Undefined Borderland

Trondheim Kunstmuseum invited the photographer and video artist Hege Dons Samset to an exhibition collaboration in spring 2010. At the time, she was artist-in-residence in Iceland where a series of volcanic eruptions took place at Eyjafjallajökull. No one will forget the spectacular pictures of the eruptions that started in April and that caused large emissions of volcanic ash on the northern hemisphere. The emissions paralyzed air-traffic in most parts of Europe. Ironically, the air-traffic to and from Reykjavik was hardly disrupted at all, in spite of the severe consequences the ash cloud created for air-traffic far away. The resources that the forces of nature represent are fascinating, but these forces may also be disruptive and have far-reaching consequences for human lives and activities. To a large extent, Dons Samset’s artistic concept deals with the manifestations of nature and how they influence human beings in the most peculiar ways.

The author had the opportunity to meet Dons Samset in Iceland while she collected material there. Her art projects have always been shaped by a strong fascination for the landscape that surrounds us, landscapes with which we identify in one way or another, or landscapes in which we feel alienated. With enthusiasm, sensitivity and humility she told me about her solo journey in the volcanic landscape, about the intense smell of sulphur, the sight of the ash, the sounds and the light. The tour had given her new work experiences as well as several interesting encounters with inhabitants who have always had to adjust and come to terms with a landscape in constant transformation.

Dons Samset is a modern nomad; she is nearly always travelling or planning a new excursion. Often, the most important journeys have been to places where no one else goes. The visiting artist’s hunting for motifs is defined by the surroundings and by communities far away from the cultural centres, museum capitals and tourist attractions of the world. She always shuns the beaten path. The artist seeks landscapes where nature exists in spite of itself and in spite of the people who stay there. The most interesting ones are surroundings where natural forces and the landscape itself are alienating but simultaneously provide a basis of existence for animals and humans. In many ways, Hege Dons Samset’s art projects lead us to what we leave behind or flee from: the unknown and unfamiliar in nature and in ourselves.

Much preparation and research is needed before setting off. According to the artist, careful planning ahead means greater freedom when working with motifs and landscape studies in situ. Her working tools are mainly an analogue camera, a film camera and a sound recorder. New and unknown surroundings are visited, various materials and elements of nature are observed and encounters with new people influence the direction of the project. It should harmonize with the artist’s intuition prior to filming and photo sessions.

Most of the models we meet in the photo series «Workers» are people with a close relationship to the background and surroundings seen in the photo. They live their everyday lives in these surroundings, but the models do not necessarily identify with the role of the worker that the artist has assigned to them. The worker is universal, and we may in various ways identify with his work and duties. He may appear to be a supernumerary in a rather absurd situation, in a synthesis of dream and reality, of the conscious and the unconscious. This makes the series appear surrealistic. «Workers» is a series of photos and performative video works that Dons Samset has been producing since 2001, and she will most probably add new portraits to the series in the future. As a parallel to the surrealist practice of placing various objects in new and surprising constellations, Dons Samset places human beings in abstracted landscapes and alienated surroundings, assigning them tasks that they dutifully execute. The staging of these original and sometimes unrelated episodes is what adds a touch of absurdity and surrealism to the work. In the intersection between the tragic and the comical a waiter pours water on the ruins of a deserted village in the desert, a cleaner vacuum-cleans a volcanic landscape and a balloon vendor is standing upright with his bouquet of balloons outside a shut down and deserted amusement park…

The vulnerable, the problematic and the apparently meaningless in life are important themes that Dons Samset treats in her works. Romantic images, showing man in a mighty, often pristine nature, are well known painterly motifs in Norwegian as well as European classical art history. The sublime is seen as the aesthetics of death and ecstasy, and is often linked to phenomena that surpass what humans are able to control. Whereas nature by National Romanticism is perceived as beautiful and grandiose, in Dons Samset’s works it is portrayed through the role of the worker – incarnated by the model. These photographs are about borderlands, i.e. surroundings that we may only become aware of by seeking them out, experiencing and perceiving them.

