To play and (not to) fear for decay

The Norwegian artists in Play & Decay presented some of the possibilities of modern, conceptually grounded textile art. They invited visitors to go on a playful journey, to be seduced into dangerous adventures of thought.

The gallery ‘Galera’ is in Užupis, the so-called artist district in Vilnius. Most of the time the people hanging about here are attracted by the ever-changing light shining through the gallery’s door. Many people stop and watch without even entering. A silent film is being shown. A girl armed with scissors is in the process of cutting her mother’s hair. She is engrossed in an experiment, observing how this or that snip with the scissors changes her mother’s image. She tests the limits of her mother’s courage and patience. Many who watch the film do not really care about its maker or other related circumstances: that it is a video work by the Norwegian artist Gro Gjengedal Navelsaker called Trust Issue: Daughter; that the mother is the artist herself, and that her hair is being cut by her four-year-old daughter. And indeed, why should anyone care, if, during that moment of stopping at the gallery, all one’s attention is on the scissors, the falling strands of hair, the girl’s hands and her concentrated expression?

«the exhibition’s underlying concept and aim: to come to terms with the body’s change over time»

Gro Gjengedal Navelsaker’s work could be described as the ‘calling card’ of the Norwegian textile artists’ exhibition entitled Play & Decay. It is the first work to catch the eye of visitors and passers-by; it gently yet accurately reveals the exhibition’s underlying concept and aim: to come to terms with the body’s change over time – aging and slow decay. In the 20-minute video performance, we see two generations performing an ordinary procedure for beautification and renewal. They experience it differently through different relationships with the process. This is nothing other than the act of experience-transfer, which we may treat as a hair-cutting practice in its narrow sense, and a school for enculturation (enculturation into the world of femininity, and learning to engage in a responsible relationship with another person) in a wider sense.

In this serious mother-daughter game, the most important aspect is hair – a type of bodily material that decays very slowly, with new growth at the roots and the oldest growth at the ends. While the hair is being cut, a certain history of the body is also cut away, and this act of getting rid of what is old and unnecessary is entrusted to the daughter. In the beginning of the process, the daughter’s relation to the cut hair is obvious: she unintentionally and instantly discards it like rubbish. The daughter will grow up; maybe she will become a mother herself, and will perform the same experiment of confidence with her own child. The mother will grow old, and perhaps her daughter will have to take care of her mother’s bodily needs, not for sake of beauty, but simply because her mother will be incapable of taking care of herself. There will come a time when the mother will no longer be necessary to her daughter. But just now – and we can be sure of this – neither one thinks about it. For them, the process of hair cutting is a natural and ordinary procedure. The daughter, out of solidarity, takes care of the beauty of the other, as would a true specialist in a beauty salon.

Gro Gjengedal Navelsaker: Trust Issue: Daughter

Another important element of this performance is the scissors. They hold the entire dramaturgical charge of the situation because they are both the hair-cutting tool and the source of danger. In Trust Issue: Daughter, the scissors do not allow us to forget the body’s vulnerability. A sharp object in the hands of an unexperienced person is what makes this process contradictory. Will the little girl retain her attention and control the ‘weapon’? How will the mother react when noticing her daughter’s irresponsible behaviour? Where is the limit of tolerance; what is possible in this situation, and what is not? Indeed, this situation is a micro-model of enculturation. It even contains little absurd moments, the sort everyone encounters but most often ignores: these are instantaneous whims (say, a desire to remove hair between one’s fingers), and the fact of discovery (because scissors do not necessarily need to cut, they can be used to make a loud cutting noise in the air), and expressions of uncontrolled enthusiasm (cutting with scissors is fun!), and the perceived causality (after the scissor blades abrade each other, they cut better, hence this is a necessary part of the cutting process).

