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Framework and Critical Self-reflection; about Patrick Huse’s art
By Øivind Storm Bjerke
Professor in art history at University of Oslo

The retrospective exhibition is the conventional format for meeting the life work of an artist. The conventional form is placing together a lifework, possibly in a chronological timeline, while incorporating more recent works in order to take a glance at the path ahead. Huse has followed the preliminary procedures in preparation for such an exhibition. His goal, however, is neither to give an objective portrayal of what he has produced since his debut in 1970 nor to create an exhibition of highlights. This does not mean that the exhibition evades the retrospective aspect of the presentation; quite the opposite – he confronts it and resolves it in a manner which casts a critical light onto his lifework.

In the beginning the visitor meets an installation with display cases. The cases contain a series of objects which all play a role in referring to an aspect of his work. It can be a woodcut with a motif from Greenland which gives an indication of the importance which this area has in his art but also an indication of his work as a graphic artist. Another object can be a box with small photographs from Iceland as an indicator of his work with Icelandic themes. Other objects can be self-made tools, boxes with his own or others’ texts, etcetera. The objects in the cases come together as a still life of Huse’s artistic work and in and of itself is a miniature retrospective exhibition. The idea behind it is not unlike Marcel Duchamp’s famous work “Boïte.en.valise” (exhibition in a suitcase). There Duchamp presented his lifework as miniature copies and pictures of his most well-known works all installed in a small suitcase. This gives associations to how a salesman fills his suitcase with samples. Duchamp and Huse both use objects which represent something more and other than what they seem to stand for at first glance. The reference to Duchamp is a reminder that Huse’s artistic endeavors are to be seen within a historical context where the critical reflection over one’s own work and the continual questioning of one’s platform and one’s perspective on the surroundings is to be regarded as a fundamental principle.

Huse’s experience with activities related to the media and social communication developed his awareness of how themes treated by the media he uses are also shaped by them. This becomes clear when delving into the continually richer and more complex palette of techniques which he uses to work on the themes. In addition to using pictoral media, texts play a central role. At times texts are incorporated into some of his works through independent text placards in the exhibitions and through Huse himself being the editor and producer of most of his catalogues and books.

In addition, as part of an overall artistic strategy Huse does not avoid using techniques we associate with the media and social communication. A critical dimension also lies in this “use”.  Adding techniques, strategies and rhetoric from the visual sphere which carry a “disgraceful” stamp by being associated with communication which have commercial intention is at the same time a way of emptying it of its “commercial” content and giving it a new direction and function. A change takes place – from promoting circulation of a commodity to encouraging reflection over social, political and esthetic questions in a figurative form.

Within the artistic activity seen as a means of producing objects which are included in the specific form for esthetic communication which is now taking place in the system of art, the exhibition does not constitute a conclusion but a starting point for a reception which is included in part of the feedback the artist can incorporate into and give a response to in future projects. Huse desires a close follow-up during the exhibition, possibly as a seminar or two which open for a discussion of themes treated in the exhibition. The exhibition functions simultaneously as a summary and generator for new activity.

The exhibition in the Lillehammer Art Museum illustrates the complexity of the course which Huse’s art has transpired with a central focus on the most important ideas he has worked on but also on the institutional framework in which he has operated. The retrospective character concerns more a desire to establish a context for understanding the lifework rather than a review of the highlights.

In accordance with the emphasis Huse places on the design of the exhibition, the exhibition also has a form which comments on the traditional installation of an exhibition. The exhibition can be seen at an intervention in the museum which not only tells about his own art but also gives a new perspective on aspects of the museum’s own collection. When the Lillehammer Art Museum is the arena for his first retrospective exhibition, it feels right in light of this museum being known for the quality of its collection of the type of art to which Huse’s own work naturally relates: work which devotes itself to landscape motifs within what is generally called the “romantic” tradition.

Simultaneously as there exist good arguments ascribing Huse to a romantic tradition, there are few artists in the same period who have radically challenged the tradition and placed it in such a critical light as Huse has done. He has made pieces where words such as “allegorical”, “constructive”, “dryly recording”, “prosaic” and “conceptually cool”, “existentially clear-cut” are all relevant. Huse is an artist who can bear many labels without appearing weighed down.

Patrik Huse’s art has been through a development which is confusing and also provoking to those who want to identify him with certain directions or attitudes or hold him accountable for their own points of view. His earliest works for which he earned himself a name were drawings. He made his debut with a drawing in the “Høstutsilling” (“Official Autumn exhibition”) in 1970. For a period of time he made colored lithographs. These works led to this characterization in the Norwegian Art Encyclopedia (Norsk kunstnerleksikon), volume 2 1982: “In a figurative, strongly symbolically charged figurative language, he attempted to uncover subconscious experiences and express conditions of the soul.” Words such as “dreamy”, “visionary”, “poetic”, “troll-like” were also included in the reference to his work. This is a characteristic trait which has attached itself to Huse’s art. These are words which point to elements which can be associated with the romantic tradition in landscape painting. Huse did not participate in the art scene for many years. During this time he was regarded as one of the best knife craftsmen in the Norway.

Until the mid 1990s Huse was connected to a discourse in art history in which themes and ideals of form attached to the line of succession romanticism – realism – surrealism – abstract expressionism formed a chronological backbone. In drawings and paintings Huse presumed that painters in the Norwegian romantic tradition such as Dahl, Fearnley, Frich, Gude, Cappelen, Hertervig and Balke composed motifs from the Norwegian nature under the influence of ideas related mainly to German and English romanticism.

This “Northern tradition” within romanticism was given considerable attention in literature of art history in the 1970s – 1980s. Not in the least in American literature it was repeated in a tiresome manner that abstract expressionism was the culmination of the tradition. By letting the tradition culminate in abstract expressionism, then the description of the Northern romantic tradition connects with Clement Greenberg’s explanation of modernism in painting as an ongoing exploration of the painting with the goal of liberating it from all external functions so the in the end the painting should reach an awareness of its individual character. Therefore the romantic tradition achieved the role as the starting point for the formalistically oriented modernism.

