Abstraction as action - a conversation with Marte Johnslien

I insist on the rightful place of abstract work and thought in contemporary society,  says Marte Johnslien about her new exhibition Forms of Protest at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo.

A conversation between artist Marte Johnslien and curator Gerd Elise Mørland.

Marte Johnslien, Life and Death and That, detail from the installation,  2014.

Marte Johnslien, Life and Death and That, detail from the installation, 2014.

Marte Johnslien: The more mindfulness courses people take, the greater the production of abstract and processual art, the more I get the sense that people are actually seeking alternative modes of action. I consider this a reaction to the world we live in. We are constantly assailed by the capitalist message of consumption, thereby rendering us passive on a human level.

Gerd Elise Mørland: And this lands us right in the middle of this project Forms of Protest where you use a formal language based on Buddhist theory and practice. The goal—as you have suggested—was to create a personal space of action. Why?

Well, this ties in with my dualistic attitude toward paralysis. On one hand I have this strong aversion towards myself as a paralyzed human being. I really have to pull myself together to get anything done. I have to say to myself, “No way am I going to sit here, doing nothing!” On the other hand I wonder how I can do something relevant, something meaningful? I lack the conviction that I have something to offer just by being myself. I have no “inner source” if you will, to draw on for my projects. For me it’s all about finding the right ways to access the material—finding what fuels it.

Funny you should say that, since you seem to be a highly accomplished person…

Yes, but I’m not! (laughter)

How do you move past this paralysis?

It’s a constant battle! (laughs) But, as I mentioned, I’m primarily seeking fuel for action. I start off my projects analytically and this time I’ve been seeking the source of my paralysis. What does it actually consist of? How can I deal with it? This is where spirituality has become an access point for me. I’ve always felt that art speaks to that part of me which is “spiritual.” Even rather dry concept-based art can provide a transcendent experience for me. I remember once asking Matias Faldbakken, “Do you feel you obtain any kind of spiritual experience from hatching these compact conceptual ideas?” He replied that he felt no such thing. And I was shocked! (laughter) Since then I’ve wondered why I was so surprised at his answer. I think it’s because art that strikes a chord in me—as Faldbakken’s work sometimes does—gives me the feeling of being part of a greater whole. And meditation and spiritual work, as practiced in Buddhism, are very much about that. Both give me the feeling of being part of a universal community.

And this prompted you to begin searching for specific connections between art and Buddhism?

Yes, and I’ve found that my spiritual experiences aren’t actually as diffuse as I first thought.  They actually fit into Buddhist systems. Some even call Buddhism “the science of the mind.” I find this interesting because it means that Buddhism is based on a kind of science. This triggers something in me. It makes me want to put it to the test.

What you’re saying gives me two ideas. You spoke previously of your experience of art as transcendence as something reminiscent of the definition of high-quality modernist art by American art theorists Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried in the 1960s. At the same time I’m thinking that meditation and mindfulness are often considered practices of withdrawal, in effect the opposite of action and drive. How are mindfulness, drive, and the transcendent experience of art connected for you?

I take my point of departure in the perception of meditation and mindfulness trends as an expression of protest. Silent protest, if you will. I sense that the relationship between art, spirituality and social involvement can uncover something essential about the times we’re living in. Forms of Protest ties into a series of projects I’m working on, examining the link between the three. I previously completed another project, United Nuances (2011). This work took its cue from the Mediation Room at the UN headquarters in New York City. This room to me represents a harmonious union of art, spirituality, and social involvement. The practice of meditation is an instrument for strengthening our sense of unity with the world by training our ability to look beyond the ego. I found that there’s a vein of artists using this same instrument for the purposes of creation. Modernist artists were not the only ones to adopt this approach. Seen from this perspective, meditation and artistic production are fundamentally political activities, since they are both about understanding the situation of others and considering oneself part of a bigger picture: Both are basically about strengthening our sensitivity to the world. I realize it sounds abstract, yet this is the locus of much of the energy of this project: I insist on the rightful place of abstract work and thought in contemporary society.

One of your works at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter is grounded in a specific connection between abstraction, action, and Buddhism. You followed a group of Buddhist from the Shugden Community demonstrating against the Dalai Lama during his visit to Norway and created a photo-series of video stills from one of the demonstrations.

I had been following the tensions building up in relation to the Dalai Lama’s Norwegian visit in 2014. There were fears that the visit would spur a diplomatic crisis and this lead to expectations of an embarrassing display on the part of the Norwegian government, which certainly did come about! I chose to follow the demonstrators from the Shugden Community during the visit. For me this was an experientially based way of approaching my artistic material. I was already aware of the conflict since the Buddhist center that hosted my meditation courses happened to belong to the Shugden tradition, which they believe is being suppressed by the Dalai Lama.

