Hilgemann Projects



2. November 2012 - 22. December 2012
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Øystein Ustvedt: The Power of Water

The world is flooded with photographs. Until recently however there was one area that was able to flourish reasonably undisturbed by their ubiquitous existence and self-righteous penetrative force. The realm of art. As a rather marginal phenomenon within our recent past’s white-washed gallery walls, art centers and museums, the camera-based artists toiled and progressed within their own alliance and outside it all. They weren’t invited to the party, and they were excluded from the establishment. To be sure, pioneering institutions such as the Victoria and Albert in London and The Museum of Modern Art in New York began to acquire and exhibit photographs on a par with paintings and sculptures very early on, but this did not constitute the rule, and it took quite some time before they were established as leaders to be followed in this area. But then came the 1990s and transformed much of this. Then there were photographs on view everywhere in this area as well. Usually color saturated and digitally manipulated images in large format with reflective surfaces. Photography’s self-evidence within art had become an image, typical of the moment, of the marginalized’s and displaced’s revenge on the oppressive, exclusive and hierarchical art system. Camera-based images were sold on a par with paintings, and some also set record prices at the major art auctions during this time. Yet at the same time photography was also changing, and in keeping with this, our perception and understanding of it as well. Many photo theorists had for some time naturally pointed out and discussed the fact that photography could not live up to the expectation that it should display or document reality with a capital R, as a true and genuine image of something that is or has been. But this insight never went very far, it failed to register as a popular truth or leave a mark on the collective conscience. Much of the extensive use of theatrical stagings, conceptual strategies and digital manipulation which made itself relevant in the camera-based art of the 1980s and ‘90s had in common that it undermined, or at least played with, photography’s century-old status as the visual reproduction of reality. Its identity was questioned, challenged or threatened. Consequently photographic discourse bloomed as well. Yet thus far into the 2000s, it has become quieter around photography’s identity, its terms and conditions. It is as though the discourse around photography has disintegrated, as though the problem has ceased to exist as a topical one. Has photography thus lost its soul along the way in this process ? Do we live in an after-photographic epoch where photography doesn’t mean or refer to something more beyond its own formal reality?

The story of the photograph’s entry into the art institution and the deconstruction of its status as objective image of reality has been told and retold ad nauseam over the last twenty years. When these stories are nevertheless brought up in connection with Per Berntsen’s new photographs it is because they have contributed to altering the context and frame of reference for his images in general. For Berntsen is an artist who, by and large, has worked with the same subject matter and in approximately the same manner for nearly three decades. On the other hand the context and the photographic discourse have changed considerably since he emerged as an artist around 1980. The self-evidence of photography as art and pixel-based image technology’s entry have done their part such that what we first of all notice when we look at Berntsen’s works is the fact that they are photographs as photographs once were, in the classic sense, in the old way; that is to say, in black-and-white taken with a large format camera and film and printed on baryta paper. They are works executed as an extension of the modernistic photograph, a tradition which photo historian Beaumont Newhall in his time referred to as Straight Photography. While the result is as enchanting, there is little hokus pokus or clever tricks with Berntsen’s latest works. They are photographs that appear as though captured and taken instead of being constructed, edited together and made. The subjects are depicted bluntly to the point, and emphasis is placed on the photograph’s particular features and inherent qualities: light, exposure, depth of field, material and structure, tones and values. The images evoke a kind of nostalgic curiosity, like meeting a dear friend from bygone times. It is about once again being able to let oneself be carried away by the crystal clear registration of depth and enjoy the grey tonal scale’s rich range. Then, after all of this, comes what these images in fact depict.

As mentioned, Berntsen’s attention seems to circle around more or less the same subjects, except that it aims at different places and from ­changing approaches. Romantic waterfalls captured in movable moments have clearly become a thing of the past. And just as well, one could perhaps say; following that path he would probably not have become one of the country’s leading visual artists. Yet in these early works as well it is of course about the power of water; about its descent and meandering down from the mountain and out toward the ocean. Over the years Berntsen has nevertheless become interested in more prosaic and “common” aspects of the country’s different landscapes and surroundings, and then especially in the inland landscape. Not so much the mountain’s magnificent view or the ocean’s extensive infinity. Even though the coast also appears in specific projects such as Balestrand in 1995 and Jæren in 1998, his interest has been primarily aimed at areas and zones between these extremes. And for many years this has especially meant the landscape in and around his childhood home of Eggedal, to a greater extent parts of Buskerud and Telemark which artistically seen belong to the more interpreted counties in Norway.

The industry and the architecture that accompanies this landscape are naturally an important part of it. As in a series of images from the industrial town of Rjukan. Industrial constructions, residences and industrial landscapes. Always devoid of people but evocative of human life and activity. In 2001 a series of images from major industrial complexes such as Rafnes, Borealis and Norcem were collected together in the project Industrilandskap Grenland. Together with a series of photographs from Oslo’s industrial harbors they presage his new series. In this connection the project Forandringer in collaboration with the Norsk Industriarbeidermuseum ( Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum ) at Rjukan must also be mentioned ( 2005 ). Here Berntsen found his way to many of the subjects of the landscape photographers of the 1800s in Norway: Knud Knudsen, Axel Lindahl, Anders Beer Wilse and Ole Olsen Bakke, as well as Norsk Hydro’s photographers. Berntsen’s new recordings of these specific places, meticulously reproduced from the same viewpoint and under the same light conditions ( some also taken on the same day of the year ), made visible the places’ character and changes. And among them, individual power plants naturally also crop up, constructed as they were then, that is to say, out in the open. In other words we are dealing with an artist who works in an uncommonly concentrated and consistent manner. One project leads to another so to speak.

