One of the most thrilling moments one can experience is when the lights go down and the curtain goes up. There is something magical about that very moment because you know that you are about to enter a different world for a couple of hours – someone else’s world – and you are able to forget about your own problems, urges, and even reality itself, entirely. Time does not stop, but it does somehow both collapse and expand while the narrative unfolds before you and swallows you up, and just maybe, if you are lucky, you will leave the theatre with some new questions or a different perspective on a few things.
Entering one of Børre Sæthre’s larger installations could be described as follows: you enter a different dimension, a parallel universe. It is something you experience through and with all your senses, and it’s an experience that draws you in and surrounds you. In more common terms, the environments Sæthre builds could perhaps be described as a set design for a film – the difference is that you yourself, as a visitor, play the leading role, and there is no other story-board for the narrative than the one that takes place in your own brain within the milieu Sæthre provides and with props that rapidly push the narrative in different directions. The different rooms, corridors, pits or dark corners are scenes in your own motion picture – or, to be more precise, in the fantasy that takes place in your imagination together with parts of your subconscious. But it is a story that contains no cathartic ending, nor the modules of logic that most stories are built up with – no obvious beginning, middle, or end. It is instead a more enigmatic, open-ended and arched story with plenty of different routes to be excavated and discovered. This is also one of the most beautiful things about the installations, that it is possible both to let go of your own world totally for as much of the time that you spend in the installations as you want, yet also to discover new things about yourself in this “other world”, things that you bring with you when you step outside again. The narrative isn’t simply given, it doesn’t unfold before you like in the movies; it is a narrative based on you. Maybe that is the scariest sort of narrative of all.
Sæthre himself has, not surprisingly, an impeccable sense of how to tell a story and, with a deep and sincere voice, he is able to keep the listener in a state of suspense, eager to hear more. He has utterly perfected the timing of storylines, including the timing of sprinklings of excitement and dashes of surprise. To interview him is a pure delight. It was in connection with an interview conducted five years ago in his Berlin studio that the high esteem I held for his art not only intensified but also turned into a solid and lasting friendship with the artist. I’m not objective about his art. Then again, I was never objective in the first place – one never is. Stowing away my false “objectiveness” has in fact deepened my discernment of and knowledge about his work. For example, getting to know the person himself made me aware of how much passion there is behind his work, and the extent to which the motivation for the work is his own fascination with things. Certainly, after coming to understand his sense of timing in the art of conversation, the elegant twists and turns in the installations have become more evident. This is manifest in the larger installations in particular, because when it comes to Sæthre, size matters. And bigger is without question better.
One of the obvious reasons for “bigger being better” is that Sæthre deals with a kind of narrative that is intertwined with space itself, where the scale of the work is designed to be capable of embracing a human being. A larger space opens up more opportunities for surprise, for hiding things, for the possibility of a variety of courses of events throughout the movement through rooms and via the various layers of the work; the flow of events becomes radically multitudinous. It is via a delay in the transportation through space that the experience happens. Time is thus of great moment in the experience. Time is of course also required to create and mediate a dialogue through the space, and to establish a flow within it, a flow that contains motion yet also stasis. Sæthre’s most ambitious installations construct a labyrinth of diverging paths, each with its own pace and temporality. One could go so far as to speak of multiple and fragmented temporalities.
Sæthre intentionally pushes quite a few buttons to make things happen in the visitor’s mind, and even though the effort is conscious, there is no cold calculation here, only pure and hot passion. The combination of a strict architecture that alludes to modernist, utopian hopes for the future, elements of design, sound effects, moving images, and more exotic components such as a stuffed polar beer or a unicorn, are all used as elements that are put together precisely into a greater whole, and that elicit both thoughts and emotions. Outrageous and poetic titles also play a part in how the works are perceived and how our imagination is stimulated. A title like Masturbating with the Gods, for an installation shown at Kunstnernes Hus in 1998, is just one of many examples.
As with other of Sæthre’s installations, Masturbating with the Gods greets the visitor with a fabulous fairy tale, which in this case included luxurious and elegantly designed environments from the roof, walls, floors and furniture – colour-coded in pink, violet and white – to the endearing stuffed roe deer fawns, with some strong sexual connotations to boot. Individual imagination is the only thing that sets the limits for the experience of the installation and for what, or whom, it was made. The insight and ability to act as a part in the set as either purely a spectator or an active agent is what both ignites and encapsulates the work. When our imagination and fantasy are able to work in their own way, free and wild, subliminal forces are unleashed. What our subconscious hides, at times with good reason, at times with no reason at all, can take us on a rather strong and powerful trip. This might not always be as comforting as the environment itself, and here it stands in juxtaposition to the soft and lavish bliss that first meets the eye. This is partly that which builds up tension and suspense. The installations in themselves offer no consolation, the sort of consolation that comes with a story that winds itself up to a tight conclusion, or the release of finally arriving at the answer to a riddle. It grasps something which is not definable or explainable, but it has an effect that will definitely not leave you indifferent.
The various projects relate to one another according to a peculiar logic of postponement and flow where recurrent motifs and topography play important parts. Gas explosions or the above-mentioned roe deer – are all examples of components treated by Sæthre as necessary objects of fascination for him, things that make life more easy to live and the installations more whole. The roe deer, which is a symbol of tenderness and is more often than not connected with the manipulatedly saccharine sweet, innocent Bambi of Disney, has appeared n many of Sæthre’s installation. A roe deer is an icon that triggers an emotional response. We find this icon: strapped to the wall in Untitled 5.0 (Selected Memories: Fragments, Sketches and Ideas From the Lustlux-Years), 2003 in Stockholm; strapped again to the wall in Catch Me and Let Me Die Wonderful 2003, Amsterdam; in an incubator in Play Position, 2004 in Toulouse; in the middle of a proud leap in Autonomic High in Caen; and forever dead, utterly un-resurrectable, in Powered by Zero, 2005 Paris.
Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it.
- Georges Bataille
Animals are sexual beings. The instincts and urges we as human animals all share are basic and natural drives that might not easily be understood or even explained. These are the drives that we sometimes suppress or hide since acting on them would not accord with the social dictates of the acceptable or the tolerable, neither are these drives explicable, since they involve feelings and sensory urges. Emotions might not be rational or intelligible, but that of course doesn’t make them less real. Where science is the cornerstone of our over-the-top specialized and sophisticated society – where everything must have its “natural explanation” in terms of determined causality and where everything should be completely comprehensible and divisible into the tiniest parts – the inexplicable emotions and chemistry that surrounds things are dismissed. This is true of sexual urges in particular
The exhibition My Private Sky at Astrup Fearnley Museum for Modern Art in Oslo (2001) is perhaps the most astonishing and ambitious installation by Sæthre so far. The exhibition consisted of a hyper-real installation where one wandered through a kind of high-tech landscape. After having passed through corridors, countless soundless sliding doors, rooms with monitors showing films in slow-motion with silent gas explosions, surrounded by a high frequency sound that makes its way into the brain, one entered a giant room, decked out it in sharp blue carpet and “bubbles” that looked like white incubators mounted on the walls, suggesting both windows and a shut-in feeling. At the end of the room, a reclining, white life-size unicorn was preening itself in the most voluptuous way.
It was indeed a slightly surreal experience, and the enormous installation gave the visitor an impression of a entire world, an entire universe. The experience was that of a warped time zone, or maybe of a rich, nocturnal dream. It is while you are dreaming that some of the things you never thought you would have been able to imagine pop up, even the strangest and most distorted things might feel perfectly natural in a dream. It is here where our most explicit sexual preferences and fears pop up too – quite graphic, pornographic. The historically laden box containing the surreal must of course be opened up here: I don’t necessarily mean “surrealism” as the historical concept or movement itself, but the surreal as the absence of conscious moral or aesthetic self-censorship.
In the installation entitled Play Position, exhibited in Toulouse in 2004, one walked through a series of rooms, much like in My Private Sky. One entered the last room through large, slowly sliding red doors. The room inside the sliding doors was oblong and bore a striking resemblance to the inside of an aircraft, but the image/window at the end of the space was a blown up version of the famous NASA picture of the Earth seen from the surface of the Moon, and therefore suggested a spacecraft rather than a normal aircraft. The strong light from outside the vessel’s windows was another indication. This was not a craft made for human beings, the creatures that inhabited the place were small, round shaped, moving robots that at times moved back and forth in the “corridor”, every now and then making a “bleeping” sound. There is more than one gesture here to sci-fi cult movies, cinematography, and to human aspects of, and human interaction with, both animals and robots, and how they communicate. And an entirely absurd dialogue between the robots in the last room and the tiny roe deer in the incubator smelling each other’s arses constituted a particularly bizarre moment.
With the slightly absurd and eerie sensation paired with a seductive luxuriousness – a very sexy encounter with things – where no compromise has been permitted to disturb the perfection of the visual input and a precise timing that evokes our curiosity, Sæthre manages to convey his fascination and excitement to his audience elegantly. The grand appetite and the love for the spectacular that is embedded in the work constitute a kind of voraciousness that is extremely contagious. His unreserved, unrestrained, whole-hearted passion oozes from the installations, but the passion could also very well be an object for a failure just as grand. But when the motive is an obsession, a conviction about the idea and an enthusiastic fervour, one cannot be bothered by the obligatory anxiety of failure. An energy that stems from the satisfaction of the exact result may be likened to the “little death”, or the kick of a very powerful drug.
Trying to fit Sæthre into a genre or -ism seems doomed to fail from the start, and even in comparisons within his own generation, he stands out as the odd-ball of the group. Many artists in Sæthre’s generation have adopted, in a calculating way, “Nordic neo-conceptualism”, operating through their networks within authority itself – the very same structures which they consciously and deliberately criticize (just enough to still be popular) from inside the institutions. The criticism of the institution, in turn, later serves the goal of establishing them as artists, which might well have been the main objective all along. Others use social processes to do the same thing, and there are those who highlight a particular problem that is then discussed, documented, and later displayed as something like an archive of the documentation. Nothing of this could describe Sæthre. To be able to push some buttons to “seduce one’s audience” may of course very well be described as calculating if there is a target other than the passion itself, but there is nothing whatsoever that is calculating about Sæthre’s fascination and his own state of mind, which is rather much closer to a geeky obsession. It is quite romantic actually, and very emotional.
To consciously and at all cost avoid compromises about the “final cut” of the work, sometimes shooting necessary, but hard-felt missiles through the roof of the budget to get the required and crucial last additions, has nothing to do with cold scheming for one’s own benefit – quite the contrary. Even though Sæthre orbits around and grasps many codes, themes and structures that are the bearers of authority – such as architecture, aesthetics, queerness, sexuality, technology, myths and legends, and different –isms – his works are never about any of this. Being very personal in his objectives and approaches, there is always a huge distance between what he might feel and how he might expect the spectator to react. While certainly bombastic at times, Sæthre never pushes solutions or pat definitions. Even though work and artist may be tightly knit emotionally, there’s nothing that really indicate this in the work, and this is a fundamental point. This is also the reason why the work can keep its open-endedness.
Sæthre’s installations function just like the subject itself, which can only understand itself through a complex system of detours, where it has to pass by various intricate structures and even through an alternative comprehension of time. And the curtain closes.