Øystein Hauge

Wonder is the point of departure. Do you believe in coincidence? Or in luck, experienced synchronicity and manifestations? To Kurt Johannessen, all coincidences are akin to miracles. Both categories represent a mystery that changes our reality in greater or lesser ways. Indeed, we live in the ordinary world, but remember: The ordinary arises from and rests upon a foundation of the extraordinary. Spirit and flesh, soul and personality, the uncommon and the mundane, magic, work and play – these are all aspects of one reality, an unstoppable stream of energy and events in a fundamentally unified existence.

In several books, the sociologist Peter L. Berger tries to show how initially religious themes live on in secularised forms, and come to establish new mystical-symbolic constructions. The Human being is, in some strange sense, “out of balance with itself”, claims Berger. This may be seen in a human being’s relation to his or her own body and to the world. Because we are all “incompletely programmed”, we are never able to find rest in ourselves. A human world must be construed, repeatedly. This world is, of course, culture.1 We take it for granted, but in reality, it is the most frail of all worlds on the planet. This is why we need professionals to maintain it, to unplug it and start it anew. To everything there is a season. And here the artist enters. The artist is a custodian with a football or a master key in his tool chest.

The avant-gardist under Beitelen
In the top of a tree sits a performance artist. A man holding a pen in his mouth walks around the tree. Simultaneously as the man circles the tree, the artist turns such that his face is always turned towards the man on the ground.

The question is: After walking once around the tree, has the man also walked once around the artist?

Let us say the artist is named Kurt Johannessen, and I am the man with the pen. We did some rounds together, Kurt and I, in the spring and summer of 2006. Kurt fabulated, I formulated. Kurt breathed in, I breathed out. Kurt talked and dreamed, I tried to simplify, to get Kurt’s sophisms down on paper and leave his creative wrong conclusions for others to evaluate and judge. We were like mythos and logos, song and text, poetry and prose. An uneven battle. Mythos always had the upper hand. It was as if the crux of the issue ran away every time I tried to pin it to paper. The words scurried hither and yon, and ran down blind alleys. The links of logic fell apart. The text had to be built out of fragments.

Nevertheless, I believe I got most of it. About his childhood in Dale, Norway, surrounded by precipitous mountains that in the boy’s imagination, always threatened to fall while he ate breakfast. Never during lunch or dinner. Always at daybreak, when sleep tarried in his limbs and fragments of dreams lurked behind his eyelids.

The course of a person’s life has its high points and turning points, its “epiphanies” – forces beyond ones control intervene in everyday existence and change it for all time. Was it perhaps Beitelen, the steep crag reigning over his family’s house in Dale, which incited the intrigue in Kurt’s art?

One day, sitting alone at the breakfast table, the thought struck him that he should check to ensure whether the threatening mountain was sufficiently balanced. Actually, he was quite sure it was. For bygone millennia it had failed to collapse – why this was so, he thought, must be because its backside was considerably heavier than its front. Like a saggy beanbag. But he was wrong. Terribly wrong. Beitelen was mercilessly steep on all sides. Thus nature and the landscape became something more than mere visual shapes for the young Kurt. They began to grow in all directions: into the sky, down into the earth’s magma, and into the grownup artist’s life, his intestines and bloodstream. This was an experience of fear and trembling, but also of joy. For after the initial shock had subsided, there came a dawning assurance that he was capable of giving form to this intensity for life.

The story could continue. Johannessen told about his time at the National Academy of Fine Art, Bergen, in the early 1980s, where he started cautiously with fine art printing, involving specifically workshop-based media, but gradually stepped into the imprecise “interface between media”, and experimented with installations, artist’s books and performance. 1984 saw his debut at the Annual Autumn Exhibition, with one of his (then) so characteristic “earth works” – a dramatic and highly animated performance, in which light, dark, earth and breath comprised the most important elements. The Earth Book came out at about the same time, a collection of “earthsounds” codified with pencil in Kurt Johannessen’s own shorthand.

