings stacked on his head. And he has laid on the floor inside a ring of slugs; the ring slowly disintegrated as the slugs slid away in diverse directions.

His dealings with animals are marked by the same sort of quiet understanding and peaceful acceptance as are his relations with the rest of nature. He gives the impression of having entered into a dialogue with fellow-organisms, and his association and interaction with them seems to be patterned after a reconciliation with nature found in older mythical ideas, as well as within the modern era’s romantic thought and art. As such, Kurt Johannessen abuts on culture’s most radical utopias.

In the performance First Hand Over (2002), Kurt shakes hands with a passer’by. He sustains contact with the person in various ways, and after a concentrated length of time, takes a small white object out of his mouth and places it in the white napkin he gave the person he greeted. The object turns out to be a little white elephant. In his use of toy animals, e.g., miniature elephants and rubber ducks, Johannessen, in apparent naivety, seems to have forged a relation between representations of animals for religious purposes – animals invoked through talismans – and children’s identification with toy animals through play.

In another of his performances, Kurt Johannessen has taken on the role of the hermit-mystic in an exemplary way, by reading fairytales to stones at the Hardanger mountain plateau. The lonely communication with silent nature appears as poetic allegory, akin to a hermit’s mystical union with a deity. It is an approach to elements in nature derived from an ancient religious framework, but for Johannessen, it can be understood as a fundamental opening up of oneself to existential horizons.

As symbolic action, performance art – already in its expressive form – carries clear associations with rites and cultic practices. For many performance artists, the shaman stands as a cultural prototype: he is the initiated figure who performs cultic acts, the chosen medium between a god and its followers. Marina Abramovic’s many physically challenging actions can easily be associated with this tradition, in which the artistic performance appropriates features from propitiatory sacrifices. Joseph Beuys’ performances have also been characterized as rites, but on a transformed plane permeated with symbols.

In Norway, aside from Kurt Johannessen, only Hilmar Fredriksen has worked consistently with performance throughout his entire artistic practice. Fredriksen’s sojourn at the art academy in Düsseldorf in the early 1980s, where Beuys was a towering artistic prototype, was one of the preconditions for mediating impulses from this symbolically oriented practice, not least through Fredriksen’s own performance activity. In his performances, Fredriksen has always maintained a close link to actual religious or mystical material.2

Kurt Johannessen’s works share several common features with these precursors of European performance art. Physical challenges and the body’s vulnerability are recurring elements of several works which draw upon the “shamanistic” aspect of performance tradition, so also his use of symbolic materials. The unusual interaction with animals draws parallels with Beuys: explaining art to a dead hare obviously shares a radical utopian affinity with telling stories to rocks in the wilderness. Johannessen’s use of materials and elements holds strong symbolic meaning as well, often in contexts drawing upon rituals and cultic practices. One example is when he slowly fills 3,600 drinking glasses with river water – glasses positioned along the centre isle of a church (Prelude, St. Lucas Church, Munich, 2005).3 The action is formally abstract, related to Minimalism’s repetitive structure, but in this context it looks like an ablution ritual.

As artistic form, Kurt Johannessen’s performances contain clear minimalist elements, for there is a repetition of forms, actions, and geometrical and symmetrical structures. As historical form, Minimalism appeared in American art in the early 1960s, as a reaction against expressive art, the sort that claimed for itself intense or uniquely meaningful content. Yet Minimalism proved to be a useful tool for subsequent generations, not only as a means for reducing meaning and symbolic content, but also as a carrier of meaning and a tool for constructing new meaning. Through subdued and repetitive forms, minimalist strategies could help to establish a new credibility, on account of their reduced presumptuousness.

The minimalist traits in Kurt Johannessen’s performance art – his use of symmetrical shapes and objects such as spheres and circles, repetitive actions and slow rhythms – all involve two additional elements: a subdued intensity of expression and an allusion to rites and symbolic cult practices. The symbolic and cultic elements reveal a kinship between Kurt Johannessen and Hilmar Fredriksen, yet with Johannessen, these do not seem to draw upon the same specific references. Johannessen’s performance art opens itself up more directly to a general existential level. The cultic strain functions as a means for symbolic transformation, because it widens the public’s horizon – from the close at hand to a larger reality, or to a different experience of reality – yet without giving clear directives. Minimalist traits function as structuring and transforming elements, which, in turn, allow what is symbolic to appear general.

