Article based on Espen Gangvik’s solo exhibition ‘OBJECTS FROM AN ALTERED EXCISTENCE’, at Trondheim Art Museum, 2007. Professor Øivind Storm Bjerke, professor, University of Oslo.
Espen Gangvik emerged on the art scene in the mid-1980s with a youthful freshness, and immediately attracted attention, which led to public commissions and purchases. Rapid shifts in trends and changes in art institutions and other venues have not made Gangvik modify his direction. He has followed his own path in what may be regarded as a marginalised artistic practice in a Norwegian context. This has resulted in art works with a strong inner coherence and consistency.
The painting series Zir, shown at the exhibition Utgard in Trondheim Art Society in 1984, where selected art students from Iceland, Sweden and Norway were represented, were some of Gangvik’s first publically shown works. In this series, he made brightly coloured, narrow horizontal stripes on 9 highly polished metal plates. The plates were mounted closely together, and filled a wall of 3 x 5 meters. Together, they created an enormous spatial effect, where the mirroring of the room integrated the surroundings into the works.
These student pieces pointed towards what later would become his main focus: the relationship between plane, line and space, where the room often is pulled into the work by making the work appear to launch or jump out into the room, or the room is pulled into the plane by means of mirroring effects. Thus, even when Gangvik focuses on planes and lines, it is all about space. The realisation and installation of this work bore mark of a precision and intelligent turning of visual signals in the surroundings, which instead of being perceived as distracting noise, became an actively participating component in the experience of the work. This ability pointed to an artist with a highly developed sense of visual influence, and this has been an advantage in his work on monumental projects for public spaces.
Gangvik went from using horizontal stripes to dividing the rectangle in a zigzag pattern. These pieces hinted in a somewhat nostalgic way at the concrete art of the 1950s as more of an influence on Gangvik than contemporary minimalism.
One could sense the Swedish artist Olle Bærtling as a possible source of inspiration. This became more apparent in Gangvik’s first public work in 1988 for the Finnmark County administration building in Vadsø. An oblong, rectangular format is broken down into triangles that form a dynamic interplay through contrasts in materials and colours. In 1993, Gangvik created the sculpture Djinji, an homage to Bærtling, for the exhibition Hommage at the Trondheim Art Society. This work was bought and included in the Trondheim Art Museum’s collection.
The tendency of the earlier constructivist school to prioritise simple means in order to give a sober impression, was replaced by Gangvik by bright colours or contrasts in choice of materials. This resulted in an imposing, active visual expression, which made it appear to be acting something out in relation to its surroundings. In addition to references to the constructivist tradition of visual art, Gangvik became intrigued by 1950s lamps, furniture and objects, at the time regarded as camp as well as kitsch, which manifest itself through the use of gaudy effects.
The modesty ideal that characterised the artistic avant-garde among the supporters of Scandinavian Design in the 1950s, ideas about faithfulness in materials and simplicity in design, were to contemporary post-modernists references that became subject to ironic comments. This was done through play with materials, surprising and destabilising visual effects, and not least by including the surroundings as part of the work. We find these strategies throughout Gangvik’s production.
Irony became the overlying rhetorical figure of the 1980s that loosened up rigid ideas and interpretations of the historical material. Overall, Gangvik’s work gave the experience of a mixture of informal play and strict, disciplined seriousness, which resulted in a refreshing undogmatic approach to a formal artistic language, which often has been plagued by arduous dogmatism and awfully dull and self-serious intellectualism.
In Gangvik’s work, one became conscious of style as a device, in the sense that the historical constructivism he played off of became a resonance of connotations and associations which the artist manipulates freely. Through the play with historical references, these were deconstructed and subject to an awareness of the limitations of tradition and the potential for change.
