A conversation between Per Hovdenakk (Henie-Onstad Art Centre, Oslo) and Marianne Heske


Per Hovdenakk: Already in 1975, when you were living in Paris, you told me that you would like to bring with you an old mountain hut or some other genuinely Norwegian object to Paris or some other urban place. Could you explain why you wanted to do this and what you hoped to achieve?

Marianne Heske: At that time, I was acutely aware of the tremendous distance, speaking in geographical terms as well as in terms of different attitudes to art, between the Norwegian art milieu and the international art milieu which I was living down there. This was shortly after I had held the first exhibitions of my own, both in Norway and in France, and I was struck by the contrast between these two milieus in regard to the way of thinking as well as the mode of expression. When it comes to discussing art and ideas about art, these two milieus are like two different worlds. In Paris the hut was sees as conceptual art. In Norway conceptual art is about as well known as Norwegian art and culture is known to the public in Paris. What they did hade in common, though, was that everybody claimed to know best. This applies not only to art and culture but to all kinds of convictions and opinions about politics, religion, ethics etc, Trends that change and vary with time, location or society. A result of these experiences and observations were my pictures with the doll's head. I found that when placed in different contexts, the doll's head changed expression: the colour and significance were altered, but although the expression changed, the head remained the same.

Later, when I moved to Britain and the Netherlands, my interest in this approach grew stronger all the time, and the resultat was the book "Works and Notes" (Maastricht, 1978). "Project Gjerdeloa" was also based on the same approach, Just like the doll's head, the mountain hut is also a concrete, tangible medium, which serves to focus attention on our way of thinking and on our ideas. By moving it from one environment and culture to another, l wanted to compare the responses of people from different cultures. On the basis of my knowledge of both of these art milieus, I assumed that in Norway the hut would be seen and recognised as a hut, where as in Paris it would become conceptual art. At that time, such art trends as land~art, minimal art and various forms of constructivism were "in" in Paris, and l expected that the hut would be regarded as belonging to one of these.

P.H.: Many people would say that you have borrowed ideas for your project from landscape artists like Christo, or from the Dadaists, such as eg. Duchamp's "ready-mades".

M.H.: Obviously, my project does contain elements from those trends which you just mentioned: very process of moving the house, wirh an aerial cable and everything, may be regarded as land-art, with elements of a traditional and ritual nature. Secondly, the act of removing the hut from its natural surroundings for one year might well have developed ina happening, if any one of the people involved had been thinking along these lines. After all, this act does represent an intervention in the local cultural scene. And, finally, the hut itself may be seen as a Dadaistic "ready-made". For Duchamp's i'eady~mades the institutional context itself turned the objects into art. To Sonie extent this also applies to the hut, but in this case time and trends in 'the art world are of much greater significance. These two factors, more than anything else, were responsible for transforming the hut into a conceptual work of art. After all, the main objective of the project was precisely to focus attention on how people regard the hut in different Ways, depending on the context in which they see it. There would be little point in moving the hut into an abstract art scene for example. lf you insist on giving the pro" ject "label", why don't you call il conceptual national romanticism...

P.H.: How did you manage to get hold ofthe hut? It cannot be very easy to borrow a house here in Norway in order to put it on exhibition in Paris?

M.H.: No, it's rather unusual to do this sort of thing, indeed, Still, it wasn't too difficult, because I spent many years in Tafjord as a child, and I know the people there. As et matter of fact, I was offered other houses to borrow as well.

P.H.: How did local people react when they got to know about your project?

M.H.: The people of Tafjord are careful not to say too much about things, especially where works of art are being discussed. I should think, though, that such a project, which involved moving an old, delapidated building to an art exhibition in Paris, would seem rather far-fetched to most of them. They would have reacted quite differently, I think, if I had come with my easel and brushes in order to paint the hut. It is quite beautiful as it is. But, on the whole, people were nice and willing to help, and some of them became rather enthusiastic about it. There was no lack of good advice and helping hands when needed. But, to use such an old-fashioned means of transportation for the logs as aerial ropewaly was a hit too inefficient and over-romantic for thelr taste. They suggested that I should use al helicopter or a caterpillar tractor instead, but I stuck to the ropeway. And l am glad l did, because added an extra dimension to the project, But why did you choose exactly this house? In principle, ll could have used just about any typically Norwegian house of a suitable size, but l felt it would be nice to borrow one from a familiar environment; an environment which has contributed to the shaping of my personality in the same way as my years in Paris have done. Throughout the years, travellers, haymalcers and shepherd boys have carved names and pictures on the timber Walls, and so the hut is rnarked by the local culture in this respect as well. Moreover, this hut is situated in exceptionally beautiful surroundings: in a grassy field on the brink of a cliff, surrounded by steep mountains. The contrast with Paris could not possibly have been more striking.

P.H.: And how did you arrange the transport to Paris?

M.H.: I used my own car, and although I was driving alone, and the car was heavily loaded, everything Went all right. A rather strange feeling, though, to know that I was carrying a piece of the tranquility and calmness of the mountains in my luggage - especially in the deafening noise of the disco music on the boat to Amsterdam. Some Witty fellows suggested that l should use the hut to camp in on the way. Everything went smoothly until l reached the French border, When the French customs officials discovered the old logs, the birch bark and the shrub, and when l also told them that the whole lot was to be exhibited at the Centre Georges Pompidou (which ranks almost as highly inthe esteem of the French as the Eiffel tower does), they asked me very politely to pull over to the side. A moment later, they were crawling around among the logs and the sacks of wet shrubbery, and they obviously thought that I was raving mad. Fortunately, my papers were all right, so after having used his rubber stamp industriously for quite a while, the official in charge finally gave me permission to drive on. How was this installation, as it now ought to be called, set up at the Centre Pompidou?

