Mountains of the Mind, text by Robert C. Morgan

Marianne Heske's "Mountains of the Mind"
Electronics and advanced art have much in common. Whereas the former is a medium, the latter operates as a conduit for the medium; Electronics functions for advanced art in much the same way that it functions for any form of cultural communication. One might say that much of the theoretical basis of post-modernism in the visual arts is the result of recognizing the connection. Industrial hardware was the medium for the machine aesthetic - the birth of cubism, futurism, constructivism, purism, Bauhaus, and the Stijl. These early Twentieth Century art movements formed the basis of Modernism as we under- stand it today. Perhaps, one should say it was not the only basis of Modernism. Rather it was the basis of Utopia that provoked dissection among the expressionist artists. If Modernism was utopian, then anti-Modernism was expressionism. But as we have come to understand, even anti-art movements add to the dialectical foundation of a concept. To understand Modernism in its truest form, it is also necessary to understand anti- Modernism.

With electronics the dialectical approach of Modernism has been gradually transformed into a new approach. The dialectical structure is not so much within the aesthetic discourse of a utopian/expressionism approach as it is within another discourse that is more related to the processes by which information is transmitted and received. If this is the case, then much of what has been called Postmodernism over the past decade is really derrière-garde. Whereas the transmission of cultural information has been elevated to art in the work of certain conceptualists, the trendy "young'' artists of the Eighties have been more obsessed with the recycling of former styles; in other words, their emphasis has been on the image bereft of substance. The urge for resolution in this type of Postmodernism has been left in a quandary. One reason for this quandary is that the level of communication is so culturally superficial that it is almost impossible to define in terms of aesthetic experience.

Marianne Heske's work is concerned with aesthetic experience, yet not at the sacrifice of a conceptual structure. She has exploited various systems of nature and culture over the past decade and a half. Two of her best-known pieces among those who have followed her work in Scandinavia and Europe are pieces that deal directly with problems of communication in the new age of electronics. This is to suggest that the refinement and development of high-tech systems of communications does not guarantee a better understanding of the diverse aspects of a global society. This fact has been known for some time. Yet Heske manages to return our consciousness to the source of communication by returning images of the wilderness into a transformation situation that somehow connects with the electronic era from which there is no escape.

Heske does not see electronics as a diverse tendency that removes consciousness from the limits of how human nature might be perceived introspectively; rather she attempts to merge electronics into the world of nature. In so doing, her images of electronic mountains in all their breathtaking computerized color collide with a state of natural wonderment. Much of this sensational presence has to do with her personal and cultural relationship to her native Norway. In contrast to life in the urban habitats of New York, Heske's view of nature and culture are not so much at opposite poles as they are intertwined in a nearly transcendent way. The mystical relation- ship that people in western Norway feel in the presence of mountains is not simply a view that incites breathtaking awe. The mystical experience with nature is tied directly to the visual and psychological impact of mountains. The pressure of the space one feels gliding between mountain peaks covered with snow is not simply a technical feat. It is a spiritual state of mind - or, at least, that is how Marianne Heske chooses to see it and to envision it in terms of her pronounced aesthetic vision. Hers is a subjective reality that is true to the nature in which she grew up. It is a reality that she feels is not divorced from the big-tech systems of urban life because the vision is an embedded one. Consciousness begins with a mystical relationship to nature. The mountains and fjords of Norway are her source of meaning. To speak of meaning in an age of Postmodernism may seem irrelevant or obsolescent. For the concept of meaning has its ties to Modernism, to origins and essences. The language of the Eighties is about the analysis of signs through the observation of societal codes. Meaning has become detached from the signs. The signs hover in a free zone. But this orientation to the structure of language is one that is severed from consciousness. It is a language without any connection to consciousness. It is the language of complete stasis and total abstraction. It is a clinical view of reality.

It is odd to speak of reality in relation to the art of the Nine- ties. It appears or, perhaps, re-appears as a foreign concept. It is a concept that faded from view. Reality, for the past decade or so, existed in a void, a lost concept. With Heske's electronic mountains and her amazing reconstruction of a white-on- white avalanche in the Clocktower Gallery, we are given a re-

freshing view of a necessary tension between nature and culture. This is not simple a parable in the revival of structural anthropology. Rather it is a search - a deeply personal search - into the phenomenon of Being. Heske's art has a lot to do with dislocation more than the alienation of Sartre or Camus. Heske's dislocation is perfectly expressed in an earlier piece called "Project Gjerdeløa.'' This work involved the transport of a 350 years old shepherd's cabin from the wilderness area of Tafjord in the mountains of Norway to the Biennale de Paris, 1980, at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Here the cabin was reconstructed and became a piece of conceptual art, in line with many other art pieces being exhibited. One year later it was transported back to its original site, where it now has resumed its original function.

