Holistic thinking north of the Arctic Circle
When working with the art projects for the new Medicine and Health Studies Building at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Jenny-Marie Johnsen og Hanne Hammer Stien have applied the same maxim right from the start: People at the centre.
Tekst Mona Gjessing Photo Mari Hildung and Kjell Ove Storvik
The two art consultants – art historian and curator Hanne Hammer Stien and artist Jenny-Marie Johnsen – have been working together since 2014 to dovetail the art project realized in 1991 for the Medicine and Health Studies Building (MH) at Campus Tromsø, with the brand new art project for the new extension, MH2.
– An essential difference between the art projects in the original and in the new building is that the art now occupies a lot of space – it is deliberately distributed around the entire building – and to a greater extent than before demands to be seen, says Hammer Stien.
– This has to do with today’s expectations as to what public art should be and what it should do. For example, we no longer talk about artistic decorations, but about art projects. Today, there is more emphasis on curatorial work, and we are pretty much expected to work on the basis of a wider perspective. Where there are art projects like the vast ceramic floor installation by Søren Ubisch in MH, which exemplifies a unified and completely integrated work, a «response» is experienced in the new building: Gunilla Klingberg’s concrete floor, which appears to emerge organically with its embedded symbols, is more fragmented and to a greater extent exists as an artwork in its own right. Ubisch and Klingberg have both derived inspiration from traditional oriental patterns, but Klingberg also draws on Buddhist and Hindu imagery, where patterns are not simply ornamental, but also contain meaning.
The works that the general public, students, and staff walk across do definitely have something to do with each other, but it is clear that they belong to different decades. Perhaps the art in MH2 asserts itself more as art than is the case in the original building, suggests Hammer Stien.
– To begin with, we envisaged that Klingberg’s floor in MH2 would meet Ubisch’s floor in MH, but for technical reasons this wasn’t possible. Now the work is installed, we can see that it was fortunate that the original plan couldn’t be realized, because today the work follows the architecture in an extremely interesting way. The completed work does not allow itself to be reduced to a «carpet runner» for users of the building and visitors to walk across, but demands in its extended form the full and complete attention of the public, emphasizes Johnsen.
In recent years, Hammer Stien, Johnsen and the other members of the art committee have spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of art they could envisage in MH2. There was never talk of an off-the-peg package solution, but ideas and suggestions for solutions, and choices of types of works, evolved during the course of a time-consuming working process. An overarching ambition was that the public should sense that the art in various ways poses the philosophical question: «What is a human?»
Hammer Stien and Johnsen want to use art to facilitate a debate about these kinds of big topics.
– We have thought about context the whole time, and about how one should be able to wander around the building accompanied by art. In a way, Klingberg’s floor set the agenda. Hanne and I share her holistic philosophy, whereby body and psyche are considered a single whole. Traces of this philosophical universe can be found in subtle ways in all of our artistic choices. We have slowly worked our way forward and have fully considered one work before choosing the next. The question we have asked ourselves along the way has been: What do we need now? says Johnsen.
Many medical students at Tromsø are keen on outdoor pursuits and are studying here precisely because they want to experience the Arctic environment. Some travel to the university on cross-country skis, with their dogs running beside them on leashes, and in a hillock outside the main entrance to MH2 there are kennels and ski racks. When the art committee was looking for a work for the base of the façade of MH2, they deliberately attached importance to choosing a work that could enhance the relationship between the architecture, the spectacular landscape, and the Campus and its immediate surroundings. The choice fell on Beret Aksnes and Vegar Moen’s Fly Brain, a rasterized enlarged electron-microscope photograph of a fly’s brain transferred to mirror-polished stainless steel using a perforation technique. The 2.9 x 21.5-metre-long surface, which during the day primarily reflects its surroundings, is illuminated evenly from behind from dusk onwards, giving parts of the entrance the appearance of hovering. Fly Brain extends around the corner of the façade and right up to the main door.
– We wanted this work, which in many ways will be a visual marker on the Campus, to tie together the outside and the inside of the building mass, says Johnsen. – The idea was that the different artistic expressions of the art and the architecture, both the exterior and the interior, should be dovetailed together to form a whole.
