"There's Something in the Woods and the Waters that we have Lost in the City" (artist talk) 2020
UNIVERSITY OF BERGEN, FACULTY FOR ART, MUSIC AND DESIGN
'It has always been the business of the great seers (known to India as ‘rishis,’ in biblical terms as “prophets,” to primitive folk as ‘shamans,’ and in our own day as ‘poets’ and ‘artists’) to perform the work of the first and second functions of a mythology by recognizing through the veil of nature, as viewed in the science of their times, the radiance, terrible yet gentle, of the dark, unspeakable light beyond, and through their words and images to reveal the sense of the vast silence that is the ground of us all and of all beings.'
Joseph Campbell, The Historical Atlas of World Mythology.
Ellen Ringstad is a Portuguese-Norwegian artist venturing into her own monomyth somewhere in the woods, waters and mountains on the Norwegian west coast, safeguarded by her two parrot companions Galadriel and Aphrodite.
She graduated with a BA from the Bergen National Academy of the Arts, Fine arts department in 2012. Her works have been presented in various ruinous and neglected places - as above so below - on land and at sea. Notable sites include the discontinued Olavsvern submarine base, a World War bunker, and infinite monkey cages.
Her performative multi-sensory installations make use of surplus materials and waste, living plants and animals. Through ritualistic transformations drawing parallels to alchemy and other occult philosophy, these elements mutate into post-apocalyptic biotopes attempting to propel the dystopian imagination out of orbit, hopefully creating a dwelling for utopian consciousness.
Ellen intends to formulate some thoughts about waste-to-value systems, existential freedom and shaping identity within structures of oppression, all within the context of Spaceship Earth and her own works.
SCRIPT / TRANSCRIPT
"THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE WOODS AND THE WATERS THAT WE HAVE LOST IN THE CITY"
"What is the goal of life? It is to create yourself a soul."
- Alejandro Jodorowsky
Hello everyone and welcome to this artist presentation. My name is Ellen, and I'll try to convey some thoughts about my past present and future artistic practice. Thank you Terese and Mark [Sorry, I meant Alex!] for persuading me to do this.
If you're having trouble following my pronunciation, or just interested in finding out more, I'll post a transcript of this talk on my slightly outdated webpage, in which case check out the link in the description below.
Joining me today: my small but very intelligent co-parrots, Galadriel and Aphrodite, to prevent me from speaking too tangentially I hope, they're a bit edgy today, so we'll see how that goes.
Working with animals myself included is always dynamic. I'll be jumping back and forth in time and concepts, but I'll try to stay more or less on track in the the mindmap of my otherwise chaotic psyche.
SETTING THE STAGE
“The existential analysts, as we have discovered, distinguish three modes of world —that is, three simultaneous aspects of world— which characterize the existence of each one of us as being in the world. First, there is Umwelt, literally meaning “world around”; this is the biological world, generally called in our day the environment. There is, second, the Mitwelt, literally the “with world,” the world of beings of one’s own kind, the world of one’s fellow men. The third is Eigenwelt, the “own world,” the world of relationship to oneself.”
- Rollo May, The Discovery of Being.
I'm recording this presentation in my fairyland, my dreamscape, I love it here, where I live more or less in blissful isolation and in co-existence with the elements, nature, my animals. It's a result of me wanting to immerse more into my artworks, as they have evolved from cityscape ruins, formal experiments to material explorations, to scenographical installations, but on the dystopian side. So, as I've integrated nature more and more into my installations, I more and more want to integrate my installations into nature and to create a closed circuit here – speaking of – and eventually I would like to be self-sustained with fruits and vegetables, compost all organic materials. Water flows directly from the source here, and power is supplied by a local hydropower station.
At some point I wish to establish a small residency programme in the guesthouse by the lake for artists, curators, musicians, architects, writers, designers, ecologists etc, who wish to exchange ideas based on common interests in harmonious settings.
But first they must ritualistically cross the river Lethe, which in Greek mythology was the river of forgetfulness, one of five rivers in Hades, the Underworld, “to wash away the perplexities of their minds and so wash young again”.
But for now, I will focus solely on developing the preliminary outline of my magnum opus in peace and quiet. As I heard in a meditation once: It is in stillness we can hear the echoes of our soul.