The explanation about the path from the early 1800s romantic landscape painting to the high modernistic abstraction is also a narrative about how the painters gradually transferred their attention from resting on the motif as such to rest on the how the motif was created on the canvas. For the Northern artists, the consequence was an opening into the American market, and Patrick Huse is one of the few Norwegian artists who has been given a larger separate museum exhibition in the United States.

Mathew Kangas, Seattle’s leading critic for thirty years, interprets Huse’s art in the light of this narrative when he gave a great deal of praise in the Seattle Times about “Rift” in the Frye Art Museum, 2000: “Dark, cloudy and moody, Huse’s pictures are part of a long, gloomy tradition of northern European landscape tradition in northern Europe that includes recent German artists like Anselm Kiefer.”  The critic adds that the exhibition should appeal to Seattle’s mountaineers and environmentalists, but his main point is to establish that when Huse stands out as a personal and interesting artist worth his attention, it is because he sets free the traditional elements solely through means of painting.

In line with Clement Greenberg’s understanding of abstract expressionism to be a painting which brings forth a possible potential in painting from early romanticism, through abstract expressionism, the painting comes to an awareness of its individual character and achieves liberation from all the fundamentally alienating functions which a painting can have – as an illustration of a landscape – and becomes an autonomous activity where everything on the canvas must be formulated and delivered through painting. In agreement with this, Kangas asserts that Huse combines the figurative tradition and abstract expressionism in pictures where streaks from the brush can be read as crystals, species of rocks and minerals but not because the streaks imitate but rather create an individual painted reality which can be associated with how similar painting effects at one time functioned as imitations. What separates these works from nature itself and from a photographic representation is, according to Kangas, the way the pictures are painted layer by layer. It creates a picturesque surface which can be associated with the one and the other, but first of all refers to itself as a painting. The reality we are confronted with is fulfilled in the form of painting.

The question can be raised if Huse’s art is easily placed in the established concepts of what is contained in the formulation “Northern romantic tradition”. The landscapes which Patrik Huse has painted and drawn since the beginning of 1990 do not match the notions about nature as a series of beautiful views which can be frighteningly majestic, but which through the artist’s trained eye for harmonious figurative effects, it was actually a gentle landscape. A staging of the landscape which gave the viewer full control over it. Instead of depicting nature through prescriptions from the height of national romanticism, Huses’s landscapes were an expression of a nature which people did not have any control over but which at any moment could burst people’s feeling of safety into bits and pieces by a sudden eruption.

A series of large-sized drawings with motifs from Iceland demonstrated an ambition to reach beyond this referential framework and place his artistic activity in a continually more relevant debate about the relationship nature – man. Landscape pictures depicted odd and scary natural formations with an impressive realism. We met a desolate, unfriendly nature which was difficult to imagine being a place where there was space for humans.

The traditional landscape art still plays a role as an artistic reference, but through a series of exhibitions from the mid 1990s and later, he has challenged landscape art in a way which makes his project unique and through his geopolitical engagement places him outside the mainstream within this period of Norwegian art. Huse’s approach to the landscape cannot be regarded as a primary desire to produce pictures which have a visual similarity to landscape paintings, though they can have it. To a much larger degree it revolves more around the structural relationships in nature and not the least through the reception and definition of concepts in nature than an affirmative repetition of acknowledged and established formulas.

Huse, who seldom can be described as a humorist, has even made ironic twists by depicting nature through established conventions in a late piece, when he, in the late work ”Notion of Horizon I; Metaphor between Event and Meaning” makes a traverse, simplifying the landscape into two planes where a horizontal effect arises when the planes meet. In a wooden board he has cut out slits where metal rods are lying. It is a handy instrument for creating horizons by choosing a metal rod and holding it up in front of a motif and in a flash one has made a horizontal line. Transferred to a woodcut, an abstract geometrical pattern appears through the repetition of straight horizontal lines.

Huse’s landscape art from the 1990s rests on the conviction that people should act in accordance with the limitations which nature sets and that one cannot conquer nature but work with it, and regardless of what humans do, the limitations which are inherent in being nature will create a framework for development. As a logical consequence it has followed that in his ongoing work, Huse has concentrated on working in inhospitable parts of the world instead of dedicating his artistic activities to depicting the urban reservation or devoting himself to the investigation of the world of symbols in the mass media. A little piece of nature which for most observers is visually meager to give any stimuli for fantasy or sensual experiences contains for Huse more valuable information than the most self-exposing celebrity. The estheticism in the desolate “moon landscapes” which he has sought out has an echo in Huse’s works in the form of minimalistic production of certain scenes and whole exhibitions.

The use of elements taken from nature and culture in the northern areas becomes an invitation to associate with working on the relationship – center and periphery, one of the most repeated topics for structuring the geographical relationship between north and south. The choice of geographical location forces the artist and viewer to relate to places where the basis of existence is so meager that existence itself is stretched to its limits. One can claim that there is a desire to place oneself in a type of challenge which one does not go through unchanged.

Interestingly Huse has already worked for a long time with photography as a parallel medium to painting, and during the last decade he gives photography and video a new and independent role in his artistic endeavors. Earlier his use of photography could be experienced as a type of support or was obliged to take the role of commentator to the paintings, now the photographs are incorporated to an increasing degree as integral parts of the paintings which can just as easily be read as comments on Huse’s practice of photography. Since Huse has included older photographic material, this becomes a more distinct clue to the reading of his entire artistic work. With a presentation of his photographs from Greenland, taken in 1982, Huse executed in 2003 his first solo photographic project in which photography was not used in context with other media.