The starting point for this new series was a project in 2002 where ­Berntsen was commissioned by Statkraft to photograph 12 different power plants in Norway. There was of course a reason Statkraft chose Berntsen for this assignment, and he appreciated early on the potential that lay in precisely this assignment. It further developed into its own, independent project which to date totals some 100 photographs of hydroelectric power plants, mainly in inland Norway, from Svelgen in Sunnfjord in the northwest, to Laudal by Mandal in the south, and Skollenborg by Kongsberg in the east. It’s a little slice of Norway’s history we find here; before oil, developing hydroelectric production was the country’s leading industrial adventure. But these are not hydroelectric power plants as we usually see them reproduced in photographs, grand and stately, lying in open terrain next to large waterfalls flowing through pipes. It was first in the postwar era that hydroelectric plants began to be built the way we see them in Berntsen’s pictures; that is to say, inside the mountains, be it 10 or 1800 meters into their depths. All of these plants keep humming, providing power and energy for society’s many activities. Berntsen’s modus operandi has been systematic, consistent and grounded in a set of homogenous premises. First of all it is about power plants of a certain scale, a minimum 10 megawatt output. They are located inside the mountains, without windows and illuminated by artificial lighting. The homogenous and repetitive are apparent in the way the interiors are photographed as well. The viewpoint is from eye level and parallel to the broad side of the room. Great depth of field and long exposure give the images a clear-as-day, sober and registering character. Attention is directed towards the image’s focal point and the project’s actual center; the vertically positioned caps of the generators. The turbine is below, driven by the water. Together they transform the flowing water into energy and electricity. This is the core of the process of making energy, so to speak.

The pictures are multi-layered, with different strata working in relation to and reinforcing each other. First we have the fact that they are photographs taken in black-and-white, made the way they used to be made. And then we have the primary subject. Sound and noise belongs to this layer. The din that constantly reverberates throughout this kind of hall becomes present through its acute absence. Then we have the architecture which is usually spare and functional, but nevertheless not entirely without aesthetically motivated features and details. And behind it all there is the massive mountain. Raw and brutal. Hewn to pieces to make room for the transformative mystery that such a power station must be said to be for the vast majority of us. Photograph, industry, architecture, mountain. From imagery to framework. The results are simple and direct, but they also elucidate a demanding and elaborate creation story. First these facilities must naturally be scouted out. Permission has to be secured and travel routes planned. Long stretches of road have to be traveled, heavy photographic equipment set up, special lighting conditions measured and the camera focused. Film must be exposed, baryta paper processed, glass and frames have to be ordered, gallery thresholds crossed and catalogue essays written. And not least, the reproductions must be controlled. But then there they are. The pictures. Ready to be contemplated. Both as aesthetic objects and as historical documents.

Thorough accounts have been written about Berntsen’s roots in the American, pragmatic photographic tradition. Likewise the connection to the German Neue Sachlichkeit has been emphasized, particularly with respect to the married couple, Bernd and Hilla Becher. Bernd Becher died recently, at the age of 76, and in light of this, Berntsen’s new series of works seems a generous homage to one of the postwar era’s leading artistic contributions. For the Bechers’ project was, as is Berntsen’s, precisely that: a project. It was about cataloguing, documenting, and rendering visible functional buildings and industrial constructions that no one for that matter would otherwise consider, aside from the purely instrumental and utilitarian. The Bechers’ images allowed for the aesthetic with the drab surfaces of the buildings, the unusual with their poor frameworks, the characteristic with the era’s water towers and grain silos and the fascinating with the huge steel constructions that left their mark on the German landscape around Ruhr in the years prior to and following the Second World War. Their works coaxed forward the uncommon from the common, and transformed the grey and ordinary into something special and distinctive. Industrial buildings became members of a greater family. The Bechers themselves referred to them as “anonymous sculptures”.

Berntsen’s hydroelectric generators can also be viewed as “anonymous sculptures”, or as a cataloguing of a particular type of building or construction. But they are not about buildings that are out in the open, in the terrain. This is a world which on the contrary isn’t visible to us in the day-to-day, a reality that is closed and unavailable to the general public. Through the photograph’s ability to reveal, emphasize, bring to the fore and demonstrate, these hydroelectric power plants emerge as a kind of engine of society. For Berntsen’s photographs reveal something beyond the factual constructions. They also pose questions about the energy it takes to maintain all industry, all households and infrastructures. How will we generate enough power and electricity in the future to everything that drives modern society ? Berntsen’s insistence on the photograph as it was made earlier in time corresponds well with this fundamentally industrial perspective. They are works that deal with the power of water and the struggle for power, but they also remind us that the struggle for power is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Øystein Ustvedt holds a Mag. Art. in art history and is a curator at The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo.