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PRINT March 2004

WALL TO WALL: THE ART OF KRISTINA BRÆIN

AT ONE END OF A GALLERY, WHERE THE ELONGATED SPACE IS SEPARATED FROM A surrounding park only by a wall of windows, the eye fixes on a handrail that could be a dancer’s barre. The stretch of wall on which it is mounted appears slightly darker than the rest of the gallery—on a closer look it becomes clear that the white paint has been sanded off to expose raw concrete underneath; this area reaches up from the floor to a point slightly above the bar and is bordered by pale yellow masking tape. The arrangement seems to be reflected in the plate glass, until, coming closer, one notices that the window is actually open and that the apparent reflection is in fact a continuation of the installation: There is another rail on the concrete wall outside that almost meets the first one, at the point where interior becomes exterior. And so the “reflection” turns out to be an inversion rather than a copy—the result of taking up the relationship of inside and outside already prevalent in the building’s architecture and turning them inside out. Like a Möbius strip in space, the sculptural installation provides a kind of performative architecture that can be read as a metaphor for the dialectical play of supposedly opposite sites.

The intervention described above is a representative moment in the oeuvre of Norwegian artist Kristina Bræin. It appeared at the Venice Biennale last summer as one of a series of site-specific works she titled The Dilemma of Politeness and installed in the Nordic pavilion as part of the exhibition I cocurated there with Anne-Karin Jortveit. Built in 1962, that structure, designed by Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn, heeds modernism’s call for rationality, which is nowhere more evident than in the building’s architectonic ground plan—a rectangular grid consisting of forty-eight large squares, each itself composed of forty-nine smaller tiles—rigorously derived from Le Corbusier’s modulor. Bræin disregarded the rigid rules of the existing plan. All of her works throughout a nine-year artistic career are likewise sly commentaries on modernism, its form as well as its ideology. Her favorite materials of fake-teak flooring and carpet swatches are clearly heirs to a modernist heritage, and the geometrical compositions that the artist creates out of these everyday items can be read as subversive redeployments of the vocabulary of minimalist abstraction. Indeed, the materials she uses are, if not secondhand, low-end (she buys her carpet tiles at the Norwegian megastore Carpet Country), and they seem to resist meticulous craftsmanship (her plastic paneling, for example, never quite meets at the junctions). And so the tiles she used in the pavilion came in all sizes and colors, and they were never neatly fixed into a rectangular grid but loosely arranged and piled on top of each other. Walking through the modernist building, one accidentally stepped on red and gray carpet squares slightly smaller than the pavilion’s white travertine floor tiles. In one corner, a cluster of them rested together with a towel on a fake-pine laminate floor cover.

In the middle of the room a row of imitation-teak panels formed a square that sat awkwardly askew on the gridded floor of the pavilion. At once elegant and clumsy, Bræin’s installations cohabit with the architecture that surrounds them and bring out some aspect of the space that normally escapes our eyes. With such interventions, Bræin playfully insists that one can deploy outmoded sculptural and architectural conventions without necessarily adhering to them: There’s always room for reinvention.

Bræin used the title for this type of engagement—The Dilemma of Politeness—once before, for a series of installations she made at the 2001 Norwegian Sculpture Biennial (curated by Maaretta Jaukkuri). Engaging both the other works in the exhibition and the space itself, Bræin positioned her subtle but concentrated spatial interventions throughout the venue. In one of the galleries that was carpeted, she did nothing more than put up a little shelf on which she displayed a hodgepodge of knickknacks, found objects, and other detritus—a tube of Chanel hand lotion, a plastic doggy, a tulip, an empty film box, and a dissected rubber finger. The title may have arisen as a response to the difficult task of reacting to something that is already there and which takes center stage, such as the awkwardly domestic carpeting of the gallery space. Indeed, the carpet seems to set the tone for Bræin’s jazzlike improvisations. The Dilemma of Politeness describes an ongoing struggle in Bræin’s work, which is always site-specific and relational to the surrounding context. The “dilemma” pertains to the difficulties of straddling the fine line between an appreciation of the existing material world and the thrill of overthrowing the old and outdated. Her installations place an accent on what we might describe as a room’s “excess,” or “surfeit”: a dimension of the room that is already contained within the space but resides in its niches and margins. It might be a glut of material, a leftover, a detail—features typically overlooked that take the space beyond its central meaning and function. Perhaps a trace of something that hints at transformation and re-signification.

