Texts for catalogue entering: Project Gambia/Henie
Onstad Art Centre
Øyvind Storm Bjerke, Former director of Henie-Onstad Art Centre
Upon the room one is confronted by one is confronted by a road or path of dry and crackled clay, which leads towards a wall at the opposite side of the space. The wall is constructed from bales of hay, which are stacked, trimmed and coated with clay. Heyerdahl’s road and wall were constructed at her studio in Oslo in 1998. The clay was procured locally. On the walls are the colour photographs of material structures and an architectural construction in an odd, organic form, which rises up from a monotonous, sun parched landscape.
The organic sculptural form documented in the photograph is a project executed in The Gambia. This construction of sun-dried clay was accomplished in cooperation with a local labour. The local element should not however, be overemphasized. Adobe buildings are a culturally widespread and world-encompassing phenomenon, and must be perceived as a basic construction technique in societies, which are based upon low technology. The two works which are presented in this exhibition actually have more in common with one another, than not, and should be seen as exponential depictions from two different cultures.
Heyerdahl’s works are, therefore, neither a road, a wall nor a habitat in the sense that architectural constructions normally are intended to have functional usages associated with transportation or buildings. Her Gambian project’s main structure is not based upon traditional local clay hut design, but is inspired rather by the lower trunk of a specific local tree (baobab tree). The adobe is made of termite clay, and is built up from a series of belted layers, thick at the structure’s base and thinner towards the top. Light-holes allow for an economical (a modest) natural lightning which the room’s inner ambience a suggestion of almost sacred character.
The structure’s architectural core gives involuntary associations to a building. Detachments from theoretical functional usage places the work more in the genre of artistic abstraction, while at the same time the structural form and effect of material usage allude again to employment of function: to erect a wall.
This marked dichotomy between the work’s identity and art form categorization reflects the same excitement witch is also ever-present in evocative, living works of art where the nature of the specific art form is more immediately recognizable.
The adobe structure in The Gambia raises the question of western artists’ use of local culture as the basis for an aesthetic practice which is essentially foreign to the same local culture. When the relationship is a one-way communication on the artist’s premises where the art process is composed of elements from the local culture combined with established aesthetic practice to satisfy western art consumptive interpretation, there normally arises a question of exploitation. In the case of Heyerdahl’s work there is a striving toward dialogue between equal parts with the intention of creating balance between western cultural discipline and local Gambian craftsmanship (which must be perceived as one variety of a global building technique), as well as a testament to the new situation which arises when two disciplines meet without totally blending together
or cancelling each other out, but rather are profiled side-by-side as equal components. Thus this example of equanimity becomes a metaphor unto itself, representing an ideal for relations between two cultures instead of an act of displacement or consumption between two diverse cultures.
Clay as a material is by no means neutral. In addition to pointing back towards that which was primal in context of technological level, the clay also refers to originality itself: the creation myth of man made from clay (and primus modus). The work process which involves a high degree of handicraft is also far from significantly neutral. Handicraft by definition invites technological limitation, and is an act of intimacy and interdependence between idea, body, work, process and final creative product, which refers to a disposition concerning the relationship between nature and culture as a gradual, sliding transition – i.e. a context.
The road and the wall as the exhibition at Henie-Onstad Art Centre stand out as formulations of the same symbols in new forms, and from another time. The crackled crust is simultaneously a road – threatened and bursting open – and path which leads to eventuality’s hidden possibilities. The wall, which is concurrently an ending and a defence against the unknown, parts itself in its middle as a vaginal form – which also suggests new life.
Øyvind Storm Bjerke