In that retrospective exhibition Huse takes a step further back in time when he brings forward a polyphoto-portrait taken in the 1950s and adapts it to a new independent work which in one way can be asserted to be an introduction to his own artwork though it chronologically belongs to an earlier phase.

Polyphoto was very popular in its time because it gave the possibility to have a row of single portraits which are at the same time independent single pictures and to unite them into a series which together can give a fuller impression of the subject than a single shot. When looking at a sheet of polyphotographs, one can initially think that it is a single picture repeated in a series; the division of the actual format into equal rectangles which are repeated and create a squared pattern is the first thing one notices. After a while the individual pictures step forward, so we are looking at a series which in actuality are not a series of identical pictures but individual shots structured in relationship to the principle of serialism.

The polyphotographic portrait is appropriated and creates the foundation for a picture which repeats the structure in the polyphoto so that the single picture becomes a single piece in an abstract, decorative pattern. An eye for the decorative pattern in figurative works is significant also for the earliest works with which Huse asserted himself. Repetition of the same or related preliminary elements in series creates patterns which give an impression of nearly being a chased surface. This surface dissolves sometimes in an amorphous organic mass, while certain preliminary elements at other times are held in place inside a squared pattern of squares.

The interplay between understanding the single element as a portrait in black-white of a young man – in fact the artist’s father if we are going to believe Patrick Huse (I will not enter into all that can lie in connotations from including a portrait of his father and using it as a graphic element in a pattern composed by reproducing this graphic element.) and identifying the picture as a pattern constructed by repetition of a graphic element leads to understanding that the mimetic function which we have the tendency to ascribe to a photograph yields to the play of black-white hues.  Here Huse points to the basic dialectic in all reception of black-white photographs which are simultaneously imitation of a motif and an independent picture, and he lifts the theme imitation and abstraction from the painting to the photograph.

Huse’s use of photography can be viewed as an integrated part of his work as a painter – as one means of commenting on the painting by putting it in contrast to another medium which it now and then mixes with and at other times is isolated from. It also opens up to an interpretation of the use of the photograph as a critical commentary on the art historical interpretation of the romantic traditions as a narrative about a gradually increasing cultivation of the means for painting. Huse’s integration of texts into pictures, photographs, video and installations can also be understood as strategic maneuvers which contribute to shaking works of art loose from a tendency to classify and categorize artistic statements to fit them into existing categories and patterns for study. Thus the viewer is forced both to devote his attention to the form, motifs, theme and use of symbols in a dialectic interplay which disturbs the experience and study and keeps the works open for several possible interpretations.

Occasionally Huse gives his works a simple and self-made design as a contrast to the advanced and technically challenging production which, not in the least, his paintings demonstrate. In the museum’s large room with the installation of display cases with many objects, we also find a new large painting which must be regarded as a major work in Huse’s production. It is a painting dominated by nuances of black and white which reproduce a barren and windswept landscape. At the same time of being a picture filled with tiny details to dwell on, it has a large collective ornamental expression which brings to mind the bold use of large and unifying abstract shapes by the expressive painters such as Franz Kline and Clyfford Still. Between the two half canvases on which the picture is painted, a text has been fitted in. This break in the picture lifts it out of the obvious stylistic framework and brings the picture in dialog with figurative strategies which we recognize from recent art practices such as the 1960s integration of picture and text in conceptual art post modernism’s attempt to combine media.

The desire to produce things himself is highly developed in Huse, but as he demonstrates through his work with a range of techniques which stretch from the most primitive to technologically advanced – it is not a result of any form for nostalgic idealization of production methods in pre-industrial times, but an expression of a need to master and to disturb the most obvious frameworks for interpretation. It can also be seen as part of the survival strategy which allows the artist to express himself regardless of the means and level of production. This makes Huse one of our most independent artists.

There is something almost frighteningly level-headed, prosaic and unsentimental about how Huse operates in the artistic landscape. That ought to give a warning that if a word like ”romanticism” has been linked with his art, it has nothing to do with any too soft, out of touch with real life or decadent negative attitude to life attached to it. The section of “romanticism” Huse can be included in is the tradition which sees the relationship between life, life processes and nature as an interwoven whole.

The Artist as an Anthropologist
By Åsmund Thorkildsen
Art historian, Director Drammen Museum, Norway

In 1975 the American conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth, published an article “The Artist as Anthropologist”. The article marked a lasting change of direction in his work. As well, it has had a powerful effect on the development of many politically oriented and socially active artistic practices which are grouped in the art world of today. This change of direction was the result of a rather radical self-criticism regarding his early proto-investigations and was at that same time a continuation of some of the artistic strategies that launched the first generation of conceptual artists.

The common denominator for these two versions of conceptual art – the analytical and the anthropological - is that both accepted the linguistic turn in philosophy as a necessary and at times adequate point of departure to engage in new art. Both versions saw art as a highly self-reflective, analytical practice. Instead of working to create beautiful or shocking form or to give expression to human feelings in the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture, conceptual art became a practice which created the notion of an Art in General, crossing medium lines and blurring delineations between pure artistic mediums in order to create a practice which analyzed the logical and linguistic structure in works of art as well as unveiled their political function in society.

A third element which connects these two versions of conceptual art is not related to the works which were produced but to their context. By this is meant the historical development which, in the beginning of the 1900s, posed the most substantial challenge ever to art. Was it still possible to obtain recognition both as an avant-garde artist and as an avant-garde painter? Within Dadaism and the conceptual art which developed out of Neo-dada in the 1950s and 1960s, there existed a deep crisis in the understanding of what it meant to be an artist.

