Knut Åsdam - Festival Exhibition 2010

With different approaches – in two new films and in a photographic project – the exhibition revolves around areas in the cities London, Tripoli and Oslo. In addition the exhibition features a new work based on Åsdam’s own archive of found photo material. The exhibition is built up as an installation where the boundaries between inside and outside, between exhibition architecture and artwork, and between the universe of the films and the physical surroundings of the viewers merge with one another.

The main projects in the exhibition are integrated in an architectural installation built up with high wire fences, concrete and vegetation. The installation forms a setting that refers to particular types of outdoor areas where the relationship between private and public is not narrowly defined. The tall fences that run through several of the exhibition rooms are something we know from recreational areas such as ball courts and sports grounds, barriers around storage areas and container harbours. The wire fences are used both to demarcate and close in a space in an otherwise open area, like a sports enclosure – or they may shut out and bar access, for example to a commercially regula¬ted area. As in the usual areas where the fences are used, in the exhibition too they are used to limit access to parts of the halls, and to surround other parts as separate, isolated spaces.

Åsdam’s architectural installations are based to a great extent on a sociological under¬standing of space and spatiality. A number of sociological researchers and geographers use a conceptual apparatus based on spatiality to analyse human interaction and social factors. The concept of the heterotopia (from Michel Foucault) is used of places set aside for individuals who deviate from or are in crisis in relation to the society of which they are a part. It can as easily be a coercive as a freedom-creating space, and is not open in the same way as a public space: one must meet certain criteria to use the place. In some cases access is granted by virtue of a certain activity or use, such as meeting for sexual relations, being in prison or in a private box in the theatre. Such a place is a heterotopian space because it is maintained by society and by the practice of the indivi¬duals in question. The wire fences that Åsdam uses in this exhibition can be seen as the framework for an abstract heterotopian space. Unlike a Utopia, which is not a real place, a heterotopia is a physical place (even if it is only temporary). Whereas a Utopia transports you to an unreal place, a heterotopia situates you in your society.

The exhibition also emphasizes the bodily experience of the spatial. The high wire fences address the body, saying that it must remain on a particular side, and that it is vulnerable and subject to control. Through his installations Åsdam investigates the viewer’s various ways of ‘reading’ the exhibition space, both with the gaze and by moving physically through the spaces and making use of them. The fences limit the mobility of the body, but permit the gaze to see what the body cannot reach. At such a level the installation can be perceived as a ‘machine for the gaze’ or as an analysis of gaze and subjectivity: the gaze that arises when you watch films, look at others, look while in motion, or when you look at something through a fragmented and partly transparent barrier.

In the year’s Festival Exhibition Åsdam is for the first time presenting this kind of large-scale installation in Norway. However, architectural installations have been an impor¬tant element in his work for several years, both as independent works and as a kind of staging for films and other works. Best known perhaps is Psychasthenia: The Care of the Self from the Venice Biennale in 1999, an installation that consisted of filtered glass, living plants and soil. This work staged something that recalled a nocturnal park situa¬tion where the relationship between outside and inside, or night and day, was explored through the viewer’s movements within and outside the construction. Another example is his exhibition at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 2007, where Åsdam constructed a whole small park at sunset, complete with trees, soil, park benches and flagstoned paths. The installation formed a spatial mise-en-scène as an atmospheric framing of the works in the exhibition. Like other installations by Åsdam, where for example night-club and sex-club architecture has been the starting point, the night park installations can be viewed as different heterotopian spaces that arise in one and the same place. The parks are defined in different ways: as the scenes for a variety of activities such as drug trafficking, sex cruising or teenagers’ unmotivated use of the park as a social meeting place. The park as a place also brings to mind the garden as a heterotopia in its own right. A park or a garden is a constructed microcosm of a composite nature (with plants and vegetation from different parts of the world). The park is a zone in the city that can be viewed rather like an architectural fantasy, a kind of eroticization of the urban space, and a place which at different levels absorbs the subconscious of the city.

