about Kurt Johannessen’s books

Marit Eikemo

Many people insist on calling a spade a spade. Ever since the spade came into being, people have repeated the same boring sentence: “Let’s call a spade a spade,” they say with extra emphasis on spade and spade.
Kurt Johannessen would never do a thing like that. He would never be rational on behalf of the spade.
– No, the spades are nasty and calculating, he says.
– A spade today is not the same as yesterday, even if physically speaking it is the same spade and it looks a lot like the one we saw yesterday. It’s only trying to trick us into believing that it is the same one, he says.

Discoveries. Disappearances.
In reading Kurt Johannessen’s books one often experiences a sudden, liberating thought. Often as laughter. Kurt Johannessen always leaves open the possibility that things may not be quite what they seem to be. Perhaps one sees something new if one focuses on other connections and contexts? If you begin “thinking about something you don’t know,” perhaps there can be a new thought? Perhaps just once a spade can be allowed to be something other than a spade? A few stones on Finse are allowed to listen to stories, and butterflies to engage in conversation. They can’t talk, you say? Think again, Kurt Johannessen says: Concentrate! Practice! Then it will happen. Then you will discover something new!

In one of Kurt Johannessen’s latest artist’s books, Other Discoveries (2006), it is about The toy car’s tragic drowning. It’s about The kleenex’s doubtful excuse, about The indifferent behavior of the Lego figure, about The flower bouquet’s exaggerated urge to speak, and not least about The soap bubble’s vanishing act.
When he launched the book early in 2007 he rather unfairly emphasized that last one. He gave a lecture with extensive use of power point and live images. He gestured and explained. How could this happen? How was it that the soap bubble disappeared? One moment yes, and then: no.
Kurt Johannessen savors the word and repeats it:
– No. There is something more there. Not is such closure, so final, but no ... The word opens up ...
It shouldn’t surprise anyone if a new book, or a new performance appears where the word no has a central part. When one starts examining Kurt Johannessen’s art one is first and foremost struck by all the connections. One thing sort of leads to another. One element in a performance becomes a book the next time around. One sentence in a book becomes a new performance, and this way one can trace one thing back to another without fully realizing when one begins and another ends. The cover of the book Everything (2006) has associations of hymnbooks. There is only one entry – two mirrors facing each other, with a text on each:

Everything is the same, it just looks different.
Everything is different, it just looks the same.

– In a way it feels as if I’m working on the same thing all the time, it just looks different each time, Kurt
Johannessen says.

Hovering above water

Take for instance Fredriksen. He appears in one of Kurt Johannessen’s first books: Gymnastics Exercises by Fredriksen 0.78 AMLS (1984). The book contains twelve pictures featuring Fredriksen. All the while as he hovers 0.78 meters above the sea and posing in relation to various objects in quite striking positions. In a sense it is like this with Kurt Johannessen, too. He does not let the natural laws affect him. Just like Fredriksen, he will strike out here, then there. Now accompanied by elephants, now with his head in a goldfish bowl, now buried in sand, now on the top of a mountain, now on the moon – and back down again. Always back again on the earth, and preferably in the earth.

There is a picture from Performance 7 September 1985 where Kurt flings himself from a chair. The position of flight replicates Fredriksen’s athletic exercises. They belong together, like the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Did they know of each other? Did they, in the mid 80s, have a project together? The question is typical of Kurt Johannessen. In the book All (2000), which is a continuation of the installations with the same title, all the pages are black except for one page of writing:

Planck time began immediately after the Big Bang. The explosion took place approximately 15,000,000,000 years ago, and Planck time was the first 0.000000000
0000000000000000000000000000000001 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. 15,000,000,000 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?

At his debut with the performance Body Earthtriangle at the Annual Autumn Exhibition in 1984, did Kurt Johannessen know that he would make all these books? On that occasion he threw himself against the wall, banged on earth with sticks. In the performance The Earth Book the year before he read earthsounds from an earth book while earth spilled from his mouth. The Earth Book is consequently the very first artist’s book, a collection of earth drawings that were
supposed to bring a particular energy to the flings in the performance. This was pure nature, before Kurt made books with texts. Before culture, so to speak. What was all this throwing and hovering and earth supposed to mean?
– I was 24 years old and full of …
Kurt Johannessen laughs.
24 years old and full of fire, full of earth and water and air. Or a strong wish to become all this, to be in close contact with the surrounding elements, take off the shoes and the clothes, eat the earth, and drink the air, be in the water.
– I wanted to be with it, he says.
That makes one think of the eternal circle from earth to earth, of universal and eternal connections, of belonging, of surrendering to a collective beyond life and death.
– All life probably originated in the same source, but over time it has developed rather differently, visually speaking. And if everything comes from the same source, then an elephant and a butterfly, for instance, were at one point the same. Now they appear to be rather different, but perhaps that is only on the outside? Kurt Johannessen asks.

