Covert Acts

Cecilie Løveid
jan. 1999|Article

I looked at many paintings. Some firsthand, and some as slides. We were to find a suitable image for the book jacket of the play Austria. Which is about the meeting between Ludvig Wittgenstein and Agnes, a fictitious character with background in the philosopher’s experiences in Norway, as described by both Ibsen and myself. In Norwegian weather. The Norwegian landscape.

It was narrowed down to three images. A typical fjord scene from Western Norway, a Nicolai Astrup-like painting of women working in a field, and the third a sleeping woman with one hand. The woman with the hand was chosen, and it was a good cover. Originally I thought we would use a “Re Production Hertervig,” which was one of the first motives I considered. Blue. Familiar, new and strong. An unfeigned larceny. Re Ply - a play with Romanticism’s motifs.

Something I recognize.

It is interesting, naturally, but there is also something dangerous about venturing into the artist’s lair. I find myself in a learning process, I feel like an observer, a student being introduced to something important.

I’m sitting on the balcony with coffee and pad. Am going to write this. Near me are my unassuming potted flowers, blue this year. Newly planted trees in a traffic circle on the ground below. Airs of a princely garden. Cars, not people, are on parade here. Behind a fence, scores of containers are stacked like building blocks. Inscriptions such as NOL HAPAC LLOYD CAPITAL HYUNDAI CHO YANG. Unknowing of exactly what, I believe the containers to be full. Odd thought. They are containers.

Behind this the fjord, with its light on the water and obligatory hazy coastline and clouds. It’s been raining. I see the fjord like Mari Slaattelid’s painting, a random template, selected. Stamped randomly. But not randomly chosen. Clouds on the ridge softly clipped out gray blue orange container port. Did she say unimportant? An unimportant view? An unimportant background for the neglected focused object of the spectator’s desire. Read: greedy viewer. Fascination with the image, or fascination with the creation of the image, the alchemy?

Is the artist engaged in covert acts?

Artists do so many strange things. Set designer Yngvar Julin found a piece of painted backdrop in the National Theatre’s warehouse for the play Austria, resembling in essence the roll-down shade series I saw at the Bergen Theatre Museum about forty years ago. As though painted by a bad clone of J. C. Dahl. He hung it so the audience saw it when entering the theatre space but would have their backs turned toward it when seated and have to look at the actors instead. The audience, in other words, could have seen the performance about Ludwig Wittgenstein and Agnes without having seen the stage set. Scenery torn loose from the play’s visual field. But the actors, what do they see, night after night? The audience’s exposed faces.

Does this have anything to do with Mari Slaattelid’s paintings?

If paintings could see, they would face viewers in a process of assigning and projecting that is not quickly achieved by the artist. Rather, it is painstaking and requires time. Time to find randomness when it is to be shown. Time to translate randomness into sensuous maternal physicality. Moment of conception. The work of cells.

I find her in a darkened room, with an image projected onto the wall. Like walking into a movie theatre in the middle of a film. Or perhaps more like walking into an operating room where x-rays are projected onto a body. One exposure, one painting. An image optically projected onto the wall. She paints on the projection, the ephemeral. On a loose square piece of metal hung on the wall. Lead, I think, with flickering colors. She performs in her own projector light, standing in between, as both person and instrument. Then she turns off the light and looks. Critically. Her painting. Turned off. Light. The fascination when I was an eight year younger girl than him, watching my cousin make shadow pictures on black rock’n roll wallpaper: his hands animal figures on a hundred dancing rock’n roll templates with ponytails and soft shoes.

Now my balcony landscape is grayer. Even grayer lead. Transformed into an even more obvious indefiniteness.

How difficult it must be to force oneself over to color, in the oils, the brushes, the dabs. Minute, small strokes to bring life to the dead, unreal scenery. She still insists that it is unimportant, is a template, literally.

She has been in a Stockholm painting supply store and found two different black colors. Just had to retouch the paintings a few hours before an opening. Two black colors. One warm and one cold. Heaven! There wasn’t time to go to the Modern Museum.

She has an open book lying on the floor. One of those solid old-fashioned books, where each picture has been individually printed and matted on heavier paper. I think of provincial painters inspired by masters working in cities that they were unable to visit, studying reproductions in books with wrong colors. Perhaps it was good for their own art, this absence. Perhaps the idea of what was great in the painting was more alive that way than face to face with the original. Painters continue to like reproductions, photocopies; a new insistence on not being original. The healthy demythologized artist, who sees and gathers nonetheless? And seeks. Nonetheless.

