From Photo to photo objects

by Gunnar Danbolt ( 2005 )

Agape, lapsing as it were into craters of devastation- people try to imitate the ennui that surrounds them (Walter Benjamin)

Street-photography is a specific photographic genre akin to nineteenth- century realism. It is, apparently, reality itself, untreated, raw as captured by the camera’s lens. And the way it’s done is not dissimilar to techniques used by Gustave Courbet, an avowed realist himself, one and a half centuries ago. We see it in the angels opted for. It is not enough for the image to be spontaneous or incidental ( like straight photography, because in no sense it is manipulated ) — it has to look spontaneous. And in that area, Courbet was rhetorical genius.

Jorunn Irene Hanstvedt takes as her starting point the street photography genre in an altogether palpable sense insofar as she shoots homeless individuals sleeping rough in the backstreets and parks of New York. In that sense, they are real enough. Admittedly, these figures don’t tend to feature on high-status thoroughfares. That’s because they as likely as not would upset the picture societies like to present of themselves - well-oiled social machinery where everybody has an allotted job and purpose. That is, apart from sleeping vagrants — they’re the outsiders, to be scuttled away in the half shade of backstreets and solitary parks. But Hanstvedt has tracked them down and used them in a range of photos.

In a series bought by Kirkens Hus in Oslo and exhibited in the cafeteria, we meet the homeless again. But asleep this time in fruit trees in blossom in uptown New York. They’re so scrupulously applied you believe what your eyes are telling you, that that’s where they were when the picture was shot - as if the trees, in a fit of kindness, had reached down and raised them up to a higher, more beautiful and virtuous state. What people do not do, but ought to, nature sees to herself. “Consider the lilies of the field”. Another thought stirred up by Kirkens Hus: Tree of life, where "even the last of my people" are gathered, radiant as if they were the tree’s own fruit.

Railway stations attract the homeless, they offer warmth and a bench to sleep on. That’s how it is in New York, and that it is in Oslo. In one project she was invited to (Kulturbyrået Mesen), she brings the homeless back home, to the streets — and to Norway in the shape of two large photos from the series, mounted on Oslo Railway Station’s exterior.

She has expanded the sleepers theme along several different routes. Some pictures are unadulterated street photography — we see people sleeping on a narrow ledges, wrapped in a sleeping-bag-like plastic coverings, all their worldly goods stowed in a small white plastic carrier bag below their head. In another picture we see only the traces of a homeless individual — layers of cardboard, with a pillow on top, like a deserted bird’s nest. In these examples, haphazardness is not highlighted because the pictures follow closely horizontal and vertical axes, and space, Renaissance-like, remains shallow, achieved by multiple layers, all of which flush with the plane of the picture. In this consummate space — redolent of the social machine itself — there is an amorphous mass (and a white plastic carrier bag) or a few scraps of cardboard, out of place as it were.

Other pictures do bring out the sense of spontaneity, through a diagonal architecture and indistinct space, with the principal character, the homeless individual, softly excised, leaving the brown bareness to itself. One might recall Pompeii’s many calciferous victims, present only as a void in hardened magma, create into which we pour plaster to create a representation of something. We need to proceed in similar fashion here too. Perhaps not with plaster, but with our own ideas. And it is not that difficult either, because the pictures give us a clue: the voids are trying to make what we might term outcasts in our well-oiled and smoothly running society as invisible as possible. Without complete success. In these pictures the homeless are gone — only shadowy vestiges remain. But if we ask “Where are they?”, we can find them in a gallery in the shape of what Hanstvedt herself calls photo objects. She insists they are photo objects because she has transferred (the cut out) photos of homeless people over to textiles, given them a three-dimensional form, to resemble sculptures of the homeless. The objects are about fifty cm long and soft as eiderdown. Which is why she calls them pillows. These photo objects can be sited anywhere, and continue to act as veristic sculptures — not like pop artist Duane Hanson’s human sculptures, so true to life they give people a start. That’s the point, partly, although Hanstvedt’s pillows are people only at third or forth removes. But they make you start all the same, seeing them lined up along a gallery wall. At the same time, they`re nice, harmless, because they`re pillows on which you may rest your tired head. And if you do - and it`s allowed - you`ll be sleeping with the sleeper - in a sort of solidarity compact.

