Geir M. Brungot – Life is a Local Affair
Eva Furseth, art historian
Translator Arlyne Moi Arlyne@aomoi.net
"Raise anchor in your soul and sail away across the great seas."
It can be challenging for an artist to curate his own exhibitions, perhaps especially one that is as comprehensive as Geir Morten Brungot's “Life is a Local Affair”. Yet when the choice of pictures and their placement is worked out, we get an exhibition wonderfully free from the dictates of ‘knowledgeable' judgement. The exhibition spans more than 16 years, and gives us the opportunity to find bridges as well as lines of development.
The points of departure for much of Brungot's art are the places to which he has close ties, the beautiful fjord-district Sykkylven, with its prosperous furniture industry and not more than 8000 souls. Here he grew up and here he works with his art. “Sykkylven is perhaps the most beautiful of all Sunnmøre landscapes”, writes Kristoffer Randers in 1890, “The conditions for this are not just one thing – not the fjord – not the mountains, not the glaciers, not the valley – but all this together, the harmonious blend of magnificence and smiles.”
Nevertheless, it is not the obvious magnificence Brungot is concerned about; he moves close up to his motifs, looks at the structures in the earth, the wall, or wisps of grass at an intersection. He addresses the perception of what is known – those things that are difficult to describe in words, which one has to be intimately acquainted with in order to grasp. Even so, it is not his home district, as such, Brungot's art addresses. For his motifs lay not only in what the camera lens captures; aided by an exceptional eye, supported by good photographic and compositional handiwork, the motif is lifted up to a level where the work acquires new content, freed from the reality it materializes. His art unfolds thus at the threshold between the atmospheric landscape photography and conceptual art. A series such as “The World According to Me” (1996-2002) confirms (also with its title) that it is his extremely personal perspective he is giving expression to.
And it is a peculiar world Brungot leads us into. Impossible to pinpoint exactly what it is, here we meet what we otherwise would not see, or what we forget as soon as we have seen it – all the information our brain is programmed to ignore in an existence brimming with impressions. Here we pause and gaze at pictures of trivial road intersections, structures in cement, open spaces. Everywhere in Brungot's universe it is so barren, so empty. There are almost no people, and when we meet someone, they turn their back to us, almost demonstratively. Even where one would expect to find a throng, no one is there. Yet there is always the trace of people; an urban setting with cars, a ping-pong paddle. Although we spy vehicles on a highway, far away, this redoubles the sense of loneliness – which thickens in proportion to how many works you see.
"Is it not true that the “outer objective” facts receive interest and significance only to the degree they stream into our thoughts and feelings, and become voices that resonate in the deep hollows within us, in other words, they become one with our anxiety and our hope, our joy and our suffering."
The works function as a sort of landscape of the soul, and remind us that in the final analysis, we are each of us alone, imprisoned within ourselves, with the unpleasant awareness that no one will ever fully understand us. A knowledge as old as humanity, which science nervously tries to erase, and which artist and philosophers through all ages have made their challenge.
Of the exhibited works, it is the series “Eternally Owned is but what is Lost” (1999-2003) that has the most unequivocal symbolism. Here we are confronted with death in various ways; from the direct and painful, to metaphorical pictures – among others, a raspberry field, where a melancholy temperament will see crosses marking graves rather than supports for berry bushes. The reminder that the gaze is subjective and context-based is a leitmotif in his artistic practice. One of Brungot's most important devices is aesthetics; his pictures are downright beautiful to look at. For a number of years he has worked in black and white, often with powerful contrasts in light and dark, which conjure forth interesting structures and rhythms. The photographs are so tactile – we can pluck blades of grass, feel the cement wall against our fingertips. The pleasing tactile qualities give us the desire to stand and gaze, to look long enough until we sense more than the eye immediately grasps. Then perhaps we better see that there also is something pleasant about the mood of absence resting over the picture. In a hectic, over-loaded weekday, it is good to meet something peaceful and well ordered. Perhaps this is seen most clearly in series such as “The Photography of Boredom” (2001), whose impetus is close-ups of diversely textured surfaces. The motifs are always based on a limited set of components. Nevertheless the pictures are composed so as to achieve a discreet monumentality that causes us to sense their gravity and pensiveness.
