Taking a chance on 34 metres

When Annelise Brun was asked to undertake her largest ever commission, she was tempted to say no. Thirty-four linear metres of art later, she is happy that she dared to say yes.

Annelise Brun started work at UiT The Arctic University of Norway at the start of the polar night. Now daylight has returned to Tromsø. Foto: Ingun A. Mæhlum

Words: Christine Kristoffersen Hansen  Photo: Ingun A. Mæhlum 

– I’ve always liked working on a large scale, so this has really been an opportunity for me to be in my element.

The spring sun shines through the windows of UiT The Arctic University of Norway, acting as a floodlight on Annelise Brun’s newly completed work. Over the past few months, the artist has transformed 34 linear metres of birch plywood into a huge artwork.

The work, which resembles a series of abstract tableaux executed on birch plywood and extends over two storeys – Floors 7 and 8 – is mounted on the wall of the largest auditorium in the new Medical and Health Studies Building (MH2).

Annelise Brun has held several solo exhibitions and has previously completed a public art commission for the Penguin Hotel at the University Hospital of North Norway (UNN). The commission for MH2 is the largest work she has ever completed. Photograph: Ingun A. Mæhlum

– It’s been a lot of work with long working days, but it has been really fun to do. And actually I think it’s beginning to look prettty good.

She smiles.

– But I must admit, when the invitation for the commission arrived, I was far from certain that I would end up with this result. Initially I was tempted to say no, quite simply because I had never done anything like this before – and I thought it seemed a bit scary. But then I thought to myself: Obviously I’ve got to dare to do it!

The work in relation to its surroundings

It’s nearly two years since I was asked to create this work, and since then I’ve spent a lot of time on sketches and preparatory work. Unlike an exhibition, which will always be temporary, this is a permanent work that will remain in place to be looked at for a long time. The work is being created mainly for the people who will use the building, so I feel a lot of responsibility for ensuring that it will function within its surroundings. That it will be capable of inspiring joy and wonder, while at the same time fitting in with the architecture – but without losing myself in compromises. It was no doubt this pressure to perform that seemed so frightening to start with.

Mixing colours to obtain the desired shades is a complex process. Foto: Ingun A. Mæhlum
Brun uses soft pastels that are handmade in England. Foto: Ingun A. Mæhlum

Annelise Brun has been working as an artist since the 1990s. Over the past decade, her main medium has been soft pastels, and she has also used these for the wall project in MH2.

– I focus a lot on the relationship between the work and the surroundings in which it finds itself. It’s a special situation here, as the work extends over two storeys, and so it’s been very important for me that it works both close-up and from further away. In addition, the large windows mean that nature is always present in the space. I’ve tried to take that into account along the way.

According to the artist, the work consists of forms of different sizes and colours, which either grow into or out of each other. The style is child-like and playful.

– My keywords are micro- and macro-perspectives, and building and growth processes. I always work intuitively. Purely practically, I start somewhere and allow the work to emerge along the way.

Macro- and micro-perspectives are keywords for the project. Photograph: Ingun A. Mæhlum

From polar night to spring sunshine

Brun explains that being part of the construction process has meant that things have progressed rather differently from her initial expectations, and also that the work has changed from her original plans.

– If I had done everything at home, I would have gone for more transparency and a more subdued style. But I’ve discovered along the way that this wall and this building demanded more power in the work.

Brun began work just before the start of the polar night, and she has worked through the darkest months in Tromsø. Now daylight has returned.

– This has also contributed to my making some adjustments underway. The shades change when the sun shines directly on them.

The artist used plastic to protect the work from dust and dirt on the construction site. Foto: Ingun A. Mæhlum

Three-dimensional drawing

Although this is the largest public-art project that Brun has ever undertaken, she is far from an unknown figure in the art world. She has had several solo exhibitions, for example in Tromsø, Oslo, Karasjok and Porsgrunn. She also contributed to the public-art project for the Penguin Hotel at the University Hospital of North Norway (UNN).

– I studied in the Netherlands, and when I started out as an artist, I was working with sculpture. But after a while I discovered that I didn’t really have the patience to carve stone or to do modelling. I like things to happen immediately, and so drawing suits me perfectly. There you get instant results.

Even so, she feels that drawing is not very distant from working with sculptures.

– Here I’m also working with my hands. I’m in direct contact with the materials, it’s just me, the pastel, and the wall. And I still feel a sense of three-dimensionality, it’s just that I’ve conjured the forms on a surface.

Initially Brun wanted to work on the commission at home, in her own studio, and then transport the finished panels to the building. But because of the risk that the plywood might warp or get damaged, she was asked to work on site.

Work started on the 18,000 square-metre building as early as 2015, but it was only in October last year that it became feasible for Brun to start her work.

– I like to have peace and quiet when I’m working, and so I was very sceptical about having people and construction work around me all the time. The first time I came here, it felt almost like walking into the lion’s jaws, but in retrospect I’m happy it turned out how it did, she says.

– People are incredibly friendly and inquisitive. Many have come over to have a chat, and have been interested in what I’m doing. In that way, I’ve really finished with the handing over of the work before the official opening of the building.

Even so, she’s glad that she got her own key to the building.

– Although it’s been great with a lot of people around and a lively atmosphere, I’ve also needed some quiet. Accordingly, I’ve spent a lot of evenings and weekends here alone.

Despite the unaccustomed work clothes and workplace, Annelise Brun is happy that she completed the project on site, rather than in her studio. Foto: Ingun A. Mæhlum

The importance of taking chances

Over recent months, Annelise Brun has spent her working days clad in high-visibility clothing, work boots with blue plastic covers, and a helmet. To reach areas at the top of the wall she has had to use a work platform and scaffolding.

– Fortunately, the requirement to wear a helmet was relaxed slightly towards the end of the period. But work boots with plastic covers were necessary throughout. The feeling of taking them off your feet at the end of the working day is indescribable – they are incredibly hot and clammy.

The opening ceremony for the new Medical and Health Studies Building, which will be known as MH2, will be held in August.  Over the coming years, thousands of students and staff will see Annelise Brun’s work as part of their everyday surroundings.

– I hope my work will act as a constant reminder that we’re all part of nature – and that sometimes it’s important to take chances!

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