An x-rayed gull; pierced by the sun over my balcony. Resembles a flying lizard. Illuminated wing tips. I’ve never seen it like that before. It rises and drops its wings like Icarus born of its father. I know that I, lighted that way, would look like a visitor from Hades. The Underworld. That is how a liberated Eurycides must have appeared. Frighteningly physical, ergonomic love object.

I must be careful. I must watch myself for the urge to force her paintings into the expressionistic and romantic understanding of art that she fights against. Find the distinction. Is it there? Am I romantic or is it you?

She speaks of the audible in the image. Images whose strokes or motives are imbued with sound. Waterfall. Voice. Or an amateur photo of a daughter, a daughter’s neck. Just as audible and just as silent. Now the mirror surface of the water appears in my random view of a fjord. She turns to the field of water with black brush. It doesn’t shine enough. She must work.

I note:

The sound in what you see is never what you see. Can sound be physically present in an image. I find out about lead, book and wings.

lead (aluminum): transposing of weight and density to a spiritual level
material as container for the spirit

book (image): a book is written from without and within, a picture of the world

wing (light): Christianity says the wing means light from the sun of justice, I note further.

It is not modern, then, this insistence on the material as spirituality, but rather a reformulation of an expression?

She sees that I am interested in the half Leonardo leaning against the wall and in the document on the floor. Annunciation. Painted in 1474. A very wide screen image of an archetypal event. A meeting between God and man via the archangel. I study the small printed picture. If the boy had not had wings, one might believe him to be Romeo praising his Juliet, with the nurse dozing in the doorway. Painted by an artist with embroidered gloves.

She says she has taken what is unimportant in the painting. What does she mean now? In the landscape in the background, in the uneventful scenery, she projects meaning. She sees something.

Like a psychologist who must be careful of transference I think right away: what is unimportant? Why has she only rendered the angel, trees and bushes, and not Mary herself? Is Mary also unimportant? Or is she perhaps too important?

In an article about the Danish painter Hammershøi, Mari Slaattelid mentions Lyotard, who says that Barnett Newman’s image “is an announciation, without anything being announced” (Slaattelid, “Hammershøi,” UKS forum for samtidskunst 1992). The painting is the angel.

The archangel has landed in an Italian citizen’s garden on a carpet of flowers. Everyone knows what he is saying. Voice. Leonardo was knowledgeable about flowers. Perhaps the flowers strengthen fertility?

Angel slightly turned, femininely masculine, fictional landscape, a dream landscape with slender trees. Village landscape newly laid out in the background. Planted, stiff yet lush and full.

What has she taken away? What is it she does not announce?

What is the half of Leonardo’s project that is now replaced by nothing?

Mary, the future Holy Mother, has been removed completely.

Mary who sits like a golden vulva before a textbook on a reading easel.

Has been hidden.

Cut off Leonardo, severed holy motive.

Mari brings out a new plate. Another metal plate. This time simple black and white. Vertical field. The black fills perhaps two thirds - the rest is white. She says the black is there to make the white white.

Places it next to the Leonardo piece. The two fields become one, expressive image. A finished painting. A painting with immense force.

It is difficult for me not to become a romantic expressionistic fool. Not to see the black and white as a protective cover against the Leonardo motive. See it as a shielding and a blending. It is as though the old image is there anyway.

Are black and white now the revered? Negated? A sense of loss? Gone for good? Nothing behind? Gone from its own narrative. The angel with no one to make its announcement to.

Or golden seed sown as death?

The moment we can no longer see. Golgata.

My need to project on the image is uncontrollable:

The anorexic Mary concealed in full, draping clothes. Mary holding some bread under her dress. Gulping down the bread when we turn our gaze. For she cannot make love with a light, with an intelligence. The blinds are closed, the space darkened. It sparkles to the right in a new opening: the unexpected. The image picks up speed: becomes light!

The angel is cut in across five square meters: a shoulder, an angel wingtip. Are present. The consoler illuminated.

For the first time I notice the flood lights in the container port: they do not shine. But the sea does.

(Translated by Palmyre Pierroux)