An interpretation and explanation of the artistic practice in the recent past and present which works within this paradigm – the artist as an anthropologist – must also include a critical analysis of the traumatic conditions, which for some, were inextricably tied to the role of the artist and the recognition which that role alone could bestow in a Western European and American bourgeois and middle class society during modern and post-modern periods. Conceptual art, in and of itself, both makes possible and requires this stance as it was based on an analytical and critical philosophy.

Two aspects are involved here. What does it mean to work as an art anthropologist and what does it say about the endangered role and troubled position of the artist in the recent past and the present? There can be little doubt that not only Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic reshuffling of positions, currency guarantees, standards of value and societal roles in the 1910s, but also the battle for which especially Joseph Kosuth was an articulate and insistent spokesman contributed to the formidable task to rescue both the artist’s privileged position and the creative future of art in a culture where the traditional methods to cash in these values had ended. The central issue is mainly about painting – its development and termination. I will return to these queries at the end of this essay. At present it must be clear that Duchamp, Kosuth and Huse all share a past in painting. Duchamp writhed himself around it, Kosuth put it behind him, Huse has carried it forward into his conceptual praxis. These shifting – yet interrelated - positions toward painting are too systematic to be completely arbitrary.  

Regarding conceptual art’s transition from a presentation of tautological models which revealed the hidden structures of art and into anthropological investigations in the Western culture, the major shift was to develop a conscious stance towards politics. The practice mentioned first existed within the context of the art world, strictly logical and tautological, and therefore apolitical and without a general audience.

The audience of conceptual art is composed primarily of artists - which is to say that an audience separate from the participants doesn’t exist. In a sense then art becomes as “serious” as science or philosophy, which don’t have “audiences” either. It is interested or it isn’t, just as one is informed or isn’t.1

Within the anthropological model of conceptual art, the field of study expanded. No longer was it occupied exclusively with the art works and the art world but now included the entire culture in its manifold and political complexity. The early conceptual art in its strict form had existed in and of itself, while in the anthropological version the Other was recognized and given a space. Since the first expansive installation of Guest and Foreigner, produced at Kunstneres Hus in 1995, this theme has dominated the art of Joseph Kosuth.

The development of art from a logical exploration of the idea of “art” and art’s context - defined as the conditions of The Art Game - and into a new strategy in which the artist should work as an anthropologist is directly related to tendencies of that time and a personal choice which Kosuth took. The framework of logical positivism at the end of the 1960s was extremely difficult to maintain in the face of the counter-culture. In addition, Kosuth started to study Cultural Anthropology at The New School of Social Research in New York under the tutelage of Stanley Diamond and Bob Scholte. Their teachings were both radical and leftish, typical of the time. After attending their classes in 1973-74, Kosuth’s focus changed radically. This change led to his well-known essay “The Artist as Anthropologist” written in 1975.

Other reasons for his change of course may have existed, for in reality the demands for logical stringency and cultural relevancy as stipulated in his essay “Art after Philosophy” from 1970 were too difficult to maintain. One of the requirements was for the artist to bring new insight to the logical investigation of the conceptual nature of the artwork. It was no easy task to propose yet another new tautological model which actually brought forth an aspect which was new and internally relevant to the analysis of the conceptual conditions of art. This task was especially arduous for Kosuth because he had forewarned that conceptual art could easily develop its own formalism and therefore degenerate into yet another new “Genre”.

The short version of a long and complicated story is as follows: in analytical, conceptual art, the artist took responsibility solely for himself and his effect within a hermetically sealed art context; as anthropologist, the artist took responsibility for the entire culture and all of its inhabitants.

In the same manner as Marcel Duchamp had reformed art through a self -critical settlement with its traditional values and dependency on specific mediums and as Kosuth moved beyond philosophy through allowing the artist to assume the role which philosophy no longer could fulfill, likewise Diamond and Scholte had confronted academic anthropology with its inherent “scientism” and progressive ideology. It was this confrontation which sparked Kosuth to see that here was a novel role which the artist was most suited to undertake. In actuality, with the new pro-active anthropology as the starting point, the artist could accomplish more and something beyond that which was possible for the academic anthropologist.

The requirement for the new anthropology was that anthropology should be engaged. This included both an engaged form of observation and an awakening of political consciousness² which amongst other aspects was modified by what today is called “ethical” judgments. This implies the dismantling of hierarchical asymmetries between observer and the object under investigation. One’s activity was inside the culture being observed in order to – and here is the brand-new notion - change it. Modus operandi transmuted from an aloof, disinterested theory to an inclusive pursuit.³

The development of the role of the artist was given clear precision by the artist and critic Allan Kaprow in the essay “The Artist as a Man of the World” already in 1964. His remark on the position of the artist as a worldy-wise, middle class businessman was “What a fall from grace!”. The artist had been an intellectual (in the Renaissance), a genius (during Romanticism) and a worker and Beat (in the democratic and liberal USA). But in the 1960s he was a “man of the world”4. Twenty years ahead of time Kaprow had given the job description to “inside traders” such as Jeff Koons, Mark Kostabi and Damien Hirst. The development of conceptual art in its two main modes was a conscious attempt to avoid this role as a “man of the world”. Conceptual art’s understanding of itself stood in the avant-garde tradition, which was tactical (as in all hegemonic moves), but which had reasons which lay slightly outside the story which Kaprow had outlined.

To return to Patrik Huuse and his relationship to painting: The troubled relationship with painting is discussed by John Racjhman in his analysis of Duchamp’s artistic crisis. First a little reminder: from the perspective of art history, painting is the most important in this context since both Readymade and analytical conceptual art had a traumatic relationship to the idea of painting as the twentieth century’s privileged, artistic medium. The problem was the hegemony of painting and its resultant social legitimizing which the use of this medium could be given in the middle class Western European society of which Marcel Duchamp and the other Dadaists were a product.

