Michael Hübl


Ashes: the material that Bente Stokke has done most of her work in since the early eighties. Ashes to cover things with: first everyday objects, utensils, later windows, walls, whole rooms. Ash-art in all kinds of different places: Oslo, Helsinki, Oxford, Rostock, Cologne, New York. In 1990, Bente Stokke spent seven days in the Corderie dell’ Arsenale in Venice bombarding the walls with ashes, ashes “perhaps of all things” 1. This apparently casual remark is a reflection of the claim to universality implicit in her work. The dull, drifting detritus she disperses is both a material digest of the object world and at the same time a comment on the relation between space and time – between particle and cosmos, infancy and infinity, nowness and eternity.

Connotative fallacies

Bente Stokke’s use of ashes is an (inadvertent) invitation to misunderstandings. The material is charged with all kinds of connotations, most notably perhaps the one harking back to the Burial Service in the Book of Common Prayer (“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”), and taken up by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington (1852): “The mortal disappears, Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.2 Here, as so often, Old Testament diction and the plushy gloom of Victorian funeral parlours conjoin to convey an atmosphere of opulent melancholy about the passing of human glory and the vanity of the world. The same material as a metaphor of transience in the post-modern era is altogether starker, less self-indulgent. Ashes To Ashes is the title given by Harold Pinter to one of his recent, rarefied, enigmatic offerings, an extended duologue readable as making numerous oblique references to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany 3. The same phrase figures as the title of a song by David Bowie taking up the drug-abuse theme of his “Space Oddity” first published eleven years earlier, in 1980, and making no bones about the terminal nature of the human condition: „And I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair/But the planet is glowing / Ashes to ashes...”.4 Future shock compounded with the heritage of historical atrocities. “Your ashen hair, Sulamith” 5 is a recurring line in Paul Celan’s Death Fugue, evoking images of the Holocaust, as so often in his poetry 6. The ashen hair can be read as a reference to the phenomenon of “going grey- haired overnight” in the face of a hopeless situation or unnameable horror. But the image of the ashen woman may also be interpreted in terms of the everyday reality of the incinerators in Auschwitz, reducing the victims of systematic genocide to ashes after cutting off their hair and extracting the gold from their teeth. The human individual plundered for serviceable parts like a disused automobile: this kind of rationalistic cynicism is a topic familiar to us from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The total genetic, biochemical and socio-technological regulation of human life goes on beyond the limits of death itself.7 The very corpses are stripped of their recoverable material and pressed into service for the purposes of mineral production, in this case phosphorus: “Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.” 8 A negative utopia of a different kind is inscribed into Esther Shalew-Gerz and Jochen Gerz’s sculpture Scattering the Seed, Collecting the Ashes. In contrast to Bente Stokke’s work, the ashes here are only to be found in the title. The two 60-foot-high, extremely thin aluminium poles set up first in Geneva (1995), with a second version following in Marl (1997), are hollow inside. The reference to ashes is only understandable in conjunction with the “seed” of the title, an expression of our ambivalent condition at the end of the 20th century, a condition marked “both by the decadence of anthropocentric cultural ideologies and a new humility.” 9

Thus the connotations clustered around the word “ashes” extend broadly speaking to two major fields of reference: the systematic annihilation of the Jews 10, for which the term “Holocaust” has largely established (initially a reference to the sacrificial burning of a whole animal as an offering to the gods)11, and concern or scepticism about the future of the planet Earth, the very existence of which might be ended by an “anthropogenic” catastrophe. It is important to be aware of the full radius of these connotative fields because Bente Stokke uses her material first of all independently of any historical or metaphorical associations.

The material

The ashes Bente Stokke uses to cover walls and objects are anything but a simple, straightforward material; but they are semantically neutral to the extent that the sources they are taken from have nothing to do with the highly charged symbolism associated with the historical events and archetypal situations touched on in the last section. Bente Stokke works with the residues from modern waste incineration plants, more specifically with boiler ash and grating ash. This material represents a “highly heterogeneous material mix” 12 differing in its composition according to the design of the plant and the location. In some areas the waste collected for incineration is more urban than in others; generally speaking, however, the literature on the subject assumes that a fair proportion of certain central ingredients will be present, notably silicates and alumosilicates. 13

