Blog by the artist Sanne Kabalt

thin crust | leveld kunstnartun #2

This is #2 of a series of blogs written from Leveld Kunstnartun, a residency in Norway, where I am working during the month of August on a collaboration with Laura ten Zeldam

At times, when attempting to work in and with nature, I feel like I am doing something utterly ridiculous and useless. Nothing I create can equal, let alone surpass, the power and beauty that is in nature itself. That is a given. Then, why would I photograph it, film it, reproduce it? To show it to other people? Perhaps it'd be better if I would just take them here, pluck people from their offices and drop them on a Norwegian mountain without any further explanation. Or maybe it's not about other people, maybe I am just trying to make what impresses me my own and find a means to take it home with me? Yet what can I take home but an echo? 

This video is one of the first works we made here which feels like it does do something that is not useless, that is not just reproducing nature, but taking another look at it, through a meeting of the river, my camera and a plate of glass Laura brought. 

In the thesis I recently finished for the Dutch Art Institute, titled Unsettling Capture: Wording, Haunting, Dissolving I wrote against the notion of capturing something or someone. The verb 'to capture' is often used to describe what photography does and what writing does, too. I proposed other verbs and methodologies that leave things open, dissolving margins rather than closing them. I wrote this mainly in relation to capturing people, specifically in the realms of illness, death, madness and loss. When I started on this residency I had the idea that I might leave this thesis-related thinking aside for a while and 'just' work in nature, engaging in material experiments; much more making, a little less thinking. But of course - and I am glad that it is so - the thinking does not stop here. The aversion I feel for 'capturing' applies to nature, too, though of course it is different in many ways. I am aware of the arrogance of mankind in claiming, taming and destroying the natural world, and precisely because of how much I love the forests, mountains and streams, I cannot only see their romantic side. David Abram (a philosopher and ecologist from the USA) calls this place we live in the more-than-human world. It is to the more-than-human world that you have a responsibility as a being and as a maker. He writes:

No wonder! No wonder that our sophisticated civilizations, brimming with the accumulated knowledge of so many traditions, continue to flatten and dismember every part of the breathing earth ... For we have written all of these wisdoms down on the page, effectively divorcing these many teachings from the living land that once held and embodied these teachings. Once inscribed on the page, all this wisdom seemed to have an exclusively human provenance. Illumination – once offered by the moon’s dance in and out of the clouds, or by the dazzle of the sunlight on the wind-rippled surface of mountain tarn – was now set down in an unchanging form.

The above was quoted in an excellent essay by Isabelle Stengers (a Belgian philosopher) titled Reclaiming Animism, which I found in e-flux's journal on animism. Stengers writes about reclaiming animism, in the sense of recovering something we have lost, though not in the sense that we can just get it back, as she puts it. She responds to David Abram with the words I propose that the experience of writing (not writing down) is marked by the same kind of crucial indeterminacy as the dancing moon. Her proposal resonates and is linked, for me, to my own thinking and writing to unsettle capture. A blurring, a dissolving, an indeterminacy is needed. To know that we do not know all. To be honest about this. Stengers (who herself has a background in science) writes of the infectious need scientists have to prove what really exists and what does not. She muses I would guess that those who are categorised as animists have no word for "really", for insisting that they are right and others are victims of illusions. Imagine, not having to insist, not feeling a need to prove. Believing, for example, that a rock has a soul, but not proclaiming it, not insisting upon it. The lack of "really" implies a deep, deep spirituality.  


Back to the process of making something. There are infinite reasons to not do so. It is scary, in a sense unnecessary, and it is hard to actually make something that is worth bringing out into the world towards others. Yet, I do believe strongly in art's ability to make life so much more bearable, powerful and layered than it would be without it. And I long to make; it is also a way for me to be in this life, to deal with it. So, regardless of feeling the complexity, I will do my best. 

Laura, who works with glass, light, painting and drawing, and myself, working with photography, video and words, are merging our material more and more every day. The proposal I initially wrote as an application for Leveld Kunstnartun was called 'the process as the piece' and did not propose a specific subject matter but rather a way of working, propelled by the questions: What if the transition between the making process and the final result fades? How can I integrate the process radically into the work? Or more than that: let the process take the lead? Though I wrote this on my own, in an inspiring conversation with Laura in a cosy Brussels café we swiftly decided that we should do this together. In a way, now that we are here, we are each in our own process, but we keep returning to each other, continuing on the other's work. Different media overlap, we are not merely placing them next to each other but dissolving the boundaries between one and the other. For example, crops of photographs of mine are the surface on which Laura makes drawings, following the shapes in the photograph with her pencil, making the image simultaneously more abstract and more alive. These drawings react to light and distance beautifully; if you look at them from a certain angle you will see the photographic image alone, while from another angle, the silver graphite catching the light, all you see is the pencil stripes. 


The surrounding nature is our material, our context and beginning point, but then we make something and these works become the material for the next work. The living nature in the work is important because it enables us to give life to the objects we create from it. The photographic print itself can become the subject for the next work, as natural and as worthy a subject as a stone or a tree. I have been reading Michael Taussig (an antropologist from Australia) and some of his phrases became mantras in my mind. How about this: Pictures take power from what they are of and, furthermore, can be meddled with so as to change what they are a picture of. I only read this the day before yesterday, but it is as if he is referring directly to the works and experiments around me. 


Something is emerging here, in these experiments, in the merging of media, though it is still hard to grasp. Another line by Michael Taussig, from the essay What Do Drawings Want?, that recurs and recurs in my mind: We all walk on a thin crust of reality under which lurks the hocus pocus swamp (...) we have to believe and disbelieve at the same time (...) taking a dip in the hocus pocus swamp. In and out. In and out. Yes, perhaps for now, this is what we'll do. Go in and be enchanted by a stone's shadow or flow of water. Go out and look again, look carefully. Go in again and see the magic in the light on a photographic print. Go out and question what it does. It is a thin crust. 

to be continued - - - 

Sanne Kabalt