© 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
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
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
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
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