Inspired by avant-garde artists such as Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, Kurt Johannessen began to cultivate his artistic expression as a process of awareness more than as objects. With the help of refined experimental methods, where “duration” was an important criterion, he could expand art’s space of action so as to include a multiplicity of operations. In 1985, in the crypt of St. Paul Catholic Church, Bergen, he stood on a chair, neighed like an excited stallion, and threw himself into thin air! Kurt Johannessen no longer felt anchored to the earth and to matter. The law of gravity was rescinded. He could begin to draw invisible circles with his head, directly over a desert or a glacier, or in a forest at night.

I peered at the notebook. Metaphors, symbols and allegories swarmed on the paper. Page after page was filled with mental sketches (earth, water, moon…) and art historical cross-references (religion, rituals, gestures, performance…), places (nature, the village, the city…) and epochs (Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism…). How to map all this? How could I give the reader a fairly representative picture of what I experienced as Kurt Johannessen’s artistic program, his strategies and visions? To give an account of Kurt Johannessen’s original world of ideas from A to Z would put him in a box, it would shackle one of our most unpredictable and multi-talented artists to a program that in all likelihood will continue to challenge the reigning order of things, both in the artworld and in the “squarer” part of culture. Nevertheless: The Kurt Johannessen this text is about must necessarily be a Kurt in a textual room, a figure in a contemporary art history that is permeated with critique and media attention, such that almost all attempts to escape become impossible. Even so, expectations of genre will not have the last word. Just as important are stories about Kurt Johannessen in an art room, the story about an illusionist in a field of events, in which cross-references, leaps and discontinuities are more natural than any linear progression.

Between magic and melancholy
Two well-known Renaissance pictures can serve as a stage setting for Kurt Johannessen’s artistic mentality. Botticelli’s painting Primavera (1477–78) and Dürer’s copper etching Melancholia I (1514). In his article on Botticelli’s Mythologies, E.H. Gombrich exerts himself to read Primavera in the context of that era’s magic-religious cosmology. Central to his analysis is a letter written by the Renaissance Humanist Marsilio Ficino, where various renderings of the Corpus Mundi (Body of the World) are praised for their beneficial influence on viewers. The Corpus Mundi is one of art history’s unsolved mysteries, but most likely it was a large wall or ceiling fresco depicting magical arrangements of heavenly bodies, such as the Sun, Jupiter and Venus. Executed correctly, equipped with knowledge and skill (Saturn and Mars must be avoided!), an artist could control the influence of stars, which would in turn benefit the public, through robust health and sound morals.2 In Primavera, we can see a Renaissance visualization of natural magic, a picture of the world, ordered so as to only transmit healthy, rejuvenating and “anti-saturnalian” influences to viewers.

Dürer’s copper etching represents another form of magic, a “genuine construed magic” (Yates) linked to mathematics and natural philosophy, Pythagorean symbolism and complicated astrological calculations, geometry and Saturn. Here, what appears to be genuine applied science, based on knowledge of real maths, is added to the Renaissance magician’s “tool chest”. “Melancholia sits at a construction site, surrounded by tools for creative activity, but she dwells upon the sad, dark feeling of not having accomplished anything. Her wings are folded”, writes the philosopher Kjersti Bale, in her thesis Melancholia as a Literary Configuration.3 The picture’s melancholic figure is a “genius” who finds herself at the first stage of a rising, aspiring movement. In notes Dürer left to posterity, he writes that there are false aspects in our knowledge; darkness is so deeply ingrained in us that we make mistakes, even when we seek after knowledge. This would be a good epithet for Melancholia I.

To place Kurt Johannessen in a Renaissance tradition can swing in several directions. Classical philosophical problems remain steadfast. It is never too late to revitalize the thought contents in old traditions. In a culture such as ours – where there seems to be overwhelming agreement about the impossibility of having a perspicuous view of existence, that existence is fragmented into conflicting goals and values – there is a call for a deeper principle of unity in and behind sensible, empirical reality. It would be tempting to flee to a past with a souled cosmos, where specially chosen people could intervene in nature and steer its intrinsic powers and energies. Kurt Johannessen however follows a different strategy. He is a contemporary artist with a critical task, namely, to surmount the divisions between intuition and logic, nature and humanity. He achieves this “Mission Impossible” against all odds. His performances are successful because they make visible a field on the verge of disappearing – a magical impulse vis a vis the world.


