The Armory

The Armory is the title of Dania Burger’s installation, now on show at Haugar Vestfold Art Museum. The Armory refers to a weapon repository, and as heraldry is one of the central themes of this exhibition, the title is perfectly apt. In the French speaking world, coats of arms were organised into a special system during the last half of the 12th century, and this formed the basis of the future science of heraldry and the development of the symbols used. Heraldry consists of public coats of arms as well as those of private corporations and families. Since the original function of the coat of arms was to be an easily identifiable marker on the battlefield, the heraldic style is characterised by flat, decoratively stylized figures. The shift from figure to ornament is one of the areas that Dania Burger has explored in depth, and this is evident in her installation. In The Armory, heraldic iconography, which in broad terms refers to fighting spirit and territorial or economic power, has been transformed into a series of fragile, imaginative works. The contrast between the masculine visual language of the coats of arms, and the technique of crochet, with its references to women’s handwork, are interwoven, raising questions about accepted gender roles and spheres. By focusing on these contrasts, the artist questions the relationship between power/impotence, the visible/invisible, the active/passive and the public/private spheres. In an historic perspective, these contrasts were directly related to the different positions of the male and the female in society. There is a humorous dimension to the work too – the artist makes playful use of symbols and emblems - in some cases these are reminiscent of a child’s cuddly animals.

There are two reasons for the artist’s exploration of these historical emblems: firstly, a fascination with the simple, ornamental designs, and secondly, an interest in re-working the symbols, which originally designated some form of political, economic or territorial power. It is interesting to note that these same emblems and symbols continue to be used in our culture today – on various shields and coats of arms used locally and nationally by borough councils, towns, various branches of the civil service and national institutions. They mark territorial borders and regional and national identities.

The lion is a recurring motif in Dania Burger’s work. This also associated with Norway’s coat of arms, featuring a lion, the royal crown and a silver axe – the oldest coat of arms to be used by any National state. The lion is a symbol much used European heraldic imagery, often stylized to resemble a hunting leopard, with a narrow body, small head and a long, bushy tail. The lion is associated with strength, and has been a royal symbol in Europe since the Mycenaean age, 1500 BC. According to ancient myth, the lion never closed its eyes when it slept, and was therefore considered an excellent guardian of sacred beings. Another recognized myth was that lions were born dead, and only came to life 3 days after their birth. Later, the lion became a symbol of Christ’s resurrection because of this. The silver axe represents the axe that killed Olav the Holy at Stiklestad. It symbolizes the connection between Norway’s eternal king and the government of the country. When the lion is used as a symbol on a family coat of arms, its significance is different – it refers to the fact that the family is of royal lineage. The gryphon and the eagle or two other heraldic figures that have been much used throughout history, and these also appear in Berger’s installation. The gryphon is an imaginary heraldic beast with the head and wings of an eagle, and the back legs and tail if a lion. It is the attribute of the god of war – Ares, symbolizing courage and strength.

When Dania Burger makes use of the German President’s national coat of arms, from 1950, she focuses on the eagle, one of the figures most often used in heraldry. It symbolizes strength and bravery, and is clearly associated with the Nazi emblem – an eagle with outspread wings above a swastika. This emblem was often used by the post-war generation of artists, flying the flag of their collective conscience. Many of the post-modern painters used the best known Nazi symbols, often replicated with expressive brush-strokes, in an effort to deal with their own identity vis-à-vis the German trauma. These symbols of power lose their masculine pathos in Dania Burger’s work. Hard, graphic lines are replaced with fragmentation and deformation. The associations she creates are often of a playful, humorous nature, especially the way she deals with the German President’s coat of arms. The heraldic figures are taken out of context, and appear together with various borders, the solar cross, the Celtic cross and the French lily etc. The figures are taken out of their original context, and placed in new, surprising conjunctions, highlighting the relationship between figure and ornament.