One of Åsdam’s most recent installations, Oblique (installation), was shown at Manifesta 7 (Rovereto, Italy) in 2008, where Åsdam introduced the use of wire fences as exhibition architecture and installation elements in a work where the walls had a clearly twofold function: as a blocking-off of the space of the film from the rest of the exhibition space; and as a clearly defined spatial experience in itself. The inside of the construction was a darkened area adapted to the film’s projection requirements, while at the same time the walls were faintly translucent and transparent. As a response to the film’s exploration of the processual and mutable in the identity of places and indivi¬duals, the projection room architecture was also in itself an ambivalent boundary marker that reflected the urban poetry of the film. Both Oblique (installation) and this year’s Festival Exhibition show how Åsdam’s installations also fulfil a practical-architectural function in the exhibition. The architectural elements are used not only as meaning-bearing signs and symbols, but also to create a concentrated, functional framework for the experience of the films in an exhibition situation.

Concepts like transformation and relocation constitute a thematic framework for most of Åsdam’s works. In Åsdam’s films and photographs, for example, relocation is about the migration of people between land areas, or about physical movement and the bodily experience of architecture in urban surroundings. Transformation is a key word in terms of social, economic, linguistic, psychological, identity-related and architectural pro¬cesses of change. In a number of earlier works Åsdam has focused particularly on urban housing architecture from the architectural history of the last sixty years, and on the gap between the architectural visions embodied in the buildings and the social reality that is played out in the use of the architecture. In various ways, and through many different media, Åsdam has dealt with the history of public space and the power structures that inform architecture and urban planning. As an extension of this he has been especially interested in the change in meaning to which the city can be subjected through the identity formation of people, and in the way meaning is both created and negotiated by different uses of specific urban spaces. Underlying this is an awareness that the meaning of architecture is changeable and that it is experienced and expressed diffe¬rently by different social groupings. In some cases these transformations can be revealed as repe¬ti¬tive patterns that develop cyclically through the course of a day and night, or over a longer period. Perhaps even more than before, the places portrayed are them¬selves central to this exhibition, not only as generic urban surroundings, but with their distinct histories, demographic conditions and architecture.

Abyss was filmed in various locations in East London, at the Thames Gateway and on the outskirts of the area where the arena for the Summer Olympics in London in 2012 is being constructed. The film portrays an urban reality affected in various ways by migra¬tion, both in the sense of the movements of human beings and of the flow of money and power, and at the same time of a migration that takes place at another level – in the imagination. Instead of a traditionally linear narrative pattern or a realistic dramatic structure, the pulse of the film arises to a greater extent through the studies of the move¬ments and language of the characters. One of the six characters in the film stands out as a main protagonist. We follow her in her relations with other people, in her ‘nego¬tiations’ with a physical and economic space, and we witness her gradually dimi¬nishing grasp of reality. With their markets, gyms, parking places and public spaces such as parks, squares and streets, the surroundings in which the events are played out are like an echo of Åsdam’s installation in the exhibition space. The film pays keen attention to the physical and material surroundings where the characters move around in the modern city’s mixture of private and public spaces. The ways in which the people interact suggest that the city’s own economic, political and social dynamic has inscribed itself in the characters’ own movements, language and psychology.

The urban sprawl that takes form in these areas in London involves much of the type of composite architecture that has often been a backdrop in Åsdam’s films. In Abyss this cityscape is in itself a main character in the film. The city can be viewed as the actor to whom the other characters in the film are subjected. Perhaps one could say that Abyss portrays a kind of ‘subjectivity of the contemporary’. Through a series of filmic tableaux the film paints a poetic – and at the same time critically investigative – picture of the rapid architectural, environmental and social changes that typify the East London of today.

Tripoli, the other film work in the exhibition, is a work that is also about urban identity, but which perhaps to a greater extent emphasizes political history and architectural traces through preserved relics from our recent past. Åsdam thus focuses on related themes in the exhibition’s two film works, but with a different geographical and socio¬political starting point.