John Racjham interprets the change of Duchamp’s line of work in light of Thierry de Duve’s studies of Duchamps’s “self-constitution as an artist”5. He includes a psycho-analytical perspective which yields existential and social implications because it involves recognition. Rachjman: “His abandonment of painting left him abandoned as a painter (…) It would thus raise the question of who he was in his work.”6 With this statement in mind, Racjhman continues with:

It is not therefore that an oevre expresses or reflects artist’s life, for the concept “the life of an artist” is not given but constructed. Among other things, an artist’s oevre is a particular way he provides for himself a “symbolic identity”, a socially recognizable self-relation (…) An idea of art carries with it a form of “symbolic identity” that allows one to be recognized as a painter, and by reference to which one imagines or envisages oneself and others.7

This identity-crisis and its social repercussions became acute in the 1960s, especially with Ad Reinhart’s Black Paintings. This was the last painting which could be painted in the modern paradigm, and it was on this borderline where paintings threatened to withhold sensory impressions and where the conceptual dimension became increasingly more important that Kosuth and his friends in the English Art & Language group found their point of departure. When seen from the perspective presented by Racjhman, the conceptual artist conceived as philosophy’s heir and the conceptual artist as anthropology’s heir are clearly new attempts of “self-construction as artists”.

Nevertheless, such attempts must be made legitimate. Strictly speaking this means a relationship of contract to society: “There is the ‘symbolic’ means of self-recognition that confronts one as through a law.” In addition there is a relationship of contract to oneself: “There is the ‘imaginary order’ of those ways of envisioning oneself and others in response to the necessity or demand.”8 A contract is dependent on two partners and both have a claim to the contract. The artist demands to be credited as an artist with and through his work – now as chooser of Readymade, author and designer of tautologies or as producer of anthropological structural investigations - while the critic and the public demand legitimacy of the main question, posed as follows: In fact, what is it that gives the artist a privileged position in this type of praxis? What could Duchamp do that any common household could not do? What could Art & Language do which analytical linguists and art historians could not do? What could Kosuth and Huse do which anthropologists, social scientists, political philosophers and political commentators could not do?

Duchamp, due to his precarious position as a threatened painter, could choose elements which illustrated the relevance of the structural language of philosophy for the art world. Art & Language could demonstrate the usage of analytical philosophy to reveal the terms and functions of the art world. In regards to the special contribution which the artist as anthropologist was best suited to give, let Joseph Kosuth come forth:9

The artist perpetuates his culture by maintaining certain features of it by “using” them. The artist is a model of the anthropologist engaged (…) In the sense that it is a theory, it is an overview; yet because it is not a detached overview but rather a socially mediating activity, it is engaged, and it is praxis (…) There obviously are structural similarities between an ”anthropologized art” and philosophy in their relationship with society (they both depict it – making the social reality conceivable) yet art is praxis, it “depicts” while it alters society (…) Our “non-naiveness” means we are aware of our activity as constituting a basis for self-enlightenment, self-reflexivity – rather than a scientistic attempt at presenting objectivity (…) Because the anthropologist is outside of the culture which he studies he is not part of the community (…) Whereas the artist, as anthropologist, is operating with the same socio-cultural context from which he evolved. He is totally immersed, and has a social impact. His activity embodies the culture (…) Artistic activity consists of cultural fluency.

But the artist attempts to obtain fluency in his own culture. For the artist, obtaining cultural fluency is a dialectical process which, simply put, consists of attempting to affect the culture while he is simultaneously learning from (and seeking acceptance of) that same culture which is affecting him (…) Now what is interesting about the artist-as-anthropologist is that the artist’s activity in not outside, but a mapping of an internalizing cultural activity in his own society. The artist-as-anthropologist may be able to accomplish what the anthropologist has always failed at. A non-static “depiction” of art’s (and thereby culture’s) operational infrastructure is the aim of anthropologized art.10

This is a surprisingly fitting description of Patrik Huse’s works in the northern regions. As Kosuth, he gives art the privileged role as the prism of culture11. He works with many mediums, objects, found and collected material and information, as well as photo, video and painting. Huse has expanded the space which constitutes the artist’s cultural location to include the geographical environs. These areas have presently gained a special importance since it is in these environs where a traditional nomadic lifestyle, far from the industrial West, is severely challenged by the climate changes to which the industrial world has contributed. Huse visits these areas and lives with and amongst the population were he travels. He lets the people talk and observes while present. In addition, he has built up a network of experts from universities, colleges and from museums in the regions surrounding the North.

Due to this model of artwork, Huse has contrived to keep out of the way of that segment of the art world which is most governed by the market.12 He has this in common with other conceptual artists, who principally have sought other sources of finance than through the sale of artworks in galleries. Exhibitions in the form of museum presentations and books are the end-product of Huse’s work. His method of co-operation exhibits unpretentiousness towards other professionals outside of the art world. The conceptual works, whether they be analytical and internal to art or are anthropological, adhere to an allegorical formal structure. The public must piece together the parts, connect them and draw their own conclusions. Conceptual art demands of its audience both the willingness and the proficiency to read. That Patrik Huse’s work contributed to altered attitudes and viewpoints and modification in society stems from the fact that the books which were published as part of his museum presentations are now placed on the curriculum’s reading list at Norwegian colleges. Without a doubt he aptly fulfills the artist’s role which was described in 1975.

Nevertheless, a question remains. It concerns the psycho-existential-social conditions which John Racjhman touched on in the discussion of Duchamp’s activity. Why does Patrik Huse still paint? And why is it of utmost importance for his praxis that he is an Artist and not a Project Director, Curator or Editor? The fact that he paints can be understood in several ways and there is reason to believe that the motive is complex – also for the artist. He continues to produce the type of objects which are custom-made for the gallery-based system for art distribution, but chooses not to retail them through these outlets. He continues to paint because it is a pertinent mode for him to contribute to the investigations and allegorical presentation. The painted canvas is a commitment, since, in his case, it is a costly and very time consuming process which is considerably more complicated than producing video films, texts, boxes, shelves and wall texts. Verbalized experiences and reflections, testimonies, and empirical data with its interpretation and presentation as well as art criticism are all contributions from others, while Huse contributes the allegory’s visual layout, photos, video film and paintings. Through his ability to build networks and procure locales for exhibitions as well as financial backing, he demonstrates that his role also includes being a “man of the world”.