In smaller rooms, Hammer Stien and Johnsen have brought in artworks that in various ways help to «open up» the space. An example of a curatorial intervention by the art consultants is the positioning of Hennie Ann Isdahl’s five-part, serially connected colour composition Rise. The gleaming lacquered panels, installed on the four-metre-wide and five-metre-high walls of each landing, make a coherent vertical statement from the lowest to the highest storey in what is a relatively narrow and confined stairway.
– The stairway, which extends through eight storeys, has been opened up in the imagination by the gradual upwards movement from dark green to white. As we know, moving from dark to light is a metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge. Acquiring knowledge has to do with expanding one’s horizon of understanding, and the title of the work, Rise, has exclusively positive associations, says Johnsen, smiling.
The sensation of expansion recurs in Anne-Lise Brun’s monumental work Homostasis which fills most of the wall of the building’s auditorium. Distinct, heterogeneous, organic forms depicted using many transparent layers of coloured pastel on relatively large birch-veneer panels are evocative of microscopic sections, undersea environments, and frozen landscapes. Warm and cold colours interact under a varnish that is only detectable by a trained eye, and a rhythmic interchange between empty and open surfaces creates a pulsing musicality in the two storeys that Brun was commissioned to fill.
Brun has created a work that can best be described as an on-site artistic research project.
– Brun applies chalky pastels and laboriously conjures up organic patterns by drawing layer upon layer. The transparency she achieves emphasizes the wood-grain of the panels she is working on and contributes to increasing the sense of depth in the work. The use of materials, the colours and the organic expression give a nod to Modernism, but without making it programmatic. This is not so different from the way many young artists work today, concludes Hammer Stien.
So far, Hanne Hammer Stien and Jenny-Marie Johnsen are very happy with the realization of the overall art project for MH2. Not least, the response from employees at the Health Sciences Faculty has encouraged Johnsen and Hammer Stien in their view that their curatorial concept is working well.
– We have attached importance to artist presentations, not least to create a sense of ownership of the art by the users from the very start. This has been made possible by giving users information about the art projects directly from the artists.
When Gunilla Klingberg presented her art project, the feedback was very encouraging. One member of staff, who is involved with training nurses, even thought that the work could function as a starting point to introduce students to the nursing study programme. In fact, it’s the case that the complexity of the symbols encompasses both the physical and the psychological aspects of the field, says Johnsen with satisfaction.
Read more about the prosject at MH2 here.
The conversation with Jenny-Marie Johnsen and Hanne Hammer Stien took place at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway, on Thursday 14 June, and in general took as its starting point the works already installed in MH2. Olav Christopher Jenssen’s art project for the Council Chamber and the Antechamber on the top floor of the building and the art projects by Espen Gleditsch and Marianne Bjørnmyr in the discussion zones are not discussed in this conversation. Interviews with all the artists who have contributed to the relevant art projects will be published on Public Art Norway’s website in the period leading up to the official opening of MH2 on 14 August.
About Hanne Hammer Stien
– I have a PhD in art history and work as a university lecturer at the Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art and Creative Writing at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. In recent years, I have also worked on five curatorial projects: MH2; a second public-art project for Hammerfest Municipality funded by Public Art Norway (the relocation of Inger Sitter’s Composition in Yellow and the newly commissioned painting Forge and Hover by Marianne Hurum, which was unveiled officially in autumn 2017); an artistic intervention at the Arctic Museum by Katja Aglert titled Antifreeze: Rehearsals as Score (exhibition runs November 2017- January 2018); Festival Exhibition 2018: Department for Nature and Art (Festivals in Northern Norway 23-30 June); and Songlines Tromsø, a public-space project commissioned by Tromsø Municipality with support from Public Art Norway (an app with six soundworks which will be launched on 13 October).
About Jenny-Marie Johnsen
– My artistic activities centre mainly on cosmic ideas. On 21 August 2017, I photographed a total solar eclipse in Wyoming, USA. Total Solar Eclipse 2017 had its debut at Galleri Nord-Norge Harstad on 21 Octorber, at my solo exhibition Lux Aeterna, Circle of Life 2017. The project was also presented during the Nordic exhibition The interplay between the local and the global 2018, at the Nordic Contemporary Art Centre in Xiamen, China in April. On 1 July, my exhibition Spacetime 2018 opened in the room at the back of the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø.