Ingeborg Stana got in touch with me on 28 December last year. In myself and my immediate surroundings, at least, there was peace on earth and an inclination towards good will to all men. To be perfectly honest I was worn out after another autumn of juggling too many projects, projects in which I am constantly pretending – to myself and to everyone else – that I am coping just fine and that everything is going as well as it might. And I may be wrong, but as I recall in hindsight I was sitting at home on the sofa as the message pinged in, trying to steer myself towards being better at saying no. It is, after all, a simple little word. Not to mention effective. Appallingly effective. Said quickly enough and in the correct manner, a no can be an absolutely fantastic door-closer. Imagine all the things you wouldn’t have to worry about if only you said no at once. It’s a little like “Dei”, Ragnar Hovland’s wonderful poem, or short-story text as he calls it:
All those girls with whom I was once in love and with whom I am now no longer, how free they must feel, so fully and completely can they reign over their own lives. I imagine them waking in the morning and knowing they can get up and go out into the day to do exactly as they please.
But there are also good things bound up in saying yes. So in the next instant I thought, as I often do, that to be asked was a luxury. It is in many ways fantastic that Ingeborg Stana – I know who she is, but know nothing else about her apart from her being the wife or girlfriend (who knows) of an acquaintance and colleague of mine – simply got in touch to ask if I would like to introduce the opening of her exhibition. I wrote back a day later and said it had been a long time since I had had any sense or knowledge for the field of visual arts. And that’s not a word of a lie. Both in Norway and abroad, the modern art scene, if that is what it is called, is something I no longer feel I have any insight into. I did once, quite a few years back. I went to the Academy of Fine Art in Trondheim for a couple of years, for example, and could, if push came to shove, have just about ended up as an artist myself, but instinctively understood that in one way or another I wasn’t cut out for it, I wasn’t hardcore enough, consistent enough, angry enough, sad enough, perhaps not happy enough either. There are therefore likely to be hundreds of other people, even within my own postcode, not to mention the whole city, the whole country, who are far better suited to putting Ingeborg Stana’s work into perspective and drawing sage comparisons than I am. And in any case, that’s not what I’m going to do. Ingeborg Stana, I eventually found out for myself, must have asked me because she sensed that her view of nature and mine have some elements of overlap, and because she wondered what an oddball like me might get out of her art. And rather soon she’s going to find out.
I was going to call this little introduction “Another life”, which is the title of the emails a friend of mine sends when he finds examples of people who get up to things that are different, and often stranger, than the things we do. They live, for example, in strange places, spend time on strange activities, or may find themselves pointing down a large sinkhole that has suddenly appeared outside their homes. But the word “life” made me think again. Because in what I have seen of Ingeborg Stana’s art there is little in the way of biological life, at least anything on a larger scale than the implicitly microscopic. If anything at all. If there is any life to be found, it’s represented by the onlooker.
A better title is therefore “Another world”.
The art of Ingeborg Stana, the paintings, prints, films, have many features in common. I’ll quickly knock up a little catalogue of them. We are encircled by landscapes, the majority of them modest and unassuming; they contain some solid ground and a lot of air and very often clouds, clouds, clouds, almost always clouds; they – the landscapes – are very taken with the effect of light, or just with light itself, the joy of light, the tiny changes in light where here and there clouds mute the light’s source. Some of them are more temperamental. But for me there’s one conspicuously recurrent thread above all else: the absence of life. One might almost say that the absence of life is so pronounced that it becomes a theme in its own right. Stana paints places that do not exist. And even though they do exist, they still do not exist. In these places that do not exist, neither is there any life. No people. No animals. It’s as though her landscapes are other worlds. One might fancy that they could have been concept paintings used as the basis for production design in an unorthodox science fiction film. A bit like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – parts of it, at least – for example, when the crew lands on a planet with an atmosphere and enormous tidal waves, but actually for an even more unorthodox sci-fi movie than that, even. A film without spaceships and humans and creatures altogether.
It’s not only that people are absent in Stana’s pictures – they have never been present. These landscapes are untouched and, until now, also unseen. We who are seeing them are seeing them for the first time. That’s how it feels.