But he willingly sells his paintings to museums. And what is in a Name? Or what lies in a signature? Or a pseudonym? A company name?13 What lies in an acknowledgement, a con-firmation, a credit? One cannot ignore that Patrik Huse in his praxis has retained aspects of the pre-Duchamp art world: the painted canvas, the museum exhibition and collection and The Name. In fact, the art historian and critic has always been an anthropologist in his own culture, and it is impossible not to notice that the name Patrik Huse carries a certain weight when presenting teamwork in which he participates. Therefore it is not credible that I should avoid illuminating a functional structure in Huse’s artistic work and in conclusion to compare it with other practices currently coming into the limelight.

First, Patrik Huse is in fact an artist and therefore holds a privileged position as the engaged anthropologist. In addition this position is legitimized by all his co-workers, university employees, museums, sponsors and by the reality that his work claims to be capable of changing something. This aspect is of crucial importance, because beyond the traditional possibilities and qualifications inherent in the methods and forms of production which have been passed down, what is the artist as anthropologist best qualified to do and what enables the artist to be the best qualified to assume the role as the “engaged”? And what is actually being changed?14 There is no easy answer (to)? for such questions. To work as an artist-anthropologist enables one to dialog with the most sophisticated segment of the public which is affiliated to art museums, galleries, periodicals and cultural columns of serious newspapers. In the beginning those with academic education and who belong to the culturally educated elite will be best prepared to meet the engagement and the rather advanced narrative technique (most often as collage or allegory) which are formulated as exhibitions and represented in books. Huse has reaped these benefits through the use of his books at institutions of higher learning: the seed is planted in freshly plowed soil.

There are two reasons which make an artist – who until recently also had academic training in traditional art techniques – the best suited. The first lies in a talent to form materials such that important questions can be presented in a manner which enables them to be experienced physically, through the senses and intellectually so that the whole body-subjects’s receptive apparatus and reflective capabilities are employed. This is particularly visible with artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who create architectural text- and picture-installations where the institutional buildings become the sensuous and material vehicles of meaning. This actualizes the suppositions and gives a very strong influence, seen from the perspective of phenomenology. It supplies extra value to what can be gleaned from a book. Critics have had the tendency to under-communicate this aspect, but it is definitely real. It can be experienced in a span from handsomely printed books, through museum presentations and to works which intervene in and use public city-space, whether it be billboard in a German city, a Venetian palace façade or the large screen at Times Square. Patrik Huse’s contribution is particularly noticeable in the part of the project which concerns the form of the physically built exhibition display.

As Joseph Kosuth pointed out in his article, the other reason that the artist can be the preferred participant in the engaged anthropology is that the artist must be (and can actually be) “culturally fluent”, i.e. a person who has wide-range insight into the artistic, anthropological, psychoanalytical, philosophical, literary and political culture. Here Huse chooses to cover the range by including into his investigations others with a relevant competence. Therefore his praxis – as is the case with Kosuth – gives room for a reciprocal recognition amongst the participants of the project. It is not always the case that artists exhibit cultural fluency, but where this happens, the results are convincingly strong. Whether this has a democratic influence where the public visit such exhibitions, read the ensuing publication, reflect on what they have encountered (since this, in spite of everything, resembles a pedagogical, humanistic project) in relationship to what is happening around them in the world and in history, is a question about which we do not need to speculate. The answers are as clear as a positivistic political scientist could desire; this can be measured through how many people (percent of the entire populations or defined groups of society) attend such exhibitions or how many read the books. One can also in principle measure the extent to which a visit to an exhibition or the reading of a book changes the audience’s understanding and consciousness of the topics being investigated. More extensive empirical studies would be required for this; as well, it lies outside this critic’s field of study.

Therefore Patrik Huse has pursued a different path to achieve recognition than the one most common among the present conceptually-oriented artists. The happy few go straight from art college to the private galleries and the institutional grants as well as international art biennials. The inherent difference lies in the fact that Huse bases his work on the recognition that the Other places requirements and demands on the artist and that this kind of art making is responsible in a slightly out-of-date manner, both morally and similar to academic research which is demanding and principally falsifiable. This necessitates that something be delivered and that outside – as opposed to inside - standards are respected, and it requires that the artist desires to reach an even greater audience than those who traditionally visit exhibitions and collect art. The younger neo-conceptualists and all cool slackers will now – with or against their will – be cast in a somewhat different role, based on full, individual freedom and openness. They operate on a neo-conceptual arena, and they investigate sub-cultural expressions, visual specifics and “languages” which they more often than not master rather “fluently”. They are at the same time really Men and Women of the World, which is visible in their proficiency in handling the forces of the market and the mass media. In addition, these sub-cultures are often minor, idiosyncratic and hermetically enclosed oases for youth in certain parts of the Western civilization and the objects under investigation are chosen at random. And these are precisely not the complicated themes of a general political and cultural nature with which some artists work, such as, Kosuth (cross-cultural hospitality and recognition of foreignness), Holzer (the significance of the sexual difference for power structure and use of violence) and Huse (cultural exchange and long term ecological development in Northern regions).

