Else Leirvik: Unconscious and uncool

Installation view


Unconscious and uncool
by Cecilia Canziani

Since my last visit to Stavanger I have in front of my desk the postcard of a painting I saw at Rogaland Kunstmuseum.

It depicts a house and its courtyard in a gentle autumn light. The painting, titled Konsgard, is by Kitty Kielland, and I remember Else Leirvik, with whom I spent that morning, pointing out at the building of which reproduction I was so enamoured. A character, and a space she inhabited. Two good starting points to talk about the exhibition that, in these very same days I am writing, Else is putting together.
An invitation to write on a new body of works offers the possibility renew the acquaintance with the artist’s practice, and at the same time, to also interrogate one’s own relationship with writing on art: a third, good starting point to undertake this endevour.

Else and I met in occasion of an exhibition that she developed for Nomas Foundation, in Rome, and I got to know her work, and to understand her practice, during its preparation and installation. We spent many days in the space moving around the pieces, until the net of relationship that is at the core of Else’s work was solid, and the works would resonate, and create a path for the spectator to follow.
The framework that the artist created for herself as a way to develop the show was stemming of another relationship, that of the artist with the city, which only existed through a film by Federico Fellini, and its main character, Cabiria. Flipping through the pages of the booklet we published for the exhibition, I stop when I encounter a series of portraits of Liv Ullman, a set of five photos altered by applying tape on the eyebrows. This simple trick transforms the face of the actress in a series of masks representing different emotions, at the same time it hints back at Cabiria’s character, who changes the graphic shape of her eyebrows throughout the film. As if, by the transmigration of a mark of expression, one face shifts in the other, one character takes something of the other, and an inner, secret proximity between Giulietta Masina and Liv Ullmann is made visible by an intuition of the artist.

Writing of art is a similar process: the graphic signs that compose this page attempt to build bridges between works, highlight relationship between practices, offering the reader an orientation that while attempting to remain faithful to the work, is by definition personal, partial, situated and permeated by one’s own biography.

Why does one work or a practice bites me, and urges me to translate into words the reasons for what indeed should be called a form of love, enchantment, mute dialogue?

An object does not stand alone, but it is indeed the sum of a history of forms, and of an even unaware proximity with other contemporaries, and again of its resonance with different languages. When looking at Else’s work, I build a set of references that work for me to unravel the work and make it mine: Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, first. I also always inscribe it in a (reciprocal) dialogue with the work of artists whose practice I am interested, with most of whom I share a relationship and that to me share some aspect with Else’s work, as Chiara Camoni, Sara Barker, Bettina Buck, Karla Black. When confronted to the pictures and notes that Else sent me, I could not avoid to think of Virgina Wooolf, the houses she inhabited, her interrogation of her own practice through writing more and again.

Such framework that orientates my reading of the artist’s work, yet talks also of my own interests, of my own gaze. A text is also a bit of a portrait of the writer, yet in the case of Else Leirvik one is almost urged to reveal one’s voice, as a way to be in tune with her own methodology.

For what Else always does, when undertaking a new project, (as I do when looking at her new works) is writing down a list of names. Characters, whose abstract portraits will inhabit the exhibition. Cabiria, in Rome, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Eva Hesse, Heath Ledger, Olav H. Hauge, Ingmar Bergman, David Hammonds and more, in this case.
Each is represented through a sculpture, while a vitrine showcasing their noses and a floor piece constitute a sort of group portrait, and the whole exhibition functions as an installation that is more than the sum of its parts.
For when looking at each object in relationship to the others we realize that we are being inscribed in a interior, a dwelling, an inhabited space. A room of one’s own.
The idea of a private space is always present in Leirvik’s work, and is often translated into object in the exhibition: a wooden frame with strings and ropes sometimes; the cast of the floor of the gallery space in this case (and one cannot escape from thinking of Louise Bourgeouise’s Cells). It is not by chance, it becomes apparent, that Else talks of foundations when recounting of her working methodology. It is both literal and abstract, the making space that Else undertakes each time that she works of a new body of works. In Unconscious and uncool such foundations, objects that resemble furniture (a sidetable, a vitrine, a pillar) are familiar, Heimlich infact, yet the fragility of the material she chooses, and the lack of colour that is common to most of the pieces, makes them almost as ghosts, appearances, abstractions.
The matter of the work is pallid, fragile, yet made precious even when simple or volatile as the translucent frozen milk, a stone, a cloth by an action operated on the inhert material by the artist, as in the case of a piece of fabric on which she embroidered with a wool string an enlarged scribble from her notebook, or in the tactile interaction between materials (again as in the case of the silk and the wool, the milk and the stone, papier mache and tape, metal and porcelain: always almost oppositional couples).

Each part of the show stands for a character, is a portrait by proxy: the sidetable is Ingmar Bergman. The metal rod with porcelain Olav H. Hauge. The head is Heath Ledger. The noses are Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Nicole Kidman. And so on. Yet, each portrait misleads, and fails to recount the character it is dedicated to, or could also refer to someone else’s. These are what Else calls movable portraits: they can shift, as Cabiria’s eyebrows on Liv Ullman’s face. Unconsciously connected, the characters that compose such an apparently incongruous system of relations, find a common root in each having a trait in common with the artist, each having engaged with their own practice in a stringent fight. More than the sum of the parts, seen together the portraits are a partial representation of the artist and of her approach to art making as a way to build bridges across a void, proceeding through intuition, making a point sometime through holes and blindspots, analyzing art’s reasons through art making, and to ultimately, as Sol LeWitt writes to Eva Hesse “make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. DO!”.

Wool and silk on canvas
291 x 380 cm
Installation view
Vitrine and string
Textile, wood, concrete, lime
200 x 125 x 33 cm
Installation view
Installation view
Metal, concrete, shell, sand, lime
196 x 115 x 2,5 cm
Steel, stoneware
212 x 44 x 35 cm
Detail View
212 x 44 x 35 cm
A nose
Stoneware on wooden table
92 x 35 x 60 cm
Installation view
50 x 32,5 x 33 cm
Concrete, metal, textile, lime
87,5 x 28 x 26 cm
Bone and teeth
Bricks, pigment, (frozen) milk
(performative work; milk defrosts over the bricks)
Dimensions variable

Installation photography (except Bone and teeth): Erik Sæter Jørgensen