In our encounter with Stana’s gaze, our normal way of seeing also comes up short. Our everyday perspective disintegrates, it is mangled, but not in an obvious way. Stana is a bit like Escher, Maurits Cornelis Escher, the Dutchman who you may have had a suspicion only produced calendars but who was, in fact, a highly original visual artist with a keen sense for illusion and mathematical impossibility. With Escher you immediately know that reality has become the object of manipulation. That’s the very attraction of the image, and it catches the eye at once. This is not necessarily the case with Stana. If one merely wanders past the pictures, as I sometimes do at exhibitions when I can’t find my composure – which, for that matter, I rarely can – the subtlety and thus the whole point disappears, and the hundreds of hours Stana has spent on each picture is just money out the window – for the busy observer, in any case. But, of course, one can’t make allowances for busy folk. They only have themselves to blame. Art has to be made for those with plenty of time and a heading for eternity, and the good thing about artists like Ingeborg Stana is precisely that she respects time. Her thoughts take time. Her ideas take time. Her process takes time. It takes time to start a painting and it takes time to find out whether it’s finished. And Stana lets all this take its own time. It is as if some of the time the rest of society doesn’t have has ended up with Ingeborg Stana. Maybe she walks around collecting some of the time we others lose. Not like the grey men in Michael Ende’s Momo, who steal time, but more like a bottle collector who walks around picking up resources others don’t have the wits to conserve. It’s obviously provocative that our time may be ending up with Stana, but at the same time it is outstanding. There is something glorious and irrefutable about time spent this way.
When I see her paintings, I also wonder if there is a dystopian element to them. Are they depictions of the earth clawing back its strength after the ravages of man? Or is it, perhaps, rather the earth breathing a sigh of relief in the absence of humans, regaining control and calming down, as it did in the rhythms of mega-annums before we showed up, and as it will do once more when we disappear again? Stana adds no elements to make it easy to build upon such thoughts. But there the question remains, trembling.
In my simple skull, most things turn sooner or later to storytelling. But here, too, there is little help to be gleaned from Stana. In some of the forest paintings, where the perspective also crumbles, I imagine a drunk splayed on the forest floor perceiving the treetops from different angles all at once. It’s been many years since I’ve been so drunk, but I still remember it; the moment when the ability to balance fails and the senses rage and, like a kind of inverted, imploding orgasm, the hands dart out to grab something that might break or stop the fall.
The only concrete narrative I can find in this exhibition is the short film Getaway which, on the visual side of things, consists entirely of clouds. Quiet clouds, mostly, but a couple of times they stutter a little, in concert with the audio, where the real story lies in the soundtrack of a movie I don’t know the name of, but I think it’s an real movie, American, in which a man says in an urgent voice: Let’s get out of here. And then a woman says: How did it go? To which the man replies: Bad. Then the sound of a whistle, which I interpret as a police whistle, and then I think it must be a something of an old movie because it’s been a long time since police, both in reality and on film, blew whistles – today they often put far more terrifying instruments to use, at least that’s my impression – and then the escape begins, with the sounds of cars and pursuit and desperation. This is Ingeborg Stana at her most narrative. All of a sudden she is being almost surprisingly candid. The primordial states of the paintings and prints have to put up with sharing the space with a game of pop-culture references. It occurs to me that the primordial states probably hadn’t envisaged that for themselves. But this suggests that Stana refuses to allow herself to be fenced in. Just when you thought you had her, it wasn’t her you had. Further along in the audio story, the man says: Shit. Then he starts the engine and makes it a little further before fate brutally and abruptly catches up with him. And the clouds are along for the ride. They quiver a little with excitement, but not so much, just a little. They care. But at the same time, not really.
“For a long time I had no horizons,” Ingeborg Stana said while I was visiting her studio to look at the pictures. “But there’s a limit to how long you can do that sort of thing,” she said.
And for me a lot of the quality of the pictures lies precisely in the absence of stories, horizon or otherwise. I’ve got plenty of work to do as far as that’s concerned. There’s a lot to learn there. I often look for stories where there are none, and so I start inventing them. But in a way, it commands more respect to dare to enter this strange story vacuum; it’s bare, it doesn’t take me by the hand and lead me safely forward, like so much, too much, probably, takes us by the hand nowadays and leads us safely forward. Stana tosses that illusion overboard.