  1. Joseph Kosuth, ”Introductory Note to ART-LANGUAGE” (1970), quoted from Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and after, Collected Writings 1966-1990, MIT 1991, page 39.
  2. In Norway one experienced a similar development in the early 1970’s – post-student uprising – where the direction headed towards social-anthropology and a prevailing marxsit-leninist influence on ways of thinking. Kostuth’s ideas were formulated more cautiously and can, for simplicity’s sake, be characterized as a version of the New Left.
  3. This change inspired Kosuth to work in a new manner. He collaborated with museums and galleries on an idealistic level and in co-operation with his own assistants and local students at the site of the installation. His style of teamwork is social and, in reality, a pedagogical opportunity in which he shares his experiences and knowledge with assistants and the installation team and in which he receives impulses from them. A large exhibition with an artist of Joseph Kosuth’s caliber has a long and distinct history of impact compared to a traditional exhibition of older or contemporary art. With an inclusive form of teamwork, new personal contacts, viewpoints and experiences can transpire.
  4. The essay is published in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life by Allan Kaprow, Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 1993. A well-known quote is: “For Leonardo da Vinci, the artist was an intellectual; for Baudelaire, a genius; for the 1930’s (as the scene shifts to the United States), a worker; and for the 1950’s a Beat. What a fall from Grace!”, Ibid, page 47)
  5. John Racjhman, “Introduction” to Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism, On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, Minneapolis, London, 1991. Quoted from page xv.
  6. Racjhman, Ibid, p.xv.
  7. Racjhman, Ibid, p.xvi.
  8. Racjhman, Ibid, p.xvi-xvii.
  9. The switch to investigating one’s own culture had already occurred with the artists who formulated investigations of structure and criticisms of institutions and society: Eleanor Antin, Marcel Broodhaers, Michael Asher, Hans Haacke, etc., etc..
  10. Joseph Kosuth, “The Artist as Anthropologist” (1975), quoted from Art After Philosophy and After, p.117-121. (I footnote 1 er after med liten “a” og her med stor. Hvilke er riktig?)
  11. It is an open question if this privileged role rests on the status/account which the artist as renaissance poly-historian and intellectual as well as painting and sculpting genius has developed.
  12. As a popular and widely acquired graphic artist early in his career, he has experienced this.
  13. It is not easy for artists to avoid being drawn into and used by what the new-marxists call “cultural logic of later-day capitalism” (Jeg kjenner ikke det engelsk ordet for senkapitalisme. Gjør du?), to borrow a term from Fredric Jameson. Norway has recently had a year-long celebration of Henrik Ibsen, the chastiser of society and author. Now he is portrayed as a supporter of society and a national hero. In this context, his surname was submitted to restyling by graphic designers and reemerged as a fancy logo, cool, updated and consumable. The same is occurring with the author Knut Hamsun. In the new edition of his complete works it is rumored that the heading will be Hamsun, just the surname as the brand-name. The author as the originator died in the 1950s and rose again in the 2000s as a trademark.
  14. Often one can circulate a series of viewpoints and statements, as typical, that anthropological art and avant-garde art generally alter society. Seldom are such assertions qualified and critically analyzed to determine what actually is changed and which practical consequences this change has for people in the society. We often hear about younger artists who work “conceptually” and that this one and that one have studied this and that phenomenon. It is seldom qualified by stating why a particular aspect is studied, which method is utilized and the findings of the study, etc. Recent discourses in art suffer from this type of empty repetitions, and it is not unusual that the whole scenario can acquire a hermitical and tautological quality. – To take pictures of or describe/cite from something which seems connected and place this together in an exhibition room is not necessarily a meaningful study of anything at all.
  15. Regardless of the circumstances, the politics of museums rest on the pre-supposition that pedagogical work in connection with children and adolescents will improve the cultural proficiency and present more enriching experiences to even more people and in this manner be in accordance with the overall political proposition in Norway concerning “equalization”.   

Art and local knowledge.
By Gavin Jantjes

Artist and curator, National Museum of Art, Norway

The age of Enlightenment established an intellectual division of the world into natural and man-made environments, keeping culture and nature apart. It answered questions with cold logic and defined the human species with a separate and different identity to other life forms. Human identity was founded on the man-made environment. The natural world did not form any part of it. Yet the natural world is the source of everything that forms and sustains life.
The Modern Age was one of interrogation and revision in which culture was not about preservation of artifacts that contain knowledge but the discovery of knowledge through asking questions. In it art did not deny the state of the world in which it existed. It refused to remain silent about existential matters. The potential of science and mechanics to destroy the man-made environment and annihilate humankind, did not pass without comment, criticism and preventive action. Creative responses to those realities did not lack compassion.

What does the artist do today knowing that science and mechanics are tools exploited by capital, and the media has moved from working with local knowledge to become an instrument for entertainment.

What creative responses do artists have to the drastic information that by the year 2034, planet earth will reach the limitation of a sustainable population figure? That its resource of raw materials, fresh water, and food supply will no longer allow it to function in any normative way. Is the smart move a shift from the esoteric higher ground to a location many meters above sea level because one knows that global warming will melt the polar ice and one day raise ocean levels to heights that will engulf many lower lying coastal cities and entire islands? Is it irresponsible, even selfish, to act in this manner? Can contemporary art turn a blind eye to these startling facts or do artists have to respond to them more imaginatively? Should artists who are concerned by the disturbing changes to the natural environment, and the ever widening gap between the natural and man-made worlds, be building a bridge across this divide, and learn how to work with local knowledge? And why should they?