Marte Johnslien. Shouts from Silence, detail from the installation,  2014

Marte Johnslien. Shouts from Silence, detail from the installation, 2014

I had previously tried to read up on the conflict, but its background had proved too intricate for me to grasp. When I heard that major demonstrations were planned in Oslo I redoubled my efforts. In short, the conflict centers on the advice of Dalai Lama to all Buddhists against worshipping Dorje Shugden, one of the many divine figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Many interpret such a statement as a prohibition, since the word of the Dalai Lama is considered law. This means that those who opt to continue their Shugden practice are excluded from political office, hospitals, and stores (mainly in Tibet and in the exile communities). So members of the Shugden Community believe the Dalai Lama to be in breach of human rights, since he fails to respect their religious freedom. The Dalai Lama for his part denies decreeing an official ban on the worship of Dorje Shugden.

This situation roused my curiosity for several reasons. First, we Norwegians have great difficulty perceiving the Dalai Lama as oppressive. Second, I find it fascinating that Buddhist monks and nuns should use public demonstrations as their instrument of choice. The result of this process became a documentary video from the demonstration, where I focus on the faces of individual demonstrators. I hope encountering these images of the demonstrators will challenge the common perception that meditation entails avoiding important social issues. In many ways they represent the modernization and globalization of Tibetan Buddhism. We might say that these demonstrations and the cause they champion highlight an important issue: What will happen to Tibet and to Buddhism when the Dalai Lama dies? Some believe that Tibetan Buddhism will then face a crisis with Western-supported Tibet and China confronting one another. In this respect it must be said that my project has become more about geopolitics than about personal spaces of action! I often find myself inspired by large-scale connections like that. That day—outside Chateau Neuf—with the demonstrators on one side and the endless queue of people lining up to hear the Dalai Lama on the other there was a lot of tension in the air. For me this tension drew a line back to Samye Ling and the advent of Buddhism in Europe.

Observing the involvement of other Buddhists I would like to return to your own testing of Buddhist thought and practice as an engine for powering art production. When initiating the project, you traveled to the first Buddhist center in Western Europe, the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland. This center is still running and the founder of the center, Chögyam Trungpa, was of great significance to several artists from the 1960s (John Cage, Allan Kaprow, and Allen Ginsberg, among others). Why did you become interested in this center?

Well, it all started a couple of years ago while I was attending a course on meditation and Buddhist thought. I was surprised to find “instruments of thought” that were of use to me as an artist and which I had actually been using for a long time. I’m referring to the act of drawing away from my personal standpoint, looking behind things, and seeing them from several angles. When I do this I feel I’m assuming a more powerful position from which to act. Subsequently I’ve tracked this idea throughout the history of art. I’ve seen how Buddhism has been used in art as a line of thought producing artistic approaches and ideas that have changed the course of modern art history.

Can you give some examples?

Yes. John Cage’s work 4’33’’ (1952–53) is a perfect example: 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, illustrating the Buddhist concept of emptiness. He’s a textbook example of how artists in the mid-twentieth utilized Buddhist philosophy. The Beat Poets did the same thing with their penchant for automatic, spontaneous poetry. They all had contact with Chögyam Trungpa, who spread knowledge of Buddhism to the US and founded the Buddhist center you mentioned earlier, Kagyu Samye Ling in Scotland. So I decided to travel to Scotland. Before I left I read a number of Trungpa’s texts since he wrote a lot about art and creativity. Here I found things I realized I had been looking for, things I had not found in art theory. I was astounded because I never expected to find anything relevant in the notes of a Buddhist monk. Trungpa uses the term “dharma art” to denote what he considers good art. The key issue here is about creating art in a state of “non-aggression,” working your way into a state in which all aggressive emotion is lost. By aggression he means most negative emotions, right from self-aggrandizement to thoughts along the line of “this is going to be the best work I’ve done”: any thoughts that obstruct being in the present moment.

This leads us to one of your series where you specifically tested a dharma art–like approach. Where did that lead?