Inside one of Johannessen’s recent works, a mirrored corridor where words surround us in an unending repetition, the artist’s task takes on a concrete, visible form. Everything rests on the premises of sense experience. The message is sensed more than read. The movement oscillates, from the inner to the outer to the inner… in an unending loop. Dream-like, empty, but still with room for everything. It is only a matter of stretching your wings.

“Under Construction”
On the outskirts of all sciences, we find one or another uncontrollable nomadic character with an artistic disposition. Some people ascribe great significance to them, when it comes to explaining scientific revolutions. Perhaps this is an exaggeration. But it is more than likely that without them, many deep insights would be unthinkable. Against this background, Kurt Johannessen becomes a ponderer, a thinking artist, a pictor doctus, who, manages to create emphatic art for thought, on the basis of somewhat feeble ideas.

The art historian Dag Sveen uses a kind of structuralizing theory for Kurt Johannessen’s highly diverse production. By emphasizing striking shapes such as the circle and the sphere – first as constructive structures early in his career (a good example is The Second Air 2 from 1988), and later on as deconstructed and reconstructed “cosmic” events in works such as Sleep (1997), Dweeh (1999) and Untitled (1999) – Kurt Johannessen’s world acquires both direction and a framework.4 The direction is vertical, that is, down to earth but directed towards the heavens (as in Zeth 1 and 2, 1993/97), and the framework is horizontal, i.e., internally focused as well as distanced (as in The Twelfth Conversation, 2002). Now and then, what is concentrated is united with what is expressive. A good example of this may be found in Dag Sveen’s discussion of Head with Open Eyes (1994). Here Johannessen sat on the waterfront at Lista lighthouse. Partly buried in a mound of rocks, he gazed out to sea. Around his head was fastened a plastic tube filled with water and live fish. The tube covered his eyes like an absurd pair of glasses; nature was simultaneously near but distant, focused but distorted.

Johannessen’s universe is, however, not only geometric, it is largely anthropological, in the sense of being subjective, bodily and speculative. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his book Phenomenology of Perception, distinguishes between a “geometric room” and an “anthropological room”.5 The geometric room is easy to recognize. Here we move about in a stabile configuration of elements, a perspicuous set of almost universal rules. The anthropological room is different, for there the body makes the decisions. A body is defined according to its tasks, situations and completed actions, a body is the precondition for time and space, or, as Merleau-Ponty puts it: “A body that occupies time and space”. Related to the performative art scene, we can say that viewers no longer stand in front of an object, rather, they allow themselves to be surrounded by a process of meaning, or a production of symbols – a work “under construction”.

The dual performances Whispering and Silence, first presented in 1998 at the (then) Bergen Art Society, now, in later years, appear to be two of Johannessen’s key works. This was the first time he provided only the manuscript and staging, while others provided the action. Approximately 300 children participated in Whispering, whereas 35 elderly people participated in Silence. Before the dual event the children were asked to think about something they believed was important. In the space of a week, six to nine children at a time laid on their backs, some for 10 minutes, others for a whole hour, in one of the gallery’s large rooms, and whispered their personal thoughts into large paper trumpets. Simultaneously, in the room next door, the artist had installed five tons of ice from Jostedal Glacier. The elderly participants walked or sat around the ice, silently reading to themselves from books with white dust jackets.

