MARIANNE HESKE OR THE ART OF RELOCATION, text by Nicolas Bourriaud

In 1980, after ten years of training in Paris and in London, and then at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, Marianne Heske returned to Norway, where she was born. In the mountains that surround Tafjord, she found a log cabin from the seventeenth century. In a completely isolated location within the overwhelming natural surroundings of the Scandinavian alps, accented by dramatic fjords cut from granite, this mountain cabin was used to store hay, and sometimes used as a makeshift shelter.  Although small in scale, the cabin is composed of rough hewn logs placed one on top of the other with a stone foundation at the base; a rough framework constitutes the doorway, and the roof is covered with grass and lichen. On the inside and outside walls, the various occupants of this cabin have whittled their names, or left simple drawings, the oldest of which evoke cave paintings. In short, the cabin that Marianne Heske found, constructed from timber from the surrounding forests, seems at one with the natural surroundings. It almost seems embedded in the mountain like the pine or the birch, the glacier buttercup or the wood anémones in the crevices of the deep, winding inlets of the fjords.

All of this to arrive at this simple observation: to relocate this hut appears to be the least obvious idea. Marianne Heske’s project, selected for inclusion in the 1980 Paris biennial, nonetheless involved deconstructing this habitat, piece by piece, and transporting it to the Centre Pompidou in Paris for an exhibition. Anticipating that its users would leave multiple traces of their passage, Heske asked the Parisian visitors to add their own graffitti to the already existing markings before she dismantled the cabin and returned it to its original destination, one year later. 

This project is fascinating due to its complexity: questions regarding displacement, the participation of the viewer,  the notion of the readymade, are all addressed in a very original manner. Ultimately, the intricacies related to art in situ are turned inside out, like a glove. Surprisingly, there is very little written about the « Project Gjerdeloa », which seems to have been drowned in the reflux of conceptual art, perceptible from the early eighties, initiated by the « Aperto » section of the Venice biennial, the triumph of postmodern painting. 1980 is a  transitional year : the energy of the avant-garde and political activism loses steam. Within this ideological void, postmodernism manifested itself slowly but surely, and with it renewed faith in the image. Since 1977, a new generation of American artists (who would much later be called the « picture generation ») attempted to reconcile the criticism of the avant-garde artists of the sixties with the world of « new images » from new media and video, which was becoming more widespread.  Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Dara Birnbaum had their first exhibitions, drawing heavily on this visual universe. The same year, Marianne Heske produced the series « All the World’s a Stage » and « Phrenologic Self Portrait », which explored the power of the video image. Phrenology, the science of the cranial landscape, constituted for Heske a psychological equivalent to her geographical investigations. Phrenology localises in the protrusions and flat areas of a human head the passions and psychological characteristics of the person in question. Heske approaches the earth in the same way as the phrenologists study skulls: in her « video paintings » from the end of the seventies and early eighties, this is the imprint which is the key. The terrestrial crust is the skin, which is read as a text in its entirety. With these works, Heske anticipated the ecologists « Gaïa theory»,  meaning a perception of the planet as a living being one. Phrenology and video, geography and psychology, mountains and faces are in constant dialogue in Heske’s work. Such is the fundamental intuitiveness of her work, the primal scene which will result in other works.

Was she before her time ? Yes. « Project Gjerdeloa » didn’t resonate in its time the way it would much later, as it spawned numerous works based on similar ideas of displacement. Outside of Scandinavia, the renowned critic of New Realism, Pierre Restany, expressed the most enthusiasm, and continued to follow closely the development of this artist. Significantly, Restany comments strongly on Heske’s own thoughts on the subject of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, as noted by Per Hovdenakk: « I thought the hut would be regarded as a hut in Norway, whereas in Paris it would be seen as a manifestation of conceptual art ». This is significant because it is the description of the ideological process that proceeds the project, and Restany was particularly interested in these kinds of statements of intent. Restany wrote, « Apart from the seemingly naïve speculation regarding the change of scene and interpretation of an object outside its original context, the artist's attitude reveals a profound analytical capacity. Marianne Heske's gaze is the powerful creator and messenger of a vision centered on the essential relativity of perception. Her gaze is a question mark to realism itself. » Realism—touchstone of Restanian thinking. The relationship to the physical environment, and the ability of the artist to transcend it through a radical gesture, are the primary principles of his writing. The fact is that the « Project Gjerdeloa » represents a striking manifestation, an apparently simple act (displacing an object from one place to another), that could pass today as an important inaugural gesture within art history.