In spite of the subdued form, references in Johannessen’s performance art are wide-ranging and contain great depth of meaning. The works direct themselves towards general, fundamental aspects of our environment, such as water, ocean, sky, sand and air. In Twelfth Conversation (2002), e.g., he stood in the rain, waist deep in the middle of a small lake at the Munkebotn valley near Bergen, and moved his hands slowly over the water’s surface. The action was carried out at twilight, such that viewers’ perception of him eventually merged with the water and the night.

At times, existentiality comes to expression through representations of close and intimate things, such as the breathing of a sleeping child, heard from small loudspeakers placed inside white-painted balls strewn across a floor (Sleep, 1997). The greatest distances in time and space can be united or juxtaposed. In Projections (2001–2002), colour slides of stars are projected onto 178 million year-old sand, onto poppy seeds, and onto a butterfly wing – all this against the background sound of a sleeping child, or a slow heart beat.

Existentiality can also be experienced in the installation Second Memory (2007), which consists of one of the most degraded materials we can possibly think of – the substances from a used vacuum cleaner bag. Strewn across the white surface, this substance appears to be unwanted garbage, but also something rare and valuable, like some sort of moon dust. This lowly material is used to create a circle of mysterious, elliptical words. They invoke something overwhelming: God’s construction of the subconscious meets the subconscious’s construction of God. In another work, Everything (2007), infinity is presented in the simplest way possible – with a mirrored corridor. The viewer’s mirror image is rendered in the indefinite vanishing point, along with related elliptical sentences: Everything is the same, it just looks different. Everything is different, it just looks the same. The sphere and circle motifs, presented as concrete objects in many of Johannessen’s works, appear here as both physical form and as circular, unfinished sentences – sober Minimalism merges into sublime, poetic infinity.

In some installations, Johannessen takes his point of departure in the same human presence that characterizes his performance art. In the video installation Second Conversation (2007), representatives from various religions are filmed while praying. Our mental image of this exceedingly meaningful state is attenuated because the film is made with a heat-seeking camera. In the film, the praying people appear outside the context of their earthly environments or sacred accoutrements, and stand forth much like phantoms or pure spiritual beings. In the video installation First Memory (2007), we see portraits of people who hold their breath under water. Their precarious condition can allude to drowning and possible death, yet the water can also lead us to think of a foetal environment, the opposite end of life’s course.

In Johannessen’s works, the relation to nature, and the closely associated motif that is linked with bodily borderline states, has a kind of counterpart in what may be described as cultural elements: manufactured objects, objects of use, sports and motifs derived from a scientific mode of seeing. In the mid 1990s Johannessen introduced East Asian sports into his performance art, e.g., shooting with bow and arrow (Neen, 1996, in partnership with Jørgen Knudsen) and judo (Third Speech, 1997).4 While the relation to nature in some of these works appears mysteriously invoking, in others, a different reconciliation and relation to nature may be found. Here, from the standpoint of an Eastern-inspired world view, Johannessen touches upon the idea of fulfilling man’s natural potential through an action that is not characterized by distance to nature; rather, it is in harmony with nature, through self-forgetfulness in the concentrated perfect act (“Zen”).

In his greatest staged event thus far, Johannessen, when faced with nature as a whole, has availed himself of a scientific approach at the highest level. In the happening Is (a collaboration with the philosopher Kevin Cahill, 2003), questions concerning the universe, its existence, origin and final telos, were discussed by a panel made up of some of Norway’s foremost experts from diverse academic fields, e.g., cosmology, biology, philosophy and religion. The professional approach was balanced by contributions from school children. The children’s honest, and, in a positive sense, naïve approach, proved to be just as adequate as were the contributions of knowledge from specialized professionals.

The project was a sort of multi-media debate evening, and in the scheduled break, food of the utmost culinary quality was served by a well-known chef. The whole event reminded one of highflying television programs or media events. It seemed distant from Johannessen’s ritual-oriented performances, characterized by utopian communication with animals, or his interaction with basic elements and materials. Even so, the project had its unmistakable symbolic references. The table on the platform, around which panel members sat, was decorated with hundreds of apples. The apple has a natural round shape, and is associated with culture’s oldest myths about the relation between knowledge and a utopian union with – or separation from – nature.