“The pieces need no further explanation. They were pictures of themselves, as everyone could see, and dealt with age and human qualities”, answered Johannessen, when I asked for a deeper explanation the following year.6 True enough. The contents were clearly linked to a psychology of aging, from the initiative and excess energy of early school age, to a more vulner-able segment of life, where life experience and in-depth understanding are constantly threatened by physical decay. But this is just words, not the expression itself. Whispering and Silence are remembered most definitely as more than mere words. For this viewer, there and then in the middle of life, it was a kind of active experience, an experiment that punctuated a difference, an experience that in theory neither allows itself to be fully understood nor explained. These well-tempered performances addressed spiritual as well as existential aspects inherent in the life projects of human beings. For my own part, it seemed as though Kurt Johannessen, with these works, tried to grasp hold of what I in practice believe, without drawing upon metaphysical and theological arguments. To be a human being today is largely a self-initiated project, seldom is it a ready-made solution packaged in a normative context.

An installation at Hordaland Art Centre in 2004, Open Eyes and Closed Eyes, took its point of departure in Kurt Johannessen’s hypnotic story with the same name. Once again the viewer was drawn into an unending story, where words became shuffled a bit from side to side, and where the ending was seamlessly sewn into the beginning. “That is how it was. That is how it is. When did you close your eyes last?” A soothing narrator massaged your thoughts while you wandered about the gallery, viewing the numerous rectangles of red light through special glasses that made all the contours fuzzy. A wall of mirrors, strategically placed in the middle of the installation, transferred your own shadow-picture back to the red light. The picture captured. Words from the hidden loudspeaker paralysed you: The pictures become more complex and more real. They are still fuzzy, but you can recognize what they are. That is how it was, that is how it is.

This was yet another interactive experiment; an exploratory use of language as a means, a device. A text arranged like a room that locked the viewer into the work. It was literally about being integrated into language, about words functioning like mirrors and lights. About sensing nuances or a word with a particularly subtle character. In short, this was a speculative experiment not grounded on empirical fact, but nevertheless fully reasonable in any subjective sense of the word.

A Playful Fool
With all his scepticism of strict intellectual analysis, Kurt Johannessen is nevertheless not completely devoid of philosophical reflection. While touring Japan in 1996, he was immediately attracted by “the generous emptiness” in Zen Buddhist landscaping. Zen is, as we know, a practical art of living. A spirituality that emphasizes returning to “original” human nature, and to reality in its “suchness”. Zen is alert presence. Kurt Johannessen experienced the sand and stone gardens of Kyoto as optimal expressions for this attitude. Gardens with specially selected rocks placed in asymmetrical rectangles of raked sand often give the initial impression of being untouched nature or wild beaches, but eventually one begins to seek a system in the openings between the gravel ocean and rock islands. Perhaps there is a secret meaning, but it always slips away.7 The Japanese call this bonseki, or “cultivating stones”. For the author of Jordboka (The Earth Book), who knew the sounds of the earth, and who had spent years of his artistic life transcribing them into his own shorthand, this was pure déjà vu.

Zen in text form (such as in koan and haiku poetry) comes to expression through small glimpses into a universe where humour and seriousness are equally important. Behind this intense effort to find meaning there is a playful author’s voice: “Many words give many thoughts/but do not lead anywhere”.8 Those who are learned and cultivated have, according to Taoism, lost contact with what is original, while simple, primitive people have retained – or found their way back to – what is original, and are therefore in harmony with Tao.

Outside of everything is nothing. Everything borders on nothing. Everything has its limitations. The border between everything and nothing we call a fog ball.
The lecture Everything and Nothing was Bergen School of Architecture’s contribution to the Research Days 2004. Kurt Johannessen drew pictures and explained. This was a scientific thought-game where the imagination masked itself in the guise of academia. Yet another of the artist’s many hallmarks is that he turns small absurdities into surprising improbabilities: The fog ball is a thin layer on the surface of everything. It is delimited between an outer and an inner membrane of fog. This fog ball is not nothing. Neither is it in everything.

Several of Kurt Johannessen’s numerous artist’s books, such as Encounters (2001) and Other Discoveries (2007), may be seen as Zen-inspired practical notes, in the sense that he simply and foolishly tries to surmount the distinctions between those things which are determined by nature and those determined by culture. He does this by trying to write his frustrations away: Humanity’s journey towards understanding the dimensions of the universe encounters a tear (from Encounters). The soap bubble’s disappearing act (from Other Discoveries).

