Mnemosyne's reflection: lingering on memory's threshold

Martin Worts

Nostalgia is a seductive liar. George W. Ball

The past is often viewed as a denial of the present rather than an enrichment of it. Thus nostalgia becomes increasingly important to people who are ill at ease with their present circumstances. Snøfrid Hunsbedt Eiene's drawings of deserted houses have no nostalgic content; they portray devotedly a world without people. Abandoned by inhabitants these meticulously composed houses can act as a meditation point for a dialogue with Mnemosyne*.

The artist photographs houses, both with and without the owner's permission, and then composes a work from her vast archive of collected images. This editing process is central to the developing meaning of her art. The transition from rapid, sometimes snatched photography to a single considered pencil drawing is a vital process. Meaning is a retrospective movement; it is not always present when the work is in progress. One might say that any universal signs of relevance often surface after the initial work is done.

These houses have no sign of habitation, there are no people - they have gone on to something and somewhere else. Similar to Jasper John's work of 1960's America**, Eiene's drawings portray social icons from the recent past without their users. Johns used flags, beer cans and shooting targets to concentrate our attention on the formal structure of American icons. Eiene documents the physical borders of private properties typical to the southwest region, buildings often isolated in themselves, and once deserted, even more so. Icons are composed of details, thus we should read the causually arranged objects attentively.

Typically, plastic flowers and porcelain figures*** sit eternal on these private window-sills. The flower normally acts symbolically as a memento mori, a timely reminder of death and decay, and is often seen in still lifes of the seventeenth century. Yet a plastic version of this memento mori is pertinent. Being plastic these flowers should not decay; they are not natural. Yet as we all know, time can never be stopped. These sad faded objects, such forgotten window shelf ornaments, are the first things to be discarded when mournfully house clearing for the dearly departed.

If you can look into de seeds of time,
And say which grains will grow, and which will not.
Macbeth, act I, SC. 3

A certain Monsieur Homblot, in rejecting the manuscript of Proust's A la Recherche du temps perdu for a publisher, wrote «I may be slow on the uptake, but I just can't believe that someone can take thirty pages to describe how you toss and turn in bed before falling asleep». Hombolt admits to this inability to linger, or rather, he is incapable of indulging in a text that dwells at a border - in Proust's case a boy's troubled crossing from consciousness to sleep.

If something important or gripping is going to take place, we need to cultivate the art of lingering. Border crossings are significant and deserve dwelling upon. Many of Eiene's drawings show how a house front, or a window, as impenetrable and utterly silent. Comtemplation of the aesthetic beauty of these abandoned spaces, or the utter calm of their silence, can result in a new use for these potentially mournful locations. Yet to appreciate the aesthetics of this art, time is required.

A visual work of art requires a circumnavigational time, a time most obviously experienced when viewing sculpture and architecture. One could take a month circumnavigating Chartres Cathedral without fully realising how many sculptural and architectural details there are to be discovered. Rich architectural decoration represents an imposition of the architectural form on viewers, since the richer the detail, the more time it taks to enjoy it. When observing pictures the idea of circumnavigational time is still useful since the movement of a viewer's eyes around the surface paralles physical movement around a church. This is particularly true of Eiene's drawings. This artist's ability to paint late Modernist colour-field canvasses is apparent when we now view her pencil drawings. The compulsive attention to surface, to pattern and to the myriad of drawing textures can result in a visual orgy for an attentive observer. Both formally and regards content, here is a case where lingering is required not so much to slow down the action of everyday life, as it is to indicate that we must prepare ourselves to enter a world in which the normal measurement of time counts for next to nothing. A world in which the clocks have broken down, or due to sudden abandonment, have not been wound-up for a while.

One is reminded of the emptiness of Edward Hopper's**** compositions, with their emphatic blocks of shadow, their wide, flat planes of wall, sky or road, and their unfussy, reverberant light. Anonymous scenes saturated with human feeling, an immediate sense of the here and now. The city, for Hopper, were a condenser of loneliness. Snøfrid Hunsbedt Eiene's drawings have the same silence and loneliness of the observer, the voyeur, but refrains from the here and now. Her work prompt a timeless meditation, whereby the clocks are stopped. One almost senses a deramlike quality in these meticulous compositions.

As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again. John Keats

Unlike nostalgia, these drawings do not lie. Rather, they illuminate the naturalness, even the delight, in rediscovering and lingering upon the past. This artist has collected together a group of drawings that produce an icon of the recent past. Not as mere nostalgia or archaeology, but rather as an enrichment of the everyday visual world. By lingering at the borders of abandoned private houses, this exhibition gives us the opportunity to question our own Mnemosyne.

Martin Worts
Rogaland Kunstsenter July 2003

* Mnemosyne is greek mythology, a Titaness and personification of memory. Mother of the muses.
** In the midst of America's explosive growth after the Second World War, Johns used flags, targents and beer cans to epitomise American society. In addition to a formal analysis, by excluding any reference to a living participant, these motifs became ghost like relics of a recently deserted civilisation.
*** See for example «Kan du inte tala», a work subtly infused with childhood and silence.
**** Edward Hopper (1882 - 1967) the best known American Realist of the interwar period, became a pictorial poet who recorded the starkness and vastness of America, often from a traveller's standpoint.