I like Norway and Norway likes me
Dania Burger often utilizes her own identity as a starting point when she scrutinizes the relationships between the intimate and the public, the close and the distant, the powerful and powerless. Personal relationships may be brought into play, as in the 2005 installation Dokhtar, which arose and took shape out of her own intense search to discover the unknown identity of her father. Her projects can also be said to the existential processes of life. In I like Norway and Norway likes me there is a dialogue between the deeply personal and the formally reductive: the materials from which the works have been formed have been donated by friends of the artist for the express purpose of being interpreted by her. In this act there can be seen a reflection on the use we make of consumer goods, our rampant consumerism often blocking for us any appreciation of the inherent value of the objects and their associations. For four days Burger lent herself to an intense interaction with the collected materials, perhaps all the better to get under the surface of the psychological violence committed by consumer society on the subject. It steals from us the ability to reflect on the magical quality of materials, replacing it with a desire for constant "upgrades", thereby impairing any possibility for us to invest deeply felt experiences into them. The consequence of this perverse materialism is that objects are in danger of being disconnected from our memories. The artist's process might be seen as a symbolic act of healing, but it also expresses the objects' gradual shift of meaning from being trivial and functional to dysfunctional and enigmatic.
At first glance the installation gives the impression of being an abandoned dwelling. One can strongly sense that someone has been breathing, sleeping, meditating, and moving around the gallery. Two mattresses are placed on top of each other, the bedclothes neatly folded. The bed might be regarded as a portal to the subconscious level of dreams, a generator for the suggestive, cryptic position adopted by the other objects. For many of them do seem to guard a secret. Take for instance the old-fashioned curtain with its floral pattern covering a window. Or the pile of pictures with their image turned to the wall and the frame maker's wrapping still intact, as if to signalize that the process of exhibiting the works has come to a halt; they hide their content from the onlooker. Both the pile of textiles and the glass column conceal their original functions, and contribute a colouristic touch to the room. They enhance once again the feeling of having stumbled into a private room where normal functionality has ceased. At the same time an air of vulnerability hangs over the bed, with its associations with the exposed and intimate – it is a place where your defences are down, somewhere between love and death. The room also leaves you with the feeling that someone has fled from the room, abandoning it abruptly.
In this conversion of a gallery into a private room there is a level of pain present, and it can also be traced in the important role negation plays in the installation. Negation is seen first and foremost in the way the artist turns her back on the institutional exhibition area, forming it into a domestic space. But it is also in the pictures that turn their images to the wall, negating their function as pictures; and in the sandblasted glass plates piled against each other, negating their primary function – to filter the view of another space. The observer comes up against a brick wall, almost literally. Three textiles suggesting the metalwork beloved in the 1980s are exhibited in an ostentatious, kitschy frame. The glamour and pomp is a negation of the truth, much as are the ambitions of the finely worked tablecloth that has tried to raise its value by being exhibited in a gilded frame.
There are of course traces of memory in the textiles, not least through their associations with traditional female crafts, and this raises questions about the relationship between gender and identity. Burger's examination of the historical dimensions of textiles and their close ties to the body and to the intimate has become an important underlying level to her work, and is an essential ingredient of I like Norway and Norway likes me. It was also evident in earlier exhibitions, such as The Armory (Haugar Art Museum, 2008), a project in which she explored the power rhetoric of heraldry. By crocheting the symbols on to paper the emblems were subtly transformed and disarmed. The rampant lion of the Norwegian state coat of arms became a pacifistic soft toy. The masculine shields were annexed by a feminist interpretation. It is appropriate here to mention the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s which, with Miriam Shapiro as its leading light, utilized textiles and techniques from traditional female crafts in order to give them artistic validity. Despite its significant role in expanding the concept of art the Pattern and Decoration movement has had far too little recognition in the wider perspective of art history. The same might be said for the contribution to Norwegian art made by textile artists in the 1970s. But the seeds sown then have blossomed today in a generation of exciting textile artists, whose works defy any attempt to read into them traditional gender roles and extensions of female crafts.
Burger opens up the RAM Gallery as a collective space, she draws her public into it by inviting them to contribute materials they have a personal relationship to, then she sets in motion a process of dialogue between the room and other people. It is as if the artist wishes to probe into the core of the artistic process that can result from dialogue and from being arranged in time and space. The work of arrangement is the work itself, the four day-long process.
