By Tone Lyngstad Nyaas
The environmental conditions of children, in the private sphere as well as in public institutions, have become a major subject of critical public debate in recent years. An awareness of these issues is also reflected in contemporary art, where one can see a renewed interest in the identity building of children and adolescents, often in relationship to globalisation, alienation, gender and aesthetics. The Vestfold Artist Centre has the pleasure of presenting an exhibition related to this complex theme that revolves around the world of childhood. In its entirety, the installation expresses vulnerability, where traces of traumatic situations are combined with an experimental and sensitive handling of a variety of materials. The lonely planets floating in space, and yet retrieved by various substances, are sculptures that form a cohesive whole.
A major aspect of many of Mørland’s works is that one finds clear references to the strategies of surrealism in them: an associative method, a predilection for replacing the original material of an object with another and a fascination with the irrational horror scenes of nightmares. Hybrids of animals and humans, metamorphoses and fragmentation of the body were also important strategies of surrealist art. During the 1990s, one saw a strong interest in the period’s philosophical and artistic perspectives. Hal Foster treats a number of tendencies in the movement called Body Art in light of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical philosophy in his book The Return of the Real from 1996. According to the author, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and Mike Kelly insist on exposing trauma and vulnerability in their works.1 The discourse about these artists revolved around the themes of gender and identity in relationship to aids and homophobia, as well as a new image of the body in the wake of genetic research and plastic surgery. The means that were used were often characterised as morbid, extremely organic and in some cases repulsive.2 What was conventionally seen as ugly or perverted became a major device, the aim of which was to challenge ethical and aesthetical norms related to gender and identity.3
By making use of the feminine dress of the fifties as the basis for playing with a number of substances, and by adding familiar symbols to them, Astrid Mørland raises question about the relationship between established conventions and personal freedom. Within this fundamental form, the artist toys with a number of themes that touch upon the child’s identity. One of the objects, Black Christmas (p.8), shows a transparent dress shape made of red and green tulle, whose interior is filled with a string of Christmas tree lights that are painted grey. The bulbs are reminiscent of Christmas ornaments, but are replaced with black balls of yarn, a subtle device that transforms recognisable signs into metaphors for a subjective state. References to Christmas celebrations, the most value-charged holiday of the year, alludes to crushed expectations and a sense of collective tyranny. Holiday symbols in the form of Christmas tree lights, miniature flags, balloons, and birthday lights are some of the materials that are included in the forming of many of Mørland’s objects. Through a chaotic reorganisation, the holiday cries of exaltation collapse into a scream at the surrounding environment. It can be interpreted as a metaphor for the short distance that can exist between the social conventions of the holidays and the total sense of loneliness as a result of conflict, and in the worst case, of violence. That the holidays are associated with anxiety for some children places these familiar elements in a surrealistic light; a claustrophobic universe where the child cannot find any escape route.
The traumatic element coupled with children in Mørland’s works includes references to the female artists of the nineties who wished to shed light on gender and identity, with specific references to their own childhood. A vulnerable melancholy is expressed in Kiki Smith’s works Little Sisters and Skirt from 1990. One finds a poetic treatment of material here, where a connection between a woman’s universe and textiles are referred to.4 The textiles signal certain values and traditions that were previously identified with the domestic work of women. Handicraft is demanding work, yet in a cultural historical perspective it was considered as non-productive work. Mørland’s use of materials such as tulle and cotton, together with her clear references to apparel, causes one to automatically identify the dresses as an expression of various culturally determined factors. When considered in the context of art history, the apparel’s significance often takes on the function as a catalyst for a number of human discourses. For instance, one can emphasise sensuality, underscore movement and plasticity, or signal something essential about identity and social class.5
Astrid Mørland moved from Flekkeford to New York during the fifties and has incorporated memories from this period in her art. The emblem she makes use of is thus linked to personal memories and emotions. The design of the dress is reminiscent of the flamboyant tulle dress that in Norway was erstwhile called ‘the America dress’, which caused a flurry of excitement when it was sent to Norway by American relatives. The dress, in its most extreme pink appearance, can perhaps be interpreted as a metaphor for the concept of the American dream. Glamour is reflected in particular in the piece entitled Party Dress with Dolls (cat. cover, p.20), where the material used, wax, at first glance resembles pink silk. It is difficult to avoid the associations of a middle class girl ideal that this design brings to mind, where the little girl is seen through the contours of an overgrown doll. Yet this objectified gaze is abruptly returned when confronted with the content of the dress, where the dark side of childhood emerges in the guise of a traumatic vendetta.6
When confronted with Mørland’s works, normal expectations of what one would expect to associate with the objects’ appearance are reversed. The work conceals an additional enigmatic existence that reveals itself only upon closer observation. According to Salvador Dali’s writings, the irrational images of the world of fantasy consist of the same objective clarity, of the same substantiality and conviction as the outer world, the phenomenological world.7 Mørland’s dress objects take on an illusory orientation, as one doesn’t become disoriented immediately, but only after taking a closer look. At a distance the wax reminds one of silk, the sea muscles form a pattern, the moss reminds one of velvet. One projects into the object the material one expects it to consist of, but which at closer observation turns out to be a foreign element. This strategy is perhaps most well-known in the painter Rene Magritte, who claimed: What one sees in an object is another hidden object.8
By transforming the substance of the object, one creates a shift in its normal ‘ontological status’ and creates new meanings and sequences of associations. The surrealists made use of the subconscious mind as a tool for self-recognition. Dreams and visions were often illustrated through ‘the magic of juxtaposition’. By confronting elements from different spheres with each other, one could create new disturbing confrontations, something that was totally in keeping with the treatment methods of psychoanalysis where one strove to bring the subconscious mind to the surface.9
Some of the sculptures are construed of materials from nature, which brings to mind concepts such as camouflage (a need for protection) or assimilation. The objects appear as strange hybrids of nature and culture, humans and animals.