When Gangvik had his debut in 1984, geometric concretion, conceptual art and minimalism were marginalised on the Norwegian art scene after a short-lived interest at the end of the 1970s. Norwegian art in the early 1980s was hungry for figuration, and for a while it was completely dominated by expressive figurative painting. Espen Gangvik, together with Per Formo and the slightly older and early deceased Jacob Schmidt, belonged to the small group of Norwegian artists regarded as Neo-Geo, a reaction to the intensity in narrative figurativity, which stylistically was tied to expressionism and enjoyed a brief moment of fame. In 1987, Jan Åke Petterson curated the exhibition NOrwegian NEO-GEOmetry at the Drammen Art Society, which included Gangvik, Schmidt and others. Schmidt and Gangvik exhibited together the following year in Gallery Heer in Oslo and at the Trondheim Art Society.
In spite of the reductionist expression, Gangvik used dynamic forms and contrasts in his combination of materials in order to add a visual punch to the works on a par with how the contemporary figurative art tried to engage the viewer with powerful means and intense themes. Intensity was also a common denominator for most of the younger artists in Trondheim around 1985. Where creativity often is linked to chaos and disorder, Gangvik is an example of how an artist can develop and unfold creatively by working systematically and with a plan.
Trondheim was the centre for an artistic orientation towards art based on a rational construction of pictures founded on geometry. Here, Lars Tiller was the inspiration for many young artists. Most of Gangvik’s contemporaries at the Academy of Fine Art oriented themselves towards different narrative artistic expressions and strategies that resulted in everything from intense painting, videos and installations. If there was anything in common, it was an aesthetic where materialisation of ideas was not regarded as an arbitrary relationship. The expressive characteristics of different materials, and the preparation of them, were important artistic devices. Experimentation with the physical properties of different materials has continued to be a foundation for materialising the artist’s ideas about form. Gangvik belong to a tradition where artists draw upon the knowledge of materials developed in high-tech environments. The idea that the materials express the inner feelings and senses of the artist through subtle transmissions from spirit through hand has been the basis for a majority of Norwegian sculptors. Gangvik’s works often seem to be untouched by human hand. Norway does not have a tradition for this approach to sculpture. However, artists such as Odd Tandberg and Carl Nesjar emerged as pioneers already in the 1950s, and today Gangvik is the one who continues this line with the greatest consequence.
An early example are the first works in the sculpture series Compustruction. For the exhibition Electra at the Henie Onstad Art Centre in 1996, Gangvik presented, perhaps as the first in Norway, sculptures that were modeled through the use of computer generated algorithms and realised physically by automatic milling processes based on this digital information.
The back bone of Gangvik’s activity has been a regular production of public works. For SINTEFs Petroleum Technology Centre in Trondheim, he created, after a competition, the work titled face2face in 1993. This was originally a work in three parts where the sculptures, composed of simple geometrical shapes in shiny steel, can be perceived as strange beings climbing up ledges following a staircase, and in this way connecting terrain and building. The figures interact dynamically, and can be perceived as energetic and somewhat threatening. Gangvik developed the almost sci-fi like appearance of these “beings” further in the sculpture Kenshii for the Railway Park in Lillehammer in the same year. This was originally a part of Gangvik’s award winning project for the markers that were erected at locations that were assigned venues for the Olympic Games in 1994. Gangvik’s sculptures from this time are typically based on geometrical shapes, such as triangles, that are folded into figures where the planes connect in a way that creates a spatial gestalt. While in face2face he worked with condensed bodies, the impact of mass is loosened up in the figure in the Railway Park in Lillehammer, and is shaped into a gestalt where the empty space between the physical masses are integrated as part of the sculpture’s own form.
In addition to shaping mass and plane, Gangvik has done a significant amount of work with the line as a forming device. In 5 in a row for the Electro building at NTNU in 1994, he made delicate metal constructions that draw shapes in the room through contour lines. This work plays on positive and negative form, where the gestalt is created through viewer participation with regards to “completing” the work. The interplay between work, viewer and surroundings opens for a great number of possible gestalts. The simple, delicate shapes give associations to insects in motion.