In an increasingly globalized world, one might believe that the signs and symbols surrounding national identity might be an anachronism, yet in some areas and states, national coats of arms and heraldic symbols continue to play an important role. They are brought out when new governments are formed, when battles are fought, or when a state wishes to declare its independence. Dania Burger’s manipulation of heraldry may be seen as a visual comment upon the relationship between symbol and identity. By intertwining various heraldic symbols, she invites us to seek a metaphor for inter-cultural experience, which is also part of the artist’s own identity. She raises questions about regional and national emblems and their function in an increasingly globalized world. The symbolic function of each emblem is drained of its original meaning, and the condensed reliefs are fragmented and contrasted with colour prints. The abstract forms are based upon the shape of a coat of arms, and the original colours are reflected in the figures. There is a visual entity, but also a distinctive break with the formal aspects.

Architectural dialogue

The aesthetics of heraldry are perhaps most closely associated with the legends and romance surrounding the knights of the Middle Ages. In general, the artist’s use of the Celtic cross, the French lily and the imaginary beasts is a reflection upon the emblems of that period – a period shrouded in legendary mystery. This association is reinforced by the fact that the coats of arms belonging to the citizens of that period were often placed in tower rooms, which were used as a repositories for weapons and armour. The title of the exhibition is The Armory, underlining the site specific nature of the installation, which goes hand in hand with the museum architecture. The architects Bjerke & Eliasson had very clear references in mind when they designed the majestic building in 1922. Their design was a clear reinterpretation of the Medieval fortress. Its monumentality was a reflection of the seafaring history of Vestfold. The tower is the pivotal point for the museum’s octagonal rooms, and these bear witness to the architects’ fascination for Roman and Gothic castles. Haugar Museum’s architecture is therefore woven into this installation - an exciting dialogue that unites the past with the present. The concept of using a museum’s collection or its architecture as part of an art project is a device that often has a critical aspect to it. The artist is often aiming to highlight the reasons behind the collecting of particular objects, and the power this defining choice wields. By doing so, the role of the museum is called into question – the way it mediates information and way it functions in society. The exhibition Give & Take, 2001, was a collaboration between the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Victoria and Albert Museum. 15 artists were invited to create work that formed a dialogue with the V & A’s permanent collection. The German conceptual artist, Hans Haacke was the pioneer behind this form of critical, analytical art work, and he was a central figure in the Give & Take project. He took 2 years to choose a range of objects from the collection, and these were presented under the title Mixed Messages at the Serpentine Gallery. By juxtaposing different objects, he focused a critical gaze on England’s rather heroic image of itself during the Victorian period. For the exhibition entitled Bakgrunn / Background, 2008, at the Preus Photography Museum in Norway, the curator used a similar tactic when he invited five artists to take a critical look at cultural diversity, through work in the permanent collection. As part of her final degree project at the Academy of Fine Art in Bergen, Dania Burger chose to present some of her work in a picture framing shop, called Frame Service. The shop sold posters and pictures by amateur artists, as well as frames.

The questions that arose were:

-how does the work change, when shown in a different context?
-how does the context add to or subtract from the artistic value of the work?

This kind of exploration is typical of the analytical and site specific nature of many of the artist’s projects. Mixed media.