The clarity of Gro Gjengedal Navelsaker’s experiment attracts us – we see only the mother and daughter and a recognizable situation – since everyone has seen how hair is cut, there is no ambiguity. Even the mother’s T-shirt complies with familiar modern aesthetics. For every viewer, the process unfolding in the video seems like an innocent game; we therefore feel undisturbed and continue watching it, perhaps for several minutes. All the while, without being aware of it, we may be asking a lot of questions. These emerge while we quietly observe, and they do not require us to look for immediate answers. This gentle interaction (between the issues presented by the artist and those of us who visit the gallery) is undoubtedly part of what we find intriguing about Trust Issue: Daughter. Although seemingly simple, this work contains an intricate network of events that can be unravelled while we watch the film, but also when we are at our own hairdresser or at home. Whether we are just gallery passers-by or deliberate visitors, the artist has seduced us. A meeting has happened. Now everything depends on our own whims, engagement and desire to discover or understand.

«this work contains an intricate network of events that can be unravelled while we watch the film, but also when we are at our own hairdresser or at home»

Roughly a year ago, a different Play & Decay exhibition was held in Kaunas, Lithuania. At that time, other works of the same artists – Hilde Frantzen, Gro Gjengedal Navelsaker, Karina Nøkleby Presttun and Kristina Daukintytė Aas – were exhibited. The earlier show is not all that important when speaking of Play & Decay in Užupis, however. What is more interesting is that art history students at Vytautas Magnus University, while writing one of their first exhibition reviews, drew attention to their willingness as viewers to devote time to the artworks in the gallery. One student’s text reveals a healthy dose of self-criticism: ‘I looked at my watch and saw that the modest 9 minutes which I had intended to devote to the exhibition had already passed. I was in a hurry to get to the bus station and couldn’t stay longer. It wasn’t good, but at least I was there, in the gallery space, and saw the art. One more thing from the to-do list was done.’ It seems to me that the visitors who forgot themselves for a while, who became fully absorbed in the work by Gro Gjengedal Navelsaker, soon started rushing around again.

In the same exhibition room as Trust Issue, most visitors also look at Hilde Frantzen’s installation Death Exercise, The Soft Version. They view it from a distance, as if it were also being shown on a video screen. Yet Frantzen’s sham forest requires gallery visitors to engage in a completely different sort of relationship. The artist uses soft materials to give shape to a logged tree. On its stump, which is stuffed with cotton wool, there rests an axe made of the same soft cloth. The tree could be a cactus or a clothes hanger; the stump could be an upside-down bucket or a furry hat. They become a tree and a stump because of their décor – black lines painted on white cloth. A tree growing in another corner of the room is the same sort of soft toy. It has dropped its toy leaves, and there are toy snails and bugs creeping on them. Another soft toy, a black pond, is laid out like a carpet with white wavy ripples. We viewers recognize the objects, perceive the principle of the game, but something restrains us from playing with the toys. Not even children visiting the gallery are inclined to play – to touch and rearrange the exhibited objects.

Installation view
Hilde Frantzen: Death Excercise, The Soft Version (installation view)

This is unfortunate because Death Exercise, The Soft Version becomes especially interesting when its constitutive objects are touched and rearranged. Here is a saw made of fabric. Our hands treat it like a pillow; our fingers walk on the spliced solid thread. Although we rub our hands across the saw-teeth, our skin remains undamaged. We hold a piece of soft material in our hands, but we ‘see’ that the saw’s handle is plastic, the blade is made of steel, and that its teeth are sharp. We do not doubt it for a second. When looking at a small, flat cotton object with a painted stem and cap, we would say without blinking that it is a mushroom. A real mushroom is three-dimensional, its cap is slimy and its stem is uneven. So what? We see a mushroom.

In a text for the public we can read that Hilde Frantzen’s material game is ‘allegedly safe’. Actually, it reveals quite a creepy truth: we are almost incapable of perceiving and naming the difference between such simple things as ‘see’ and see, ‘saw’ and saw, or ‘mushroom’ and mushroom. They often remain in our subconscious and therefore become a part of a cultural game. Differences between ‘art’ and art, ‘reality’ and reality, ‘science’ and science, ‘evil’ and evil, ‘beautiful’ and beautiful, ‘love’ and love, are perceived only through our experience. The differences lie in our subconscious, and it is unlikely that they can be accurately and objectively identified. We could say that the leaf of a fabric tree is not real. But then, how do we understand that it is a leaf?