These questions lie at the heart of the Predicting Hostilities project and its focus on the circumpolar region. They appear at first glance to be a pole apart from the realities and discourses of the contemporary art world. Debates surrounding visual art in the middle of the twentieth century created divisions of art for art’s sake on the one hand and views of a socially committed or politically engaged art on the other. Certain aspects of this contest linger in our current reading of art but both sides of this ideological divide seemed to have accepted the noble compromise that a successful work of art is a balance of form and content; a formal integration of aesthetic elements with the subject matter of a work. But there has also been a second set of balances not often spoken about in the discourse of the art of our time: It is the equilibrium of talent and responsibility. It is somehow taken as given that those who make art are talented and that they take responsibility for their actions. If the academy trained artists to produce images, it would have passed on notions of morals and ethics in its teaching. The re-coding of modernist art history shows that this was not always true. The academy did not produce model students but instead quite often the opposite. The students who resisted academic indoctrination emerged as relevant to their time.
The artist in our time often insists on being an autonomous individual liberated from normative ethical evaluation. The struggle for artistic freedom has reached an almost frenzied denial of responsibility. Recent art, much of which is produced by the autodidact, already struggles to convince its public of its maker’s sense of responsibility. This has little to do with self-acquired skill but more with the imbalance of form content talent and responsibility. Instrumental to the evaluation of both artwork and artists in culture are these balanced sets. But in post-modernity, the tendency is to speak of form and content separately from talent and responsibility. It deviates from the manner other forms of human action and perception are evaluated and it sets visual art apart. Designers of airplanes or wheelchairs, primary school teachers or orchestra conductors cannot avoid these validating sets of scales. The emphasis on form and content to the neglect of talent and responsibility in recent contemporary art is read as the abdication of individual artistic responsibility.

In response to the social conditions within Germany at the turn of the twentieth century the young Käthe Kollwitz focused her sculptures, lithographs and etchings on the condition of the poor. Her intimate knowledge of their daily problems and the political realities that created them, allowed her to reveal the inhumanity of their plight. Her privileged background as a doctor’s wife and first female member of the Prussian Academy in Berlin, could easily have distanced her from these harsh realities, but she and her husband had reasons for focusing their respective professions on the poor. Working in the most deprived part of the city placed them in the treacherous domain of the political left, at a time when conservatism and fascism dominated German politics. It was a brave position for a delicate, middle class person to hold. To her friends and critics, who questioned why she followed this course of action, she always answered with an almost poetic retort, “Gabe ißt Aufgabe”. The down-to-earth simplicity of this short remarkable sentence remains a leitmotiv for responsible artistic practice and it translates into English as “If you have been blessed with the gift of artistic talent, you should use it responsibly”.
The history of twentieth century art has many examples to which the Kollwitz axiom applies. Visual art's intrusion into the social, economic, political and cultural realms throughout the past century is a narrative of the individual artist struggling to find the equilibrium of form, content, talent and responsibility. When examining the many different artistic strategies used, something percolates through the sediments of style and technologies. It is the application of local knowledge to what at first appeared to be highly complex problems. The decision of Kollwitz and her husband to immerse themselves in the daily realities of the urban poor was to assure that what they practiced did not contradict their political convictions. But it was more importantly a way of learning from those, whom most academically educated people assumed, had nothing to teach.

The same was true of the polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who survived two polar winters on his way to finding the Northwest Passage in 1903, only because he understood the importance of local knowledge. Unlike many explorers before him Amundsen attached great importance to the Inuit way of life, language and their expertise in surviving a polar winter. By contrast the fatal Victorian expedition of Sir John Franklin, some eighty years earlier in which over one hundred and sixty men perished, believed the Inuit were unskilled savages. The arrogance of an imperial mentality was its downfall. The British belief that it could not only conquer the earth’s people but also its nature avoided Inuit expertise and their local knowledge that allowed them to thrive in what is perhaps the most inhospitable terrain in the Northern hemisphere. Amundsen’s use of their local knowledge also gave him the edge over Robert F. Scott, in the race to become the first man to reach the South Pole a few years after his Northern triumph. Amundsen was neither a social scientist nor an artist but he acted creatively and responsibly by placing the information learnt from the Inuit alongside what he knew as scientific fact, to get a result that was beneficial to human progress.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century when economy, politics, culture and ecology are prefaced with the adjective “global”, what does artistic responsibility really mean? What does local knowledge provide when a Western Eurocentric worldview predominates? How does the artist counter the supposed political and cultural truisms that rational science resolves all conundrums and the autonomy of a post-modern art unbuckles it from social responsibility? When in the past cultural journalism neglected discussion about the future and was happy to simply mirror the rituals of institutionalized power, the voice of conscience has been the artist's.
Local knowledge is discovery through trial and error - the intense observation of phenomena over time. It is not conducted in laboratories but in the real world of the every day. Its impact is direct and immediate. Using the eyes to register, recognize and calculate alterations in the material world, it is directly connected to visualization and to art. It is a visual accumulation of fact. Learning how to manipulate these facts is an existential human action in an environment as extreme as the polar region. In the inner cities, it is a form of moral, cultural action. Language in the polar region is a refrigerated library, a treasure house of fresh local knowledge. Its codes have condensed the known into spoken and written signs. Without it one cannot survive the extreme environment. Without it the momentum of the cycle of life slows and one day stops. All of what makes Inuit culture special is inscribed in words that come from nature. Words able to pinpoint location in a constantly changing geography. Language is the bridge keeping man and nature connected. It has the potential to tell and to show us how we are connected and what is going wrong in our world away from the glaciers, that causes them to melt.

Art that chooses to address the existential, should be understood as life enhancing, an art for life’s sake, engaged and responsible. Artistic talent that learns from local knowledge makes a bold venture into uncharted arenas. Whether it is the cold polar environment of the Inuit or the ever warmer environment of the city, the knowledge gathered through observation, through trial and error, holds existential and important truths. The task is to connect the local to the global through the skilled manipulation of the science and mechanics of our time. To put it to better use than the mere agglomeration of capital and to use these to convey information that will open and sustain discussion about the future and the possible reconnection of man to nature. The transmission of content to the greater, international arena via art may seem an exercise in idealism. Käthe Kollwitz didn’t think so and neither should any of us be put off by those who criticize such a dream and have no dreams of their own. Gabe ißt Aufgabe, and long may it remain so!