So what is socially invisible, because it doesn’t fit the human construction we call modern society, is, funnily enough, plain to see in the gallery — the art world. And that tell us (and should tell us) something about what art’s for: to make invisible things visible. This is not an original or revolutionary maxim, but it’s no less valid for that. In the middle ages, invisibility correlated with divinity — in the Renaissance, ideal or Utopian reality — and in the nineteenth century, often social reprobates — and in the twentieth, everybody beyond the pale: coloreds, females, gays, whatever. In this sense, Hanstvedt’s pictures are not only about homeless individuals, but about them as symbols of society in crisis. Not a new crisis, mark you, it’s more a permanent state, because we human beings never ever managed to create the all-inclusive society. All societies produce outcasts, and it says something that the ideal fails to match the goods, and probably never will. It`s the feeling we get from the disconnected photo objects. Because she puts them i the strangest of places in her shows, and when we overlook them it’s because we are resting cosily and sleeping on them, because they’re doubling as pillows too. 

Her project’s trajectory takes us beyond aesthetics. We’re called to examine our own moral stance. What about our preconceptions, prejudices (generally invisible to our own eye )? Aren’t they there to defuse or shade out everything that doesn’t belong in the regimented universe we erect around us? Like the homeless in New York.


by Truls Ramberg (2005)


Mythological America is the subject matter of Jorunn Irene Hanstvedt’s photo series “journey”, her exploration of the continent from the driver’s seat of her American sports car. It should not be conceived as an objective documentary account. Confronting the physical landscapes goes hand in hand with a confrontation of our preconceptions of the US. In this sense her images could be interpreted in terms of geography meeting culture. As far as technique is concerned, this is clearly the case inasmuch as the photos were shot while Hanstvedt traveled within the continent and the resulting images digitally elaborated. But on closer inspection we find intriguing details which complicate, and partly undermine, a conventional reading of her work as an example of documentary photography. If there is a close genre relationship, it is the orthodox photo essay, where a sequence of images turns on a study of a specific phenomenon or, indeed, place. Now we should not draw too much from that comparison: it is not a consistent aspect of her work which tends revolves as much around the viewer as the motive. In this turn suggests a strong element of critical reflection, not only on photographic representation as much, but perceptions of reality in a wider sense.


Hanstvedt could also be seen as a realizing in her work one of the enduring dreams in the Norwegian ethos, a dream to widespread it is probably more or a cliche’nowadays: do America driving a legendary American sports car. Tellingly, the Mustang that features in the foreground of every picture is enormously popular where Hanstvedt grew up in Karmøy. Here, it works almost as a symbolic of the place. Taking a more retrospective, historical view, many Norwegians were affected over many decades by mass emigration to the US — among the highest in Europe. And America remains a sort of pilgrims, fata morgana — not least among cultural tourists and artists from Norway, like Hanstvedt, who have put down more or less permanent roots there. But utopian dreams of a promised land sit less comfortably with most Europeans in a violent 9/11 environment, they are even politically uncorrect for many. Glorified myths of America are about as far from the real thing as it’s possible to get; it’s difficult to raise the subject without an accompanying heath warning. Hanstvedt’s handling of the issue seems authentic because the journey is less about some particular geography or other, and more about her personal expectations and preconceptions. The “destination” is not only the landscape per see, it is equally the dearly held cultural stereotypes of at least one generation of Norwegians that grew up on a diet of Beat novels and Hollywood movies. It finds expression not at least in Hanstvedt’s widescreen format, an undeniable sign of the movie affiliations. 


