Time, values, and (im)patience

Thoughts on Jorunn Irene Hanstvedt’s project goodbye hello goodbye

“Digging down to China” is an expression many will remember from childhood, a time when the

imagination flowed more freely. China represented everything strange and unfamiliar, a place

about which one could make up one’s own stories. Today, everywhere is closer than it used to be,

no matter where in the world one lives. One no longer reaches for a spade with the absurd

intention of starting to dig, for China is just a few mouse-clicks away. Even so, the gulf that

separates “us” from “them” remains as wide as ever, as if it were a timeless constant.

As the mother of a daughter born in China, and with a background as a socially aware and

inquisitive artist, Jorunn Irene Hanstvedt has undertaken two extended trips to that country with

the aim of getting to know it from the inside. She was of course very aware that as a tourist she

could only explore a tiny fraction of its immense social structure. What she most wanted was to

discover the reality of life for people in local communities, away from the centres of power. She

travelled in the clear awareness that she herself came from a wealthy society, but she was also

driven by a profound interest in and concern for the fragile relationship between people and

nature. And along the way she discovered qualities she felt were lacking in her own culture, such

as frugality, the sustainable use of resources, and the cultivation of genuine craft and agricultural

traditions. Hanstvedt returned from her travels in southwestern China with a veritable reservoir

of visual and mental impressions, and a camera stuffed full of pictures. Enough material for years

of artistic work. While many of her photos have a certain documentary quality, fundamentally

they reflect her personal and selective gaze. Woven into her project there is also a foreboding of

loss; the awareness that the survival of valuable qualities that can all too easily be overshadowed

by high-tech visions is by no means guaranteed.

With the title goodbye hello goodbye, this is an on-going project that currently consists of a large

knotted-pile rug representing one of Hanstvedt’s photographs and a series of photo books

without text. There is nothing dramatic or ostentatious about the photograph selected for the rug.

Three women squatting in a cheerless backyard in front of a rudimentary brick hut. Beside the

hut is a pile of ceramic urns. In the background is a hillside covered in green scrub, emphasising

the impression of a rural location. The palette of warm, dark tones is enhanced by the fact that

the women are squatting on the ground, as if they were an extension of the earth. We learn that

the women are sorting through waste materials. They are looking for scraps of unburnt fuel after

the firing of the urns. The women seem oblivious to the presence of the photographer, as if fully

engrossed in what they are doing. We imagine that, as a tight little group, they could be chatting.

In contrast to the photograph, which gives us the impression of a world “in there”, the tactile

surface of the rug thrusts the depicted situation out towards us. Although the camera lens has

captured the women at this one specific moment, they are preserved primarily in the pile of the

textile. On viewing the rug from a distance, it is the photographic impression that dominates, but

as one steps closer, the material aspect takes over. Proximity is also the core quality of the photo

books. The absence of text encourages an immediate and unfiltered sense of being present and

participating.

It took Hanstvedt the equivalent of three work-years to complete the rug. She chose to knot the

pile herself. Thread by thread, she “developed” the photo in the textile medium. Her immersion

in this slow, almost tedious task allowed her to embody another level of meaning – creating an

arc between time and values. The knotting process became a reflection of the slow, patient pace

of life into which she gained insight on her travels, something that has become alien to us in our

everyday lives in our own part of the world. Here we are inclined to equate time and value

creation with the economy and its growth, even though we are fully aware that time and value

are aspects of life that cannot always be measured and assessed. This contradictory situation

finds expression in goodbye hello goodbye and in Hanstvedt’s humanistic approach to the ethical

and aesthetic dimension of these two concepts. At the time of writing, she is planning another

photo-image rug. The picture she has chosen this time shows a girl standing alone on a river

bank washing plastic bags, probably in order to reuse them. It is a scene that both amplifies and

expands on the subject of her first rug. By embarking on yet another long-term work process,

Hanstvedt is affirming her own temporal rhythm in a world that is spinning ever faster. For her,

this manual labour is both a protest and an alternative.

“Digging down to China” would appear to be a good metaphor for the ways we try to tackle

things we don’t fully understand. As her “spade” the artist is as likely to use a camera as a rug

needle, combined with a dogged determination to discover connections in this vast web of life

we call the world. And as the rhythm of the title indicates, a “goodbye” can always be followed

by a new “hello”. Thus goodbye hello goodbye also actively suggests an invitation to the viewer

to reflect deeply on the big questions of life. And throwing light on the whole thing are the

humble but eye-opening activities of three anonymous women.

Anne Karin Jortveit