The play between open and closed form, plane, line and mass is thematised in constantly new ways in Gangvik’s work. Particularly, his advanced use of new technology has been a driving force in approaching the same basic problems in different ways. Problems founded on his fascination of creating shapes from an interplay between mathematics, geometry and matter.
The world of shapes in his works from 1985 to 1995 has been developed further in sculptures for the Tiller High School in 1999 and the Levanger College in 2002. He incorporated polychromatic elements in both of these sculptures.
Gangvik’s most prestigious commission to date was awarded after a competition for the National Monument of Freedom in Narvik in 1994. Trinigon was erected for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. This work consists of an 18 meter high, sharp obelisk with a triangular base. The sculpture is realised in a particularly high-lustre steel quality with a surface that mirrors the surroundings in great detail.
Three versions have been made over the past ten years due to technical problems that various contractors did not master. The third and final version was erected in 2006, and the monument can now be seen the way the artist envisioned it. These difficulties bear witness to the kind of challenges Gangvik is willing to take on when he has developed an idea and needs to materialise it. He uses cutting-edge technology and materials in his works, and has over the years worked with many different engineers, contractors and research communities.
The idea behind Trinigon was to create a memorial of all parties that suffered in this conflict, and the importance of giving people the freedom to speak. Trinigon is a radical shift towards abstract symbolism, away from the figurative symbolism of the post-war years, characterised by combat, death and a will to live. With regards to the theme, one can perceive a symbolic encouragement for reconciliation in the use of materials where the surroundings are mirrored in all its diversity, and the individual viewer who approaches the obelisk becomes part of it. The form can be interpreted as a symbol of a strive away from the earthbound towards a universal freedom.
Through his use of digital media, Gangvik has returned to formulating his ideas in pictures. This happens in Screen Evolution, 2000, where the pictures are generated in the collision between forms based on geometry and algorithms. The digital origin of the pictures are made apparent by the visibility of the pixels they are made out of. This display of the “building materials” of the pictures can be perceived as a reference to modernism’s emphasis on faithfulness towards materials, as well as anti-illusionism, something that does not coincide entirely with the fact that the real reference for the pictures are conceptual. The visual expression of the pictures seems conventional. However, in these pictures it is not the visual conventions connected to geometrical and concrete art that come to mind, but the visual alphabet of romanticism in the form of material surfaces that may resemble constellations of earth, waste, dust, nebula and planets.
In the series A long forgotten future, constructed objects are placed in a landscape that is an even stronger reminder of the landscape art of romanticism at its most exaggerated and kitschy. The objects in the series Compustructions 21 – 23 and Normal Evolution, 2000, were realised in steel where the surface has undergone different treatments in a collaboration between artist and the metal industry. They appear as fantastic objects or beings without obvious references to anything particular that we can identify them with. The idea behind the works is the notion of a universal consciousness that is available and that appears as memories of the “forgotten” future recalled by the artist.
In several of his latest pieces, Gangvik has continued to work with the line as his preferred device. One can sense an interest in the expressive possibilities of the line starting with his first exhibited works, the alternating stripes of mirroring metal and opaque colour, and the delicate constructions of drawn figures. 11 Cubes, 1998, was the starting point of a renewed interest in the possibilities of the line. Based on a specific algorithm he bent a rectangular tube 90 degrees every 40 cm. For a while the sculpture was located at the Tromsø Art Society, but has recently been situated in front of Statens Hus in Trondheim. The tube is coloured in red, which makes the sculpture seem like a signaling post wherever it is placed.
Red is perhaps also the most sensual colour, and Gangvik’s work radiates a sensuality that many would not associate with the visual expression he has chosen. The ability to shape objects that attract attention through simple visual means has always been part of Gangvik’s artistic strategy. This has contributed to visualising not only his work, but also Gangvik’s artistic profile. Ascending # 7, 2007 develops ideas from the earlier work. It is based on a yellow rectangular tube with a diameter of 10 cm, which is bent 90 degrees every 40 cm, and at the same time every other joint is turned four times 90 degrees towards the left – except for the uppermost joint, which is not turned. The contour of the work resembles a rising spiral-like line, which extends stepwise 360 cm up and turns so that it makes a 40 x 40 cm square when seen from above.