For Dania Burger, embroidery is a form of drawing, and crochet is a form of modelling. She embroiders and crochets on paper, sometimes combined with drawing or other media. A hybrid form of art, created by crossing the borders between techniques and materials is the result – a distinctive visual language that reflects the innovative and exploratory nature of the working process. Her work is remarkable, yet quiet in character. It is accomplished with an extraordinary sensitivity and attention to detail, and sometimes resembles written characters, hieroglyphics or microbes. The conceptual starting point steers her choice of material and technique however. Dania Burger’s reductive use of effects, shows that she never chooses to use decoration for its own sake. This doesn’t mean that her technique of crocheted sculpture isn’t well thought out. It belongs to a clearly decorative tradition, closely associated with cosy, intimate interiors, heavily laden with knick-knacks – sometimes referred to as kitsch. Behind such innocent, purely decorative effects, the retiring women who produced them can be glimpsed –there they sit, engrossed in their industrious, yet absurd pastimes. Women’s embroidery and crocheting were central activities, closely linked to the way women perceived themselves and their role in life – the aim was to be a domestic goddess. Reduced to being a decorative object vis-à-vis a male subject, women came to play the same role as the decorative lace objects with which they embellished their homes. Seen from the perspective of a modern woman, this might seem like a life spent in prison. We can but imagine the dreams that were woven between the crocheted stitches, and imagine the many anonymous women who spent so many hours making objects to embellish their homes. Viewed in this light, the difference between the male and the female sphere, and the private and public sphere offers the opportunity for a complex artistic intervention that reflects upon gender issues. The crocheted knick-knacks that were dipped in sugar syrup to stiffen them, also came to be seen as objects of “low value” – their status lowered simply because they had been fabricated by women – they belonged to the world of “women’s crafts”. These textile objects had little functional value, and mainly consisted of dolls, coasters, lace doilies, napkin rings and other small knick-knacks. When functionalism entered the Norwegian home, decorative objects such as these came to signify the epitome of bad taste. When a craft tradition that is clearly connected with “low culture” and triviality is drawn into the context of a museum, it indirectly generates questions relating to the mechanisms that have steered the changing concept of “good” and “bad” taste over the course of the years.

Deformation and fragmentation

When heroic coats of arms are transformed into soft, fragile textiles – a form of expression clearly belonging to the female sphere – the traditional gender categories amalgamate in a strange way. The masculine energy lurking behind the power-rhetoric of heraldry is somehow dissipated, and a soft, mimetic outline remains. There is certainly an anarchistic undertone to this, but a humorous element is also present. This displacement of the symbols of power is reminiscent of work by the Canadian art group General Idea, which was active between 1967 and 1994. They were pioneers of early conceptual and media-based art. They are best known for their social interventions, which made use of television, advertising, exhibitions venues and other public spaces. Their work was often presented in unconventional ways – they used postcards, posters, prints, wallpaper, balloons and badges. From 1987 – 1994 they worked mainly with ideas pertaining to the aids epidemic, and produced 75 public art projects addressing this. The biggest project was One Year of AZT / One Day of AZT. The pills used to alleviate the symptoms of aids were enlarged to form monumental objects. These were given a minimalist presentation at a number of venues, including the Museum of Modern Art. The installation entitled Miss General Idea Pavilion, from 1984 showed objects that had a clear connection with the iconography heraldry. The rampant lion, with flames shooting from its jaws was exchanged for a well-groomed King Poodle, which appeared in each of the paintings in the series. The King Poodle was well-groomed, safe, and represented “queer theory” for General Idea. The group was playing with the hierarchical rules of heraldry, when they chose to replace the lion with a quirky, feminine version of the original. This strategy has a clear parallel to Dania Burger’s use of cuddly toys, which gives her installation a humorous touch, especially in light of the fact that paragraph 328 of Norway’s penal code, bans the use of such arms in any commercial connection. The iconography of power is protected by quite strict laws in Norway.

The visual language that provides the inspiration for The Armory is characterized by clearly delineated, hard-edged emblems. On the other hand, the form of expression the artist has chosen to transform this for her installation is soft, organic and highly detailed. Other artists who have wide experience of exchanging hard materials for textiles are Claes Oldenburg and Louise Bourgeois. Oldenburg is well known for his soft, monumental sculptures, whilst more recently, Louise Bourgeois has chosen to reinterpret some of her previous work in stone and metal, using soft materials to create stuffed, textile sculptures. Dania Burger revitalizes a technique that is clearly connected to the marginalisation of a women’s craft tradition. This approach is similar to that of other contemporary artists who have revisited various craft techniques connected to anonymity, trivial every-day pursuits and the absence of status. In contemporary art, there is a tendency for these marginalised techniques to be used as research, to comment upon gender roles, or to mediate some kind of criticism of a political or social nature. One example of this is the work of Jamila Drott, who used a traditional form of embroidery to describe the heavily male-dominated Hip Hop milieu. Urban, male-dominated youth culture is commented upon through the medium of a just as heavily female-dominated tradition of lacework and embroidery – not unlike Dania Burger’s intelligent, playful take on the contrast between the sexes, with an historical twist. Another example is the exhibition entitled Strikknikk, 2007, which was a collaboration between Nasjonalmuseet (The Norwegian National Museum, Oslo), Vestlandske Kunstindustrimuseum (The West of Norway Museum of Applied Art in Bergen), and Bomuldsfabrikken (The Cotton Factory Gallery in Arendal).

