In Emptiness All Exist

I first saw Geir M. Brungot’s photographs four years ago. It then occured to me that nothing happened in there pictures. It felt empty. It was unpleasantly empty. The same feeling was conspicuosly present when I saw his Barcelona-series three year later (which on this time was under compilation). But then, as the first time, the pictures got content and facets when examined closely.

But why is it so, in Brungot’s pictures, that the first impression is that nothing happens ? Not because nothing happens, because it does. It seems so because so little happens. Other reasons may be because his pictures is in no way are sensational in choice of subject, nor visual language.

Brungot’s pictures are dominated by landscapes, in form of nature, suburban areas and cities. His landscapes, can be experienced as sudden reoccurrences of the previous, and therefore be described as directly on first encounter.

His earlier black & white photographs have had the Norwegian landscape as motif and background. The coast on west and north of Norway has often been shown. Not uncommon are the dark mountains and cloudy skies. something that gives associations towards romantic nature scenes. He has also been conscious of the most central motif in Norwegian art-history. He has also treated the understanding of the development of the Norwegian identity. Still, there is a very considerately diffrence between the romantic use of nature and Brungot’s relation to it. As professor Øivind Storm Bjerke has pointed out: «.... Brungot’s primary subject became sites that had no innate status or symbolic value, that had not previously been incorporated into the catalogue of typical artistic matter. The traces left by human beings, and the form and structure of these traces, became his subject matter....». It is literally in this landscapes Brungot finds and creates meaning.

The Man and the Place
One such place without «a given status or symbolic value» is the dumpster in Svolvær which creates the starting point for Brungot’s Manscape series. Strangely enough the dump is shown with pathos and a great feeling of nature, much given the photograph Brungot’s skill to see. We see heaps of rubbish, traces after heavy machinery on the ground, and human waste as a contrast to the surrounding, beautiful North Norwegian nature. It is beautiful and without irony or moralising undertones. The artistic poetic and examining gaze is present, and the unusal way of presenting something known as something strange and new is repeated as a tool in a number of his pictures.
Brungot’s own childhood creates the surroundings of the Longing for Home series. Here, apparently worn-out industrial sites, car wrecks, empty stores, sombre chapels, abandoned roads and dark windows can be seen. Amongst other, we see an empty schoolyard surrounded by high fences. The fences remind us of prison-yards as they are bent in an angel at the top. In the background a dark mountain blocks the view, and if we gaze towards the sky; it is heavy and dull. The series is finished with photos from an old churchyard with tombstones and twisted tree-trunks, this way we are reminded about the end of life.

The emphasis on the contrast between dark and light areas is great, and this is repeated throughout the series. It creates a form of substance in the expression. At the same time the motifs can give a feeling of melancholy. It is a series which can be described as melancholic in its way of representing a place, It is sombre, at times it feels heavy. But, it is also created with love and understanding. The lingering by the childhood town, and the place he lives, has an uncertainty attached to it. The project can seem exploring in the anthropogical sense, but also critical and self-examination, as a psychological battle or reconciliation with the place and personal history.

The Man and Himself
Further use of ambiguity as a tool has Geir M. Brungot used in Only the Lost is Eternally Owned which was first shown at the My God, My God exhibition at the Kulturkirken Jacob in the spring of 2003. Parts of the pictures are from The World According to Me and Longing for Home. The piece contains eight large black&white photographs. They are mounted in such a way that they give associations to how family photos often are mounted at home- often in small, intimate groups. In the centre of the installation is a picture of a young woman. She has a sad gaze that she directs towards the observer. There is almost something accusing in her stare. She holds a toy close to her chin, as if she finds comfort in this childhood object.

This photo is surrounded by a number of other pictures. We see a man, obviously displaced in his surroundings, pieces of string, fields in springtime, we see an old grave clearly marked by the time of age, and we see dark and dull nature.

In this project Brungot traps the motif in such a way that it makes it clear how we culturally and socially have learned to read pictures, symbols and motifs from daily life. Therefore a raspberry field at Sykkylven can be seen as a mass grave by the frontier, in the same way as a drainage-pipe can be picture of changes in life.
Where we see each photo on its own, and as a series, it is the feeling of loss, isolation and death that strikes us. This art-piece is maybe the darkest in Brungot’s production. But, in one picture we find hope - it is where daffodils forces their way through the snow.

The Human Being and the Unknown.
In Brungot’s latest series, Barcelona Manscape, he has, by first impression, moved on to a new subject. For the first time he presents colour photos. Secondly, he has moved away from Norway. The dramatic Norwegian landscape is gone, so is the sombre image of his hometown, even the sudden theme of death has disappeared. Brungot is on unfamiliar territory, the heart of Barcelona is now the subject.