What I envision is for my life and my art to merge. Real-life magic is what I'm aiming for, on an much broader scale than what I've created before, and with a much longer timeframe in mind, somewhere in the landscape beyond the imaginary, the symbolic and the real, referencing the French psychoanalysist Jacques Lacan. Lacan uses the metaphor of the Borromean knot to explain the structure of his his triad: If you cut one of the rings, the remaining two are set free1.
So I've briefly introduced my plans for the future, but every positive has a negative, and now we'll have a look at the opposite side of the spectrum from where I left and gradually return to the hopeful.
THE MAZE AND THE GAZE
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"
- Arthur C. Clarke
In this epileptic video montage from 2015, five words frenetically alternate over a videoclip of two fish fighting over territory. The words are Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and the two other words Rollo May does not mention in his book, but which I find equally important, the Ünterwelt - the Underworld - and the Überwelt or spiritual dimension, all engaging in an exhausting battle against each other.
2In 2015 I was invited by Kurant Visningsrom to participate in the group show “Nothing will grow together because nothing Belongs together” at the decommissioned Olavsvern Naval Base.
Until 2009 it was a top-secret military base hidden within the mountains in Northern Norway, outside Tromsø. It is a massive construction from the cold war era with tunnels, halls for storing ammunition, workshops, and a submarine dock.
My contribution consisted of three separate scenes at different locations inside the base. The three rooms 'communicate' aesthetically and conceptually, as if magic powers and secret portals could transverse, transgress and transcend the un-penetrable, atomic-proof walls of the vast structure, implying that the rules of truth and logic can be defied by the way in which we think about 'reality'.
[Ellen bilde] Magic can be used for good or for ill, as in white magic vs black magic. However the lines between the two aren't always clear: sometimes good intensions yield bad results and other times evil intensions may yield favourable results. And also, the distinction between right and wrong is often a matter of perspective.
The title of my trilogy was “The Wind Failed to Follow the Predictions”.
Those were the words used by AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss' to the press on March 31 1954, in response to criticism regarding the detonation of the 'Bravo' hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, and the following fall-out contamination of the Japanese fishing vessel 'Daigo Fukuryo Maru' or Lucky Dragon number five.
This title implies that we aren't entirely in control of our creative or destructive actions.
Without a map, one can certainly feel claustrophobic in the seemingly endless tunnels and halls of Olavsvern, like a lost Minotaur embodied within the labyrinthine, disorientated human brain.
In his play No Exit, existentialist Jean Paul Sartre's portrays Hell as a closed room with no doors or windows, where three people who don't get along are trapped forever in the same repetitive discussions.
If you've heard the expression “Hell is other people, that's where it originated. What that means as I understand it, is that we see ourselves through the eyes of others, and as a result we loose our personal heading.
In Hall 13 a programmable lighting unit called a moving head illuminates the room. Shadows are cast on the walls, through the left-behind projectile racks.
For this piece I had Plato's Allegory of the Cave in mind. In Plato's Republic, Socrates explains that philosophers are like prisoners who were freed from a cave and that the shadows cast on the walls must not be confounded with reality.
But how do you look behind the scenes of your mind, using your own mind as an instrument? And how can we relate peacefully to our surroundings if we don't first attend to our Eigenwelt, our personal world?
In Hall 32 I display a quote from the science fiction novel Solaris by polish author Stanislaw Lem - a novel I've referenced many times in my work. The planet Solaris has the ability to project our worst trauma back at us, especially what we try to repress. The suggestion is that sometimes outward explorations can be an escape from inner explorations. In the quest for truth, to be an astronaut and to be a psychonaut are two sides of the same venture.
Outside Hall 32 there's a so-called blast trap. A video is projected on a crane which almost seems to come alive, and the projection gets further distorted on the irregular walls.
This act is titled Graveyard Spiral. A graveyard spiral is when an aircraft spins out of control.
The found footage stems from a 1960s, US Navy, Aviation training film, on Gyroscopes. Gyroscopes are used for essential flight instruments to determine turn, slip, attitude and direction.
Disorientation, or vertigo, is a state of temporary spatial confusion resulting from misleading information sent to the brain by various sensory organs. It can arise if you don't trust your flight instruments in low visibility situations.
In the video montage Nystagmic Eye, found footage of the nervous eye movement of a patient with vertigo (a symptom called 'Nystagmus') is placed within a triangle, reminiscent of the masonic symbol often referred to as the Eye of Providence or the all-seeing eye of so-called God.