This project involved 15 international artists who were commissioned to make work of a politically and socially critical nature, using the technique of knitting. One of the artists was Annette Messager – she is well known for her knitted installations, which she started working with at the beginning of the 1970s. Other exhibitors included David Cole, Anette Streyl, Susie Freeman and Kjersti Andvig Kjersti Andvig received a great deal of attention for her project Personne ici n’est innocent / (Nobody here is innocent), which was shown at Triangle France in Marseille. She knitted a cell to the specifications of the prisoner, Carlton A Turner, who had been sentenced to death. The historical background to this project was “les tricoteuses” – the women who knitted whilst heads rolled during the French Revolution. Every time the guillotine fell, a stitch was dropped, so a count could be kept of those executed. Within the field of contemporary art here is a particular direction that focuses on the marginalised and the overseen in a wider socially-critical perspective. Male and female contemporary artists alike have often chosen to highlight typical or traditional female craft traditions and hobbies, as they seem to carry an inbuilt reflection upon these marginalized groups.

Decoration is a crime

No term – apart for “kitsch” has had such bad press within the field of art as “decorative”. The reason for this clearly negative attitude, viewed from within the framework of modernism and the growth of non-figurative painting was manifold. Firstly, there was an almost metaphysical philosophy underlying many of the modernist manifestos. A painting’s sensual, and decorative aspects were therefore in danger of relieving the artwork of its autonomy, reducing it to a useful object whose role it was to satisfy the senses. Just like kitsch, and other “lower” forms of visual culture, a very strict line was drawn between “high” art and the lowlier women’s crafts. The paradoxical with this line of thinking was that many of the non-figurative painters, such as Vasilij Kandinsky, were inspired by the decorative traditions of folk art – especially by functional, everyday objects and textiles. Simply because of this, it became important to focus on the fact that the geometric patterns and ornaments lacked the spiritual dimension of a painting. In an essay from 1912 – Om de åndelige i kunsten / The Spiritual aspect of Art, Kandinsky underlined the danger of mistaking abstract painting with ornament, even though there might be similarities in terms of basic 2-dimensional planes and the repetition of shapes. A little later, modernist painters from the New York School were to expound similar attitudes: techniques that could be connected to any kind of feminine craft or hobby were despised as much as kitsch. This form of hierarchical thinking was challenged by the movement Pattern & Decoration, which concerned itself with destroying the barriers that split elite art from folk art. They developed a new visual language in which the ornamental and decorative were given new meanings. They were also influenced by aspects of minimalism, such as the use of the graph and the idea painting a “series”. They often combined fabric, textiles and patterns with the monochrome surface of a painting. There are obvious parallels here to Dania Burger’s constellations of non-figurative colour prints and textile elements. Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago were amongst the first artists of their generation to start experimenting with a form of visual language that focused upon the use of women’s textile crafts, combining these with painted surfaces.

Barbro Elisabeth Hernes-Reuterfeldt wrote a thesis entitled Kunsthåndverk i tidlig feministisk kunst – med hovedvekt på Judy Chicago og Miriam Schapiros verk fra perioden 1970 til 1980 (Craft in early feminist art – with an emphasis on the work of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro from 1970-1980). In it she looks at how Miriam Schapiro underlines the way in which art relates to the feminine craft traditions, and develops new terms such as “Femmage” – a rather tongue in cheek amalgam of “Feminism” and “Collage”.