«Frantzen’s sham forest requires gallery visitors to engage in a completely different sort of relationship»

Hilde Frantzen’ forest is symbolic. It is an object of art and culture. In Lithuanian culture, the opposition between nature and culture is obvious. What is real to nature lovers is perceived as ‘real’ by the lovers of culture, and vice versa. Only a few Lithuanians understand and appreciate both nature and contemporary culture. Maybe this is why the game proposed by the Norwegian artists appears as a decoration, too shallow and superficial for both types of people. For Death Exercise to function, visitors must engage with it and dare to play creatively in the artificial forest, to follow rules they themselves set. To create, one must either know how or ‘know how’. Probably this is why many timid gallery visitors are quick to move on to the second room of the exhibition, through the doorway on the right, and to continue choosing the passive observer mode.

At first glance, Galera’s second room looks less dangerous than the first. No sharp objects here, just images made with a variety of materials. In other words, they are what are traditionally referred to as textiles. Indeed, in Lithuania, working with textiles is often understood as craft. Feminine craft. This is why visitors in the second room react in more traditional ways: ‘How much work is put in there!’ or ‘See, how interestingly done!’ are often heard from the older generation of women. This reminds me of what one Užupis artist, the book illustrator Agnė Každailytė, once called the comment “Oh!” – the least inspiring response that may leave the artist without breakfast.

Nevertheless, we should agree that the results achieved by using new or unusual technologies always impress us with their exclusivity and seem particularly innovative. The works of Karina Nøkleby Presttun and Kristina Daukintytė Aas, which are in the second exhibition room, have been carried out in techniques prevalent in Scandinavia – laser and jacquard loom. Few Lithuanian artists specialize in these methods, and they go to foreign countries to create their works. Usually the results are presented in special textile events or bigger exhibitions, and they remain outside the cognitive limits of random art consumers. The knowledge of technologies, although often posing the risk of ‘playing too much’, still gives an artist the possibility to choose, and, as Vivienne Westwood would say, here lies the artist’s freedom.

Karina Nøkleby Presttun:Jørund

It was in Norway that the freedom or artistic expression was discovered by Lithuanian artist Kristina Daukintytė Aas, one of the initiators of Play & Decay. Like the other participants, she has experimented with a variety of textile techniques and has graduated from Bergen Academy of Art and Design. One of her more exotic works is the installation Leftovers (2011), for which she used thermochromic paint (paint that fades when heated). I myself feel it is unfortunate that she did not use this technological innovation for the works on show in Užupis. Tra Feltro e Feltro and To See I&II involve wool felting – a traditional Lithuanian craft, recently revived and now extremely fashionable. Wool felting does not surprise anyone in Lithuania, even worse, it no longer incites people to expect anything artistically interesting.

When creating the video performance Tra Feltro e Feltro, Kristina Daukintytė Aas took recourse in line 105 of Dante’s Divine Comedy: ‘E sua Nazione Sara tra Feltro e Feltro’ (‘and his birthplace will lie between Feltro and Feltro’). The screen alternately shows a man and a woman. They both felt the wool onto their bodies, turning it into something like a second skin – a new human fur. The woman’s fur is white; she carefully covers her body with fibre and gently rubs it with wet hands. The man’s technique is completely different; he glues on his fur with his untrained fingers. The black wool disobeys his hands and turns into strips. For a few moments, the white, wool-swathed woman’s body looks like an angel. The man, however, reminds us of a London punk from the 1970s, who has covered his body with the fetishist belts of a sexual maniac. Seeing these results, I cannot help but think of the different nature of men and women, which, after Judith Butler’s and Michel Foucault’s theories of the cultural body, are often overlooked in the Western world. It seems that something has changed in the art world since the Renaissance – perhaps nature, or maybe culture. Today Beatrice would be the one to explore hell.