The six pointed star, which in these days is mostly associated with Judaism, consists of two equilateral triangles, one pointing upwards and the other downwards. Some occultists believe that it represents the female and male in perfect harmony. So these upward pointing sharp triangles insinuate a disproportionate power distribution between the sexes.
Being a man-made cave, I imagined Olavsvern as an embodiement of the female womb, literally filled with male firepower, sometimes forcefully so.This animation is based on a map of the site, and is titled Esoteric Warfare. War is archetypically considered a masculine force, and nature, as in Mother Nature, a feminine energy. Gender asymmetry and dominating patriarchal values is possibly one reason explaining why the Earth gets disrespected, pillaged and raped.
In the video Triangulation a female character, dressed in a black robe and yellow rubber washing gloves, pushes a washing trolley along the lines of a sharp isosceles triangle. Her footprints are recorded on the layer of mould which has accumulated on the floor over the years.
This erratic ritual finally charges her with enough power to break free of the form. She seemingly vanishes through the wall, then reappears in a endless loop. But as in Popper's falsification theory, you cannot really know whether this action will repeat forever, or if she manages to escape at some point.
The video is shown on a television screen in Hall 32. And if you walk all the way down to Hall 27, you'll literally see the footprints from her banishing ritual on the mouldy floor. As visitors walk around the hall, the triangle is wiped out step by step, like the famous erased De Kooning by Robert Raushenberg, and what eventually remains is the cacophony of their own presence echoing between the walls.
Hall 27 was originally reserved for someone else. She was frustrated about having to wash the floor before mounting her installation, and I immediately felt the potential. Of all my works up til now, I think this one is my favorite. It's a delicate example of how I've learned to appreciate the overlooked.
Withdrawing from conflict can sometimes provide subversive opportunities and altered perspectives. But by being too subtile, one can get overrun unintentionally, which is literally what happened. Another artist occupied the space with her singing performance without prior agreement, and by doing so she overpowered the otherworldly sound of the spectator's own acoustic presence. Interestingly, most articles about the exhibition forgot to mention my name in the credits for this piece, which both sadly and poetically emphasizes my point.
This robotic fish swims around the aquarium until its batteries run out, in homage to the novel «Do Androids Dream of Electic Sheep» by Philip K. Dick and its filmatisation Blade Runner, which examines what it means to be human.
At the opposite side of room, yet another distressing video with a quote from the 1959 post-apocalyptic movie On the Beach, a film that portrays the final days of humanity, in the aftermath of a nuclear world war. A horn repeatedly sends out a morse coded message that echoes down the corridors.
"We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”
― T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
I often refer to my installations as being site-specific, context-sensitive, performative and interactive scenographies.
Site- and context specific because I kinda believe that materials and walk can talk if we only listen. The concept applies for anything, really. Just because you cannot sense something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. As a species we have developed microscopes, telescopes and various other instruments that allow to us to perceive things we wouldn't otherwise perceive. And so I believe that we should also develop our bodily senses, including our emotional intelligence towards our surroundings, nature, animals, other humans, maybe aliens.
Performative despite the fact that they rarely contain live performances, unless you count the animals.
Of course the act of staging and constructing is a performance in itself, but what I mean is that I rarely have a performer combined with the audience present, if so, I only leave traces behind.
In my installation Discontinue at the discontinued grain silo which now houses the Bergen School of Architecture, I constructed a house slash shelter-like structure made mostly out of reclaimed materials.
You can enter the door and lock it from the inside, walk up a stairway, sit in the chair next to a small fish bowl with a goldfish swimming in circles, an aquarium kitsch shipwreck decoration, and watch the film Ascend / Desend, in which two superimposed recordings of an elevator moving up and down simultaneouly in an endless loop.
The grain shaft extends all the way up to the roof of the building, and at the top I mounted a single light bulb, to raise the head towards the sky and emphasize the height.
That particular intervention was inspired two works especially: [Bilde], First, Ilja Kabakov's «The Man who flew into space from his apartment» and George Lucas' first movie THX 1138.
I named the goldfish THX 1981 by the way, which is my birth year.