Dance like a butterfly!
Both elephants and butterflies recur in large parts of Kurt’s production, almost like a leitmotif. In the Afterword for And (2001) he writes that butterflies and elephants are virtually two aspects of the same thing. The book contains a number of butterfly and elephant texts put together with situations related to human beings:

The case of having butterflies and elephants in the stomach, and the question whether everything stops the moment you understand why.

In the Afterword he tells us that he was commissioned to create The official opening of the 49th Bergen International Festival. He immediately realized that he was going to need help from elephants. The result was Lyrical Rain, 234 texts on slips of paper, one text for each slip, and draped over the audience like lyrical raindrops. It wasn’t planned as a book, he goes on to say in the Afterword, “but that’s what happens when you’re enjoying the company of elephants and butterflies and getting lost in conversation.”

When I think of Kurt Johannessen and the butterflies, I think of Gabriel Garcia Márquez who writes about a man who is so beautiful that yellow butterflies always follow him wherever he goes. Because of scenes like this Márquez’s books are called magical realism. A journalist once asked what the butterflies symbolize, and what the color yellow symbolizes. Márquez responded that it was not at all about symbols. This was a story his grandmother had told him: In his village there once lived a man who was so beautiful that yellow butterflies always followed him wherever he went.

Kurt Johannessen’s world is also “magically realistic.” And when Kurt Johannessen says that he talks with butterflies, this is not something he says in order to say something else. It is something he says because he actually has a lot to do with butterflies. In the ground outside his house, by the white fence, there is a tall brush, almost like a tree that comes up every year. White flowers gradually appear on the branches. They grow heavy and long, and stretch out across the fence toward the street. Then the butterflies arrive. Every year the same thing: the brush comes up, the flowers bloom and the butterflies arrive. They come from nowhere – and suddenly they are everywhere, hundreds of dancing butterflies in Kurt Johannessen’s garden. The kids gather to watch the beautiful creatures. Soon the kids are dancing, too. They run here and there, jump and leap to see if they perhaps can catch one with their hands, perhaps feel the beats of a butterfly wing against their palm.

Not only nature’s beautiful creatures are allowed to play a poetic part in Kurt Johannessen’s work. In the performance Ogo (1993) he lay down on a floor encircled by 18 slugs. After a while the slugs went their own ways, the circle dissolved while Kurt was still lying there. Nature was allowed to change the image, like a humble greeting from Kurt to the slugs: “I’m just lying here, you decide what will happen next.”

Moon journeys among us
This deep fascination with and respect for nature can be found in several of Kurt’s texts and books. In the book Lux (2002) he has made a hole in each of the black pages corresponding exactly to the shape of 13 different birds’ eyes. The Latin name for the birds are written on the opposite page. This is hardcore natural science, yet in Kurt’s books it is poetry. He tackles the tasks without reservations, with no ironic veil: “What happens if I do this, or this?”

At some point Kurt Johannessen must have had this thought: what happens if I ask 24 people from all around the world to relate their personal stories about the moon? If they all call in the course of a day and speak in their own languages, what happens then? What happens when that many moon stories meet in Bergen Art Museum? The thought became a happening – and the happening became a book, Moon (2004), which documented everything that took place on the night of the 20th of March in Bergen: 24 stories about the moon told in each person’s own language. You can’t understand even half of it. And this is precisely where the magic is: We don’t understand even half, but we know that the stories are there. We can’t understand the moon, either, but we know it’s there, and it connects us in a vast community of wondering, dreams and longings.

This is not the first time an artist sees the crystal clear connection between poetry and the moon. With Kurt Johannessen, however, it is not a matter of symbolism in this case, either. The moon – and especially the journey to the moon – is poetry as far as Kurt is concerned. Ever since he was nine sitting at home in Dale watching the TV images of the landing on the moon this has influenced him personally as well as his art.
– The landing on the moon is about the most poetic thing I’ve seen. Everybody thought it was about technology, and in a sense we’ve all been fooled. In all these years since the moon landing people have just not known that it was poetry they were doing up there, Kurt says, and explains that the poetry lies in this very observation:

– Somebody went up there and walked around, and came back.
This was also the inspiration for carrying through some of his most spectacular performances. He built a frame with four legs and a motor in the middle. From this motor Kurt Johannessen was hanging upside down with his head just above the ground while he slowly rotated inside the frame. He traveled with a team to three different, desolate places and repeated the act:
In a Swedish forest: To Draw an Invisible Circle with the Head in a Forest at Night.
In Iceland: To Draw an Invisible Circle with the Head just above a Desert.
On the Jostedal glacier: To Draw an Invisible Circle with the Head just above a Glacier.