In art, what does this kind of displacement mean ? Within the common economical discourse, Michel Henochsberg writes in Nous nous sentions comme une sale espèce (We Felt Like a Dirty Kind), « the sphere of circulation is akin to the sphere of suspicion. The development of productive forces embodies the  ‘good sense’  of a beneficial economy, while the area of exchanges and money houses all the irregularities and wrongdoings of an unhealthy activity, due to the excesses of certain players on this level, merchants and bankers. » Today, shortly after the collapse of the financial bubble, this tendency is again reinforced. Production represents good, while trading and its derivitaves signals the bad, the world of appearances and artifice. Within history, the merchant takes on the role of the stranger, the wanderer, the hawker who arrives from afar to intrude the community. Contemporary art, victim of this ideological prejudice, suffers from the same bad reputation : the makers of images reassure the public, while those who negotiate art, duplicate it or make a business out of it offend or annoy.  Trading is an object of suspicion, as it represents an unwarranted benefit : it represents a gain, it symbolizes exploitation of the producer (capital comes from captial gains levied on the worker’s labour). Within twentieth century art, one could say that the space of exchange took precedence over that of production. Thus, when Marcel Duchamp presented a bottle rack and signed it as a work of art, the added-value here was at its maximum,  because only the change in status of the object, its displacement, radically modified its value. The artist becomes similar to a merchant, and the work plays on the margins of esthetics in regards to the value of an object. Art is therefore placed on the side of commerce, on the side of negotiation with the viewer, within the context of a visual contract with the viewer. The artist produces relations to the world based on already produced objects, simply displaced by him or her within a context that constitutes the boundary of his or her work.

In 1918 Marcel Duchamp created, based on his intuition of the aesthetics of displacement, the first soft sculpture in the history of art, the Sculptures de voyage : « These were pieces of bathing caps, in rubber, that I cut up, that I glued together, and that had no special form. At the bottom of each piece, there was a string that was attached to the four corners; one could change the length of these strings, the possible forms being limitless, that is what interested me. This game lasted three or four years, but the rubber disintegrated and disappeared. » Deployment of a flexible material in nomadic ever changing space : Duchamp had invented a new artistic concept, transport.  During the sixties and seventies, which relied heavily on Duchampian innovation, displacement is organized in figures. Douglas Huebler, among the pioneers of conceptual art, created forms from experiments with displacement: « 42nd Parallel » (1968), was based on mailings between various American towns situated at the location indicated by the title. Rather than produce actual objects, Huebler declared that he prefered to « establish the existence of things in terms of time or place ». The artist Alighiero Boetti geographically displaced the process of producing a work by having his works created, from the beginning of the seventies, by Afghan artisans, then by Pakistanis : the relocation of the manufacturing process thereby becomes a significant element within the system of art creation. In the manner of a pilgrim, André Cadere (1934-1978) transported colored sticks of wood, which he arranged within different galeries and art institutions, in other words in locations that would not recognize these objects a priori as works of art, places that would reject these works as foreign objects. Cadere’s approach can be summarized as a « strategy of displacement » : in 1972,  invited by Harald Szeemann to Documenta in Kassel, he announced that he would travel there by foot, but in reality he took the train, thereby disrupting his own legend and triggering the wrath of the curator… 

Within this historical framework of aesthetic displacement, Marianne Heske stands out as the artist who played with the map of realism in her choice of a historical artefact, the painstaking deconstruction of an object, the transport of this object from one country to another, and finally, the transition from utilitarian object to conceptual object. Realism, because the hut in question represents an authentic record about the way of life for a very specific group of human beings who belong to a specific place. Realism, also because its function constitutes the actual subject of the work. As a mountain shelter, the hut was occupied by individuals who inscribed the traces of their passage on the walls of the hut; later, as a work of art exhibited at the Centre Pompidou, it was seen by visitors who added their own messages to the walls of the hut. Once reintegrated in its original environment, the cabin had acquired the status of a space of encounter between two distinct populations: the mountain hikers of Tafjord, and the Parisian museum visitors . « Project Gjerdeloa  » presents itself as a meeting point, as a relational work before its time. It is not only about the transition of an object from one point to another, more importantly it is about the confrontation between two human groups.

