The Survival of the Misfits

Marx wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as parody. Likewise it would seem that art repeats itself, first as kitsch, and then as irony. It is possible to use these last two notions when looking at Irene Nordli´s work. In her work we can sense nostalgia, playfulness and a humour in her approach to motifs and tradition. This humour, however, must not be confused with the flippancy that today is mistaken for irony. The use of kitsch, without being camp, would suppose a naivety that is impossible in art that shows, and has kitsch, as its theme. The nostalgia we may sense in Irene Nordli´s work is not an expression of kitsch, but rather a nostalgia for kitsch assumptions.

There are three key words I connect with Irene Nordli´s work: synergy, recognition and surprise. These elements are connected by her use of porcelain and different collage techniques. Synergy finds its expression in the collage technique, where the result surpasses the sum of the single elements. Recognition is crucial, in the choice of material and in the forms and the motifs that are used. The element of surprise is produced through her treatment of the material.

In confronting art, the experience of dialogue is always important. A silent dialogue between viewer and art. But what if the different elements constituting the art piece start “talking” to each other? When I view Musical Chairs I immediately think of Umberto Eco´s essay on the film Casablanca in which he says “two clichés make us laugh, but a hundred clichés move us, because we sense that the clichés are talking amongst themselves, celebrating a reunion”. It is in this extended conversation, or play, that we find something more that is not there if we view every single element separately. To illustrate this point, Irene Nordli often uses the formula 1+1=3. This formula illustrates both the synergy and the fact that meaning is not produced exclusively in the dual relationship between art and viewer.

For her casts, Irene Nordli often chooses objects that are of personal significance to her. At the same time, they are figures we can relate to and recognise. I remember boxing kangaroos as a common feature in the comic strips of my childhood. I often wondered if kangaroos could box, or if they were like Donald Duck – a mere duck in a coat – a kind of anthromorphism. What I do not know about real life kangaroos could probably fill volumes. However, it is not real life kangaroos that I recognise in Irene Nordli´s fantastic kangaroo sculptures, but the image of boxing kangaroos that was, and still is, a recurring image in popular culture. The fact that we are familiar with boxing kangaroos probably says more about the popular culture we have grown up with than it says about real life kangaroos.

Jung said that we all share in a collective unconsciousness, with symbols, myths and themes – which are all manifestations of what we call archetypes. I do not know if boxing kangaroos can be seen as an expression of an archetype, but popular culture has in many ways taken over the role as transmitter of our collective inheritance. The comic strip heroes and films in the work Musical Chairs are expressions of such archetypes, and the game may remind us of the ever changing expressions of an archetype found in different stories.

If we approach myths and symbols in popular culture just to find the archetypes, the fundament for all the repetitions or reproductions, we will soon lose sight of the most important aspect – i.e. what is different in each expression. In his classic work on modern myths, Roland Barthes claims that their main function is to distort. In modern reproductions of timeless archetypes, the very recurrence of these archetypes will conceal what the mythologisation of popular culture can reveal about the time we are living in.

In his essay on Casablanca, Eco concludes that the film works because it uses archetypes from popular culture quite unconsciously. He goes on to say that this is not successful in later films, where such elements are used deliberately and in a controlled fashion. In a similar way, I see in Irene Nordli´s recent work a greater emphasis on the tension between naive and deliberate use of archetypes.

With a stronger emphasis on variation in repetition, we also stumble upon surprises. 1+1 creates not only synergy, but also something completely different from the point of departure. If you combine an Abba title with a Disney figure, the result of the coupling might be as much mutation as synergy. The ABBA series and the ballerina figures focus on this “differentness” in a higher degree than we have seen in Irene Nordli´s earlier work.

The mutations in her recent pieces reveal a stronger sense of deformity than earlier works. I find this a very exciting development as it gives the collages more scope. Deformity is in many ways eye-catching, while it simultaneously shows a tension between matter and form and what we experience as the outer and inner realm of the art piece. We have been taught to look beyond the deformed exterior and to look for the perfect inner soul. This has its origin in the Platonic divide between the imperishable world consisting of perpetual forms, and our very perishable and material world. This also implies an ethical aspect.

Aristotle, who did not divide between two worlds, is just as significant in our cultural history. The form reveals itself through sensuous objects and beings. Form is reality, and matter is possibility. In such a perspective, deformity is an expression of matter resisting form, in other words an expression of inadequacy and lack. This perspective is to be found particularly in reflections on aesthetics. Few things wedge so effectively in between ethics and aesthetics as deformity.

Consider the story The Steadfast Tin Soldier by H.C. Andersen. It is a beautiful and apparently human story. However, it only works aesthetically because the soldier in union with the ballerina symbolises inner values, while she symbolises the exterior and the perfect form. The story would not have been the same if the tin soldier had fallen in love with one of Irene Nordli´s ballerinas, but it would have made for a much more intriguing story.

Kjartan Müller