This dimension is palpable in Maimed (p. 17) where the arms are replaced with something that resembles severed wings, creating an impression of inhibited energy or a painful handicap.
A repeated theme in Mørland’s work is the interplay between the interior and exterior of the body, as well as between a whole and fragmented body. It is striking that the oval egg shapes painted in red and white, which are mounted on Light Blue Birthday Dress (inside flap of cat.), are reminiscent of female reproductive organs. They are placed on the outside as a decorative supplement to the surrealistic design of the dress. In a similar way, the balloons and pine cones can be associated with fertility, and the analogy between the seeds of the pine cones and ovaries places the biological body of humans in connection with the elements of nature.
The interplay between interior and exterior is also evident in Mørland’s paintings that depict hybrid figures with branch-like extensions that seem to grow out of the body’s interior. Against a Red Background (p.10) brings to mind the mother-daughter theme, but here the first-mentioned is strolling out of the picture. Death is signalled by an autumn leaf that covers the figure’s face. The young woman, on the other hand, is walking towards life; fertility is signalled by two shapes that resemble a uterus and ovaries. As we saw in the objects, they too exist outside of the body. This is proof that a number of themes that the artist deals with in the sculptures have been examined at length in the paintings. Mørland has drawn a number of figures and questions out of the picture plane and into concrete space.
In On a Golden Stone (p.13) a girl is placed on an elevated mound. The extended arms of the dress express an attempt to grasp at something that is unattainable, as it also does in Maternal Arms (p.12). The hopeless situation evokes a feeling of agonized longing. The white figure sitting in front of the girl is partly invisible, but a branch-like form that extends out of her body eases the separation. In Gesture (p.2) the figure takes on a dancing pose. She holds two forms that resemble a mutation of ovaries and roots. The internal organs are proffered like a votive, a sacrificial offering that can also bring to mind the mystery of creation, the ‘reproductive ability’. Votives comprised of internal organs was a well-known practice in antiquity and continues to be practiced in the Catholic Church today. Archaeological finds of ceramic objects resembling internal organs are believed to be offerings of gratitude for successful impregnation or cured illnesses in connection with the god of medicine, Asclepius.10
The figure takes on a hybrid form where the anatomy of the arm is replaced by extensions that resemble internal organs. The red background brings to mind blood, which intensifies the dialogue between the inner and outer body. We find this theme in artists such as Frida Kahlo and Paula Santiago, the last of whom often uses the child as an expression of openness and vulnerability. Santiago also works with children’s clothing, often using very thin paper that is embroidered with the artist’s blood and hair.11 The contrast between innocence, vulnerability and morbidity, as well as the toying with illusions are related to Mørland’s work.
In Porcelain Arms (p.6) the palette is subdued giving the expression a transparent, veiled quality. The hip section functions as a base for the torso, which has a bark-like structure. Five arms that resemble sculpture fragments hang in a ring around the shoulders. The sacrificial offerings form a decorative chain, but can also resemble a dress shape. Theoreticians such as Hal Forster and Rosalind E. Krauss interpreted the fragmented body in connection with the psychoanalyst and author Julia Smith and sculptor Robert Gober’s works, in which the fragmented body and bodily secretions are treated in light of Kristeva’s writings.12 The concept of ‘abjection’ stems from the Latin abjicere, which means to cast off or reject. When a child senses an existence outside the symbiosis with her mother, she finds herself in a mental limbo where she does not experience herself either as object or subject, but as abject in a chaotic and ambivalent intermediary state. Abjection seems therefore to be connected with a necessary liberation process, or survival strategy, which has its source in the child’s first stride into a symbolic order which is identical with the laws, language and culture of society.
“Abjection confronts us, on the other hand, and this time in our personal archaeology, in our oldest attempts to separate ourselves from the maternal being before we exist outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language. An overwhelming and unwieldy boundary constantly subject to a relapse into dependence that is as comforting as it is demanding.”13
Yet abjection is also found on a socio-cultural level in the sense that every society has a need to exclude certain individuals or forms of behaviour via decrees and taboos.14 Mørland’s objects can be interpreted as metaphors for a state of conflict with the symbolical order, where a subject devalues and reorganises a society’s system of values and norms. In a figurative sense, individuals who do not comply with the holiday rituals in some societies will experience expulsion, a traditionally conditioned abjection. The child’s conflict, as it is expressed in Mørland’s exhibition, carries within it a potential threat to the symbolic order.
In Maternal Arms (p.12) the enlargement of the limbs creates a monstrous figure. As a result of the elongated textile arms that extend out over the floor, the expression takes on a dimension of grieving. At the same time it epitomises a secure embrace, a maternal gesture where a longing for the child (the lost symbiosis) is symbolised by the dress’s confining arms. The secure maternal embrace is intermingled with a feeling of threat, which is reminiscent of Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytical universe.
Ambivalence between attraction and repulsion can function as a general guideline for understanding Mørland’s objects, in which the traumatic theme is rendered via an aesthetic treatment and where decorative objects turn out to be disturbing signs of a repressed sphere of conflict. These opposing forces are illustrated through a poetic approach and a unique complexity with regard to idea, form and material use.