The Underworld of Everyday life
by Kjetil Røed
The first room we enter at the exhibition mimics the aesthetics we all know from waiting rooms at the dentist or other offices where we have to wait for our turn. Mattias Härenstam has also built a new wall and door between this room and the rest of exhibition. Everyone knows of course that no secretary will come out and call us in for our dentist appointment - this is an art exhibition after all- but Härenstam's detailed reproduction is so exact, so similar to the generic form we know from our habit-based lives, that it holds a certain power over the spectator. Rikke Kommisar, manager at Akershus Art Centre, confirms this assumption and tells me that many visitors are actually reluctant to open this door to the rest of the exhibition.
In the "waiting room" we are acquainted with conversations between the emergency personnel during night when Olof Palme was murdered - they can both be heard (as documentary sound recording) and read as a projection on the wall. This is an event that, in many ways, punctured the Social Democratic innocence: the murder is a trauma in Swedish modern history, a wound that has not healed. The refusal to open the door and Palme-murder has, one might say, partially grown into the (Swedish) common subconscious and become a part of how we, spontaneously, relate to our surroundings.
If we go further through the door and in the exhibition, we see the video work Closed Circuit, that symbolically and visually, outlines the concrete underground of the presumed perfection of middle-class suburbia: the camera moves through an average suburban street and down a hole in the pavement and further through a chattering mouth. We are thereafter led through a fleshy cavity - intestinal canals, perhaps - before we finally are out in the open again. We are now seeing the same suburban environment in red, as if the atmosphere of the street has taken on the color of the body's interior, before disappearing once again into the hole, this time without the teeth, until we are back at the first street scene - the work loops itself. The next room features a tree root in the ceiling, hung with little lamps, human hair and glass jewelry - and in the exhibition's third and last room is another video work: this time it's a man, who is crying with his back turned, that can be observed.
The exhibition twists and turns effectively on the relationship between top and bottom, above and below, inside and out. This contortion of habitual postures and room functions is twisted through an underground motif we know from literature - from Alice in Wonderland, for example, Ludvig Holberg's Niels Klims' Journey to the Underworld or HG Wells' Time Machine (which probably is the most interesting parallel). When it comes to the montage of the body's inner and the suburban architecture, Härenstam's video resembles the key scene in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, where the camera goes from the image of a happy suburban world and into the ground, where a network of crawling insects is revealed. Any polished surface hides a seething, complex, darker, underside. In all these fictions an alternative version of the world, as we know it, is being revealed - its travesty, its subconscious. By creating a loop between the body's inner life and the suburban architecture, and joining the singular trauma with the generalized boredom, articulated as the non-place of the waiting room, Härenstam succeeds to stir up a conventional concept of normality. The world is not, he suggests, designed by Freudian structures with a clear distinction between the conscious and the unconscious, between lust and love, chaos and order - no, it is a far more complex fretwork, where the different levels penetrate and flow over and into each other.
Review by Kjetil Røed, published in Norwegian online art criticism forum Kunstkritikk 04.03.2011. It is also available as pdf-download (in Norwegian only).