Controlled Coincidences and New Realities
One can access the work of the artist Ninia Sverdrup in three ways: through reality as an excerpt, through reality derived from image and sound, and through reality in time and space. At the end of these paths one thing always remains: the clash between chance and control.
Sverdrup’s video series Urban Scenes (IV-XII, 2005-2011) captures everyday events and occurrences in urban surroundings: on the street, in parks and train stations, at snack stands or gas stations. At first, trivial scenes are simply observed by the camera from a set, immobile position. The shown scene always remains an excerpt of an otherwise fleetingly recorded scenery, which is tracked with persistence. People and cars move within the excerpt, sometimes they appear on a new level as autonomous elements, they disappear again, suddenly, or fade out, as in Urban Scenes XII: Petrol Station (2011).
Each of these videos runs as a loop, without the cut being noticeable. The repetition of single fragments of action seems like sequences of vague déjà vu impressions, they turn the scenery into a stage for insouciant games. The absurdity of these contemporary vedute becomes even more fantastical when Sverdrup digitally incorporates the mirrored images of architectural elements, which only catch the eye at second or third glance (Urban Scenes XI: Last Station, 2009).
The sound belonging to these video recordings – which one expects to hear when viewing the images due to everyday experience – cannot be heard. Sverdrup reconstructs it in her studio. She works selectively: Only individual sounds such as footsteps, the tinkling of glass bottles, single cars or keys opening doors are recreated, reconstructed and subsequently integrated in the scenes. The sounds that are connected to these events seem concentrated, highlighted, over-present and thus unreal. An especially surprising aspect of this sonic presence is that apparently no consideration is taken for the spatial distance of individual actions: Things that are seen far in the background are put in the scene’s acoustic foreground, for example the badminton players in Urban Scenes V: Park (2005).
At the same time, all sounds from the surroundings are missing, traffic and voices are blinded out. This causes the supposedly disturbing background noise, which is not disturbing in everyday life because it is barely noticed, to reach a new presence through its very absence. The atmosphere that results here paradoxically through its apparent unreality creates a new, concentrated and controlled reality, which directs the viewer’s gaze and perception towards a kind of para-world.
The focus lies on the existence of the absent, silence and emptiness. With the alteration of the perception of time and space and the apparent loss of rationality connected to it, emptiness is subjected to revaluation here, which becomes spatial experience over time, and puts temporal experience into perspective.
Sverdrup has been engaged with the dimensionality of time and space since early on in her work; with the concept of ma, rooted in Japanese culture and thought for centuries, she has found a term that comes closer to her sensibilities than the traditional Western concepts, as it defines space as non-static and time as non-linear. Ma understands spatial dimensions as part of the temporal dimension and vice versa. In Sverdrup’s work it seems like she wants to follow time to insert it into a given coordinate system of spatial experience as temporal experience. So, this principle is so to speak about the fusion of the temporal level with the spatial, i.e. the visual level.
The control that time is subjected to by being spliced into smaller temporal units is only seemingly control in light of the ma concept. The point of departure for Sverdrup’s Urban Scenes series is the video Tid i New York (Time in New York, 2003), in which she compiles fragments of everyday life with a by all means performative approach. Sverdrup makes routine actions that are almost never consciously noticed in self-observation visible for herself and the viewer of the video by determinedly mapping out time, for example by counting the steps between everyday activities in her apartment, or filming the minutes between two stations of a subway ride.
All of this emerges as more than simply documentation. The timer of these videos is chewing gum, which after she chewed, that is to say “worked with” in irregular intervals, was meticulously sealed, labeled and archived. This way, the artist creates a laboratory situation in which she reorganizes or seeks to reorder time and action fragments in an ongoing experiment.
The cumulation of apparently autonomous fragments also comes to light in Sverdrup’s drawings. Such as in Urban Rorschach: Terrace (2009). She drew the foreshortened outlines of a street view freehand in pencil, and layered the flat painted shape of (again mirrored) rows of trees upon it. The acrylic paint was applied with a stencil roll, highlighting the divergence between depth and two-dimensionality. To realize that the shown foliage of the trees is a mirrored image once again requires a second glance.
The title of this drawing series, Urban Rorschach, refers to the idea that underlies the use of mirrored images, also those in the video pieces: the principle of the Rorschach test, (which aims to evoke associations and thus serves to analyse personality profiles based on randomly generated inkblots) is used by Sverdrup as a method to transfer the chance image into an area of control.
For her early conceptual piece Min att göra-lista (My To-Do List, 2001), Sverdrup noted down four ”necessary” tasks as well as the day and location of their completion, and planned several hours, often a whole workday for doing them. The completion of these tasks was subsequently documented in writing, like entries in a diary. This diary is evidence of a yet linear perception of time, but the planning and completion of the enterprises in absurd time slots makes the search for a new experiencing of time visible.
In the course of this project, for example, she extended the duration of her stay in a post office to eight hours for the purchase of three postal stamps. During this time period, of course, coincidental, unplanned individual situations occured (the behaviour of clerks, the choice of stamps and so on), which then were available to her as material for the controlled creation of a new time or action plan. So, in this piece an interaction or contrast between control and coincidence occured, which already posed a characteristic aspect for her artistic investigation of the perception of time.
Now, one might assume that Sverdrup leaves nothing to chance, whether visual or acoustic, in the selective contemplation in her video work. However, it proves that chance is her source material, by using it and manipulating it with artistic means she subjects it to her control. The complex mental origination process in her work is not always and not necessarily immediately visible, but it is evident, if not at first sight.
Peer Golo Willi
English translation by Zoë Miller