The significance of "Project Gjerdeløa'' is defined on many levels. It operates as a metaphor of communication in the most physical sense; that is, real timbers are the medium that constitute the form of the piece. The structure of the cabin can be perceived as a whole on site and then reconstructed during its period of transit from one point to another. "Project Gjerdeløa'' deals with the analysis of language, characteristic of the Eighties, without denying other levels of consciousness and physical experience that are also endemic to language.

While speaking with Heske I was reminded of a famous Zen Buddhist koan or riddle that I heard over twenty years ago; There was a young monk who began to study the course to enlightenment. One day he walked out into a field and saw before him a mountain. He identified the mountain as one aspect of the landscape around him. Several years later the monk was walking again in the field, but his perception of the mountain in front of him had lost its clarity. The place of the mountain within the terrain seemed uncertain. Suddenly the monk became confused. A few more years went by. The monk decided to visit the mountain a third time. This time he was certain of it. The cloud had lifted. The vision of the mountain had entered his consciousness. It had become a mountain of the mind.

There is a discourse involved in Marianne Heske's work that is not so different from the legacy of this Zen Buddhist monk. I am reminded of another earlier work from 1984 called "Video dialog's". In this work Heske presents two television monitors and two videotapes of several people conversing and arguing about the nature of art. Is it a measuring tape or a rubber band? The idea for this piece, Like "Project Gjerdeløa,'' was basically conceptual. There was no object, so to speak, other than the video equipment and two notebooks in which audience members were allowed to add their responses to the taped conversation. The piece was dialectical. There was a play between concept and material. It may have been an absurd argument - perhaps, even an absurd question; but nonetheless, it was a profound investigation into the subject. The results from "Video Dialog'' were perhaps less specific than the "natural'' images produced in a more recent series of work called ffvoyage Pittoresque'' (1986). Whereas "Video Dialog'' emphasizes the dialectical process of an idea, "Voyage Pittoresque'' adds something to that process. This additional element is a computer-generated image taken from Heske's video camera. As she records the image of the mountains and fjords in western Nor- way, she is engaged in a process that she knows will eventually become translated on the surface of fabric. While her initial undertaking has resonances that are not far removed from the work of Hamish Fulton, Jan Dibbets, and Richard Long, in that the observation is a romanticized fragment of her temporal and spatial relationship to nature, Heske is also aware of the secondary level of information that will effect her decision concerning the outcome of the image. This secondary level is, of course, the transformation of nature into "the natural". Computerized-video technology makes this process accessible.

In The Clocktower exhibition Heske shows these configurations of "the natural'' on three types of fabric, canvas, silk, and jute. The fabric becomes another element, an additional signifier that encapsulates the image as concrete memory. These works are both documents of a process and fabrications of another level of reality. They are both literal and transcendent. Technology is used as a means to incite mystical presence. This process is not so different from what Malevich did with his famous black square on white or, more to the point, his white on white. That is to say, Malevich's vision was both a linguistic operation, in terms of ridding his canvases of an- other specific symbolism, yet simultaneously echoing a primary mystical feeling. Indeed, for Malevich the language of form was the counterpart to feeling.

With Heske's Mountains of the Mind there is a similiar kind of echo. One may hear the reverberation bouncing off the snow-bound rocks into the infinite whiteness of her avalanche.

Heske's ability to give visual power to "the natural'' is more than a linguistic ploy. Certainly one can analyze the work in these terms. There is a passage from the document to the embedded sign that happens through her combined technical and aesthetic mediation. There is also the moral dimension of these images when seen within the context of New York City. What is Manhattan but an island of spires and information, a nexus of electronic energy that reverberates in constant, relative motion, in time/space? Heske's dialectical response to Manhatten island is a site specific affair. Her magic mountains are fabrications, to be sure, but they are also pitted against the gravity of indifference to nature. It is through "the natural" that Heske's passage occurs. Once the passage is understood on its most literal surface, these mountains interact with the presence of the eye/body' - that synaptical charge that restores the balance of meaning to the language paradigm.

New York, November 1989

Robert C. Morgan is an artist, critic, curator, and Professor of Art History. Currently living and working in N.Y.C.