Yngvar Larsen’s art makes me wonder. It is as if the exhibition The Book of Life invites me to reflect on the basic conflict or tension between belief and doubt. Confronted with his art I think about YouTube (Broadcast Yourself), the website where people share digital video clips. By uploading your favourite clip either of yourself or of a piece of music, of art or from the news, you make it possible for others to enjoy what you enjoy, and at the same time you show the world what is important for you. You make a statement for everyone to see, you broadcast yourself. And this is how we like to define ourselves today, measured by the amount of spectators and electronically signals sent out on the Internet. So if we are to understand ourselves, we have to look for the digital footprints we are leaving behind. But also, the postmodern way of defining our own truth, our own way of living, pushes more indefinable parts of life such as religion to the edges. What becomes of belief when the Bible no longer speaks our language? Or to put it another way, is it possible for us to believe in what we cannot prove?
Yngvar Larsen is a Norwegian Rotterdam-situated artist born in Oslo (1966). He has a BA from the College of Art in Stavanger, Norway, one semester at the College of Art in Kumasi, Ghana and an MA from the Academy of Art in Bergen, Norway (1992). He has done several exhibitions in Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France, Spain and the USA. He is also the founder and curator of Snowball Edition, an online Art Calendar established in 2008, which exhibits an artist of the month on the web and holds annual live exhibitions.
Larsen uses a variation of different techniques, like sculpture, installation, drawing, animation, photography and performance, but he mainly works with digital techniques and web art. His art has been defined as neo-pop, which places him together with artists like Jeff Koons, Katharina Fritsch and Matthew Barney. Larsen’s works are conceptual, yet object-oriented in a kind of dada-way. The objects Larsen uses are always handcrafted, and they usually represent things we know from everyday life such as plastic cups, credit cards and microphones. Still you can find examples of more abstract references to religious history, like in The measures of the Arch (Sealed). The pieces of three black balls are wires measured up in the assumed actual size of Noah’s Arch, sealed in wax as to be preserved and used in case of emergency. Without their narrative name, the three waxed elements stays sealed. The artwork’s intended reference lies in the title, beyond the immediate reference of the three or two dimensional object.
You preserve something when you want it to last, either as a memory, or for later use. Sealing is an act of hope and the items sealed hold a special meaning. When the special meaning is according to the Bible and has to do with the salvation of life, it follows that Larsen’s sealed measures of the Arch strongly indicates two of the seven Christian virtues, hope and faith. The religious connotations in Larsen’s art are essential in several of his artworks. Sometimes this is obvious like in The measures of the Arch (Sealed) and Jesus Loves You and occasionally more hidden or indirect as in Endless Column/Laughing Bamboo and Negation Sculpture. The religious aspect may enter as a part of a larger picture, when Larsen uses well known elements from Christianity, like the crucifixion and the cross. But it is when the religious aspect becomes specific, as in Thomas/Mic./Nailing that Larsen captures the tension between faith and doubt.
One of my first associations on Tomas/Mic./Nailing was the superficial mass media overshadowing the deeper meaning of religion. It reminded me of the irritating fact that the media today asks short questions, wants quick answers and leaves reflection behind. It also made me think of a song from the 1970s by John Lennon: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”. Today belief has become more of a personal matter and is not necessarily a part of something greater than us. We do not believe in the texts of the Bible anymore, but we believe in the News. God is dead, and so is religion. And where does that leave me?
Negation and doubt
This is typical of Larsen’s art: The idea lies in the title which again is insoluble with the object. And sometimes the abstraction of the object leaves a space for further questioning. For example, in Endless Column/Laughing Bamboo the title leads our thoughts to materialism and environmental issues. But the long piles of plastic cups, placed on four black tables, are shaped like bamboo sticks and they are laughing at us. What does that mean? We destroy nature, and nature gets to laugh back? Where does that leave man?
Closer into Endless Column/Laughing Bamboo we see that the tables shape a cross, or rather the negation of a cross. Negation now enters the scene and several opportunities are left out in the open. Negation is also essential for another work, an installation of coloured paper with inscriptions hanging on strings stretched across the room of 100 square meters. Larsen’s Negation Sculpture is part of an ongoing project which started in 2004. The negation project deals with the search for truth, the problem of definition, and also with the hope and faith in that we someday will find the right words, that we will make it right. The sentences Larsen writes either on digital drawings or on coloured paper, are simple and lyrical as the poetry of Jan Erik Vold and at the same time they are intrinsic parts of the work and therefore visual as concrete poetry. The subject in the sentence is always concealed: “Xxx is not like the cats tails soft movement”, “Xxx is not like a path in the woods” and “Xxx is not like an eyelash”. It is as if we are searching for something we only have dreamt of, and are eager to catch or grasp it with our senses. Could this be a way to describe the searching for proof of the existence of God?
As far as the negation goes, it makes me think of one of René Magritte’s La Trahison des Images (1928-1929), the painting of a pipe with the inscription “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). By questioning the obvious, energy and focus is set on the negated object. And you start asking yourself: If this is not a pipe, then what is it? Why is this not a pipe? Negation invites to thinking, and thinking opens up for doubt, or maybe it is the other way around? When we doubt something we ask questions (Is this a pipe?) and part of the query leads us into negation (This is not a pipe.).
