AK Dolven

AK Dolven cultivates a curious relationship to nature. Filming dramatic landscapes and seascapes in her native Norway, the London-based artist has created films that depend on exceptional occurrences, from the year’s longest day (when the sun never sets) to the fog miraculously rising above a mountain where countless birds flock. Such scenes—however striking—serve as a duplicitous framework in which viewers are invited to watch not just nature but other people watching nature.

Take between two mornings, 2004, where four women—naked and bald—sit perched on rocks at the seashore and watch the never-setting sun bob along the horizon. In moving mountain, 2004, two young women exchange wary sidelong glances to the roar of the birds hovering at the foggy mountaintop. These human figures disturb the main picture; like snuggling or bickering lovers in a cinema, they are involved in stories that can never be absorbed by the view or by other viewers. Here references to Caspar David Friedrich and Edvard Munch—whose paintings Dolven has reworked in video—miss the mark, as do nods to the sublime, which veer toward romanticism if not kitsch. Dolven comes much closer, rather, to the erotically charged voyeurism in the novels of Witold Gombrowicz, who used nature, not the city, as a setting for human strangeness and perversion. Dolven’s pairing of natural and human “exceptions” seems to rewrite the naturalist landscape tradition—no small feat in Norway.

Dolven set up a more palpable disturbance for her five DVDs of domestic interiors; the “indoor films” were all installed behind walls outfitted with tiny peepholes. Duchamp and his Etant donnés, 1946–66, may well be the reference—notably in stairs, 2002, whose nude gets dressed as she descends the staircase—yet there is only one hole per screen. Each portal pleases while frustrating proximity to the image; instead, viewers get close to each other while lining up for a look. The spare interiors are inhabited by silent figures, at once strange and familiar, caught up in rituals involving reversal or repetition: An elderly woman climbs into a girl’s bed for a snooze; a woman puts her finger into the mouth of a sleeping man; a man feeds another man instead of the baby or the elderly woman at the dinner table. Reversals and repetitions have become familiar features of Dolven’s video works—perhaps too familiar; it may be time for revisions here.

The most remarkable (and least visible) works in this show remain the paintings, “can women think c, d, e, f, g and h,” 2004, a series named after a study of women philosophers. Notoriously difficult to photograph, the paintings are composed of countless layers and shades of white; the razor-flat surfaces appear to be monochrome but contain abstract forms, like circles and crosses, which can be perceived only by looking at the paintings from different angles. Without moving around one can hardly tell them apart. Dolven suggests that protecting the auratic value of painting—seeing it in person instead of just identifying its reproduction—means undoing not just figuration but perceptibility itself. Each painting is a tabula rasa; each viewing original, unique, and necessary; each photograph of the work utterly useless.

Jennifer Allen