The method employed by Marianne Heske would become a popular form of expression within contemporary art in subsequent decades : to cite only two well- known examples, artists such as Simon Starling or Jens Haaning were seen to use the displacement of objects to generate forms. Yet these two artists, some twenty years later, work within a very different context, marked by economic globalization : from the beginning of the nineties, the pattern of « flow » dominated the global imagination, and it comes in many different forms, from international transport to the transfer of capital, and also including immigration, travel and the internet. The theme of voyage, that permeates Marianne Heske’s video paintings just as it does her « Project Gjerdeloa », subtly anticipates the problematics of the following decade. Yet until this point Heske was not widely known for this because she neither systematized the procedure in question, nor did she wish to fully exploit its conceptual consequences, opting to remain faithful to the ceremony of an inaugural gesture—applying a systematic gestural spirit onto the figure of the doll, as we will see later on.

Interestingly, « Shedboatshed » (2005) by Simon Starling reproduced the same circularity as what we find in « Project Gjerdeloa »: in deconstructing a wooden boat on which he traveled to Basel on the Rhine river, the Scottish artist then restores its original shape for an exhibition, before reinstalling it where he had found it. As for the Danish artist Jens Haanning, he also practices this kind of an exchange, or rather the substitution of objects, as a method of creating relationships between diverging realities. Thus a neon tube from an exhibition space in Copenhagen, reappears on the ceiling of the Luther King grocery store in Houston, Texas (Copenhagen-Texas, 1999). On another occasion, he exchanges a chair from his gallery with a chair from the Klub Diplomat, a place where foreigners gather in Copenhagen. Regular objects are thus displaced and function as reverse readymades : the manufactured object doesn’t change its status, but constitutes a twinning ; it puts two spaces in relation to one another, thus creating a space that becomes the actual form of the work, namely one space between two places, a give and take between two situations, an aspect which one finds in numerous contemporary art works.  Rirkrit Tiravanija thus recreated the dimensions of his New York apartment inside the Kunstverein in Cologne, Maurizio Cattelan exhibited at the De Appel Foundation the stolen goods from a burglary that took place down the block, and Pierre Huyghe works on the distance that separates a real experience from a Hollywood fiction.  The concrete representation of the distance between remote locations has become a major aspect in contemporary art, and one finds it in an unprocessed state in the « Project Gjerdeloa ».

Nonetheless it is a simple doll’s head from the twenties that she accidentally came across in Paris fifty years later, that would become a central element in the work of Marianne Heske. For her, this banal and impersonal toy represented the anonymous individual in the era of mass production, and the dialectic between repetition and singularity. « Avalanche » (1993) is another powerful work that symbolises the infinite fall of bodies in a crowd, while also echoing the essence of her video works, the effect of a tiny detail of the image combined with an overall saturation of colors. The work still relates to an « extraction of the anti-body of the image » as Pierre Restany wrote. The series « Mountains of the Mind » reveals mental landscapes filtered by the effects of video, which confirms the mountain form as the exact inverse of the infinite and sudden downfall symbolised in the installations that Heske has created with the heads of dolls. Singular, overpowering blocks of solarised color, the Heskian mountains create an absolute, thus an antidote to the social pixellisation of the dolls. The installation « Avalanche » reveals color that is disseminated and defracted, whereas the filmed mountains in video form affirm the concentrated color, pushed to the limit. The individual, in order to resist social serialization, must become a rocky peak, a solid mass.

As far as the artist is concerned, she presents herself as this miniscule habitat, in the heights of Tafjord, which puts into play a give and take between these two worlds.