The principle of felting the second skin or fur has also been used in To See, another video performance by Kristina Daukintytė Aas. In Užupis, rather than presenting the video, the artist presents two images of the performance. Woven on a jacquard loom, they show two women’s heads covered with wool. The woven threads both reveal and obscure the images that were documentarily captured by camera. The chosen technique hides the wool’s materiality but highlights the structure of the hands. I see hair bangs, but the head covering is transformed into an unrecognizable mass. This combination of clarity and hiddenness seems like a stage in a hypnotic process. As my gaze follows the creative principle, the movements of the hands freeze; as they support the fabric they ignite my imagination. Is the woman trying to take off her head covering? Or does she want to put it on? Cultural history offers a variety of answers. What do you think the French would choose today?

«It seems that something has changed in the art world since the Renaissance – perhaps nature, or maybe culture»

Kristina Daukintytė Aas: Tra Feltro e Feltro (still image from video)
Kristina Daukintytė Aas: Tra Feltro e Feltro (still image from video)
Kristina Daukintytė Aas: Tra Feltro e Feltro (still image from video)

Traces of Feminism can also be found in the works of Karina Nøkleby Presttun. When looking at Trying to Patch You Up, collages by Miriam Schapiro come to mind. An image of a man wearing a women’s top is laser-engraved on rectangular pieces of cloth and mounted on a board. The technology deceives me – I see his biceps tattooed with rose blossoms and acanthus leaves. His hands are behind his head and he exposes his naked belly. This work turns Mona Lisa’s smile into an expression of contained curiosity. This guy is astonishingly open! I become absorbed in the image and no longer care about the man’s identity. During the engraving process, the laser abrades the fabric rectangles in different ways, marking them with different signs of decay. Thus the symmetrical photographic composition acquires the colours of a carefree life. The image of a young, handsome, frivolous young man vividly expresses signs of time. I explore the rectangles and observe different stages of decay. I begin to care about how this young and handsome weathercock, this icon of openness to life, is going to change. But I leave him here – it’s better never to know the answer.

Karina Nøkleby Presttun loves to play and usually she does it with others. The video work Breaking Wind has been created through collaboration with the choreographer Julia A. Bergesen and the composer Alexander Haugland. Even more interesting is the game she plays with her with friend Jørund, as documented in a work of the same name. Jørund, which shows Jørund wearing an evening disco dress, was presented in Vilnius shortly after the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, at the same time as Conchita Wurst caused lively debate about sexual identity, gays, women with beards and other demons plaguing Lithuanian society. This image made by a Norwegian artist, of a bearded man wearing women’s clothing, did not surprise anyone in Užupis. Not even the more conservative visitors were frightened. Perhaps they attributed it to the ‘ordinary oddity of artists’, but in fact Jørund is gentle and unprovocative.

Assembled from various laser-cut pieces of cloth, the photo-based portrait of Jørund presents him as a bearded man. His head is resting on his right arm as he lies on a greenish floor reading a book. The clothes of the opposite sex do not embarrass him in any way; the feminine posture slightly accentuates the curve of his hips, his covered chest and exposed shoulders. In this work the principle of destruction is replaced with construction – Karina Nøkleby Presttun has sculpted the fabrics by layering them, one on top of the other, thus physically increasing the image’s spatial perspective. Moving up close, I can see yellowish and grey circles attached to the black material; from a distance, they converge into the sequin-decorated dress. This textile is like painting with spots. The shades are precisely sorted, even the synthetic lining. The skin colours of legs, hands and face are obtained by playing with different shades of brownish/beige. The artist’s sensitivity is manifest in the tight mesh that seamlessly covers the differently shaded areas of the body and clothing. Jørund is miraculously masculine and feminine at the same time.

Play & Decay appeared and disappeared in Užupis in the same way as the visitors who drop into Galera. The Norwegian artists presented some of the possibilities of modern, conceptually grounded textile art. They invited visitors to go on a playful journey, to be seduced into dangerous adventures of thought. The changing body and the changing signs of culture are the everyday life of the open society. Play & Decay’s credo – to play and not to fear for decay.