In calling her performance I like Norway and Norway likes me, Burger is playing on references to one of Joseph Beuys' most famous performances, I Like America and America Likes Me. Beuys' iconic work was a sharp critique of the modern relationship between society and nature. It started with Beuys being wrapped in a felt blanket, laid on a stretcher, then transported to Dusseldorf Airport, where he boarded a private jet for New York's JFK Airport. Here he was transferred to an ambulance stretcher and driven to the René Block Gallery on East Broadway. For four days he shared the room with a coyote, and with only his felt blanket, a shepherd's crook, and a torch. The Wall Street Journal was delivered every day, only to be torn up by the coyote. Beuys was concerned with the relationship between Native Americans and the coyote: for them the animal was sacred, and had supernatural powers that let it pass between the physical and spiritual worlds. He represented a shaman who could restore the bond between coyote and Native American, and by this means reflect attention to the relationship with nature that western civilization had lost. According to the artist the status of the coyote was altered when the white settlers arrived in the New World; once a sacred animal of high status it became a pest that ought to be exterminated. For Beuys this degradation was a metaphor for the enormous injury the waves of settlers caused the Native Americans. His use of an ambulance, his shamanistic figure, his play with the coyote could all be regarded as the start of a healing process. In adapting facets of this performance Dania Burger reflects on what it is like to "intrude" on Norwegian society. She makes a point of her German origin and annexes in a humorous way the pompous self-mystification of The Artist. While her performance is an ironic deconstruction of the artist myth, it is underpinned by a serious regard for the example of Joseph Beuys. The earlier German artist expanded the definition of art to include his concept of the "social sculpture", which equated social interaction, artistic processes, and artistic objects. When Burger invites us into a collective collaboration, with the signature of the work moved from object to communicative process, she directs a critical gaze on the function of art and the artists in today's society.
Tone Lyngstad Nyaas
art historian and curator
Remember the olden days, when Eurovision would bring everybody together in front of the TV screen to watch Austria, Greece, Hungary and all the others greeting us with beautiful high-heeled ladies from Vienna, Athens or Budapest and the rest of Europe?
Everything is different now. It is just between the screen and myself - and it will stay there for all future - for as it happens, it disappears. No records, no documentation, no greetings, high heels, just your regular webcam transmitting - this time from a gallery space. I see a mattress being brought into a space, beds being made, pillow cases slid over pillows and duvet coverings over duvets at a regular pace, neither faster, slower nor more excitedly because of the live transmission. Presently, the bed is moved and a big curtain comes up. Why put up something as outdated as a flower-patterned curtain i an art show - or does it have flowers? Hard to say from my point of view at the desk. Bringing my face closer to the screen, I expand the window to full screen. That doesn’t help; in fact everything gets fuzzier. Back to regular. Then, the space is empty again - they must have left. I see something like a handknitted intermission sign. I chuckle to myself. Then, the transmission from the empty space is on again, finally somebody walks through it. That’s it.
Opening Dania Burger’s email, I go back in time to first meeting her in 1999, and last seeing her, which must have been around 2001. Although having a common background and sharing reciprocal sympathies, we didn’t know each other well at the time. Thinking back to Dania’s art work I remember textile materials, frames and long discussions about art and how - as a young emerging artist - to relate to the art world and the gallery market. How could one develop one’s own work and live a full personal life alongside or in combination with that of an art professional? A question, which until today gives more female than male art students a headache - they just know what is waiting for them and that the rules were mostly made by others - long before their time. Not an easy subject matter, there are no answers or short cuts - just questions.
So, when out of the blue and ten years later in 2012, Dania sent me a message asking me to write a text for her performance, I was more than surprised, excited, and in my mind I went back to her work, to those talks, trying to picture Dania’s work today. First of all, I had never seen her do a performance and then, the title of the performance seemed disturbing: “I like Norway and Norway likes me”. I mean, everybody, including myself likes Norway. Having moved to Norway from Germany like Dania, and again at approximately the same time in 1999, I can confirm that Norway has been more than good and even fantastic for me in many ways. Does that imply that I need to like Norway - let alone that Norway like me? After all, Norway was occupied by Germany during WWII, so obviously only seventy years on, Norwegians still don’t really like Germans and probably never will again... So, am I liked - is Dania liked? Are any foreigners liked anywhere? Matter of fact is that Norwegians like Norwegians best as well and who would blame them, as it is such a fine country, very likeable indeed. Foreigners aren’t minded that much, as long as it’s absolutely clear that Norway is the best and wealthiest place to grow up and live in and that everybody else (the other - say 99 % of the worlds’ inhabitants) in reality are to be pitied.
End of unpopular digression. Question is, do I actually like any country at all? I mean, I do like the people, culture, and nature of a place - but do I actually “like” countries, for example Norway? Is there anything “likeable” about a country? Dania wasn’t asked whether she shared those thoughts because another association, more obvious to art lovers, was quickly made, namely that to Joseph Beuys’ legendary performance of 1974 “ I like America and America likes me”. The details need no further description as they have been widely referenced, described, re-enacted and copied over the years. As all true enthusiasts of performance art, we know and have seen that Joseph Beuys arrived at JFK airport in New York, and without touching American soil was carted off in an ambulance to René Block’s gallery for three days, where he stayed in a caged off space together with a coyote and stacks of the Wall Street Journal, covered in a thick felt cloak with the tip of a cane pointing out at the top of the felt costume. Upon parting with the coyote after the time spent together, Beuys went back to the airport the same way. The event was excellently documented in a 16mm professional film production, later converted to black and white, which provided everybody interested with the well-known iconic imagery from the performance.