This ash is an industrial product, a fact which already sets it apart from the images and associations discussed earlier. In its very substance it has nothing in common with campfire Romanticism or the embers left by sacrificial immolations or exercises in religious selfdebasement where ashes figure as a symbol of human insignificance. To point up the contrast with the fires of yore, we need only recall a picture like Philipp Otto Runge’s Die Ruhe auf der Flucht (“Brief Respite”). In the background, the first light of the dawning day brings
forth all manner of delicate hues, while in the front of the picture we see some branches still aglow from the fire. Joseph is just putting out the embers with his stick. There are a number of possible interpretations of this action 14, one of them being that there is now no need of the paltry warmth vouchsafed by a fire in the open air because a new age of light and splendour is in the offing. But as far as the material remnants of this break in the journey are concerned, the message is of no importance. The charred remains of these branches and twigs and the ashes from the fire will return to the organic cycle from which they sprang. We must be careful not to equate such relics of natural combustion with the dull, unprepossessing material that Bente Stokke uses. Thermal disposal of the solid, semi-solid and liquid waste produced by consumer-oriented industrial societies is not significantly fuelled by the burning of logs, twigs and branches. Wood is very much an also-ran in this process. Everything from household waste to old car-tyres, from sewage sludge to old kitchen units can be fed into the maw of these new incinerators, not to mention the chemicals – notably solvents – added to feed the f lames as auxiliary fuels. 15 And what is a campfire under the star-studded Oriental firmament compared with combustion chambers where temperatures of some 1300° ensure that as much waste as possible is consumed? 16

The powder generated by this highly versatile technology is what we might call the substrate of our modern civilization. Here, the world in its sophisticated diversification, its infinite range of products and designs implodes, collapses, subsides. What remains is ash, slag, clinker. These seething cauldrons, the reactors of the waste incineration plants, eliminate profusion and variety. In working with the residues of these processes, Bente Stokke is not only evoking extinction, destruction, she is embarking on a process of “pulverization” herself. When in works like Condensation and above all Wall Curtain she bombards walls with ashes until gradually the material settles into layers of dusty grey, she is extinguishing the specific character of the surface, expunging the identity of the location, reducing plaster and masonry, concrete and wallpaper to one uniform, faceless mass. The differences are buried under the ashes. And those ashes contain, at least in virtual terms, the disindividualized essence of whatever it is they have buried.


There are two essential factors operative in the work of Bente Stokke: the material world is neutralized and transposed into a concentrated form itself tantamount to a neutralization. Destruction and reduction – Bente Stokke operates in the space between those two conditions, sometimes nearer one end, sometimes nearer the other. In Reserved, for instance, all reference to reality is submerged under a thick layer of dust and seems on the point of lapsing into terminal silence, of vanishing for good. In the Book of Things, by contrast, reality is very vociferous indeed. This “Book” consists at present of some 20 volumes, crammed full with the names of things that Bente Stokke has either owned or simply come across. Whatever she chanced upon was recorded in writing in the language of the country where she happened to be at the time. Initially, these jottings were more like diary entries, ongoing additions in the studio during the daytime, ar summary in the evening back at the hotel. Bente Stokke does indeed refer to them as “poetry albums”, for all the single-minded, apparently self-perpetuating obsessiveness with which she later took to filling the volumes of the Book of Things – lists and lists of words, pages and pages of writing, an end-less catalogue of Italian, German, Norwegian, Polish and English nouns.

Such minute positivism merges imperceptibly from the infinitesimal into the infinite. The beginning and the end of these records are random. This distinguishes the “Book of Things” from other Concept-oriented products such as Dieter Krieg’s tape document Many Thanks to All the Painters, or On Kawara’s “Date Paintings”, or the number pictures that Roman Opalka began in 1965 and intends carrying on unremittingly up to the end of his life. But there are things that Stokke’s books and Krieg’s tapes have in common, the most obvious one being that they are both concerned with register and document reality. In 1975, Dieter Krieg started having all the names of the painters listed in the Thieme-Becker “Lexicon of Artists” read on tape. The recordings took a year and the final result was 147 hours 20 minutes of phonographic material. Like Stokke, Krieg reduces the multiplicity of individual data to an impression of monotonous uniformity. Admittedly, the reality Krieg is concerned with is not directly tangible, it has been filtered, screened for inclusion in an encyclopedia. This means that the scale of the work involved is defined and predictable in its scale from the outset. Opalka’s ongoing record of whole positive numbers is also clearly limited – by his own death. But Opalka has arranged his artistic design in such a way that death no longer represents a chance interruption of a relentless forward-looking process. It dovetails, as it were, with the methodology of his procedure. As he said himself, “In my eureka, death is the instrument of the conception, the objective definition of perfection. My death is the logical and emotional proof of the completion of the work.” 17