Now since we are dealing with a Norwegian artist exploring a foreign continent, another strand of the plot concerns figures in the Norwegian pantheon of heroes like Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen may be the most likely character: he is, after all, often credited with America’s “discovery”. So we can read Hanstvedt’s work as a parody of their voyages of discovery. Hers is by no means a heroic travel account; above all it is a melancholic sign from a member of a disillusioned generation on which heroic feasts and pioneering spirit leave no impression. The ironic element emerges, what’s more, in comparison with the many well-known photographic projects of the past three or four decades, powered by a will to represent the ugly, non-virtuous state of the US landscape, the result of mindless exploitation of the natural resources. (See, for instance, the work of photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz whom we tend to classify under the “New Topographics” heading.)


A governing principle for this series is Hanstvedt’s conscious fictional stance. The pictures are obviously digitally and frequently of scenes which in physical terms are simply inconceivable, something to which I shall return later, effectively putting paid to conventional documentary assumptions about their purpose. And the widescreen format which more than anything evokes the mythos of the silver screen and Hollywood spectacle. Combining this with the fact that the landscapes are shot through a car window, Hanstvedt’s picture series forms a bridge to the literary travelogue. Here, the reality is described from a symbolic viewpoint, the accent more on the subjective impressions. It’s a genre with roots in Homer, Dante and modern literature like Jack Kerouacs On the Road, one of the most vaunted literary trips across America of modern times. 

Another nail in the documentary coffin is the lack of hard facts about the places displayed in the pictures. Apart from the travel rationale and a relatively plain portrayal of the American environment, there is not much to go on. A slice of American prairie much like prairies seen in Westerns, is seen in one of the pictures, and it`s typical of the series as a whole. While clearly professionally accomplished, aesthetically pleasing landscape studies on one level, on another they are obviously under no obligation to provide useful place-related information. One of the pictures does admittedly present a dramatic element in the shape of a storm with palm trees battered by wind and rain, windows screen wipers washing away the water. But nothing more spectacular or surprising than that. They seem on the whole as much like reflections on how we perceive reality as studies of material American reality. The exception to the rule is the picture of the instantly recognizable mountain-scape of Monument Valley. Even that, though, persists along the same neutral, non-narrative path as the rest of the series.


Insofar as these essays offer a critical reflection over artistic conventions, or scientific, philosophical representations, it is because reality is reached through physical proximity — a body needs to be somewhere in some cultural and geographical setting. Viewers of these pictures are, so to speak, thrown into the driving seat of Hanstvedt’s Mustang, always present in the foreground. Hands, steering wheel and dashboard, almost life size, latch on the viewer’s perspective, transforming it for a moment into the car’s interior and us into the driver at the wheel. It is virtually virtual interaction as we, as the travelers in the car, physically fill out the picture, add the final touches. Experiencing reality from a car entails physical proximity, and this type of sleep inducing drive along country roads, Hanstvedt’s business here, mostly on autopilot, transfers conscious to the back seat, so to speak, and the only things we react to are bodily reflexes and involuntary stimuli. One picture in particular illustrates the slightly unworldly impression of the entire series with the car literally in flight above the landscape, as if the whole thing was an episode from a dream. We could also, of course, interpret Hanstvedt as ironizing over heroic explorers and expeditions, as I suggest above. By virtue of the enclosed compartment, with windows on a distanced environment, the car’s interior could parody the rear view position required by what we term objective representation. It’s a notion common to the philosophy of the mind which differentiates the reality of the mind, from which the subject surveys the world, from external, material reality. The irony lies here, of course, in the highly material nature of the Mustang interior’s, a physically defined slice of reality with, moreover, biographical connections with the artist and popular culture.


One implication is that we, the viewers are almost thrown into the driving seat, transformed into objects to be gazed at by others in the pictures. One of the pictures features a rear mirror with a car apparently getting dangerous close to the viewer. Another shows us the headlights of a solitary approaching car, suggesting our own involvement in the incident. There is a sensation of angst about some of these pictures, despite the humour I alluded to above, which precisely is connected with the ambiguous role of viewer and how different opposing angles interweave. It’s there again in the picture where two red rear lights in the foreground startled the viewer, leaving a scary, slightly paranoid effect.