This year Bræin, who trained as a painter but also studied architectural history and holds a degree in music from the University of Oslo, extended her interrogations of modernist architecture in a solo exhibition titled “The Problem of Functionality,” currently on view at Oslo’s Stenersenmuseet. The municipal museum wasn’t built to be one: Part of an International Style office complex, it originally housed a community center, and later, the infamous rock club Sardine’s. In 1994 the city converted the space into a museum for modern and contemporary art. Devoid of natural light, obstructed by thick, weight-bearing columns and a metal staircase, the low-ceilinged, multicornered space is a far cry from the white cube. Indeed, it triggers associations with student unions, locker rooms, even public lavatories. Bræin’s works, which are dispersed throughout the space, take pleasure in this collapse of form and function by exaggerating it: The windowless galleries are kept semidark; two small lampshades dangle without bulbs from a wall. Underneath one of these helpless twins, three rays of bright yellow masking tape “shine” on the wall. The functionless lamps, bereft of their symbolic power and ridiculed as well, are little more than stains on the wall, a kind of visual noise. The distracted viewer who bumps into a floor sculpture a few steps away from the entrance is led on a course that doesn’t follow a linear narrative but links a series of views with no apparent significance. Every encounter between visitor and art is only one out of many possible perspectives, permitting only arbitrary and subjective perceptions of the works.

Perhaps another way to describe Bræin’s ingenious commentaries, reactions, and inversions of the main logic of any room is to say that the artist’s installations advocate the out-of-the-question. In the spirit of the impractical, they shed light on the impossible, the invisible, and the unspeakable, which contest the programmed organization of the surrounding architecture. Bræin’s focus on materials that are nonrepresentative or simply not recognizable as pieces of art, such as bits of domestic para- phernalia, manages to make the sculptures blur into the gallery space, to seem like both sculptural pockets and discomfiting, unkempt space. One could call them postformal interventions: Masking tape on partly painted walls, loose tiles, and decontextualized bits of furniture (a shelf, a handrail) are the ingredients for her spatial ensembles—ensembles that aren’t anchored in tectonic space but temporarily set up, makeshift, ready to be moved again. While certain materials—carpet, masking tape, tiles—are recurring tropes in her work, Bræin continually finds fresh ingredients (often remnants of the installation’s own making). In Venice, for example, she placed on a shelf cardboard boxes, an empty water bottle, a little box with plastic bags, and the discarded packaging from cosmetics she had bought at the airport. Although her compositions are always simple, even minimal, Bræin unhinges the clean and impersonal vocabulary of Minimalism with the coincidences of a private life. Her works are charged with the tensions between the understated and the bold, the restricted and the free, formal language and personal style.

Bræin also sabotages, destabilizes, and perverts the long-consecrated high-culture position of a male-dominated high-modernist style by inserting and inscribing fragments of repressed domestic life. In Area I, a piece she did for Norway’s UKS Biennial in 1998 (curated by Søssa Jørgensen and Maria Lind), for example, an orange patterned towel hung neatly on a towel rack mounted on the wall. A long, red rectangular field covered the otherwise white wall from just underneath the rail to the floor. On a patch of painted flooring that mirrored the wall’s red rectangle sat an old white grill-oven demarcating the left end of the red region. To the right of this crimson field a white power outlet suddenly became a prominent feature. In this dramatically incarnadine scene, outlet, oven, and towel were rivals competing for attention. The installation somehow made you want to move this or that a little and create further derivatives of this useless architecture. If architectural spaces have represented the putative civilizing influence of patriarchy, then the domestic playfulness and instinctual chaos associated with femininity are valid and crucial counterparts that can destabilize and desublimate patriarchal culture’s drive to cleanliness and regulation. All these disturbing elements that modernism had tried to do away with were suppressed only to reemerge in Bræin’s installations with renewed strength from the unconscious of the spaces.

By intervening with forms and materials that somehow lie both inside and outside the governing logic of the room, Bræin’s works follow a philosophy of the unexpected and absurd. This is a strategy that playfully fights against the “philosophy of the possible,” which rules so many aspects of our lives. Bræin’s improvised interventions express potentials of another sort, work according to another kind of plan. Without advocating pure anarchy, her ephemeral arrangements formulate a way out of the suffocating sense of too much programmed, instrumentalized space within our built environment.

Andrea Kroksnes is senior curator at the Museet for Samtidskunst, Oslo.