In contrast to this, Bente Stokke’s approach is discrete. That gives it the character of infinite repeatability. Her catalogues of real things are limited neither to lexically well-defined sets of facts about the known world, nor organized to coincide with her own lifespan. This makes her approach perhaps most readily comparable to On Kawara’s Date Paintings. He too penetrates the time continuum at certain points and extracts samples of the present as with a pipette. The Date Paintings are grounded in an attempt to historically objectify the artistic designation of a day, month or year by pairing off each of the pictures with a newspaper clipping from the place where they were painted. The newspaper material is pasted into the cardboard boxes in which the Date Paintings are kept. This heightens the impression of a collection of historical samples for scientific purposes; and attempts have indeed been made to relate On Kawara’s timeprobes to other approaches identifiable in contemporary art. Wolfgang Max Faust has established “Intersecting Parallels” 18 between Kawara and Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth and various other artists.

On Kawara’s indications are so copious that it is indeed possible to reconstruct fairly accurately the historical conditions under which a picture was painted at a particular time in a particular place. With Bente Stokke the historical context is not so immediately obvious. But this kind of involvement is not her chief concern. Historical conditioning is reflected rather in the matter-of-fact objectivity of what she records. The “things” in her Book of Things are themselves redolent of their historical origins. Occasionally these origins can be determined with a degree of precision, for instance when “gunpowder” suddenly turns up in the ongoing f low of concepts, thus providing a terminus post quem. Should future generations have no way of knowing when the Book of Things actually originated, they will at least be able to establish that it was subsequent to the invention of gunpowder. And if that still appears rather vague, there are always the other terms which clearly belong to a given epoch, for example “transit visa”. Terms like this will even provide the basis for well-substantiated hypotheses about the artist’s movements, in this case the fact that she must have been in Germany at a time when it was still a divided nation.

But frequently enough the Book of Things remains inscrutable. Bente Stokke notes down the names of everyday things whose origins are hardly identifiable. The contours blur. Scissors, a spoon, a pen. When did they make their entrance into the process of civilization? All traces vanish. In the installation The Ship,
the ash that Bente Stokke had strewn onto the front of 360 panes of glass slumped, fell away, mingled with the air in the room and gradually dwindled. After a while, it disappeared altogether. The material that had initially occupied the entire view had, as it were, dissolved. The dividing line between concretization and disintegration, the cohesive and the inchoate is no longer clearly distinguishable. The march of time takes on a spatial dimension, reflected in the trickling and scattering, the dispersal and dissemination of the ashes. The analogy here is a dual one: between time as duration and the way the world-residue represented by the ashes spreads itself, ubiquitous and all-encompassing; then again between the individual particle of ash and time in its momentary aspect, changing a situation radically and abruptly. One gust of wind and the ash no longer takes up perceptible space, it ceases to form a meaningful whole. It is “gone with the wind”, monadized.

There is no such thing as a status quo to be established once and for all. In this sense, Bente Stokke’s Book of Things is not just a lifelong compendium of real things writing itself in relentless continuity towards an established end and standing for a fixed quantum of knowledge. Despite its immense scale, the “Book of Things” remains instantaneous, the addition of one instant to another. There is no claim that this place or that moment are of essential significance. These notations could have taken place anywhere, at any time. The words troop on, several, isolated, decontextualized, devoid of semantic cohesion. And it is this, not least, that conveys the impression of boundlessness, indeed of infinity.

Silications and petrifications

Much the same can be said of the combustion residues utilized by Bente Stokke. They are neutralizations. Things initially designed to enhance our pleasure or ensure our very existence, these props of our everyday lives and our research extravagances, are melted down, silicated, petrified. And the ashes that Bente Stokke uses to cover whole walls subjugate the uniqueness of a given location to the uniform grey of a material in a way that suggests an approach verging on the momonomaniac. But these walls are not covered so thickly that there are no traces left at all of cracks, unevenness, structure. Pompey is still Pompey. There is no attempt to equate it with Berlin or Venice, Cologne or Munich – the cities where Bente Stokke has exhibited her “Wall Curtains”.