These meditative pictures lead us into something similar to Eastern philosophy. Within Taoism, emptiness or non-being is not synonymous with “nothing”, rather, it is the absence of sensible qualities. As such, non-being receives higher status than being. When the Taoist, in his mind, realizes Emptiness, it implies that he has freed himself from all hindrances and distractions, such that Tao can manifest itself in him freely and spontaneously. Only in this way can one achieve harmony and equilibrium. And this harmonizes well with the ascetic expression Brungot emphasizes in his works. At first glance his photographs have minimal content, yet eventually we experience that it is precisely the stripped down pictorial language that gives the pictures space and depth.
"People who believe they can explain everything, put things into systems they themselves have constructed; systems that fulfil their need to suppress the angst for life, angst for death and the hunger for eternal life."
As for Brundot's photographic artworks, we must be careful to not lapse into a pre-fabricated mode of analysis, for the pictures usually contain a critical remark. Hence one must always be awake when meeting the works, but also when meeting the artist personally. Brungot makes his presence felt with great spirit and energy, and likes to debunk all forms of authority.
Therefore, even when we land upon an interpretation we should not feel safe; the humour, the critical eye is always there. Even so, there is no talk of ironic pictures. The ironic will always be at a disadvantage due to its unobligating distance, and such a perspective causes what is honest and sincere to become less apparent. That is definitively not the case for Brungot's art. In his photographs lies no ironic coldness that would distance us from the works – rather, an inclusive, warm teasing. The underhandedness often lies woven with thin colourful threads, even in the most black and white of pictures, and thus, once again, the artist challenges us.
To a large degree, Brungot's pictures give concrete expression to instinctive feelings, such that it is up to each viewer to read contexts into his works. But the search for a fixed self , which, by the way, is a romantic, modernistic notion, does not function particularly well in this case, because Brungot does not create a sign that can be defined once and for all. It will always have different meanings, where each picture establishes a new context. In the same way as Brungot is unafraid to do something new and untried, we as viewers of his works must dare to follow a similar approach – not one that is forced and conclusive, but free and filled with wonderment. And the pictures create the conditions for this, for the absence of fixed principles creates room for fabulation.
"What is it, what is it, what is it?
You repeat, while you stare at the picture
Of the earth
That flickers in the spot of sunshine on the wall"
In recent years Brungot has stretched his art beyond the confines of his own country; Spanish motifs, e.g., have enticed him to use colour, something the series “Barcelona Manscape” (2002) reveals. He relies on a pure colour palate, and we find many pictures with a strong red or blue colour, harmonized with warm whitish nuances.
In art, the expression Manscapes is often used to describe works that focus on or reproduce landscapes created by human hands. Brungot's “Barcelona Manscape” leads us into an unusual reality consisting of a huge cityscape. We are brought into a strange land with a different climate, a different pattern to life. Without the help of the title, it would be very hard to guess where the picture was taken – in a global age we often get the feeling that an urban picture can be from just about anywhere. Also here it is empty and deserted, even in places where one would expect to meet many people, it is frighteningly still. It is first now, when the place is freed of the life swarm that can we really see it. We notice how dismally sad – almost shabby – the large urban places can be when they stand naked. Without the pumping, pulsing city life, the place stands like an empty shell. Looking long enough at the series “Barcelona Landscape”, we get an uneasy feeling of being alone in this deserted, strangely foreign world Brungot has conjured forth. We instinctively begin to fabulate over why it is so deserted, and what has happened to all the people who should be here. The atmosphere in the work is nevertheless not unambiguously negative, for simultaneously, all the fresh traces of people indicate that this is not a permanent situation. Here everything seems newly washed, ready for use. Perhaps the picture is shot in a peaceful moment, just before the din and human masses infuse new life into the place?
Another work, “Paris Reflections” (2004-06), consists of almost 100 small pictures of the sky's reflections on one and the same Parisian wall. This series can stand as photo-art's answer to J. C. Dahl's sky studies, or Monet's many variations over the shifting play of light on Rouen Cathedral. Yet instead of studying the sky formations directly in the sky, or indirectly on a stone cathedral, Brungot has found a shiny smooth surface that reflects the sky's richness of colour. But the reflection – which is our existence – need not be dull shadows on the wall; it is all the colours of the rainbow. Olav Løkke has written that in Brungot's pictures we can “sense the passion that lies under the surface”. This formulation comes to the core of his production, for it is the artist's strong personal expression that establishes the foundation for these works.