M.H.: The hut was placed in a room, 12 metres by 8 metres (40 ft. by 25 ft), and addition, there was a kind of anteroom, 4 metres by 8 metres (12.5 ft. by 25 ft). The floor and the walls were painted white and the ceiling was the characteristic steel tube structure of the Centre Pompidou. In this anteroom I arranged a series of photographs, both in colour and black & white, showing the entire process: how it was taken down, the ropeway, the tiansport to and rebuilding Paris. Two video monitors without sound flanked the entrance to the anteroom. One of these showed a video recording of the hut in its natural surroundings in the mountains. The only visible movements were the trees swaying in the wind and the coming and going of the sun. The other monitor was connected to a video camera which recorded the activity in the room where the hut was placed: people coming and going, moving around in the room, walking in and out of the hut, touching the shrubbery on the roof,... All these things together made an effective contrast to the functional and somewhat barren atmosphere of the museum.

P.H.: What kind of effect did this house have, do you think, compared with the rest of the Biennale?

M.H.: As a matter of fact, it blended in quite well with the variety of '-isms' represented at the exhibition, such as minimalism, constructivism, and so forth. One of the "in"-trends was to use rocks, trees, sand, hay and other natural objects.The artist who exhibited next to me was busy reconstructing old timber framework, and he asked me if I had built the house on a 1:10 scale.

P.H.: Did you meet many people who failed to realise that this exhibit was a genuine, old house?

M.H.: Yes, indeed. Many people thought that the house was a plastic replica, and also that the shrubbery on the roof was fake, in spite of the fact that it was watered every morningf and smelt fresh. Perhaps I ought to have expected this sort of reaction, since the hut was the only contribution which was not actually made for this particular exhibition. Others claimed that it could not possibly date back as far as the 17th centery, because the saw was not invented until much later, so I had to tell them that the logs had been split by means of axes and wedges, and that the age given was correct, after all. Many people also found it hard to believe that I had not bought or rented the hut, but quite simply borrowed it.

P.H.: But did the international public accept that an old hayshed from the outermost provinces, so to speak, could be a work of art?

M.H.: Yes, as a matter of fact, they did. Perhaps because hardly anyone knew what an old hayshed really looks like. And critics did not bother to argue such points as whether or not I had made it myself, whether or not it was a work of art, whether or not it would ever be returned to its original environment, etc. As I had expected, the hut was classified as conceptual art and as avant-garde art, and it was judged accordingly. You could also argue, I suppose, that it conforms to the conventional definition of a work of art: form + content colour = a work of art. Personally, l am less interested in whether it is si work of art or not, and more interested in the fact that it was perceived as art in one environment, and not so in another one.

P.H.: I take it that the response to the exhibition at HØvikodden was somewhat different then?

M.H.: In Norway, a barn is a barn is a barn. Here, the main point was the physical appearance; whether it was beautiful, old, rotten, etc., although this is somewhat irrelevant to the general idea of the project. Bearing in mind that the various contemporary international schools of art are relatively unknown in Norway, we cannot expect the hut to he seen in connection with these schools. Against this background, it is quite understandable that it should be regarded as a kind of nostalgic "ready-made". Many people felt really for the hut, taken so far away from its "home". A Norwegian colleague, who had seen the hut in Paris in Gctober, tr√¨umphantly told me that the shrubbery on the roof was yellowing quite forgetting that the natural, autumnal processes had set in. It's strange that they are not more concerned about all those houses that √°re being removed from their old environments to smarten up some summer retreat or the like. Houses that are never allowed to return "home" again. Another interesting aspect of the HØvikodden exhibition is the visit by many people who had never before set fowl in an art museum or gallery. To them the hut was an earthbouncl, recognizable, almost homely objecl and not something distant and exclusive, is way art often appears to ordinary people.

P.H.: And now the hut is back at Tafjord again? Yes, We set it up again exactly one year after taking it down. It was difficult to get it done any earlier, partly because of the snow in the winter, and also because of the danger of avalanches in the spring. But I had borrowed it for one year, and I thought it would be nice to mark this anniversary. The cable was still there, and the people who helped,rne take it down also took pari in rebuilding it. and thus we had come full cirde.

P.H.: Do you think that moving the hut has changed its identity in any way? lt is more than likely this hut 1138 been moved before. It was quite usual to take down such houses and move them other places whenever necessary. The construction makes this quite easy. (The workers at the Centre Pompidou calied it "the worlds first Lego"). Nor has its physical appearance been changed, the exception that inside of the walls have been supplemented with new names, initials and signs from over the world. I belive that such a change of identity, if any, would have to be found in the eyes of the beholder, in a manner of speaking; people know that the hut has been to Paris. But in its familiar surroundiiigs at Tafjord, it still is a hut. Admittedly I would have been quite a different matter if it had been purchased by the Centre Pompidou to become part of the permanent collection, or by the Norwegian National Gallery, for that matter...

PH.: Any conclusions? As we were building the hut up again in the pouring rain at Tufjord, l said to the owner that this project was a completely crazy idea, and he replied: "Well, it's art, so there's nothing to be done about that."