The leap from sculptures made out of tubes to drawings is short. Several of Gangvik’s new works are also designed as 1:1 graphical images in the form of a series of graphs where the figures are reproduced in contour drawings. With this Gangvik refers to a classic practice in the field of architecture, where work drawings in plane and contour are central. The relationship between idea and completed work, with various forms of drawings, from plan drawings to animations, are typical of the processes of planning and realisation in art forms where a collaboration between different fields and professions are required. Through his work, Gangvik has shown that the work processes of the contemporary visual artist often are closer to this form of team work than that of the lone individual artist working in solitude in his or her studio.
Gangvik’s interaction with the surroundings has a social dimension where art and life are in a dialectic relationship.
Gangvik has continued to developed the idea behind 11 Cubes in Trans<->Former # 13, which he refers to as a “robot sculpture”. The idea has been in development since 2002, and the project was carried out in collaboration with NTNU, which resulted in masters dissertations in cybernetics and informatics. The realisation presumes the development of computer controlled joints that will make the work create different constellations of form as they are set in motion. This part of the project is developed to become part of a research project in artificial intelligence, led by Associate Professor Gunnar Tufte at the Department of Computer and Information Science at NTNU. Impulses of various kinds can trigger the movement; interaction with the viewer can be used as a starting point for the process. Energy supply is planned to be solar based. The sculpture will appear as an autonomous organism where Gangvik re-connects with the family of different “beings” that we have seen evolve in different guises throughout his career. If Gangvik is successful in developing his latest ideas, this will be a new dimension in kinetic art.
Gangvik’s collaboration with different departments, researchers and students at NTNU is an important aspect of his artistic practice, and should not be seen as a distraction.
This collaboration is first and foremost a long-term collaboration where the results are an integrated presumption for realisation of art projects at the same time as the artist’s ideas become the starting point for research projects. His collaboration with researchers and students is a side of him that has always been palpable. It is a talent that also has led to administrative and curatorial work. He was administrator at the Trondheim Art Museum for one year, 1996-97, and since 1997 he has had several assignments as a teacher, external examiner, curator and project manager.
Gangvik founded the Trondheim Electronic Arts Centre in 2002, and has been a driving force in the development of the centre, where a highly prioritised project is to establish permanent opportunities for artists to take advantage of the various competences at NTNU and SINTEF for mutual benefit.
Gangvik’s art points to a crossing of the traditional divisions between organism, thing, culture and nature, and makes a virtual reality tangible. His art is on the border between organism and thing. This is also true for one of his latest works, Three tremendous trees, 2007, where all the vertical axes are identical to the sculpture Ascending #7, 2007, but where the combination of these vertical elements merge into completely different gestalts that can be perceived as virtual trunks. In this context the project Trans-Ice, 2007, appears as an almost comic paraphrase on the ubiquitous aestheticisation which makes it difficult to distinguish different artistic categories of objects. This cyborg-associable “growth” is, in addition to being sculptures, small irrigation systems that produce up to one litre of water a day.
This practical function helps make the foreign intimate, and integrate it in known daily practices where the virtual and the material merge into a new unity.
Excursions into administrative and practical positions can be perceived as distractions from the artistic work, but they can also be seen as necessities for building the competence that is required for project organisation and team work in order to realise artistic ideas. In order to succeed in realising these kinds of ideas it is necessary to interact with communities that possess various forms of specialised knowledge. The image of an intellectual, cool, secluded artist absorbed by own ideas, out of touch with practical reality, does not match Gangvik. Like many of his generation, he has been busy tearing down the borders between life and aesthetic activity. This is an effort that leads to continuous development towards more complex ideas, at the same time as his form appears clear and personal.