In Tripoli in North Lebanon one finds one of the world’s most distinctive and ambitious building projects, a stranded vision in the form of an international market place designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1966. With the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon in 1975, all the work on the extensive project ceased, and the buildings were never completed. Today the traces remain as modernistic ruins, an accumulation of unfinished monuments to a time of optimism in the Middle East. The ruins are like a historical fantasy, contrasting starkly with the everyday modernism of present-day Tripoli, which rises as a wall of apartment blocks in the background. It is only possible to use this area as it appears today in ways that clash with the use that was originally intended. Lebanon has only partly been able to normalize the situation after the civil war and the war with Israel in 2006, and the optimism one could sense in the fifties and sixties has gone. At that time Lebanon was the success story of the Middle East, and the capital Beirut was a popular tourist destination, known as “the Paris of the Middle East”. As the traces of the global spread of the modernist ideology, Niemeyer’s aban¬doned building complex bears witness to a number of conflicting movements in Leba¬nese history: Lebanon is on the threshold between the intellectual cultures of Europe and the Middle East, with a geographical position that has made it into a historically important trading centre, and at the same time an area of constant violent conflict.

The film is a mixture of documentary and theatrical drama. Behind an almost naivistic optimism in the architectural structures lies a parallel history of violence and ideological disintegration.


In the photo project Oslo, Grorud 1, it is the Groruddalen area in Oslo that forms the photographic and thematic raw material. The photographs deal with subjects that are closely related to the themes dealt with in the exhibition’s two film works. Once more it is a geographically specific area that forms the point of departure – with a number of implications that can be viewed both in relation to and in contrast with Tripoli and London (Abyss).

Geographically, Groruddalen is an important part of Oslo, with a mixed residential pattern that includes both public housing projects and owner-occupied areas. The area has an immigrant population of about 50%, a percentage that is very high compared with the rest of Oslo, where the figure is estimated as about 25%. The area is also known for its many apartment blocks, originally designed for a quite different popula¬tion structure and socioeconomic reality than the one that typifies the situation today. At the same time Groruddalen is the focus of a number of large new projects that are laying the basis for change, at both the micro and the macro level. The different kinds of large-scale housing projects, and the architectural and demographic variation in the area, reflect a reality coloured by the interplay of international immigration, state regulation and local needs and wishes. Our collective image of Groruddalen is full of contradic¬tions, with the idea of an idealistic, social-democratic neighbourhood on the one hand, and descriptions of a disintegrating community with high crime rates and social unrest on the other. A high percentage of the population in the area consists of active young people, but there are very few public institutions to accommodate this group. The activities of the young often take place in random public squares with no specific func¬tion – or in school playgrounds after school hours and other areas used for evening activities defined by the young people themselves. Åsdam’s photographs from Grorud¬dalen are documentary in their approach, and incorporate details of the urban scene – cars parked along a street, people waiting, people in their leisure time or on their way to work and school. The photographs nevertheless differ from the traditional form and aesthetics of reportage photography in that Åsdam partly makes use of ‘directed’ actors in staged situations, and the surroundings are emphasized rather than the action by having the environment in sharp focus while the people and objects close to the lens are out of focus.

The second photo project in the exhibition, untitled: archive (migration), consists of a large body of pictures taken from an organic, growing archive collected by Åsdam over an extended period in the course of his working process in the studio. The photographs are from the Internet, books and other publicly accessible sources, and refer in various ways to the concept of migration in the broad sense. The material ranges from the close and private to more distanced observations. Unlike the other works in the exhibition, all of which centre on demarcated and specific places, this work involves wide-ranging visual material from many different geographical areas. In Åsdam’s installation the photographs are presented independently of their original contexts. Once they are detached in this way, an interrelationship among the pictures is formed where connections, similarities and differences arise across their varied origins. Some of the pictures almost seem didactic and explanatory in this new context, while others can simply be related associatively and suggestively to the themes of the exhibition.

Knut Åsdam in conversation with Philippe Pirotte at Bergen Kunsthall on 29. May 2010.

Knut Åsdam was born in Trondheim (1968). He lives and works in Oslo. Åsdam has exhibited at among other places Tate Britain, London; Manifesta; the Istanbul Biennial; the Venice Biennale; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; P.S.1, New York; and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He has had solo exhibitions at among other venues Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2007); the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo (2006); and Kunsthalle Bern (2005). In addition his films have been shown at film festivals including Locarno, Oberhausen and Rotterdam.

Knut Åsdam’s Festival Exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall fills all the rooms of the Kunsthall, including the gallery NO.5. The exhibition is structured around three projects that deal with specific geographical areas.