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WALL TO WALL
Andrea Kroksnes on the art of Kristina Bræin

At one end of a gallery, where the elongated space is separated from
a surrounding park only by a wall of windows, the eye fixes on a
handrail that could be a dancer's barre. The stretch of wall on which
it is mounted appears slightly darker than the rest of the
gallery--on a closer look it becomes clear that the white paint has
been sanded off to expose raw concrete underneath; this area reaches
up from the floor to a point slightly above the bar and is bordered
by pale yellow masking tape. The arrangement seems to be reflected in
the plate glass, until, coming closer, one notices that the window is
actually open and that the apparent reflection is in fact a
continuation of the installation: There is another rail on the
concrete wall outside that almost meets the first one, at the point
where interior becomes exterior. And so the "reflection" turns out to
be an inversion rather than a copy--the result of taking up the
relationship of inside and outside already prevalent in the
building's architecture and turning them inside out. Like a Möbius
strip in space, the sculptural installation provides a kind of
performative architecture that can be read as a metaphor for the
dialectical play of supposedly opposite sites.

The intervention described above is a representative moment in the
oeuvre of Norwegian artist Kristina Bræin. It appeared at the Venice
Biennale last summer as one of a series of site-specific works she
titled The Dilemma of Politeness and installed in the Nordic pavilion
as part of the exhibition I cocurated there with Anne-Karin Jortveit.
Built in 1962, that structure, designed by Norwegian architect Sverre
Fehn, heeds modernism's call for rationality, which is nowhere more
evident than in the building's architectonic ground plan--a
rectangular grid consisting of forty-eight large squares, each itself
composed of forty-nine smaller tiles--rigorously derived from Le
Corbusier's modulor. Bræin disregarded the rigid rules of the
existing plan. All of her works throughout a nine-year artistic
career are likewise sly commentaries on modernism, its form as well
as its ideology. Her favorite materials of fake-teak flooring and
carpet swatches are clearly heirs to a modernist heritage, and the
geometrical compositions that the artist creates out of these
everyday items can be read as subversive redeployments of the
vocabulary of minimalist abstraction. Indeed, the materials she uses
are, if not secondhand, low-end (she buys her carpet tiles at the
Norwegian megastore Carpet Country), and they seem to resist
meticulous craftsmanship (her plastic paneling, for example, never
quite meets at the junctions). And so the tiles she used in the
pavilion came in all sizes and colors, and they were never neatly
fixed into a rectangular grid but loosely arranged and piled on top
of each other. Walking through the modernist building, one
accidentally stepped on red and gray carpet squares slightly smaller
than the pavilion's white travertine floor tiles. In one corner, a
cluster of them rested together with a towel on a fake-pine laminate
floor cover. In the middle of the room a row of imitation-teak panels
formed a square that sat awkwardly askew on the gridded floor of the
pavilion. At once elegant and clumsy, Bræin's installations cohabit
with the architecture that surrounds them and bring out some aspect
of the space that normally escapes our eyes. With such interventions,
Bræin playfully insists that one can deploy outmoded sculptural and
architectural conventions without necessarily adhering to them:
There's always room for reinvention.

Bræin used the title for this type of engagement--The Dilemma of
Politeness--once before, for a series of installations she made at
the 2001 Norwegian Sculpture Biennial (curated by Maaretta Jaukkuri).
Engaging both the other works in the exhibition and the space itself,
Bræin positioned her subtle but concentrated spatial interventions
throughout the venue. In one of the galleries that was carpeted, she
did nothing more than put up a little shelf on which she displayed a
hodgepodge of knickknacks, found objects, and other detritus--a tube
of Chanel hand lotion, a plastic doggy, a tulip, an empty film box,
and a dissected rubber finger. The title may have arisen as a
response to the difficult task of reacting to something that is
already there and which takes center stage, such as the awkwardly
domestic carpeting of the gallery space. Indeed, the carpet seems to
set the tone for Bræin's jazzlike improvisations. The Dilemma of
Politeness describes an ongoing struggle in Bræin's work, which is
always site-specific and relational to the surrounding context. The
"dilemma" pertains to the difficulties of straddling the fine line
between an appreciation of the existing material world and the thrill
of overthrowing the old and outdated. Her installations place an
accent on what we might describe as a room's "excess," or "surfeit":
a dimension of the room that is already contained within the space
but resides in its niches and margins. It might be a glut of
material, a leftover, a detail--features typically overlooked that
take the space beyond its central meaning and function. Perhaps a
trace of something that hints at transformation and re-signification.