What I hope is to suspend the visitor's disbelief, as if being physically inside the fantasy of a movie perhaps, and to have a truth through lies experience
My use of reclaimed materials and liminal spaces is a form of attempted alchemy, trying to find value and purpose in the mundane. For this collaborative exhibition, I trolled the streets of Stavanger to find forgotten and left over plastic. The sheets were then melted by hand layer by layer into a 3 by 3 meter membrane. The inside of the room was empty except for a fragile sound piece by Victoria Kielland, and my wall light sculpture with blinking fluorescent light bulbs, which were close to drawing their last electric current.
Here's another immersive example of let's call it outsider art, although all participants can be labelled insider artists. The group show pOTSYd, which I co-curated in 2013, was located literally in the Bergen underground, more precisely in a World War II bunker that hadn't been accessible to the public in decades, so we narrated a mythology about young artist explorers seeking shelter from an alien occupying force, a.k.a the first edition of Bergen Assembly, and we based the parable on Ludwig Holberg' novel Niels Klims Underground Travels- one the world's first science fiction novels. The protagonist falls into a cave on Mount Fløyen in Bergen, and discovers the utopian state of Potu, which spells Utop backwards. And hence pOTSYd, or dystop.
"The persona was the mask worn by actors in Greek and Roman drama The mask had a megaphone-type mouth to throw the sound out into an open-air theater. Per means «through» and «sona» means what the sound comes through. That's the mask. How to be a a «real» person, how to be genuinley fake – a mask"
- Alan Watts
When Dante enters the Inferno, he finds an inscription at the entrance, which in modern English reads something like this: "I say: In the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of hell." It's a reference to The Book of Isaiah: «Ego Dixi: In dimidio dierum meorum vadam ad portas inferi». I was the same age as Dante when I made this new-age inspired piece, and interpreted that syncronicity as a sign.
Alistair Crowley calls Magick – with a ck to distinguish it from illusionism – the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will. I cast my face into a Janus wax candle, then set fire to my past and the future that could have been, and so begun a process of therapeutic transmutation.
The Philosopher's stone, which was the ancient Alchemists dream of transmuting lead into gold, symbolizes immortality, perfection and enlightenment.
The literal attempts at gold making have been unsuccessful. Until recently. But “it comes at a great cost: all you need is a particle accelerator, a vast supply of energy, and an extremely low expectation of how much gold you can end up with”. I think that suits the alchemical metaphor very well.
"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive"
- Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth.
In a Shamanic Journey a few years back I encountered two of my spirit animals. One was the raven, associated with the Norse god Odin.
There are many theories as to what his two ravens Hugin and Munin symbolize, but some scholars believe that they represent Odin's ability to send his thoughts and mind into trance-like states. Odin worried that his ravens might fly away and never come back.
My second spirit animal is the octopus. The octopus is a shapeshifting escape artist who is prominent at blending into his environment.
Several years later, a monster squid was captured off the cost of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean. A newspaper notes that “The ocean surrounding the Portuguese Island of Madeira continues to produce creatures of legends”4.
I found that to be a poetic synchronicity, since I am half Norwegian and half Portuguese, more specifically Madeiran.
And so my journey of self-discovery transfers to the literal roots of my maternal roots, deep into the evergreen forests of the Laurissilva National Park, to search for the mythical creature APCLPSTK from the realm Beyond Good and Evil in the hopes of gaining some form of archetypal and primal knowledge.
Apocalypse literally means lifting of the veil. Lipstick is a potent symbol of feminine repression, suppression, expression and emancipation. The Church once declared that a woman who wore make up was a reincarnation of Satan.
The Hero's journey is a term coined by Joseph Campbell, who was a professor of comparative mythology and comparative religion. It's is an archetypal narrative in which the the protagonist goes on an adventure, faces hardships, sometimes death and rebirth, and then comes back transformed. Campbell emphasizes that myths aremetaphors for what lies behind the visible world.
One of the stages of my journey climbing up the Tree of Life was shown in an installation at Visningsrommet USF in 2018, with the very long title APCLPSTK – Therapeutic Utopias [Stage 2, scene 6, take 14 'Trust Yourself to the water].
The installation consists of an exo – the outside – and the eso – the inside. The outside is "part Wabi-sabi-zen-Buddhism inspired tea house, part Norwegian cottage, part tropical kitchen", part 80s hotel lobby maybe.
The fish are trained believe it or not, and if you wave at them, they will swim to greet you and accept your offerings in the form of food. One should certainly question the ethics of keeping animals in captivity, but it's not always a given. These Malawi ciclids were once on the brinck of exctinction. Then someone smuggled one female and one male out of the country, and because of that they are now one of the most kept species in the aquarium hobby.