The series consist of fifteen pictures. Some of them are taken in parks. There are no human beeings in these parks. Others are of street scenes and houses. Neither here are there any people. Once again we only see traces left by them. This time not in the nature, but in manmade things, like graffiti, vandalism, and wear and tear. The absence of activity creates an emptiness we recognise from the artist’s earlier series. It is unused parks, empty streets, basketballfields and ping-pong tables that are not being used, and concert stages that are not being used.

It’s a bright, sunlit day with blue sky. Still Brungot creates a form of darkness in these light landscapes, a darkness created by the fact that the spaces are not being used. A feeling of a darkness connected to the absence of life. The absence of human beiings in large cities can for many people seem unpleasant, maybe exactly because we expect a lot of people there. The experience of absence and emptiness can create a feeling of an unrealistic reality when our expectations aren’t met, and therefor give a dreamy experience. And when something seems dreamy it means that you feel something is out of your control. In this setting it doesn’t feel comfortable.

Six of the pictures feature people. As in the Manscape and Longing for Home series are the persons placed frontally. They are posed, and represent types, not individual personalities. This strategic representation of the humans does not seem like a contrast to the surroundings, such as it has been in earlier works of the artist. Rather they accentuate the strangeness the surroundings landscape has a feel of. This feeling of strangeness reaches its peak in the last photo of the series. Here a woman stands, with white make-up and powdered hair, dressed in something that can reminde of a baroque dress made of chocolate wrapping paper. The scene brings our thought back to one of Brungot’s first series, Manscape. But here the woman’s dramatic and theatrical appearance creates a diffrent atmosphere. It can be described as a disharmony between the human being and its surroundings. Here the human is alienated to itself, its own time and its products.

It is not only humans that are placed centrally in the compositions in this way. In several of his series we see pictures where cars, light, masts, bushes, houses and so on are placed centrally in a similar way. One can suspect a compositional design like this is used to create a natural centre, a holding point or turning point, in a situation which otherwise could seem aimless or alienated.

While Brungot in his cunning way previously almost only has registered the matter, the last picture is experienced more as a comment that the observer must take a direct stand to. For when we see this series as a whole, when we see this human created city scapes, we realise it is a non-site. There is no sign of culture or geography that says anything about where we are in the world (exept the bright sunlight). It could really be anywhere, for example the American West coast. Therefor it is tempting to read the series as a representation of emptiness and a alienation that arises when the site loses its own character, when the humans, the culture and the history become unimportain. This adds a pessimistic undertone to the series.

A Thao expression I know Brungot has encountered is : «In Emptiness All Exist». In this connection we can say that «In Emptiness All Exist» is an expression for a certain way of looking at life, - and that is to have the willpower to look past the obvious and see the opportunities in the matter. Such approach will challenge the pessimistic undertone, and invite to a more varied and lively interpretation.

About how to see the Human
The relation between humans and their surroundings runs as a red line through Brungot’s artistic work. We see how he use his knowledge to let nature and cityscapes appear as pictures on people s internal landscapes and feelings. They occur in everything he does, even though in diffrent ways.

Lastly, it is tempting to go back to the work Only the Lost is Eternally Owned, because I in this seem to come closer to Brungot’s artistic project. Maybe I have that feeling because it is a naked piece marked by longing, which has it’s connection to reality, but which also raise the feeling of ruthlessness. This is a characteristic strain which appears in some of his other works as well. But with this one piece as a starting-point and backdrop we experience the Barcelona Manscape as all but empty. For in Only the Lost is Eternally Owned Brungot focuses on the mental pain, and life’s invariable mark of loss and unfairness. Though one should not rush it and say that this is an expression of resignation. To understand this piece, and other, of Brungot’s works it is healthier to view this as a form of recognization of and accept for the twist and turns in life, and the possibilities that arises in the moment when the world seems empty. And for those that knows Brungot - not diffrent from his own relation with life.

The human as a figure plays a secondary role as a motif in Brungot’s picture-world. But when it comes down to it, it is really people that Brungot’s project are about. And with danger to play to much attention to psychology; it is about Geir M. Brungot. Seen this way it is a brave project, where the artist choose to compromise and expose himself and his own feelings.

It can be tempting to describe the pictures as honest in the meaning of direct and true, exactly with background in the apparent suddeness in the shooting situation. But we all know that not even the camera or the photographers eye is neutral. Still we can go that far as to say the pictures are honest in the meaning self-exposing.... if we spend time on them, it is not necessarily the artist behing them we meet, but the experience a condition that concern us. It is about how to see people....the whole human being....but it is also about how to explore what it means to be human.

Kristiansand, September 2004

Erlen G. Høyersten
Sørlandets Kunstmuseum