Except from the team that accompanied him, there was no one present when the performances were showed. A few pictures are all that testify to it actually having happened. He went out into a forest, out into a desert, up on a glacier, rotated, and came back. It was a lot of fuss and high costs for such a small event. Just as with the moon landing:
– All that just for a few short steps, Kurt says.

The moon is a cheese
Before he embarked on these journeys, however, he made the puzzle Looking for the Moon in 1990. The puzzle is a picture of Kurt’s feet standing in earth. The message is as simple as it is poetic: You have to know where you stand when you are looking for something that is beautiful and large. The sequel came two years later and has the eyes of a sleeping girl on the front page. First Night on the Moon contains landscapes with craters printed on very thin paper, emphasizing the dreamlike. The book is probably inspired by a sentence from an earlier book: Snail Barks and Other Moon Journeys (1988). Here for instance we read that:

Night after night he dreamt that he was walking on the moon. One day he broke his leg.

As I said, in Kurt Johannessen’s art one thing leads to another. The poetic and the fragile soon become surreal nonsense, which soon becomes poetry again: The moon reminds us of cheese. And here Kurt Johannessen takes the cliché seriously: You say the moon is a cheese? Cheese it is, he thinks, and makes a fabulous cheese table, with connotations to something sacred, an altar. On the wall there’s a sentence, framed like a hymn verse:

One explanation for why so many like cheese may be that we lived a former life on the moon.

People in town were invited to a cheese feast through a somewhat cryptic ad in the local newspaper Bergens Tidende. They came, ate the delicious cheeses, and left. This way they confirmed Kurt’s thesis. When they like cheese that much, they must have had a former life on the moon.

In an email Kurt Johannessen writes about something interesting he has just been told:
“When they teach a lab rat to perform a particular task somewhere on this planet, it turns out that it is easier for other rats to perform the same task in other places, in other labs once the first rat has learnt it.”

A revised version of this text could easily pass as a short text in one of Kurt Johannessen’s books. He doesn’t always sound like an artist when he talks about art, or what will become art. He also isn’t one of those artists who go to exhibitions to get inspiration. Neither does he participate much in public debates about the role of art in society. He doesn’t write impenetrable newspaper articles about the uniqueness of art, and he doesn’t read many philosophical essays about existential solitude. Kurt Johannessen reads natural science, popular scientific presentations of how things are connected on this planet – and other planets, from the big to the really small connections. And perhaps the distance from the moon to Skansemyren football club isn’t as great as it would appear to be?

The football is round
The football appears in a number of books and texts. As with everything else, this, too, has a natural explanation which soon ends in poetry:
– All I could think of was football. I was crazy about football, he says about his boyhood days in Dale where he grew up. Around the age of twelve he started drawing football players. Later the round shape of the football would pose the same question as the rest of his works: Where does one begin and the other end?

Kurt Johannessen has made the poetic football installation Sleep (1997), and he has connected the football to entirely different things. In the book Connections (2001) the laughter comes when one reads texts like this:

The connection between the frequency of the thought “I definitely shouldn’t have made that heel kick” in the head of an offense player during a football match, and how often the same person performs movements hitherto unknown to mankind on the dance floor after midnight.

The book is dedicated to Skansemyren Football Club. In the Afterword he writes that it is easy to see in hindsight, especially in Afterwords, “but I still don’t see the connection between heading the ball straight into the goalie’s arms on Minde field, 15 March 1995, and the increased interest I lately have in astronomy.”

Kurt Johannessen says that he likes being completely absorbed by a thing, disappearing into what he is doing. At one point he disappeared in flour. Another time he disappeared in an intense cooperation with live animals, and yet another he was absorbed in drawing all kinds of circles. In the same way he disappeared into football when he wrote the book Football and More in 2005. Before Dag Solstad launched his footnote novel Armand V, Kurt Johannessen launched what is perhaps better termed a footnote football documentary. Richly illustrated with pictures and footnotes he here documents Skansemyren Football Club from 1992–2014 on their journey towards victory in Champions League sometime in the future.
– I’m not in the entertainment industry, Kurt Johannessen has stated. Yet, many of his texts are so funny, they often pass as entertainment. It is, however, the totality with the sudden shifts between the serious, the poetic, the surreal that make what we read far more than entertainment. One will on the other hand not find the astute criticism of society in these books. They appear as almost fascinatingly naïve expressions and apparently free of critical analyses. And yet, there is something there, in texts such as this one:

– Yes, but there is nothing in your hand, the queen said when the prince was about to tell about his journey.