Being an object of the gaze of others was something Maurice Merleau-Ponty contended had something to do with our irruption as physical entities into a world of objects. Hanstvedt’s photos rehearse this unstable observer/observed relation, with us, on the one hand, is a front seat position from where we can enjoy the spectacular views, and on the other, with us on display to be probed and affected by others. And according to the phenomenologists this is an inherent, constant quality of being insofar as being is taken as physical presence.

Hanstvedt handles perspective or spectacle in many ways in these pictures, sometimes as a reminder of classical approaches to perspective and representation, most visibly where a foreshortened road emerges as compelling octogonales milling towards the picture’s vanishing point. The ocher landscape and downy turquoise sky of one of the pictures seem old-masterly, possibly recalling early Raphael. But violations of classical linear perspective are legion. First, we are part of the picture ourselves, as objects for others, itself expressive of a conflict of several mutually exclusive perspectives. One of the organizing aspects of “journey” as a whole is a series, tendency to mix past, present and future experience, and let it be shape by cultural as much as by irrational bodily forces. What’s remarkable about Hanstvedt’s work and deserving of respect and praise, is as I see it, it’s open, thoughtful interrogation of the heterogeneity of modern perceptions of reality.



by Ingrid Blekastad (2002)

Skulpturen saguaro gir et slående og humoristisk førsteinntrykk: En kjempestor strikket kaktus har forvillet seg til norsk nåletrevegetasjon ved Mjøsa. Det er en av westernfilmens varemerke som pluteselig opptrer utenfor allfarvei. Folkeligheten fra populærkulturen er også en side ved Hanstvedts skulptur, den er enkel, gjenkjennelig og upretensiøs, samtidig unngår den å bli kitsch. Skulpturen ble laget til utstillingen Under åpen himmel, kuratert av undertegnede og i regi av Kunstbanken Hedmark Kunstsenter på Hamar.

Skulpturen saguaro er en naturtro gjengivelse av kaktusen ved samme navn, som vokser vilt i Nord Mexico og Arizona, USA. Formen i seg selv er ikke det mest spennende ved denne skulpturen. Kaktusen har i vill forstand de mest fantastiske former, med armer som vokser både oppover og nedover og avhengig av tilgangen til vann for å vokse. Jorunn Irene Hanstvedt har valgt en slags normalkaktus som utgangspunkt. Dette er et bevisst valg, hun er svært fascinert av denne kaktustypen og har reist rundt i ørkenen for å studere den. Derimot har hun valgt å gi kaktusen en kjølig grønn, noe kunstig farge som viser et brudd med en mimetisk gjengivelse. Fargen skjærer lett mot stedets naturlige grønnfarger. Garnet i saueull og hestehår er selvfarget. Teknikken som forener den bruksrettede strikketeknikken og monumentalskulpturen, det hverdagslige med det kunstferdige, bryter med den tradisjonelle skulpturens uforgjengelige materialer. I likhet med andre tjukke strikketing trakk den til seg nattas fuktighet, tyngden fikk den til å sige og legge seg i folder nederst ved bakken. Presist har Hanstvedt sett hvordan kaktusen vokser i tykkelse ved at det kommer til nye striper lik økinga av masker på en ribbestrikket genser. Kaktusen er også fylt som en ujevn stappet filledukke. Dette gir den en hjemmegjort preg. Men ser vi etter, vokser også saguaroene på denne måten. Hanstvedt viser oss likhetene mellom en håndarbeidsteknikk og en organisk plante, likheter som blir åpenbare i det vi får det påvist. Skulpturen kan ses på som en overskridelse av den pågående statuskonkurransen mellom kunsthåndverk og billedkunst. Jorunn Irene Hanstvedt forener vrangbordstrikking og monumentalskulptur. Skulpturen bryter dermed ned det opphøyde ved kunsten, ved nærmest å tre en ullsokk på den. Selv står Hanstvedt med ett bein i hver leir. Hun er utdannet både som billedkunstner og kunsthåndverker, arbeider som billedkunstner og underviser samtidig på en avdeling for kunsthåndverk ved Kunsthøyskolen i Oslo. I senere tid har hun arbeidet med fotografi som uttrykk. 

