Installation Video Performance
Stenersen, Bergen Art Museum, 22.05.–09.09.2007

For more than 20 years, Kurt Johannessen (b. 1960) has worked with artistic forms of expression largely associated with inter-national avant-garde art of the 1960s: installation, performance, video and artist’s books. Bergen Art Museum now brings before the public the first comprehensive presentation of his artistic practice. The exhibition mainly includes new installations and video works, yet there is also a section showing pictorial, textual and video documentations of earlier works. Kurt Johannessen studied at Slade School of Fine Art, London, Iceland Academy of the Arts, Reykjavik and the National Academy of Fine Art, Bergen. He made his debut at the 1984 Annual Autumn Exhibition in Oslo, and since then, has produced over 150 different performances, with approximately 400 pre-sentations nationally and internationally. Today Kurt Johannessen is considered to be one of Norway’s most important contem-porary artists, and is one of the few Norwegian artists to have consistently worked with performance throughout his entire career.

From the 1980s to today, one can see continuity and connections in both content and form. With poetic and simple means, Kurt Johannessen broaches questions that are at one and the same time overwhelming and humanly relevant. His approach communi-cates a sense of wonder and a compelling energy that is present in all he does and makes. He simplifies, and in so doing, invites us to see the world in a new way. In his works he addresses basic phenomena such as breath, faith and existential experiences of ‘everything and nothing’. The relation to nature is that element which most emphatic-cally links Johannessen to the Norwegian and Nordic art traditions. Experiencing nature has always been a central aspect of Norwegian art, first and foremost in pictorial tradition, but in Johannessen’s performances, he expands the scope of such experiences.

In the spring of 2006, Johannessen met Lene Sælen from the University of Bergen. She had written a paper on the ‘carbon and triple-alpha process. Johannessen had for a long time been interested in carbon research, ever since 2001, during a working sojourn in Bristol, England. Carbon is the basic building material for all life as we know it. Sælen’s research focuses on how carbon is created and where it comes from. It proves to be a very delicate process. Trilogi (2007) consists of three piles of small burned sticks placed on each their own pedestal. From the three piles come different sounds. In addition to Sælen’s scientific contribution on carbon, we hear the laughter of children at Nyhavn Kindergarten, and bird song from the Great Rift Valley, Uganda. In the days immediately following the exhibition’s opening, the artist held several performances in this room. Here, with a burning candle, Johannessen burned the small sticks without sulphur, and afterwards spread them over the room’s platform.

Moving on, inside the small room to the right we see a video installation entitled First Memory (2007), showing a series of persons filmed under water. All of them face the camera. They try to maintain a peaceful composure for as long as possible. Their precarious situation – they must hold their breath and close their eyes – can allude to drowning and possible death. Yet as well as the end of life’s course, the water can also suggest the beginning of life.

In the work I (2007), we hear frogs croaking from a tiny hole situated far down on the wall. The artist’s interest in frogs is also apparent from his latest book I Am a Frog (2007). Other animals the artist has focused on are elephants and butterflies, as can be seen in his book And (2001), which contains texts about butter-flies and elephants, accompanied by questions and situations having to do with people. In Johannessen’s approach to nature, the relation to animals and interaction with them are significant.

In the work Everything (2007), endlessness is represented with the simplest of means, with a mirrored corridor. In its indeterminate vanishing point the viewer’s mirror image and related elliptical claims are rendered: Everything is the same, it just looks different. Everything is different, it just looks the same.

The installation Second Memory (2007) involves one of the most degraded materials we can possibly think of – the substance found inside used vacuum cleaner bags. 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 also used to create an eternal elliptical circle – a circle with no beginning or end. The mysterious words invoke something overwhelming: God’s construction of the subconscious meets the subconscious’s construction of God. This text is from Johannessen’s book Encouters (2001).

On white tables throughout the room the artist has placed dust from a vacuum cleaner bag. Out of the dust there arise miniature worlds, beautiful and poetic, but also slightly repulsive at one and the same time.

The large video installation Second Conversation (2006) shows a series of persons at prayer. They are filmed with a heat-seeking camera. The actions are filmed in rooms where such activities normally take place. The persons include a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu and a practitioner of a Native American Indian religion. Three projections are used in this video installation. The films are shown simultaneously, such that the different prayer situations meet. In the films, those who are praying are extricated from their earthly surroundings or religious accoutrements, and appear rather like phantoms or spirits of holy beings.

Moving into the room under the mezzanine, we see two white portraits of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and a Catholic nun. Both portraits are printed only with lacquer. At first glance the white surfaces seem empty, but when light hits the pictures at just the right angle we can see the faces clearly, almost like holograms. The portraits are of two persons from the video installation Second Conversation. The same peculiar technique can be found in Johannessen’s book Shine (2006), a collection of 14 portraits.

In the two mezzanine rooms we present documentations of Kurt Johannessen’s artistic practice from 1985 to 2006. These include texts, photographs and video clips.

During the first two weeks of this exhibition, the artist will present a series of performances at Stenersen and in the Tårnsalen at Lysverket. A comprehensive book about the artist has also been published in connection with the exhibition shown here at Bergen Art Museum and at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo. For more information about Kurt Johannessen, please see his website at www.zeth.no.

Dates and times of performances:
Day 1, Friday, May 25, 11am – 5pm at Stenersen. 25. mai kl. 11.00–17.00 i Stenersen.
Day 2, Saturday May 26, 11am – 5pm at Stenersen.
Day 3, Sunday, May 27, 11am – 5pm at Stenersen.
First Meeting, Saturday, June 2, 1pm at Stenersen.
Nobe and Nobe 2, Sunday June 3, 12 noon and 3pm at Lysverket.

Bergen Art Museum May 2007