Jan Brockmann


We all know the story of the simpletons who forgot to fit the windows when building the town hall and who then tried to collect light in sacks and bring it into the dark. This would be conceivable nowadays as an interesting aesthetic action with the sacks providing an ingenious installation as flat light traps in the sealed-off town hall.

Installations by the Norwegian artist Bente Stokke also create a similar impression: she, too, makes the unremitting attempt to capture a phenomenon – and to quash any ideas that this work itself appears to express scorn: she sets time traps, she tries to tie time down. "My work exists in an eternal present, a frozen moment that contains all time and no time."

A Norwegian saying describes obsessive cleaners as beings with "dust on the brain". This phrase occurs to me when I think of Bente Stokke’s many works over the last few decades. This is because her material is a kind of sub-species of the very everyday dust that obsessive cleaners battle against; except hers is less innocuous. In the natural process dust is both dead and living material – not just a product of decay but also a life-giving substance, not just mildew but also pollen. In many of his works Wolfgang Laib demonstrated to us the beauty of pollen.

Nevertheless, the word dust does have clearly negative connotations. Ash and dust are the epitome of evanescence, quite the 'anti-material' for the classical concept of art created for eternity. These substances seem to defy the will of form. They only evince time as the "furore of evanescence". Bente Stokke uses a variation on this material that has the most unprepossessing – and at the same time for our historical and ecologically sensitive awareness – the greatest connotation: the sediment of everyday civilisation, namely industrial dust as it is deposited in the large tubes of incinerators.

Bente Stokke consistently follows the material idea of Arte povera, "poor art" and yet is equally focused on the image idea of the sublime. In the few comments she makes the artist always refers to the everyday greyness of her material but also to the "stardust", the dust of which stars are made. Her works are dust-catchers, so to speak, that are always bound to a specific location, an inner space; they have to be because a work made of dust cannot be transported. They are created on site and at that same site they are dismantled again or, to be more precise, swept up and cleared away. Nothing is kept – the works cannot be handled – as they behave like Mörike's "Feuerreiter": "Whoosh! Down into ashes it falls". Nevertheless, many of the works have the compelling expression of time standing still. From the material of oblivion Bente Stokke gains compelling pictures that engrave themselves on the memory to never be lost again.

Since the mid-80s her works have related more and more to a specific location. The artist develops the simple basic forms that build the framework of the installations in terms of the specificities of the location. She becomes part of this framework as a place of discovery for her visual concepts. The works really come into their own when they occupy a definable and shielded area; they want us to leave them and us alone with them. In terms of dimensions the artist often adopts a size that is between a normal object and a house. Despite the light and ephemeral nature of the material this gives her works a monumental physical presence.

1986 saw Bente Stokke receive the coveted prize awarded by the Norwegian weekly Morgenbladet for a piece of work displayed in the autumn exhibition in Oslo. This work has the form of a four-metre long box that is covered with a cloth and a thick grey layer of dust. The title "Reserviert" (Reserved) suggests we are dealing with a table. Despite the lack of any other additional iconic indications the observer instantly associates it with the table of the Last Supper. The title is aptly ambiguous as it refers to what has been withdrawn, the distance in expression. The work is compellingly close and yet intangible. It has a dual, paradoxical intangibility: the dirt creates an image of purity and the highly secular material auratically becomes a medium of sacred expression.

Similar comments are elicited from the three installations Bente Stokke realised under the heading "Das Schiff" in New York, Oslo and Eckernförde in 1989, in San Francisco in 1993 and in the Norwegian city of Tønsberg in the year 2000 – this being where one of the famous Viking ships was excavated that are now on display at a museum in Oslo. In the history of Norway as a seafaring nation ships play a key iconic role as a metaphor for life's journey and the passage into the Hereafter. The five projects have the same theme and yet are each different due to their dissimilar spatial situations. In the transom room of the Oslo gallery protrudes the shape of a prow that, reminiscent of the curved lines of a Viking ship, reaches up to the glass ceiling and extends flat on the planks of the floor; the supporting structure is a tarpaulin attached to a suspension. Our eyes can read this shape dynamically, with alternating connotations as a fall or an upswing. On the path to the installation the artist placed a charcoal drawing of the constellation Sagittarius where astronomers assume a black hole to be located. The pull of disappearance is juxtaposed with the resistance of the picture. The boat form in Eckernförde presents itself differently: here the body of the boat rests keel upwards on the floor; we perceive the work as a closed, inward form. Nevertheless, all three works belong to the same archaicising state that suggests associations with burial goods and ships of death.

Bente Stokke was among the international artists invited in 1990 to the opening exhibition "Threshold II" of Norway's National Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo. The museum had moved into a building constructed for the Norwegian state bank during the founding period of the Norwegian state in 1905. To convert it into a museum all inventory had to be cleared out but without any significant interference with the structural fabric and interior since the building was listed. In her work "The Library" the artist honed in on the topic of the 'void'. She selected a room that in its proportions could very well have housed a library. The only features distinguishing it from a library were the shelves that had released the 'book dust' as a white structure on the walls. Museums and libraries are venues of remembrance. Bente Stokke created a highly memorable picture where desolation and evacuation stand juxtaposed with expectation and promise.

Bente Stokke does not always underpin her spatial installations with large iconic forms. Illustrative clarity is what she wishes to avoid. It is particularly in this way that she manages to create often very impressive stagings of abandoned rooms as well as sublime still lives and things.