Concretization and disintegration. It is between these two poles that the work of Bente Stokke oscillates. The Library, set up in the Oslo Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990, reflects no more than the arrangement and outline of the bookshelves appearing as white lines on the grey walls as on a negative. Concretization and dissolution alternate in the “Book of Things” also. Trailing these individual nouns liberated from the hierarchy of syntax, each standing alone on a page of its own, all kinds of associations suddenly suggest themselves. Be they logical or absurd, illuminating or grotesque, at all events the result is a loose-knit system of connections reminiscent both of the aleatory, associative techniques of literary modernism and the “indeterminacy of syntactic cohesion” 19 with which Chinese poetry operates, juxtaposing words free of all inflection and largely devoid of interconnecting structures. Seen thus, the Book of Things is indeed a poetry album, and especially in those passages which appear at first to be most stubbornly random in their ordering.

Time and memoria

In the last resort, the letters run on into more letters. The dinning, babbling waste of words makes of speech a waste land. Language turns into ashes. Or, as in Bente Stokke’s work with the residues from waste incineration, into hard stone. This hardness is “literal”: the ash left after the industrial incineration process corresponds “more or less to the composition of natural rock types like basalt and andesite” 20 and is made up of compounds generally acknowledged to be among the fundamental building-blocks of our lithosphere. 21 Thus we have a mineralogical link extending from the waste-disposal remnants of our highly industrialized, late twentieth-century society all the way back to the dawn of the planet Earth. And by way of the material she works with Bente Stokke is thus operating in an order of temporal magnitude analogous to that envisaged by Michel Foucault at the end of his study on “Les mots et les choses”, where he speaks of “dispositions” that have essentially conditioned and marked our western understanding of the individuality of the human animal since the 16th century. Should these dispositions disappear, Foucault contends, then “we can safely wager that the human being will disappear like a face in the sand at the edge of the sea.” 22

These far-flung historical dimensions, this thinking in terms of aeons rather than human timescales, is just as implicit in Bente Stokke’s work. But her concern is not with the ultimate liminality of the human species, her art is not a message For the Last One, the title at the end of On Kawara’s time-package “One Million Years Future” (1981). The human subject has already vanished. It remains as a ghost in the machine, haunting the objects with which people surround themselves, the things they require to shape the world and come to terms with it. A work like Reserved is an implicit enjoinder to disinter the object submerged in the ashes. This is memoria embodied: a piece of the present is preserved in the body of the residual mass left by incineration. On other occasions, Stokke has transposed memoria intoher own self. Actions like See-Saw (1984), My Car (1984), The Vacuum Cleaner (1985) and The Supper (1995) are so many attempts to de-scribe in the ash the first image that came to her mind after she had blindfolded herself. It might be an object in the immediate vicinity, or else an impression from long ago persisting stubbornly in the subconscious. But in spite of intense concentration (itself a species of condensation), the objects stay imprisoned in the neuronal network of the human mind. They cannot be “blindly” transposed into a graphic form. The traces left in the ash by the finger of the artist can never equate the objects that they designate. Memory fades, as the dust-grey material drifts down from the glass surfaces as time softly and implacably runs on. Even before she starts to draw, every memorized image, beautiful or ugly, is for Bente Stokke of equal significance. The action of drawing them is a further neutralization of those images, an equation with the ashes into which she inscribes them.

The genuine dimension in which Bente Stokke’s art operates is time. Her work is geared to astronomical cycles, in the smallest grain of ash she discerns an image of the whole universe, as we can see from her Exposure of Time f 15 (Moss 1989). Undeniably, her visions engage with infinity, but equally undeniably she concretizes time punctiliously in terms of material and measurable facts. An eloquent instance of this is her action 7 Days, undertaken in Oslo in 1982. On seven successive days, colored grains of rice were used to produce drawings scattered on the floor. Each day, after completion, the grains were collected and weighed. As with an hour-glass, in which the minutes are measurable in terms of ounces of sand, so each drawing, and the time it had taken to produce it, had its own weight. And thus the ashes used by Bente Stokke are both the one and the other – timedust and worldpowder.

Translation by A. Jenkins


1 Communication by the artist on Ashes to Venice, Aperto’90. Venice 1990.

2 Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. With an Introduction, Bibliography and Head Notes by Karen Hodder, Hertfordshire 1994/2008, S. 407.

3 Both Peter Palitzsch, the director of the first performance in Ger- man (at the “Komödie” in Basle) and Falk Richter, who produced the work in Hamburg, obviously evoked holocaust associations in their staging of Pinter’s play. Cf. Dorothee Hammerstein: “Absurdes Theater ums Rätselspiel”, in: Theater heute, Vol. 38 No. 5, 1997,

p. 40/41, and Ulrike Kahle: “Kopf-Kino, schauriges”, ibid. p. 41. 4 David Bowie, „Ashes to Ashes“, in: Scary Monsters (and Super

Creeps), New York City, NY 1980.

5 Paul Celan, Die Gedichte. Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe in einem Band, hrsg. u. kommentiert von Barbara Wiedemann, Frankfurt am Main 2005, S. 40 f.

6 For a discussion of ashes and the color grey in Celan’s work cf. Iräne Elisabeth Kummer: Unlesbarkeit dieser Welt. Spannungsfelder moderner Lyrik und ihr Ausdruck im Werk Paul Celans. Frankfurt/Main 1987, p. 163.

7 A useful introduction is Christoph Bode: Aldous Huxley. Brave New World. Munich 1985, p. 59/60.

8 Aldous Huxley: Brave New World. London 1932.

9 Esther and Jochen Gerz: Presentation for Die Verteilung der Saat – die Kollekte der Asche. Geneva 1995.

10 Architect Daniel Libeskind also uses ashes as a metaphor for the extermination of the Jews: “In this void, in this historical vacuum, expunged memory manifests itself, burnt to ashes. The extermination of the Jews in Berlin has gutted the history of that city.” Quoted taken from Katrin Bettina Müller: “Bewegung der Sinne”, in: Vfa Profil.

Das Architektur-Magazin. Vol 10/2, 1997, pp. 20-23, here p. 23.

11 Greek holócaustus means the burning of a whole animal for sacrificial purposes. Cf. Shorter Oxford Dictionary, 1970, p. 912.

12 Thomas Wörner/Erhard Westiner: “Qualitätskriterien für den Einsatz von Müllverbrennungsaschen im Straßenbau”, in: Max Faulstich (ed.): Rückstände aus der Müllverbrennung. Berlin 1992, pp. 921-941, here p. 922.

13 Jürgen Vehlow: Reststoffe der Müllverbrennung. Sonderabfall oder Wertstoffe?, in: Faulstich (ed.): Rückstände..., op. cit., pp. 161-191, here p. 168.

14 Cf. Jörg Traeger: Philipp Otto Runge und sein Werk. Monographie und kritischer Katalog. Munich 1975, p. 386.

15 G. Schetter et al.: Systemoptimierung der Hochtemperaturbehandlung von Sonderabfällen durch Einbeziehung strömungstechnischer Modelluntersuchungen, in: Faulstich (ed.): Rückstände..., op. cit., pp. 213-227, here p. 213.

16 Gerd Baumgärtel/Heinz-Jürgen Berwein: Die Siemens Schwel- Brenn-Anlage. Ein Verfahren zur weitgehend rückstandsfreien Umwandlung von Abfall in verwertbare Produkte, in: Faulstich (ed.): Rückstände..., op. cit., pp. 459-478, here p. 462.

17 Roman Opalka: Anti Sisyphos. Mit einem kritischen Apparat von Christian Schlatter. Translated into German by Hubert von Gemmingen. Stuttgart 1994, p. 175.

18 Wolfgang Max Faust: “Intersecting Parallels. Notes on On Kawara’s ‚Date Paintings‘”, in: On Kawara. 1976 Berlin 1986. Catalogue for the exhibition at the daadgalerie. Berlin 1987, pp. 13-55.

19 Eduard Horst von Tscharner: “Chinesische Gedichte in deutscher Sprache. Probleme der Übersetzungskunst”, in: Ostasiatische Zeitschrift 18. NF 8. 1932, pp. 189-209, here p. 209.

20 Vehlow: “Reststoffe...”, op. cit., p. 169.

21 Ibid., p. 168.

22 Michel Foucault: Les mots et les choses. Paris 1966.