Poetic science and the art of making something manifest
An important aspect of Kurt Johannessen’s experimental method is that the distinction between everyday events and the unbelievable is erased. The mundane becomes fantastic and the fantastic becomes mundane. There is therefore a democratization of the unbelievable, and this is a natural consequence of humanity usually appearing as the centre of art, at least as far as Johannessen is concerned. As such, nothing is more human and mundane than the unfinished project Skansemyren Football Club 1992–2014. To make a long story short, this is about investing artistic energy into the traditions of amateur football (soccer), and transforming game rules into creative energies. For example, one could include the mathematician / meteorologist Edward Lorentz (discoverer of the “butterfly effect”) as one of the club’s venerable ancestors, along with local hero Roald “Kniksen” Jensen, or operate thus-far unknown “gleam-threads” into player’s eyes. “Football with a gleam in the eye” is a game played according to the rules of Chaos Theory. It is a logical game and plays with the physical laws we have become familiar with through phenomena such as black holes in the universe.

“The scientific experiment stopped serving the quest for truth and creative activity when art and science went their separate ways”, wrote the German sociologist and historian of science, Max Weber, in his article “Science as a Call”, from 1919.9 Completely at odds with common opinion, Weber claims that science appropriated the experimental method from art. Here it is tempting to go full circle and claim that Kurt Johannessen has stolen the experiment back from science; he has reinstated it in its old role – as a means for investigating reality in order to reveal the truth. In Kurt Johannessen’s artistic practice, experiments opens up for reality, whereas so-called normal science uses experiments to isolate reality, to cordon it off. Kurt Johannessen dreams about a new substance, an inexplicable manifestation in the test tube. The scientist trusts only what he himself has put into the tube.

A manifestation can seem to happen by coincidence, it has an aura of magic about it, and therefore appears to be something miraculous. Like when you win the lottery exactly at the same time as your bank account hits zero, or when you run into the person you are secretly in love with on a street corner in a foreign city. The everyday begins to dance. By drawing attention to such manifestations the word becomes enchanted.10 Kurt Johannessen’s catalogue is full of just this sort of small and large everyday miracle: from the video The Egg (2003), where, in the manner of an amateur magician, he causes an egg to levitate, to more spectacular performances at the interface between rituals and magic, such as Eighth Speech and Blu 8 (both from 2005), or Lumen (2006).

Second Conversation (2006) is a series of films showing believers from various religions concentrated in prayer. All the persons are filmed with a heat-seeking camera. Their heads shine like candle flames. The setting is romantic, spooky and fascinating, but it can also be viewed as a bridge metaphor, between the two cultures of hard science and poetry. In the video Light (2007), the artist stands inside a forest at dusk. A light faintly glows from his mouth. Eventually, as darkness increases, the light intensifies. The installation Second Memory (2007) is about dust, insignificant amounts that merge to form a sort of language. Dust cultivation.

It is almost impossible to not notice an increasing use of holy signs in Kurt Johannessen’s latest works, e.g., ceremonial performances with water, light and incandescence, in the context of the body. “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night”, says Genesis 1:5. “Lumen Christi!” the Catholic deacon sings, as he lights the great Easter candle at the start of Easter Vigil. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Stories about passing on light or a lamp are also characteristic for many types of Zen literature. There are, e.g., metaphors for Zen’s unbroken succession, from the present master back to Buddha himself. These texts are also intended to function as concrete expressions for awakening and inspiration: “At his birth a golden light filled the room and disappeared into his mouth. Therefore he is called the Drinker of Light.”11

Notwithstanding, it is too simplistic to claim that Kurt Johannessen is a particularly religious artist. His art has more to do with relating to a universe of imagination, which includes chaos theories and football, creation myths and the implosions of quantum physics. His works seem to tend towards a system, but it is almost impossible to say exactly which perspectives would make it possible to grasp them systematically. Slightly more than one-hundred years ago, when several Norwegian artists (including Edvard Munch) went to their work excited by ideas of protoplasm, X-rays, radio waves and wave motions in ether, we would perhaps have seen an explanation in that epoch’s Vitalist movement for the phenomenon of Kurt Johannessen. Today, when this type of over-involvement in art is suspect, and distance to the work is the ideal, one must follow other game rules, other discourses, and manipulate art in new ways.