This is one of the cases of Larsen’s negation project. By making negation play a leading role in his art, the artworks opens up for reflection on the kind of negative images of ourselves: What we don’t understand, what we don’t see and more importantly what we don’t believe in anymore. Furthermore, this leads us into the refrain of the 20th and 21st centuries: Questions and doubt. It seems like nothing can rest for a long time in the shadow of unquestionable acceptance. But then, the interesting side of Larsen’s self-made sculpturing provides us with better lenses and offers something to lean on.
Questions on Postmodern life
The artworks of Yngvar Larsen, either two- or three-dimensional, are abstractions rather than depictions. He does not deal with everyday life as much as the meaning of, or the leading up to, the life we live. His focus is the history and meaning of the words we use, our relations and feelings. There is a difference between what we say and what we mean, or put another way, we do not always mean what we say. You do not necessarily find yourself by looking for what you did, but you might get lucky if you rather looked for what you did not do. Larsen introduces thinking by negation and thereby invites us into further inquiry: I do what I do, but why?
The somewhat scary idea that whatever we do does not pass unnoticed, is one of the ideas in the series of digital prints Black horizon I-III (-V). They lead us to reflect on the electronic world we live in. We pay our bills with credit cards and leave behind digital impressions, on what, and where? Are all our actions kept on record for further examination? According to the Bible, there is a book where God writes down the names of the righteous. Could we speak of a man made Book of Life? Where the sun is shining and the promises are light as the tinted colours on the cards? If so, what is the drawback? The moment we all stop using our credit cards in an imaginative future, the sun will set on the black horizon, and then what?
The intellectual era of the 20th century stated that there were no exact truths and no meaning without argument. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wrote paragraphs on philosophy and language, and argued that we need to be aware of the way definitions leads us to see the world in certain ways:
“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”
By “picture”, Wittgenstein means a definition of a concept or the meaning of a word. For example, a definition of the word “art” does not help us avoiding misunderstandings on the subject. Rather the contrary, Wittgenstein argues does a definition keep us in an imagined world where the truths are as fixed as bars in a prison window. Language is not a fixed construction, but an ever developing combination of old and new meanings, cultures and truths. Therefore we should not spend our time trying to define the words we use, but instead we should try to understand them.
Wittgenstein’s own time had already changed a lot since the Enlightenment. Free will (Luther), doubt (Descartes) and a reckless belief in development (Industrialism), combined with a growing exactness in the results of research and discovery, had led Science, Philosophy and Art into an absurd situation. The truth that all knowledge rested upon was not anymore rock bottom, time had become relative (Einstein), as observation (Popper, Heisenberg), and art could no longer be defined only through standards of beauty (Duchamp).
This is the background of the 21st century: You cannot know anything for sure. There are no truths. Every man has to decide for oneself what is right and what is wrong. It is up to you to make your life worthwhile.
Reducing matter, producing thoughts
Yngvar Larsen works as a sculptor. His artworks, even the digital drawings, are formed through a process of carving and shaping. And just as the classical sculptor Michelangelo reduced parts from the marble stone to form it into the statue of David, Larsen reduces more than he adds. For example, Larsen uses a wheel chair in Jesus Loves You but he makes it clear, by the title, that the object is not necessarily representing itself, rather the hope or wishes of someone using it. This way, the object loses its actual meaning through the name. First, Larsen invites association through the figurative, and then he sets the scene for thinking and reflection through the name of the artwork.
The essence in Larsen’s art is what we (the audience) are invited to reflect on when confronted with the artwork. He does not only create a new thought for an object, like the Dadaist Duchamp did with Fountain (1917), he also creates new thoughts beyond the object. Larsen is a kind of philosopher, asking questions and inviting the audience to reflect. He does not, though, lead the audience all the way through a process on thinking and reflecting, ending up with the right kind of answer, like the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Larsen sets the scene by creating figurative abstractions, both directly as the cross in Endless Column/Laughing Bamboo and indirectly as the use of the wheel chair in Jesus Loves You. He constitutes a rather strict frame to the endless ways our thoughts can take. But then he leaves us, free to think for ourselves.
Larsen’s artworks embody the tension between the actual and the potential. By actual I mean the figurative aspect of the artwork and its references. By potential I mean the abstract aspect of the artwork, the new thoughts we might think when we reflect on the artwork as a whole. This means that it is not only the spiritual or mind-related side of his art which holds the idea. The imaginable spark is lighted, reflection starts, when my immediate thoughts meet my second thoughts. First I think of what I see, the crucifixion of Jesus and the media in Thomas/Mic./Nailing, but then Thomas is introduced as an aspect in the title, and I start to wonder.
Seeing through the eyes of Thomas
Thomas the Apostle doubted the resurrection of Jesus and needed to touch the deadly wounds before he could believe. He needed proof for his own belief, the same way Descartes needed proof for his own existence, and just as we need daily proof to live our postmodern life.
In Thomas/Mic./Nailing Thomas becomes the embodiment of the troubling and disturbing doubt, the doubt that overshadow truth or reality. But doubting does not only have to be a lack of trust, it can also be an urge for information based on a wish to understand. If you do not realize that you do not know, you will not search knowledge. And is it, then, impossible to see doubt as a natural part of belief? Does Thomas doubt his own belief (in God) just because he does not take all that follows for granted? Or is his doubt just a natural part of his belief?
Eva Løveid Mølster
Paris, June 2009