(Snail Barks and Other Moon Journeys, 1988)

There is also an obvious encouragement to a different philosophy of life when Kurt Johannessen in Discoveries from 1995 writes that:

Clenching your fist and then slowly relaxing can be a way of conjuring up gold and diamonds.

If you practice, you can have what you want. Riches do not come from the outside, but from each one’s ability to summon it. Walking Frog and Ghostjokes from 1985 is Kurt Johannessen’s first book of texts. Here Kurt Johannessen’s readers can summon images they never saw before. The texts are placed on the bottom of blank pages, as if they were texts to images. The images appear when we read texts like this:

A train of cheese

Two mice making love

Landscape with mountains
Kurt Johannessen doesn’t yell. He doesn’t hammer in the words in big letters with exclamation marks. The most important message is the quiet suggestion: Kiss the wind, Drink the air, Talk to a butterfly. In its naked form and respect for nature this simple wisdom sometimes gives associations of Japanese haiku. Very often the absurdity begs laughter, such as in:

How did the banana get up in the chair?

Other times it is touching and innovative:

The little story looked up in wonder.

From Snail Barks and other Moon Journeys, 1988.

In 28 People from 1997 Kurt Johannessen wrote the stories of 28 different persons. It is about entire lives as well as small events from the different lives, told in short texts. The stories are more normal narratives than those in many of his other books, and inexplicable plots are realistically and soberly depicted:

He had suffered these stomach pains for a long time. He consulted many doctors, but they could not find out what was wrong with him. One day he met a little girl in the park. She came toward him, crying, and rested her head against his belly.

It is never easy to explain what it is that makes a literary text good, but it is often about credibility, or authenticity. It lies in the language and the images that the language summons to life. The more sober the language, the more powerful the images often become, like here:

A 6-year old boy had his own room. In his room he kept rocks in all kinds of shapes and sizes. On the shelves and on the floor, in drawers and in closets, in the bed – rocks were everywhere. He wanted nothing else in his room.

The little text summons up images of the boy and the rocks in his room. It is a moving image created by an author who takes the boy seriously. The writer sees that the boy has a big and important project – and that rocks are as nice as anything else. Perhaps the writer sees something of himself in the little boy? In Dale, where Kurt Johannessen grew up, there are tall mountains everywhere. When he was 5-6 years old he thought there was particularly one mountain that looked much steeper than the others. He found this disturbing. He reckoned that the mountain was as steep on the other side, and therefore felt that the mountain didn’t stand very firmly: the risk of it falling on his house was too big. As the years went by he reconciled himself to the idea that the mountain probably wasn’t as steep on the other side after all, and that it most likely was connected to other mountains far beyond it. Many years later he saw an aerial photo of Dale. Then he saw that the mountain was equally steep on both sides, just as he had first thought. And yet during all these years the mountain had not fallen over! Kurt climbed to the top of the mountain and went to sleep while all the stars in the sky were shining. Next morning he put a thousand little red flags on the mountain, as a sign of gratitude. This would later become Tribute to the Mountain that didn’t Fall (1987), which is shaped as an LP cover. The inside shows the starry sky and a small red flag glued on.

Breathe in. Breathe out.
Many years later Kurt was wandering around Finse telling stories to a random selection of stones. This became the book Stones (2002) which shows the
pictures of the 22 stones that each got to hear an Asbjørnsen and Moe story, all about trolls. Underneath the picture of the stones is the title of the fairy tale they heard, as for instance The Troll with no Heart.

All of this has to do with the fact that Kurt in 2006 sand blasted two sentences into the mountain Beitelen in Dale:

What happens when you breath in

What happens when you breath out

This work became the book Breath, which repeats these sentences page after page. The activities are quite trivial, something we always do, at the same time it is the first and the last thing we do as human beings. It is all and nothing all at the same time. It is life and death, quiet breath and rough mountains. It is the transient in life combined with the ever-present mountain. The method supports the content: With air, sand blasting, the air is engraved into the mountain. This is Time’s poetic draft, as Kurt writes in another book, Encounters from 2001.

With Kurt Johannessen it very often revolves around talking to each other, about communication between animals and people, between people and rocks, between what we can and cannot understand. Between different times, different planets, between what we can and cannot see, between fiction and experience. It is also about how Kurt Johannessen every so often will knock on the doors of people he knows:
– Can I please have your vacuum bags when they’re full of dust, he once asked.
We stopped asking questions a long time ago. We just give him what he wants. Fabulous things can happen if we give Kurt a vacuum bag, or accept the invitation to a chocolate cake party. The last time we said yes to Kurt it resulted in the book Shine from 2006, an almost unreal book with 14 portraits printed onto a transparent gloss finish. All the pages appear to be empty, but when the light falls on the pictures one quite clearly sees the faces:
And there we are, all of us, in a book by Kurt Johannessen.

Marit Eikemo