As an existential exercise on a macro level, Is appears to be the furthest point of development in Kurt Johannessen’s artistic oeuvre. Nature and culture are juxtaposed in a particularly clear way. A happening marked by a large civilizing force stood in unmediated contrast to the theme’s inscrutability. As such, the cultural framework broke down in the renewed acknowledgement of the unsolvability of existences’ greatest enigma, the ultimate interface between nature and culture.

The new avant-garde pioneer Allan Kaprow’s early experiments with performance and his exploration of artistic space, arose (as he himself understood it) out of Jackson Pollock’s action painting – the almost meditative process through which Pollock wandered about on his own large canvases, in a studio barely larger than the canvas, and dripped paint with rhythmic, almost dance-like movements. Kurt Johannessen selects a different mentor from the first generation of American Abstract Expressionist painters: Mark Rothko, who, on a slightly more allegorical level, can easily be associated with the human presence. Rothko painted large rectangular fields of muted colour on monochrome grounds. Although his art has an attenuated expression compared with Pollock’s “action painting”, his pictures have an enduring intensity. Rothko’s paintings are apparently non-figurative, yet his compositions can easily be interpreted as an abstracted coupling of humanity and nature.5 Thus it is not unnatural to see Rothko’s art extended into performance art: a canvas that represents a human drama, but a distillation in which human presence appears in the form of deposits, pictorial sediment. With his reserved intensity and abstracted involvement in-between nature and figure, Rothko is a well-chosen correlate to Kurt Johannessen’s quiet-mannered yet atmospherically evocative performance art.

 

1 In New York, Carolee Schneemann pulled rolls of paper out of her own vagina, which she called her “vulvic space”, and delivered a self-written text called “Cézanne – She Was a Great Painter” (Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, 1963). Slightly more than a decade later, Marina Abramovic, in a gallery in Naples, experimented with what she referred to as passive aggression, by offering the public 72 different tools, among them, knives and matches, to use on her body as they pleased (Rhythm 0, 1974), and in a gallery in Santa Ana, California, Chris Burden allowed a friend to shoot him in the arm from a distance of 15 feet (Shoot, 1971).
2 In one of his earliest processual artworks, Fertility Rituals (1979), Fredriksen, in an allusion to the ancient Greek Demeter rituals, sowed grass on the bare ground in the form of a person, a representation of the buried individual. During the performance, he danced “shamanistically” on this bit of ground, and in a way, himself created new life. In Angle Performance, he stood concentrated with two right angles presented in various constellations against his body. The work alludes to mysterious ideas in ancient Persian religion, about the body becoming stiff. Fredriksen’s use of symbolism is often specific, but in such a way that the carriers of meaning borrowed from religious material assume new significance through the forms they are given in individual performances. See Audun Eckhoff, “Communication Piece”, in the book Hilmar Fredriksen, Bergen Kunstmuseum 2006.
3 Kurt Johannessen’s performance was part of a larger artistic project on the theme of water, Ouvertures am Wasser.
4 A performance tour in Japan in 1996, together with Ketil Skøyen and Hilmar Fredriksen, confirmed an underlying inspiration from Eastern culture in Johannessen’s works. Using judo, martial arts and other sports has, moreover, clear precursors within performance art. Yves Klein was himself a judo instructor, and worked for a time as a judo trainer in Japan.
5 See, e.g., the American art historian Anna Chaves’ book Mark Rothko – Subjects in Abstraction, Yale, New Haven and London, 1989, where, starting from Rothko’s own early figurative paintings, she argues that the pictures express a muted representation of a human drama. In the book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition – Friedrich to Rothko, New York, 1975 (and later editions), art historian Robert Rosenblum gives a similar perspective, but with greater emphasis on the element of landscape. His exemplary comparison is between Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings from the 1950s and Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous painting Monk by the Sea (1810), which depicts a lonely monk standing in front of a sublime, almost washed out ocean landscape.


Audun Eckhoff