I flinch at the thought of how much of a loss I would be at if I had to approach every artistic expression with the narrative interpretation methods I’ve been taught to use. Imagine, for example, if I was still – horror of horrors – a film consultant, something I am not and have not been for eleven years, and Ingeborg Stana came in wanting to pitch her paintings to me. Maybe she would say something like:
I envision an orange-brown horizon.
Me: Yes? Exciting.
Stana: And then there is a sky, pale blue at the bottom, that gradually, very gradually grows to a deeper blue the further up you go.
Stana: And then there are clouds.
Me: Clouds, yes, fine. Clouds are exciting.
Stana: Yes. There are clouds. Many clouds.
Stana: And these clouds change in colour from completely pale yellow, to a deep, yet pale violet, or not exactly violet, but at least a colour going in that direction.
Stana: But most of the clouds are still in different shades of the colour on the ground, which is the horizon.
Me: I see. And then?
Stana: What do you mean?
Me: Yeah, what happens, you know?
Stana: What do you mean, what happens?
Me: Well…somebody must be coming. Who’s coming? Who shows up?
Stana: What are you talking about? Nobody’s coming.
Me: No one shows up?
Me: But something happens, right? Does anything fall out of the sky?
Stana: No one falls out of the sky.
Me: Can a small animal fall out of the sky? A squirrel or something?
Stana: No squirrels fall out of the sky.
Me: But there must be a sound somewhere, at least?
Stana: No sound.
Me: And nothing happens?
Stana: Yes. Or no, that’s not entirely true, because some of the clouds are painted from different angles and have different sources of light, if you follow me, and some you see from above, for example, and others from the side, or…yes.
Another thing Stana said at the atelier was that at times she’s in the forest so much that she begins to wonder what she’s doing there. This is something I can identify with. Suddenly you’re in the woods again. Because you have run there, cycled there, gone there on foot, or skis. In any case, there’s forest in every direction but few people, or none at all, and narrow paths and dense trees with glades of light here and there. And if Ingeborg Stana, or I, had run for just as long in another direction, there would have been city everywhere, with the usual signs of urban life and human and machine gestures that we’ve taught ourselves to understand, but that’s not where the problem lies, because I can see everything that’s going on and I understand it and am also a part of it. But I’m not getting any closer to the mystery of me, or the mystery of you for that matter. It’s in the forest that I get closer to these mysteries. That’s just how it is. And with Stana’s art. The mystery of me and the mystery of you and really the mystery of all things. Stana elevates that feeling further, out of the woods and into a kind of primordial state that blasts the boundaries of perspective, one where light is one protagonist and time is the other.
As I was writing this, I was listening to music from a band that was apparently called Codes in the Clouds, who I had never heard of, but who popped up when I was looking for something cloud-like to get in the mood. The music is vaguely Cocteau Twins-like, but without vocals, less synthetic, and slower too. The songs have titles such as: If I’d Known It Was The Last, You Are Not What You Think You Are, Where Dirt Meets Water and You And I Change Like Seasons. And after several hours of this cloud music spinning through my head, I thought of a trip I once took. I’ve been no globetrotter of any standing, but once, many years ago, my wife Alice and I were in a so-called cloud forest. We spent a whole day on horseback and travelled from about a thousand metres above sea level to almost two thousand five hundred. Poor horse, I thought, while it carried big old me up steep paths and muddy trails in one of the most unreal landscapes I had ever been in. It feels like Stana should seek out such a cloud forest, if she hasn’t done so already. If she’s lucky, one of the artist associations will have a cabin in one of the cloud forests of the world. Once there, there are both clouds and forests and a dearth of people. There were even orange-ish horizons, for on those occasions when the clouds lifted a little we could see the outline of a volcano far away where, the previous evening, we had seen lava oozing orange throughout the night. Stana would be able, in other words, to tick all her boxes. There was also light to be had there, tumbling down between the enormous trees. The more or less constant presence of clouds renders its extremely fertile. Flower heads that are a centimetre across here at home were gigantic there. The bluebells were half a metre tall and looked like they were collapsing under their own weight.
And in the end out we came, up to a village where someone served us tacos.