This year Bræin, who trained as a painter but also studied
architectural history and holds a degree in music from the University
of Oslo, extended her interrogations of modernist architecture in a
solo exhibition titled "The Problem of Functionality," currently on
view at Oslo's Stenersenmuseet. The municipal museum wasn't built to
be one: Part of an International Style office complex, it originally
housed a community center, and later, the infamous rock club
Sardine's. In 1994 the city converted the space into a museum for
modern and contemporary art. Devoid of natural light, obstructed by
thick, weight-bearing columns and a metal staircase, the
low-ceilinged, multicornered space is a far cry from the white cube.
Indeed, it triggers associations with student unions, locker rooms,
even public lavatories. Bræin's works, which are dispersed throughout
the space, take pleasure in this collapse of form and function by
exaggerating it: The windowless galleries are kept semidark; two
small lampshades dangle without bulbs from a wall. Underneath one of
these helpless twins, three rays of bright yellow masking tape
"shine" on the wall. The functionless lamps, bereft of their symbolic
power and ridiculed as well, are little more than stains on the wall,
a kind of visual noise. The distracted viewer who bumps into a floor
sculpture a few steps away from the entrance is led on a course that
doesn't follow a linear narrative but links a series of views with no
apparent significance. Every encounter between visitor and art is
only one out of many possible perspectives, permitting only arbitrary
and subjective perceptions of the works.

Perhaps another way to describe Bræin's ingenious commentaries,
reactions, and inversions of the main logic of any room is to say
that the artist's installations advocate the "out of the question."
In the spirit of the impractical, they shed light on the impossible,
the invisible, and the unspeakable, which contest the programmed
organization of the surrounding architecture. Bræin's focus on
materials that are nonrepresentative or simply not recognizable as
pieces of art, like the bits of domestic paraphernalia, manages to
make the sculptures blur into the gallery space, to seem like both
sculptural pockets and discomfiting, unkempt space. One could call
them postformal interventions: Masking tape on partly painted walls,
loose tiles, and decontextualized bits of furniture (a shelf, a
handrail) could be the ingredients for her spatial
ensembles--ensembles that aren't anchored in tectonic space but
temporarily set up, makeshift, ready to be moved again. While certain
materials--carpet, masking tape, tiles--are recurring tropes in her
work, Bræin continually finds fresh ingredients (often remnants of
the installation's own making). In Venice, for example, she placed on
a shelf cardboard boxes, an empty water bottle, a little box with
plastic bags, and the discarded packaging from cosmetics she had
bought at the airport. Although her compositions are always simple,
even minimal, Bræin unhinges the clean and impersonal vocabulary of
minimalism with the coincidences of a private life. Her works are
charged with the tensions between the understated and the bold, the
restricted and the free, formal language and personal style.

Bræin also sabotages, destabilizes, and perverts the long-consecrated
high-culture position of a male-dominated high-modernist style by
inserting and inscribing fragments of repressed domestic life. In
Area I, a piece she did for Norway's UKS Biennial in 1998 (curated by
Søssa Jørgensen and Maria Lind), for example, an orange patterned
towel hung neatly on a towel rack mounted on the wall. A long, red
rectangular field covered the otherwise white wall from just
underneath the rail to the floor. On a patch of painted flooring that
mirrored the wall's red rectangle sat an old white grill-oven
demarcating the left end of the red region. To the right of this
crimson field a white power outlet suddenly became a prominent
feature. In this dramatically incarnadine scene, outlet, oven, and
towel were rivals competing for attention. The installation somehow
made you want to move this or that a little and create further
derivatives of this useless architecture. If architectural spaces
have represented the putative civilizing influence of patriarchy,
then the domestic playfulness and instinctual chaos associated with
femininity are valid and crucial counterparts that can destabilize
and desublimate patriarchal culture's drive to cleanliness and
regulation. All these disturbing elements that modernism had tried to
do away with were suppressed only to reemerge in Bræin's
installations with renewed strength from the unconscious of the
spaces.

By intervening with forms and materials that somehow lie both inside
and outside the governing logic of the room, Bræin's works follow a
philosophy of the unexpected and absurd. This is a strategy that
playfully fights against the "philosophy of the possible," which
rules so many aspects of our lives. Bræin's improvised interventions
express potentials of another sort, work according to another kind of
plan. Without advocating pure anarchy, her ephemeral arrangements
formulate a way out of the suffocating sense of too much programmed,
instrumentalized space within our built environment.

Andrea Kroksnes is senior curator at the Museet for Samtidskunst, Oslo.
(ARTFORUM international  march 2004)


 

 
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