Henning Olav Espedal
”A Sudden Liberating Thought”
Curated by Bjørn Inge Follevaag & Feng Boyi
The Norwegian artist Henning Olav Espedal addresses themes such as predestination, determinism and the possibility of escape in his exhibition “A Sudden Liberating Thought”. In a monumental, industrial field installation of sculptures and sound as well as in his paintings, Espedal documents a state of collapse and constant regeneration.
The American artist Robert Smithson made a series of works in Britain, among them the unrealized “Sprawling Mounds” in which he approached the strip-mining industry in a massive environmental art project. The sculptor Roelof Louw wrote an essay where he imagined how a visit to such a site would unfold: Visiting the project was like “setting out on a pilgrimage to a wasteland” with enormous white mounds of eroded misshapen surfaces of gravel and rubble in an abominable mess – “a place where social values have fallen into disorder, where wealth has turned into waste”. (From the article To the Ends of the Earth: Art and Environment (2012) Tate.org.uk) What Smithson refers to is the term entropy; a doctrine of inevitable decline and degeneration in which our use of resources and raw material at some stage cannot rely on recycling. He says ”there's a kind of equation between the enjoyment of life and waste. Probably the opposite of waste is luxury. Both waste and luxury tend to be useless”.
Espedal approaches the concept of entropy through painting and gives us here a panoramic view of entropic forces in action. The distant view leads us to reflect on our position as part of a larger cosmic story as well as our day to day life by using bricks, a familiar illustrative form.
In their work Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) the German philosophers Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, writing from their exile in the US, stated: “What we had set out to do was nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism”. The alienation in our modern times is seen as rooted in the instrumentality of reason and technological manipulation as a precursor to the entire history of mankind. But in our times, they write, it is no longer rooted in a specific historical formation, but has become blind. And yet, as the philosopher Sloterdijk notices, «humans are beings that cannot not practice». The vita active is the way of being-in-the-world, it resides deep inside the human psyché. So how to act better? As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (1951): «Life is not yet life», das Leben leben niche.
The human impact on the world as such, exemplified by the growing human influence on land use, ecosystems, biodiversity, and species extinction have made some geologists suggest that we can replace the holocene with a new geological epoch, the anthropocene. There is no turning back, they say, now it is time to ackowledge how – and to what extent – human activities have had global impact on the Earth's ecosystems.
Many Chinese artists, especially within contemporary photography, have addressed environmental issues in their work. Artists such as Hong Hao with his images composed from reassembled wastes, Chi Peng’s images of excessive and non-sustainable growth, Liu Jin who portrays scaffolds around newly constructed high-rises in cities, Ma Hongjie with his photographs of families with their meager belongings assembled outside their soon to be abandoned houses, Mu Chen+Shao Yinong portray assembly halls in rural villages falling into disrepair, Wang Qingsong with his “Follow Me” blackboard of logos of major international corporations, Yao Lu with his beautiful classical Chinese landscapes made from waste at construction sites, or as in the works of Jin Jiangbo whose images depict abandoned production facilities which are no longer profitable. (“Never Equal Distance to the Moon”, Stiftelsen314.com)
In his work Henning Olav Espedal easily falls into a category of concerned artists discussing possible future scenarios. His sculptures have references to manmade disasters, to power stations or impending danger. In his sound-work we can vaguely register a faint whisper suggesting that our civilization is fading into oblivion. And his brick paintings, where he paints with concrete, carry references to the destruction of heritage, like the demolishing of China’s hutongs. Their traces are removed. Giving space to superstructures of our time, mastodonts of concrete, glass and steel -the ruins of the future. A future based on the concept of perpetual material growth, which in itself is unsustainable, and its inevitable consequence is suffering.
Even if one agrees that ours is a culture dominated by insensivity to pain and a loss of memory, it is also true that there is simply no laying to rest the scars of violence and the ghosts of past suffering. Espedal epitomizes Hegel’s thesis: “as long as there is an awareness of suffering among human beings there must also be art as the objective form of that awareness.” But as Viriginia Woolf wrote: “But for pain words are lacking.”
We cannot define the future, yet that is exactly what our politicians aim to do, by implementing change. China’s politicians have also changed the future. Some would say with tremendous success, but all will agree that this change has come at a price. Former Chairman of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, defined China’s future with the slogan: “One change a year, one big change in three years, and one unidentifiable transformation in five years.” China’s lifting of millions of citizens from poverty to affluence is an impressive achievement in itself. The introduction of a liberal market economy, within the existing political system, has to a large extent been a success. But the unidentifiable transformation Deng speaks of involves massive structural changes to the social, economic and cultural fabric of China. In the timespan of less than a generation China has gone from bicycle to car, road to highway, hutong to high-rise, enterprise to industry and village to metropolis. An example of the scale of China’s development can be observed in such projects as the Three Rivers Dam project or in the flattening of 700 mountains in Lanzhou to build a new metropolis. So perhaps the folk tale about the old peasant Yu Gong, who decided to move two inconveniently located mountains away from blocking the entrance to his home, is true: He struggled terribly, but ultimately succeeded. Hence the Chinese idiom "Yu Gong moves the mountains."
China’s role as production hub for the world has also had consequences beyond improving the population’s living conditions; Consequences for its air, water and soil. The never ending desire for cheap labor and enterprise expansion by the West has also affected China.
The struggle to cope with progress, to foresee possible futures and find solutions, is a vital issue for China’s authorities. Some of these issues are already being addressed. Affluence increases consumption. On its current development path food, water, oil, gas, minerals, transport and energy become commodities China's population increasingly requires, and all of these resources are limited in supply. With increased affluence comes increased use of these shared resources, but also increased responsibility. The way we handle our resources, our waste and our environment eventually becomes a question of survival. It is a collective responsibility where key capitalist elements such as personal gain eventually must yield to the needs of the many.
This exhibition by Henning Olav Espedal offers an artist’s perspective on some of the choices we have made and what lies ahead.
Bjørn Inge Follevaag 2014