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Corner posts, clues or bearing points

Art and death. A usermanual
Forfatter: Kjetil Røed
Forlag: Res Publica (Norge)
PICTURE ART / Can art function as a correction to discrimination, self-denial and self-contempt? And can an "instruction manual" be a beautiful event in Norwegian non-fiction?


Art critic and visual arts editor Kjetil Røed's new book Art and death. A usermanual is an independent sequel to Art and life (2020) – where Røed examined artistic experiences and essential values ​​such as attention, judgment and solidarity in society. This time it is the artistic experiences of the personal: in death and old age. Art and death is Røed's most personal book, dedicated to Røed's uncle Trygve (1932-2013) – which is also made a turning point.

Røed sends us to London. With the introductory reference to The ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger encourages the reader to examine his perspectives ("impressions and interpretations") – as Holbein painted the famous distorted skull hidden in the ordinary spectator perspective. Or as Wittgenstein's "aspect eclipse" may also seem to be expressed in Anne Katrine Dolven's film loop Moving Mountain (2004), a video loop where the perspective is a patient contemplation of the fog that slowly eases and disappears.

Holbein, The Ambassadors

The preparation of death

Investigating Uncle Trygve's life turns out to be difficult. When Holbein the Younger portrayed the ambassadors de Dinteville and de Selve in 1533, it was these who possessed science and power. But in the portrait of Uncle Trygve there is no globe, no exotic maps, no new world, no leather-bound hymnbook, no mathematical and astronomical instruments, no lye or oriental rugs, no crucifix. It's just Hamar, and the most exotic is the view of the flat settlements from the grain silo over Martodden.

No globe, no exotic maps, no new world, no leather hymnbook, no mathematical and astronomical instruments…

Røed takes us into the investigations of Trygves Røed's life. These investigations prove to be difficult since Trygve did not leave as much documentation that could reveal life's major events. The uncle worked all his life in Det norske Skogfrøverk – and the most exciting object or most interesting attribute is a Norwegian-made ordinary gray sack from the war. But even the most withdrawn life turns out to contain a number of unresolved questions.

Tor Børresen. Death To All Golfers

Why did Uncle Trygve reject the conversation with a priest when he was lying on his deathbed? Why did Trygve move to Hamar? Why did the uncle live two separate lives, one on Lier outside Drammen where he came from, and one on Hamar – with Lake Mjøsa as a river of oblivion in between?

Trygve is a Stoic in Hamar. Røed points out the similarities between Nordic secular life and the materialism of antiquity. Without the religious aspect, there are no thoughts of reunion: We do not know much. We are born and we must die. We are all going to disappear. Fear comes when one is not prepared. Cicero's fear of death disappeared after he wrote the book about the good life. Happiness is avoiding wanting something that is unattainable, Epicurus wrote.

The art of disappearing

I Art and life (2020), art was of great importance as a resonance in order to be able to read society. Here the art experiences function more as corner posts, clues or bearing points to find other points of view when we are confronted with difficult questions about life, or to be able to gather the threads, as Røed exemplifies in Elin Eine's embroidery Holes in the heart (2020): "Rather, the point is to reshape the daily work that takes you away from the fear, anxiety, self-loathing that is characterized by oppression and stereotypes." Art can here function as a correction to discrimination, self-denial and self-contempt.

In the anthology Turning points (Kalliope, 2021) Finn Skårderud describes the loss of something known (what you know what is) as black grief, while the absence of something you have never had (absence of "nothing") is a white or transparent grief. It may look like it is such a white landscape or sea of ​​fog that eventually reveals itself to the wanderer in Røed's book. Røed moves, like a caring investigator, a descendant – or like an ambassador gently carrying Uncle Trygve's urn, the remains that are to be brought back to nature.

He brings in Caspar David Friederich's painting The wanderer over the sea of ​​fog (1818), but in Røed's book it may seem as if the hiker has dived into the fog with the ashes of Uncle Trygve in a landscape without rugged mountains – it is on the Hedmark plateau that it takes place, in an almost mythical landscape. In the axis between art and death there are paths, one of them is called Life. A woman appears as the link between Uncle Trygve's two worlds, and somewhere in the fog is the cabin.

The leaps Røed makes are interesting: From Holbein's powerful ambassadors, we as readers are brought via Dagny Tande Lid's sensitive flora work to the works of powerless Yugoslav prisoners of war. Until Røed refers to a skull, chiseled out of a golf ball, which originates from Tor Børresen's exhibition Death To All Golfers (2004). An understatement about what kind of life life can bring.

Visibility and invisibility

Art and death is no crime that gives a striking answer in the last chapter, and that's what's so nice about it. Perhaps the book is not just a book about art and death, but also about visibility and invisibility. Røed does not collect the threads, but he presents the threads so that we can put them together ourselves. Everything does not have to be explained. For what did Uncle Trygve actually have with him in his luggage, in the gray sack? The reader must tie the threads together after the book has been read, sort slow understanding from the different perspectives and try to find context. In fact, this is how this book works as a kind of instruction manual.

Røed's project is a portrait of someone who spoke softly and walked quietly. I'm not sure if the book could have been written anywhere other than in Norway – and that is a positive intention! Not only because of Norway's investment in the field of non-fiction, support schemes such as Fritt Ord and NFFO's non-fiction scheme, but also since Norwegian society so far strives to be an anti-hierarchical society. Røed's project shows why non-fiction as a form is extremely interesting. He chooses to examine sensitivity rather than write it in the form of a novel. Røed is one of Norway's best non-fiction writers, and the way he handles the non-fiction format has become great art, great poetry. The book is a beautiful event in Norwegian non-fiction.

Marianne Solberg
Marianne Solberg
Solberg is a regular critic in Ny Tid.

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