Stedsbestemt kunst må forholde seg til omgivelsene enten i innhold eller form. Denne skulpturen forholder seg til stedet ved det forventningsbruddet den skaper. Vi kan fort villedes til å tro at skulpturen er et naturgitt fremmedelement siden den er naturtro formet, men Saguaro er et kulturelt fremmedelement. I den perioden kaktusen stod montert ved strandpromenaden, kom det tusenvis av folk forbi. Dette er et mye brukt fritidsområde på Hamar, med blant annet strandsoner for soling og bading. Saguaro vakte begeistring, og mange kom bort og strøk på den og kjente at hestehårene i motsetning til kaktuspiggene, strittet mykt imot handa. Den fikk også stå i fred for hærverk og annen slitasje. Med andre ord er Saguaro en munter, kritisk og kompleks stedsbestemt skulptur.


meeting the world

by Anne Karin Jortveit (2000)

For the last few years, Jorunn Irene Hanstvedt has commuted between urban New York and the less metropolitan Norway. In summer 1999, these different experiences were actualized artistically when she received a grant from Nome Township in Telemark directly upon her return from a stay in New York. That these places represent large contrasts seems fairly obvious. Hanstvedt nonetheless viewed this as an opportunity to examine such elementary observations. For living in a powerful natural landscape can be as intense as being in Manhattan, one merely operates with different signs. Moving between places also involves mental journeys, where outer experience is transformed into inward encounter, here with the stimulus of rural surroundings and the quite different character of a big city tempo. In drawing on her own experiences with both urban and provincial lifestyles, she looks at how contrasts are able to reciprocally influence and challenge each other, without judging the one as better than the other. To do otherwise would be foreign to her approach to her art.


A thematic framework for Hanstvedt’s work is the relationship between nature and culture. The artist, clearly aware that this is the dichotomy in Western society, avoids using sublime or abstracted approaches; neither does she work with “large themes”. Instead, she uses the phenomena she comes across, which is not say that she works with coincidence. Under the surface of recognizable images there is an aspect of critique that places society and humankind in a perspective. In calling attention to different “mundane” events and situations, she allows us to think new about something already existing in the world. Most of us are already familiar in one way or another with what she shows us, without necessarily having reflected on what we actually saw and what such events can symbolize when looking below the surface. An example of this is the video “beef transformation”, which was filmed in Telemark. Here, the cud chewing of cows provides an ongoing, energetic rhythm that connects the sequences in a thought-provoking manner. Subject to human nutritional and enjoyment needs, the animals literally chew themselves to death. That we in turn will chew the animals adds an unpleasant layer to the repetitive soundscape. The point is definitely made when the piece of a raw meat is brutally slung onto a plate at the end of the video. Working with elements from the complex connections between animals and people, Hanstvedt focuses on man’s uncontested, yet unstable position on both sides of the culture-nature border.


The window has a special significance in Hanstvedt’s art. In many ways, the window serves as a paradigmatic opening to her visual universe, not least due to an interest in video and photography. In concrete terms, she has used the window in several projects: In the series “vindu-window”, she photographed windows in private homes in small town in southwest Norway. There is an absence of people, with only the tidy arrangement of flowers and rose hips revealing something about their identity. In “looking out”, she faces the opposite direction, as people become her subjects. In this series, she shows residents looking out of their windows in Brooklyn, watching the goings-on in the street. In a metaphorical sense, as the image of the human eye, the window has a central function in Hanstvedt’s work. As artist, she enters situations as observer and a spectator with an awareness of the gaze as both a privilege and a responsibility. When Hanstvedt uses the title “dog looking at me” in an earlier photograph, it refers directly to the depiction of a look in return. The look that sees may in turn be looked at. In “idiotes curiositas” a stuffed dog stands before a video projection. We look at the dog, which in turn is watching one of our primary visual domains — the TV. Through the dog we also see a kind of double exposure of ourselves, as suggested by the laden title.