Hege Dons Samset’s art production may be placed somewhere in between surrealism and classical existentialism. The artist treats themes like responsibility, freedom and possibilities, in interaction with or in contrast to the surroundings in which human beings are placed. In many of her early performative video works, like «Flowers on the wall» from 1999, «Superwoman» (1999/2001) and «Where Green Grass Grows» (1999/2004), the artist herself plays the leading role. Also in the works «I want to be your girlfriend» and «Norway» from 2004 we recognize the main features of Dons Samset’s art concept. Here the artist treats questions concerning personal and cultural identity, lack of meaning, frustration and the need for self-realization, the urge to pursue the dream of one’s life and to develop one’s potential. But a human being is never alone. It is always interrelated to its surroundings.

The artist has collected some of the material for this exhibition on a trip to Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. The island is regarded as one of the most isolated places and communities in the world. Originally, this volcanic island was covered with subtropical, luxuriant forests, but the natives chopped down the rainforest and extinguished the basis for existence in the course of a 500 year period. Even if the natives were well aware of their isolation from the rest of the world, they felled the trees and extinguished various species of plants and animals. This lead to civil war and cannibalism for the population. In the photo series «The World is Saved» and in the installation «The Crack» we meet once again the deserted and silent landscape, this time portrayed without the presence of human beings. It is only by means of work titles and texts that individuals have been given an important role for our interpretation of the work. The works communicate nature’s ability to survive, and show trees that grow roots and flourish in spite of difficult conditions. By giving single works titles that refer to individuals, nature is linked to human beings, who in spite of adversity and challenges manage to tackle and survive the hardships. For man, the experience of sorrow, loneliness, longing and lack of meaning reflect an awareness of the power of our existence.

The Museum of Hope

The exhibition at Gråmølna should be seen as one whole installation where the various works have clearly related themes; existence, isolation, human dignity and respect bind it all together and are communicated by means of the exhibition title, the «Museum of Hope».

In a historical perspective, the presentation forms and collection management of traditional museums have been decisive for the understanding of art and its worth. As Hege Dons Samset points out, a similar dynamical relationship exists between man and nature.

Inherent in the «Museum of Hope» is the artist’s concept of the art museum as an interpreter and a conveyor of artistic expression. Furthermore, it is only when exhibitions and works in the museum communicate with the audience that the museum appears trustworthy, and that the artist may seek an understanding of him- or herself through communication with others. Hege Dons Samset identifies with the collector and she takes a great interest in the first museum collections that came into existence in the 16th century. In a cabinet of curiosities the collector put together natural objects, hunting trophies, cultural objects as well as pieces of art. The classical objects in a cabinet of curiosities were evaluated according to simple criteria such as age and originality. Based on the juxtaposition of unknown, exotic, and often absurd objects, the collections represented tiny windows or openings toward an alien and not-yet-experienced world. The objects created a sense of wonder and a thirst for knowledge beyond the immediate and familiar surroundings in which they were placed. Museums may fill a similar function today, and along with archives and libraries they may constitute an important part of our extended collective community memory.

Silken Gloves in the Museum

In a series consisting of seven silk works with small embroideries, Hege Dons Samset conveys something about nature by means of a new artistic technique. In works of embroidery on landscape motifs printed on silk, the works appear to be detail studies and modern still life. Strangely, the minute embroidered details seem to be more alive, more realistic, than those in photos. The thread adds new attention to the details and the embroidered plants and animals appear to be study objects isolated from their biotope. The works stimulate our wish to touch, examine and study. We want to see, experience, steal and plunder. In nature we chop down trees, we burn, pollute and destroy natural resources, but within the walls of the museum we handle art and dead objects of nature with silken gloves. Communication has always been important for the interpretation of artistic works and is a recurring theme in the modern museum. The «Museum of Hope» is a contribution to this theme. A museum of hope is a meeting point where we communicate and express something about the known and the unknown, the near and the distant world outside.

Merete Hovdenak, art historian and museum curator

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