Old Laughter and Synonyms for Actors
Hanna Gjelten Hattrem, 2018
Text from the book Old Laughter and Synonyms for Actors.

Since graduating from the Oslo National Academy of Arts, Lars Nordby has been dividing his time and exhibiting his works between Norway and Bulgaria. Whilst being guided by a theoretical and conceptual basis for artistic expression, his work often expresses a distinctly local flavour through the use of objects that relate to specific events and recognizable locations. The use of found objects to construct some of his pieces has the dual effect of grounding and localising a theoretically dense work, whilst simultaneously opening the floodgates of political meaning that follows an object containing its own history. Coupled with the use of concepts related to theatricality, identity and ideology, these works lend themselves to a host of divergent conversations. The occasion of this analysis then, is not only to discuss the exhibition that this text accompanies, but also to relate it to Nordby’s practice as a whole.

The solo exhibition, Old Laughter and Synonyms for Actors at Rafael Mihaylov Exhibition Halls, can be seen as something of a synthesis of Nordby’s artistry to this point, where he combines theoretical and methodological elements from previous works. Taking the notion of theatricality as his overarching theme, Nordby employs a range of strategies to investigate the intersection of identity with performance, within a visual language borrowed from the theatre.

Each section of the show represents a different medium and approach to the theme. First: a video-work that probes the notion of performing environment in temporal space between performances. Second: a series of photographs of actors and puppets in preparation for performance. Third: an installation-piece using theatre props as freestanding sculptural objects.

There is an emphasis on the preparatory elements that create theatre, the building blocks that support the performance. Yet, reconfigured within the gallery space, they become artworks in their own right. There is therefore a cyclical process, and a recycling that changes the nature of the objects on display. Theatre props imitating walls are presented as sculptural artworks that allow the viewer to register them as canvases with paintings. Depriving it of its original function creates a shift in the status of the object.

Bill Brown describes this process in Thing Theory, stating that: “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us.” Objects assert themselves as things when they lose the functionality they are initially designed to have: “when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.” (p.4) The wall imitations had a function as objects whilst in the theatre, where they would fit seamlessly into the backdrop of a play, or even in the storage room awaiting their next performance. Yet in the gallery, as freestanding individual sculptural – things – the functionality they were designed for becomes redundant. We are forced to consider their “thingness”. The re-contextualisation of the wall imitations makes them not only things, but new objects. As art pieces you can study them up close, and see that they are canvases, in fact they are paintings. They are still depicting walls, but they are no longer props in a play, they do not blend seamlessly into any backdrop, foregrounded and shadowed by actors and a story line.

Even beyond the utilitarian object to artistic thing trajectory of these pieces, there is another layer of cultural and historical baggage. We may also consider the pieces themselves as signifiers of the places they once belonged to: are they relics of a now abandoned village theatre? Why did the theatre shut down? Which plays were they used for?

Nordby employed a similar methodology in Overidentifikasjon (2016) at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo. For this piece he repurposed OSB panels that had been used to board up shattered windows on buildings that were damaged after the terrorist bombing of the government district on the 22 July 2011, in Oslo. These panels were removed from their original site and function, and used to board up windows of the façade at Kunstnernes Hus. In this piece, as with the wall imitations, the artist uses objects that once had a specific purpose and containing a very specific historical weight, and uses them in a similar function, yet with a different purpose. The windows at Kunstnernes Hus did not need boarding up, just like the gallery space did not need imitation walls. For this reason, in the reconfigured installation, the OSB panels moved from object to thing. In the Norwegian context the events that unfolded on 22 July 2011 continue to have a profound affect on the national psyche. Repurposing materials that are physically connected to this event and its aftermath creates, as the title indicates, a heightened identification and forces remembrance of what unfolded on that day. By adding the prefix ‘over’ to ‘identification’, the artist also cautions the viewer about this direct association, and suggests that there may be an alternative angle to take in processing the piece.

Returning to the photographs and film that make up the other two aspects of the exhibition at Rafael Mihaylov, these pieces also employ theatricality as their most striking feature. We see an actor applying make-up and transforming her appearance to fit into the character she is soon to embody. Another series shows close-ups of puppets being prepared for performance. They are in a suspended state between two characters, and this moment is what the artist wishes us to dwell on. What more is a puppet without its master, than a heap of limb shaped wood on strings? It is a moment that anticipates action, where the person is neither one nor the other: an actor not yet acting. Nordby focuses on this moment between being in- and out of character, and arrests it through photography or extends it through film. It is the moment before the theatrical, where objects are still things.

He is invoking the notion of expectancy about a performance about to happen, a move which he also employed in an exhibition at Radikal Gallery in Veliko Tarnovo in 2018. The show, titled The Abstract Frontline of Identity: TO TOLE, was centred on the action of luring rats and flies through glue traps and lamps, in an anticipating action, yet without the objects being lured ever making an appearance. The luring devices are in fact props, but they are futile in that they are not being acted in relation to - as is the case with the wall imitations.

