Studies in culture, identity, truth and tolerance

Francesca Pola, Art Historian, Italy

Marian Heyerdahl is an artist, and a nomad.  Her interest in people, nature and traditions has both influenced her installation work on location at various sites around the world, and inspired her many journeys outside of her native Norway.  This nomadic artist’s wanderings are basically a search for origins – those fascinating points marking the differences and affinities between various cultures. These cultural connections, crossovers and  overlappings in Marian Heyerdahl’s works form a dialogue.  In this dialogue  she opens and discloses, yet expressing no desire to change one culture according to another culture’s parameters.  Marian Heyerdahl seeks rather to illustrate meeting points, by recognising mutual differences.  Thus, the artist’s  work becomes an invitation to true tolerance: a study of freedom and truth in which societies lost in the daily process of modernization are presented with reconstructed memory in the form of cultural identity and traditions.

The creative process starts with an inspirational journey, during which the artist chooses the cultural and geographical locations for her work.  This cultural research refers not to “official” culture as depicted in libraries and museums ... Marian Heyerdahl consciously ignores existing stereotypical and codified images of the cultures she chooses to work with.  Her intention is to penetrate the country’s culture with her own experience.  In this way she feels that her intuition can express itself without boundaries, and with immediacy, freedom, autonomy and naturalness.

Interaction with the primary elements (air, earth, fire and water) is essential to form and process in Marian Heyerdahl’s work.  The organic nature of the  materials leads to an organic dialect in her expression of her relationship to the  surroundings.  These surroundings being a space for creative and modifying action.  But also a space for day-to- day life and for culture; free of intellectualism, deep within the pulse of nature, of life and of popular traditions.  The primordial nature of the materials thus finds a match in the primordial images and symbols.

An example of this can be found in two of her recent installations which create a connection between her country, Norway, and The Gambia.

The artist chose a natural site in Gambia: an abandoned termite nest, and moulded some sun-dried bricks with the nest’s clay.  She then employed an ancient process to build an adobe.  The adobe is a construction type found in all popular cultures .. not only in Africa, but also in southern America, in Asia and even in Norway.  The end result being a monument to the place’s spirit.  This sculpture defines it’s own dimensions in close dialogue with the strong presence of the nearby baobab trees (African trees of the spirits).  This impressive work represents a re-generation of nature, bringing new life to a location previously characterised by death.  The sculpture is a living architecture, in truthful co-existence with the natural surroundings.

The installation’s exterior form changes organically when it is entered, creating the illusion of a sacral atmosphere, dotted by tiny altars of light and with very particular acoustics.  This structure is not meant to be an architectonically-designed space.  It is a shrine containing the memories of the creatures that have lived and live there, and an element in touch with local nature and traditions. 

In reply to – and in dialogue with -- the construction in The Gambia, Marian Heyerdahl has created an installation in a huge windowless room in Norway.  Using dried grey clay, the material that constitutes the foundation over which the entire city of Oslo is built, she has constructed a pavement and a wall.  Emerging from within the wall is an enormous vaginal form made of straw; the contrast with the clay giving the straw a golden hue.

While this installation is architectonically inspired, it can not be entered.  And this type of clay is cold in comparison to the Gambian earth.  Still, the clay suggests an immediate connection to the dryness and the sunburnt soil of  the African country.  In addition, the artists’s choice of a completely closed space intentionally leads the visitor to another place – far away and  different.

The feminine aspect is another recurring theme in Marian Heyerdahl’s art. This theme reminds us that life reproduces itself mysteriously, as well as underlines the importance of the body in the creative process.  For Marian Heyerdahl there is no conflict between the perception and the approach to seemingly different spaces.  (As in the above mentioned examples which employ an uncontaminated natural ambient and an urban reality).  The aim of her work is to excavate and explore an unknown, different concept of culture, and to use her own experiences in the creation of the artistic work to attain and express a mutual exchange.  In fact, the autobiographical aspect of her work is an important component that is highly recognisable as the relentless dialogue inherent to the concepts of culture, identity, truth and tolerance endemic to Marian Heyerdahl’s approach, process and expression -- not only to the cultures she explores in her art, but – to life itself. 

Thus the dialogue is not only between different cultures of today, but also those of the past -- as well as between past and present cultures.  For Marian  Heyerdahl memory is a place for exchange and growth.  Her work poses  questions of a deep anthropological nature: what is left of the different cultures, and what is the relationship between them through history?  History is not limited to human actions, but also incorporates the life of nature itself.  Marian Heyerdahl’s images become spaces for a dialogue beyond time.