Counterculture and the culture of courage and encounter
When I met Jorunn in 1995, she was exhibiting the food consumed by an average Norwegian in
one year in a display window at Steen & Strøm (In honor of the intestinal and villus, or thoughts
of the consumer society, 1995.) Later, she gently inserted images of New York’s rough sleepers
into pictures of blossoming trees (sleepers, 2003-2007). I also recall that at some point she sat in
an allotment garden knitting an enormous cactus that she intended to place out in the woods at
Hamar (saguaro, 2005). Her calm and unassuming manner and the naturalness with which she
does all this are qualities I have learnt to admire.
Jorunn is an artist who cultivates her materials the way a gardener nurtures a garden. It was her
care and slowness – together with what I have come to recognise as a clear socially critical
stance – that made me start thinking of her as a Contrary Mary. A woman who cultivates what is
right for her at her own pace. A woman who confidently believes that fantastic things will sprout
and grow if only the soil and people are properly cared for. But also a woman who goes against
the grain and can be wayward (contrary) when the world becomes unhinged:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
“Jorunn, Jorunn is so patient” was my first thought (just look at the garden she’s growing). But
after a while something else became clearer to me: above all she works against the grain. She
insists on being political in a quiet way, and that has truly impressed me.
It occurs to me that, like Contrary Mary, Jorunn has hung silver bells in trees – or rough
sleepers, if you prefer. They had nowhere to sleep, so in her photos she has laid them on beds of
cherry blossom high above the ground. Almost as if they were floating in the air, or at least in
sweet dreams. Jorunn doesn’t shout, she points quietly.
“goodbye hello goodbye” (2013–19)
In other words, when Jorunn insists on showing us something, she does so gently. And to my
mind, the way she uses her time is in itself countercultural. I still haven’t grasped where she
finds her energy. It struck me as almost crazy when she began this project: “Do you really mean
to spend three years knotting a photo in wool? So while I’m charging about all stressed up, you’ll
by tying tiny knots. I’ll be constantly on the go, and you’ll be reminding me that it doesn’t have
to be that way.” It’s something I have found provocative, and I like it.
Artworks can both whisper and shout. They can make us either more or less afraid, more
or less sad, more or less happy. But when art touches us, I would say it’s because it reminds us of
something within us that we can’t quite put our finger on without help. And Jorunn reminds me
of my own potential for counterculture and slowness. She is so patient it makes me mad. And
that really stirs my interest. In dedicating day after day of her time to tying knots, Jorunn is
insisting that slowness is a blessing. It’s something I have often doubted in my own life,
choosing instead to chase after speed. Confronted by the rug in its now finished form, I am
forced to reassess my position. It has a value that overreaches my comprehension, because it fills
me with the kind of awe I feel on entering a sacred space.
The work that must be done
For in choosing to depict women sorting through waste, Jorunn is insisting that work has a value
even when it is unobtrusive, humble and tedious. I feel compelled to look again.
The work of these women is not romantic. It is gruelling. The image is specific. It shows
a scene in rural China. And the injustice is grim. I will never have to struggle as these women do.
But am I right to think there is a universal aspect to the scene she has chosen? Every day one has
to rediscover oneself and one’s own strength; every day one needs the courage to encounter
oneself and all that needs to be sorted. And one has to stick it out; there’s no running away from
it. It makes me realise just how often I have wanted to run away. How often I want more, or just
… something else.
In our part of the world everything is commercialised. We want glitter and gloss, and the
impression that life looks better in places other than the one where we happen to be can drive us
to despair. Jorunn’s work makes it possible for me to let go of the ghastly idea that the only
things that have value in this world are things that are newsworthy. It’s a question of gratitude:
she works hard to shake me out of my pampered state of mind.
Jorunn works with details in a way that makes it impossible for me not to notice them.
She believes in the beautiful and can endure the ugly. And she forces me to come to a halt even if
my impulse is always to keep on running. Because sometimes I want to scream that I don’t
understand and don’t have the patience to wait. “Jorunn, Jorunn, do you really intend to knot
another rug?” Now it’s me who’s being contrary; childishly obdurate and blind to slowness,
beauty and the needs of the environment. It all seems so provocative, because I just want to be
left in peace with my hectic pursuit. No more gardening for now, I think to myself. Not a single
knot more. I don’t have time for it. That’s not how I live. It’s not how WE live. We have to keep
moving, and the world is almost more than we can bear. It’s no use. The nursery rhyme needs a
new ending – and here I get a little help from Roald Dahl:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
“I live with my brat in a high-rise flat,
So how in the world would I know.”1
But my protest doesn’t last long. Soon enough I recover my faith in the good, the beautiful and
the slow. It’s enough for me just to stroke my hand over the woollen photo and to notice the light
falling on the fermentation jars to the right of the women. The picture strikes me as the most
beautiful thing I have ever seen.
I can’t fathom that anyone could have all this within them. The patience, the gaze, the
will to choose what to see. The strength to insist that we must come to grips with injustice and
the despoiling of Earth’s resources. And at the same time, the courage to show us beauty.
So much silent protest, continuing over time; I have no choice but to admire it. You are a
gardener, Jorunn, and you are creating large and truly wonderful silver bells. May they ring out
loud enough to startle us.
1. Dahl, R.: Rhyme Stew, London: Jonathan Cape, 1989.