The plants are some of the most efficient houseplants for air purification according to the NASA research program that examined ways to clean air in space stations. One of the aquatic plants is called Anubias, named after the Egyptian god of the underworld Anubis. I find these types of etymological correspondances intriguing. The red stones are Carnelians, which in Egyptian mythology was used for protection against evil spirits.
[Give me my heart.....]
The esoteric room screens a film with an intense surround soundpiece with frequencies that unfortunately cannot be emitted on your computer speakers. One could feel the bass that engulfed the otherwise empty space in an almost embryonic sonic membrane, as if inside the womb of a volcano.
The video is titled: 'At Night I turn and I face myself', another quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead . Visitors are served not a psychoactive but psychometric brew with plants from Madeira and it's a receipe stemming from my maternal grandmother. Psychometrics in psychology means measuring the soul or psyche.
The title structure is based on the theatre or movie jargon, plus a system of pathworking and correspondances. Pathworking is a kind of guided meditation, and was assimilated into C.G. Jungs analytical psychology under the term “active imagination” to serve as a form of psychic healing. Jung suggested that the participant to a certain degree looks on from the outside, but “is also an active and suffering figure in the drama” of the collective psyche.
The film consists of four parts. The second sequence is from a sacred fountain on the Island. According to titanic legends, it was here that the battle for the element of water took place. A crystal sphere reappears now and again, as if luring or guiding us deeper and deeper from the highest peaks into the Laurissilva forest covering the extinct volcano. It's the biggest of a few remaining laurel forests, with 90% primary vegetation, and is estimated to be somewhere between 15 and 40 million years old.
GARDENS OF THE GODS
“Everywhere animals disappear. In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance”
- John Berger. Why Look at Animals?
The first aquariums I included in my installations, were primarily meant as archetypal allegories for restraint, which is a paradoxical choice coming from someone who hates being caged. And existence itself is a cage. But whether it's restrictive or not is about context and mindset, and I'll demonstrate this with Aphrodite right now as I open her travel cage and let her into the room.
'Aut Caesar Aut Nihil' which means “all or nothing,” deals with the anxiety and madness that arises from setting unattainable goals. If you travel ad astra - to the stars – you'll literally burn, like Icaros.
My aquarium hobby has evolved into more or less stable ecosystems, and in theory it is possible to create closed biotopes which are self sustainable, but there are many things that can and will go wrong along the way. Cultivating our gardens, as Voltaire called for, is a complicated science. Nature does it so much better. And yet, cultivation is the key to feeding our expanding population, literally and metaphorically.
In Norway alone between 1999 and 2017, one out of four farms were discontinued as people flock to he cities, where maybe they simultaneously disconnect fromnature and the forces of nature within themselves.
As we destroy our biosphere, we're further restricting our options. Despite all our ventures, scientists haven't yet found a viable alternative for Earth. Take the experiment Biosphere II, which was an attempt at creating a closed livable ecological system that could be transferred to outer space. But what Biosphere II demonstrated in the end, is the utmost importance of looking after Biosphere I, our home.
In some nature-cultures it is customary to symbolically ask nature for permission to reap its fruits, and in so doing, to credit the feeding hand. Such gratitude is probably lost in the abstracted isles of the supermarket.
I think that humanity has a sort of identity crisis, and I'm inclined to believe that there's a correlation with the lack of myths and magical thinking in our day to day lives. Sometimes lies can tell us more about truth than truth itself. And so these reincarnations of goddess Aphrodite, Elven Queen Galadriel are here to teach me some valuable lessons.
I'll briefly disclose the first important thing I've learned from these small but very intelligent beings, which illustrates both humans vs nature dynamics, and serves as a utopian parable on interhuman-relationships.
Building trust and creating a common language requires respect, tolerance, curiosity and sensitivity.
I only practice what is called permission based training. What that means is I ask them if they're ready for something, and then they cue me back. I don't push beyond their comfort zone if they're not ready. And I cannot stress the following point enough: No means no. Just because she wanted to be cuddled a minute ago, does not mean she's up for it now.
You'll be forgiven a few mistakes, depending on the strength of your relationship, but if you persist on overstepping their boundaries, one of two things will happen. Either they'll take flight. And if they're cornered, they will fight.
But if the relationship is based on mutual understanding, they might just return by their own free will.