Throughout the 1970s Miriam Schapiro’s choice of theme, materials and motifs was motivated by her increasing awareness of the marginalisation of female artists within the art arena. Her work from this period can be seen as focusing upon the absence of women in traditional art history. Schapiro’s use of textiles, patchwork and embroidery represented the formal, iconographic element of her work, whilst the choice of materials was also a conscious attempt to establish a connection to a feminine artistic heritage. The textiles she used were typical of the feminine sphere: all kinds of patterned fabrics, embroidered textiles, tablecloths, aprons, handkerchiefs etc.

Within this movement, artists were well acquainted with art from other countries, and were particularly focused on Islamic ornamentation and architecture and the textile traditions of Mexico. Dania Burger’s interest in ornament, and her fascination with art that lies outside the traditions of Western Europe clearly connects her to Pattern & Decoration. She is also interested in revitalizing the marginalized craft and hobby pastimes that have been despised for so long, and this creates another parallel to their feminist programme, which emphasized the value of implementing the feminine heritage, regarding it as an intellectual exercise and a conscious artistic strategy.

The movement also contributed to research about the history of ornament, and were interested in the spread of pattern and ornament within various cultures. Could this be conceived of an another form of language? Research into the universality of decoration was also explored by the art historian Ernst Gombrich. In 1978 he published The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art. In it, he supported the idea of an underlying order in the universe, in which the main structures were pattern and symmetry. Just as the anatomy of a human being is symmetrical, he believed that we have a congenital, psychological disposition for pattern and symmetry, which is evident in all forms of folk art. During the post modernist period, many of the modernist myths were deconstructed – amongst others, a belief in the autonomous artwork. Critical questions were also raised about modernism’s marginalisation of the literary, the decorative and the kitsch. In 1978, Joyce Kozloff and Valerie Jaudon – both members of Pattern & Decoration – published an article in the journal Heresies. In the article, which ran to many pages, they analysed the way in which so many of the pioneers of modernism had marginalised both decorative and literary forms of expression. Two grave examples of this kind of marginalisation were written by men. In 1918, Le Corbusier and Amedée Ozenfant wrote; There is a hierarchy in the arts: decorative art at the bottom, and the human form at the top. Because we are men. And in1908, Adolf Loos proclaimed; ornament is a crime.

Tone Lyngstad Nyaas.

J.C. Cooper: Symbols, an encyclopaedia Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1978, p. 63.

Lisa G. Corrin, Hans Haacke: Give & Take, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2001, p. 50.

Per Solvang: Ornament og Funksjon (Ornament and Function), Exhibition catalogue, Galleri Soft, Oslo, 2007.

Frances Morris: Louise Bourgeois, Tate Publishing, London, 2007, p. 124.

In 2001, Dania Burger took part in an exhibition in Hamburg, Index 01, together with Anette Streyl.

Vibeke Wallann Hansen: Løvaas & Wagle, Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design (National Museum for Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo), 2008, p. 39.

Irving Sandler: Art of the Postmodern Era, from the late 2960s to the early 1990s, Icon Editions, New York, 2007, pp. 141-150

Barbro Elisabeth Hernes-Reuterfeldt: Kunsthåndverket i tidlig feministisk kunst; med hovedvekt på Judy Chicago og Miriam Schapiros verker fra perioden 1970 til 1980. (Craft in early feminist art; with an emphasis on the work of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro from 1970 to 1980) Thesis, University of Oslo, spring 2007, pp. 103-107.

E.H. Gombrich: The Sense of Order, a study in the psychology of decorative art, Phaidon, London, 1978, pp. 95 – 117.

Norman Broude: The Pattern & Decoration Movement, The Power of Feminist Art, The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, edit. Norman Broude, Mary Garrard, Judith K. Brodsky, New York: Abrams, 1994, p. 280.