Today, sitting in front of my computer screen I really have to laugh, enjoying the mundane rendition of Dania Burger’s live re-framing of the iconic performance. Not that the imagery of Beuys’ ride in the ambulance, the pointy cane, the coyote pulling at the felt and the subtlety of the Wall Street Journal being used as a hard mattress or to pee on were not impressive, but I just loved seeing the contrasting banality of the random pop-up advertisement of the cheap free Web-TV that was streaming Dania’s performance, the cheesy neon pink colors of the handmade intermission sign of knitting wool. The unclear, grainy low-resolution imagery of the webcam made for the precise opposite of the sophistication of the black and white high quality imagery of 1974. I had to laugh again, because basically I didn’t really understand what was going on in Dania’s place. There seemed to be no dramaturgy, no performance! The dog, replacing the coyote, waved his tail as he waddled through the camera’s recording angle every now and then, never quite standing still or settling down at the most advantageous of camera positions that the coyote used to pick. It was a heartening sight to finally see Dania and her husband trudge through the gallery space; placing this thing here and that object there, none of them immediately recognizable as art from what I could see over the webcam. Everything was discussed at length, moved to another wall, considered and reconsidered, moved back. Really, this was a true rendition of how art is made: the monetary and symbolic value assigned to it are solely dependent on the context it is presented in and the viewer’s appreciation of it - in this way only does it become art.
Does Dania Burger really intend to place only that one smallish frame on the wall? What was it about that non-descript curtain at center-stage back? This was not a gallery show, it was a parody! Buckets of water were moved around, the floor washed, and the artists discussed a little more. Why wasn’t there anything more dramatic happening, a dogfight maybe or something falling off the wall, cracking up into two pieces? As a reality art show, “I like Norway and Norway likes me” ended or if you will culminated with the punch line of the vernissage as the most important event of any art show. Forty years on from Beuys’ performance there were no faux rituals, no shamans, Wall Street papers or similar. All I could see from my voyeur’s perch at the distant screen were well-behaved gallery visitors coming for a glass of wine, the curator’s speech and to meet the artist.
Dania Burger’s performance “ I like Norway and Norway likes Me” was a witty and self-assured slow-art comment in response to the noisiness, the sensationalism as well as to the neo-conceptualism of today also referencing Marina Abramovicz’s reenactment of seminal performance art works of the late 60s and early 70s by Bruce Naumann, Valie Export, Vito Acconci, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys in “Seven Easy Pieces” (Guggenheim New York, 2005). In 2010, “The Artist is Present”, a comprehensive retrospective of Marina Abramovicz’s oeuvre at the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented about fifty of her works. They were recreated and in fact re-performed by using other artists that had participated in several workshops, discussions and talks with Abramovicz prior to the retrospective. In a dramatic and emotional gesture Abramovicz herself was accessible at a table, inviting visitors to sit down and look her in the eyes for as long as they wished - a durational performance. Dania Burger’s work in contrast distanced itself from the possibility of re-performing a previous artwork. Even if it referenced Beuys’ work in almost all aspects, it was more of an ironic bow to the grandeur of the past. In winking to the internet age with 24/7 consumption and feeding of drama and information it was really just what it was: an artist couple and their dog living in a gallery space for a couple of days - no scenes of crime, sex or other unflattering but spectacular happenings. The performance did not aspire to have been the biggest or most meaningful artwork ever. In Dania Burger’s internet-transmitted performance the authenticity of the rituals, dramas, endangered bodies or scarred psyches of the 60s, 70s, 80s and later were not to be seen. “I like Norway and Norway likes me” was also not competing with contemporary internet based performances using the latest techniques and gadgets for their often game-like, interactive non-linear artworks and performances such as those by Blast Theorys’ “Can You see me now” (2001) or “You get me”(2008). In Dania Burger’s work the usual ritual of the artist’s preparation of a gallery show took place: the arranging, the mounting of an exhibition and the opening evening. Nobody got sent home - or backstage - or to prison. It strikes me that this could also have been about Norway and the desire to rebuild a feeling of lost safety and well-balanced normality after the unbelievable but real world was brought down on the country by the determined brutality of a person acting out his unreal twisted mind on July 22nd, 2011.
After the vernissage, the intermission sign became visible again - another advertisement and the live broadcast ended - yet another reason to cherish the low-key and undramatic sense of humor displayed in this parody of broadcasting culture. From the screen-viewers’ perspective at least it seemed as if Dania Burger has found her pace and a fitting way to combine her personal life with that of the art professional. That’s it. I laughed.
WYSIWYG - What You See Is What You Get.