The dog is a familiar cultural emblem for humankind, but it makes no demands for itself. In a consumer society, the dog finds itself in an ambivalent relationship to its nature. This nature is quickly “cultivated” when a dog enters into human lives. This is particularly the case in urban milieus, occasionally in ways that re extreme. This is displayed in scenes from America in the videos “dogfit” and “animal and man” from the exhibition “Timmy Holedigger”. People treat their dogs with human care: Dog clothes, dog perfumes, dog psychologists, dog spas, limo-service for dogs are but a few of the enterprises invented for the “dog’s sake”. Through Hanstvedt’s particular focus, human inadequacies are also made apparent. Ultimately, Hanstvedt’s dog project are not as much about dog as about how people define themselves via the dog. When people stage the lives of dogs, it is man’s own voice that is heard, searching for meaning. The photographs of a dog graveyard titled : “in memory of the beloved ones”, are traces that refer to something of a mourning project. The burial grounds do not exist for the dogs but because of peoples feelings about their pets. This may be read, for example, in the loneliness expressed in the individual tombstone epitaphs. 


As with many other artists today, Hanstvedt draw inspiration from conceptual art. One tactic she has adopted from this approach involves the view that artists activity is not unlike the work of an anthropologist. The artist looks at relationships in the world in order to say something about them via art. Her work with series is also a conceptual formal characteristic. Repetition presents the same theme but distorts and expands it, and her art is based on “offers” rather than “statements”. There is also an underlying aspect of play. As aesthetics provides an opportunity to draw the viewer into a work, play provides a similar opening for communication. Hanstvedt is interested in creating a space in which extremes may meet, and she uses situations whose meanings are not fully determined. This approach is seen in the series “reception areas” , for example, where she photographs the thresholds to important galleries in New York. The different connotations of these art institutions may be sensed yet are not made explicit. The photographs do not directly address the question of different power relationships, but expose a discursive space surrounding the issue.


Video and photography occupy a prominent place in contemporary art. They relate closely to reality, which they in turn may manipulate and fictionalize. When Hanstvedt uses these media, there is an awareness that a video camera and a camera are able to serve as extensions of the body itself. No longer involving the gaze alone, but media also function as a “sensory prosthesis” in terms of physical encounters with the surroundings. The entails a view in which the body is no longer a given, something definitive, but becomes more of a situation. The body is in the world, but it continually seeks new experiences. Through video and photography, Hanstvedt allows this presence to be seen. This is a platform for her work, regardless of the nature of the motives or the actual subject matter.


As producer, Hanstvedt performs as a discrete narrator. Her own experience with her objects is subtly sensed, but she stays in the background as a private person. This is related to the respect she shows both to people and animals involved in her projects. In contrast to much of contemporary art`s need to show the intimate and private, Hanstvedt consciously avoids being drawn into her own art. Even when people are caught unaware, as in moments in "looking out", nothing of their private lives is revealed. For Hanstvedt, one of the challenges as an artist is to be present in the investigation and narrative, but without compromising the individual. Neither does Jorunn Irene Hanstvedt work with irony, and there is no hint of a moralistic tone in her art. She does not hesitate to use self-irony, however, both at her own expense and in relation to the common human experiences in the situations she presents. Aspects of people’s actions are presented without prejudice, and the meaning within the framework of each project is thus impossible to reduce to a simple level. The video “construction” (1998), in which a pair of hands “builds” a perfect and beautiful flower (the video is actually shown in reverse), is an example of how the artist continually allows space for adding onto the significance of an art. Her art inspires reflection on the meaning of experience and presence, which necessarily involves consumer experience.