Through a series of events that demonstrate a displacement in the perception of what art signifies, Jacques Rancière proposes a new regime of perception in his book Aisthesis, which he describes as the “aesthetic regime of art.” In a review by Maeterlinck of a staging of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder in Paris in 1894, he describes, in the most positive terms, the performance as immobile, devoid of action, and therefore immensely meaningful. Rancière interprets this method of staging as a new theatre form, one in which meaning is located in the suspended moments, and substance is to be found in moments of inactivity and pauses. The immobile theatre rejects the dichotomy of grandiose tragedy/comedy and psychological introspection. Instead it employs stage props as carriers of meaning, and lighting to enhance these, rather than to illuminate the actor.

There is a parallel to be drawn with how Nordby formulates his artworks’ relation to the theatre. In Nordby’s ‘staging’ there is an absence of plotline. Instead we are exposed to settings and objects that lead up to the theatrical moment, but that are not what one would expect as the protagonist in the play or the star of the show. There is no question that we are viewing scenes and objects associated with the theatre, but the emphasis is on the moments before or after the performance takes place. The spotlight is directed at the theatrical elements outside of the stage, and in so doing stages these passive, inactive, and suspended moments as the focal point.

The influence of Rancière’s “Immobile Theatre” is perhaps best exemplified in the 12-minute video piece displayed in the entrance hall. A man moves through the various spaces of a theatre changing, testing and arranging objects as if preparing for or tidying up after a show. Light bulbs are changed, props repaired or moved, windows closed. The actions unfolding are meant to be ‘behind the scenes’; work done by technicians, cleaners and stage designers before and after a show. Yet the video brings these actions to the foreground, making them the focus of our attention. It is a slow-paced sequence of actions where, seemingly, nothing happens. There is no storyline in the traditional sense. Yet the voiceover provides a script to this unfolding sequence that contemplates the hidden life of the theatre in the temporal space between performances.

“An object that is truly independent of an actors visible manipulation, is not a prop”, says the voice in the final sequence. It is a statement that questions the presumed agency an actor, in the sense of a person performing an act, has over an object, which tends to be seen as without agency. As such we also question our own agency, by being confronted with objects we have lost control over. The wall imitations have taken on their own agentic capacities – when you, as the viewer, step into the spaces between each piece you feel a sense of force that directs you in your movement through them. The objects force you into a state of awareness about your own performativity. In a play, actors use props as tools to help tell a story. In the objects’ decontextualized form as things, you as the actor lose that power.

Within this state of awareness induced in the viewer there is a significant concept at work, that helps elucidate a reading of several of Nordby’s works. The notion of objects as tools that we enact our agency through, is contested by reconfiguring objects as things: not yet serving the purpose they were designed for, and therefore making us aware of their “thingness”. In so doing, the objects and the art become political. Here I employ Chantal Mouffe’s (p.9) distinction between political, as the dimension where antagonism and agency can be enacted, and politics, the practices and institutions through which order and control is created in order to dampen and manage the antagonistic possibilities of the political.

When transferring this distinction to art, it is not the subject matter or theme of the art that makes it political. Therefore the argument does not rest on the fact that in Overidentifikasjon Nordby used material that related to a terrorist attack in Oslo. This connection sits within the realm of politics, and Nordby rejects this connection in favour of the political, through its title, which urges the viewer to look beyond the realm of politics, to the dimension of antagonism in which political and individual agency can actually take place.

The point of Mouffe’s distinction between political and politics, lies in the understanding that the political creates conflict in an attempt to reveal invisible power structures that direct behaviour whilst going unnoticed. Politics attempts to dampen the political in favour of maintaining these structures. Therefore, when describing Nordby’s work as political art, the intention is to point to how the artworks shed light on and antagonize power structures.

To that we may ask what the viewer’s position is in the pseudo-theatrical space of the gallery environment? Traditionally the gallery and the stage create an expectation of performance, one that separates the audience from the actors for a consensual period of time. Yet the objects and images of the exhibition obfuscate this distinction by presenting moments and things that are not prepared for the consensual actor-audience separation. We catch actors in the space between the person they are and the character they will soon embody - much like the dichotomy between private and public selves. However, in the scenario outside the theatre we do not use stage settings and gallery spaces as queues to detect performativity.

Mieke Bal, employing Mouffe to discuss political art, states: “Political art is art because it is political; it is art by virtue of its political “nature.”[…] They [the political & art] are domains of agency, where acting becomes possible and can have effects.” (p.2) Nordby’s work is political in that he employs theatre aesthetics as a metaphor for the hidden ideological power structures that direct our behaviour and induces everyday performativity according to the framework set out by politics. It takes the concept of an actor, a puppet or a theatre prop – objects and states that we feel separate from, in the knowledge that we are who we are, and they are part of a performance – and confronts you with their materiality in a manner that changes your perception of them. It is a disruption of the normalised, but ideological structures that dictate relational space and interaction. And by disrupting an expected performance through a confrontation with things, you are lured into self-reflection about what agency you actually have. It is not a cynical gesture, because it encourages action and awareness, and these belong in the antagonistic domain of the political.

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