Art, life and everything else
Glancing back to the early 1980s, one of the pioneers of performance art, Allan Kaprow, claimed that the avant-garde had followed two paths and therefore could point to two histories, “one of artlike art, and the other of lifelike art.”12 His own experiences all suggested that the old conflict between art and life had to be false. The conflict has nevertheless dominated our Western culture for over two-hundred years, since early Romanticism. Kaprow’s definition of the two parallel avant-garde histories is that the one (“artlike art”) envisages an art separated from life and everything else, while the other (“lifelike art”) admits that art must be connected with life and everything else.

This boundary setting can be read as a polemic for an art that integrates itself into life – in order to become a part of it. It is precisely what we find in good performances and participatory installations. They are distanced yet intimate, situations which get an unexpected and surprising “shot of vitamins” through stage settings and chains of action. “It is art, but seems closer to life,” writes the veteran Kaprow. The claim could function as an epithet for almost every work in this exhibition. In encountering Kurt Johannessen’s world we remain off balance, confused over the neurotic and mutable challenges of time, but truly, we are more up to the standard of ourselves than ever before.

1 Homo sapiens hold a special position or status in the animal kingdom. In contrast to animals – born into a prefabricated animal world, as it were, with almost fully developed instincts or apparatuses of sensation and feeling – humans are doomed to live in an open world. Peter L. Berger: Religion, Samfund og Virkelighed (The Sacred Canopy), Copenhagen: Lindhard and Ringhof 1974, p.16.
2 “For anyone who gazes at the heavens will imagine that the only large thing he can see, is the heavens themselves,” wrote Ficino. Quoted from Frances A. Yates: Modernitetens okkulte inspirasjon, Pax 2001, p.79.
3 The connection between melancholy and Saturn in Dürer has its point of origin elsewhere, claims Panofsky, and that is in Ficino’s De Vita. Kjersti Bale: Melancholia as a Literary Configuration, The University of Oslo 1996, p.165.
4 “In no other works by KJ has the sphere form been as penetrating as in the installation Sleep. And in no other of his works has this form been as distant from each and every metaphysical charge.” Sveen / Johannessen: Kurt Johannessen, Zeth 2000, p.9.
5 Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception, 1945. Quoted from Øyet og ånden (The Eye and the Spirit), Pax 2000, p.120-130.
6 “I myself have two children, and they are in many respects my teachers. They tell me what is most important.” Hauge / Johannessen: “Mønstre som forener – Et intervju med KJ” (Patterns that Unite – An Interview with KJ), Paletten, 2/1999.
7 “The next time the gaze surveys the garden, a wave in the gravel has disappeared, and two others have exchanged places.” From Alan W. Watts: Zen – veien (Zen – The Way), Gyldendal 1973, p.210.
8 From “Hsin-hsin-ming”, ca. 606 AD. Quoted from Notto R. Thelle: Zen, Gyldendal 2001, p.199.
9 Quoted after Arno Victor Nielsen: Et essay om eksperimentet i videnskab og kunst (An Essay on the Experiment in Science and Art), Vestlandets kunstakademi (National Academy of Fine Art, Bergen) 2000.
10 Alver, Gilhus, Mikaelsson and Solberg: Myte, magi og mirakel (Myth, Magic and Miracle), Pax 1999, p.214.
11 From the collection “Denkoru – About Gautama’s Eye.” Collected and edited by the monk Kizan Shokin during the fourteenth-century. Quoted from Norro R. Thelle: Zen, Gyldendal 2001, p.81.
12 We have “art in the service of art, and art in the service of life,” claimed Kaprow. Quoted from Øystein Hjort: Amerikansk kultur etter 1945 (American Culture after 1945), Spectrum / Copenhagen 1992, p.108-109.

Øystein Hauge