Retrospectives, especially ‘mid-career’ ones, can be awkward things for the artist, whose body of work has to be ordered, contextualized and, in some sense, drawn to a premature end. The precipitous narration of ten or so years of activity can sound the death knell for the cultural currency of lines of inquiry that have driven and given meaning to the artist’s activity. Knut Åsdam’s retrospective at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art focused exclusively on the artist’s photographic, video and film work. Unfortunately this meant missing out on the chance to revisit some of his complex architectural installations and thus frustrated attempts to read his body of work as a whole.
One of the earliest works in the show, the video Come to Your Own (1993), features the artist seated in a small, nondescript room, smartly dressed and talking directly to camera. In the persuasive manner of a psychoanalyst he repeats, ‘If you feel at ease, if you feel it is right for you now, you can slowly go back to the space that you are in, and become aware of your physical presence in that space.’ The work’s audio track, which could be heard echoing throughout the exhibition, signalled Åsdam’s early and persistent interest in psychology, language and the phenomenological effects of architecture. Untitled: Pissing (1995), however, is the more obvious touchstone for the artist’s oeuvre. In this work we see a shot of a man’s waist cropped just above his thighs. The outline of the man’s penis is barely visible through the grey fabric of his trousers. Starting with a small speck and then spreading down the man’s upper thigh comes a slow stream of piss, clinging to his trouser as it runs down his leg. Reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s spillages and run-downs, Untitled: Pissing marks the start of Åsdam’s dissection of the concept of space in the discourses of post-Minimal practices from the 1960s and ’70s, in preparation for his later installation and film work.
From the late 1990s onwards, many of Åsdam’s works received a version of the title Psychasthenia. In Psychasthenia 10 Series 2 (2000–01), a hanging projection ‘chamber’ made from thick blackout curtain material stands, or rather floats, in the middle of the room. As it is not immediately apparent how to enter the space, you have to feel your way around the perimeter of the structure, groping for the entrance, running the risk of touching someone standing on the inside. Once the fold in the heavy material has been found, it is possible to enter. Inside it is pitch black except for the light from a projector, which shows 16 consecutive slides of Modernist tower blocks photographed at night. The word ‘psychasthenia’ comes from the essay Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia (1935) by Roger Caillois, an idiosyncratic French social theorist associated with the Surrealists. For Caillois, the word described a kind of spatial fragmentation or the point at which subjectivity is subsumed, or engulfed, by the built environment that surrounds it. In both the ‘Psycasthenia’ series of works and his later films, Åsdam uses the Gothic and phantasmagorical concept of psychasthenia as a graphic and conceptual metaphor for the ordering of urban space and our traversal of it.
Åsdam’s latest film, Finally (2006), shown as part of a separate programme of the artist’s films at the Cinemateket Norwegian Film Institute, completes a loose trilogy that began with Filter City (2003) and continued with Blissed (2005). Finally opens with a scene involving three people – two women, one man – rolling around on the ground, balletically kicking the shit out of one another. In its comic theatrically it recalls the random scenes of violence that punctuate Weekend (1967), Jean Luc Godard’s agitprop tour de force. But whereas Godard reduces characters to objects, subject to the wiles of a vicious and totalizing capitalism, Åsdam’s characters – if they can be called such – struggle to establish not so much their identities as their very corporeal presence in the generic cityscape they inhabit.
In the context of this retrospective, Åsdam’s later films can be seen as a logical progression from his earlier photographic and video works. But his increasingly complex films could more readily be understood as the progeny of his architectural installations. It is here that Åsdam’s interest in the experience of people in public and private spaces takes root, which he later carries into his film work.
First published in Issue 104