You might say I found a key to escaping paralysis! I went to Kagye Samye Ling to try out Trungpa’s ideas about the state of being required to embark on a phase of artistic work. Would I need to meditate to reach this state, or was it already latent within me? I was interested in whether there were parallels between creating art and meditative states. Here I must emphasize that the “meditative state” to which I refer is about focusing on an “object of thought” and has nothing to do with our usual understanding of the word “meditation,” which refers to thinking of nothing or letting our thoughts fly away. When in a meditative state I experience a sense of oneness with my surroundings. Trungpa’s idea was that this state allows us to see their essence, which can then for instance be transferred to photographs. When I walked around Kagye Samye Ling for the first time I tried to enter such a state. The prayer flags in the trees and the reflection of the Guru Rinpoche statue on the water became my motifs. The movement of the water around the Buddha sculpture created a kind of painting that never stood still. I took hundreds of photos, all of them different. That was when I had this strange experience that artists sometimes have, where something abstract suddenly appears meaningful.

What you say makes me think of the main different between art and meditation. Mediation mainly includes the practitioner, while art—with the exception of certain forms of participatory art—also includes the observer.


As I read your works they embrace the classic observer’s role even as they counteract the established categories and divisions on which it is based—those of artist as author and viewer as recipient—and the fact that these are two distinctly separate elements. Despite poststructuralist theory, which drove home the point that the observer is the actual author, I still think the role of the observer in modern art affords the artist’s intention a great deal of space in the experience of the work. I see your art as works that motivate a slightly different observational role, even if it is based on many of the same fundamental ideas concerning the role of the artist as the creator of the works and the role of the observer as those experiencing them. Your works are frequently combined installations, which people can walk into and experience in their entirety. They offer a great sense of presence and function as a single work. At the same time I feel they work as a sum of individual objects, each one of which you have filled with meaning. They work as traces in a process leading up to the exhibition. It’s as if the whole installation provokes a certain awareness or openness to everything it contains.

Marte Johnslien, untitled, 2014. 

Marte Johnslien, untitled, 2014. 

I’ve always been concerned with making my work function at many levels. I’m preoccupied with the visual. At the same time I seek to create a certain atmosphere within the exhibition space. I want to provide viewers with spontaneous experiences because I believe that visual experience has the power to bind us together. I want the processual traces I lay out leading up to the work—my knowledge and experiences—to be accessible to those who seek them, even if my main objective is to provide viewers with an experience. I fight for these firsthand experiences on several fronts. Still, this is very much about viewers’ expectations: what do you expect when you go to view a work? Do you expect to understand; or do you expect a visual experience? I often think there seems to be an expectation that we as artists must forever be challenging the definition of art, especially from within the art world itself. This is not my ambition. To me this mode of thought appears too linear, always looking ahead.

I expect you encounter these expectations quite frequently, since some of your works are so reminiscent of modernist works that they might be mistaken as such. I’m sure it’s a challenge for many artists working with an abstract formal language today that the art world is so preoccupied with its own history and narrative, that if things becomes too visually similar, they easily gets mistaken for other, historical statements.

Yes, this is something I’ve struggled a great deal with, trying to work out why I find meaning in doing things that resemble works of fifty years ago. The answer must be that what I create today can never be the same. I’m not working with the same projects as the artists of fifty or seventy years ago. My project is based in an entirely different reality, in another age. My project is to enter the chaos of references, histories, and possible future scenarios that lie before us in the here and now.

Would it be correct to say that you are interested in the modernist project of imbuing form with meaning?

Well, I’ve always been interested in tracing ideology in art and architecture, or in form, if you will. All form does have meaning and I’m interested in how this meaning comes into being. Just as each person constitutes his or her own individual “science of the mind,” I see art in the same way. If you begin looking at art—and here I’m referring to formal, modernist art—there’s actually a kind of science to it, even if the modernists did imbue their formal language with so much meaning that it became blown out of propotion and self-destructive.. I still don’t think this is a reason to simply abandon this kind of art. I see Trungpa’s writings in much the same way. I disagree with a lot of his ideas on art, but if I begin to dissect his thoughts I can see that he’s actually saying something about being present while producing, that this is an activity, which is about being human in the moment. Then I think, okay, what dharma art do we have today? For example we see a lot of artists working with abstract art focusing on form and intuition. In my interpretation, this is a kind of pendulum, which has swung back from theoretical and conceptual ideas of the 1990s and before. I see a lot of this on Contemporary Art Daily, a website that shows a lot of abstract, materially-based and visual art. But then again I don’t feel we have a valid language for discussing such art today!

And your solution then is to follow this visual trend while adding a kind of archaeology of meaning to explain the various modes of thought?

I try very hard to avoid following visual trends. Right now, like many other artists, I have a strong urge to paint on textiles, hang them over frames and mount them loosely on a wall. I suppose it’s a little hard to explain, but I see it as a trend. Then I ask myself, why do we present art in this manner? Why are we producing installations with wooden sticks and neon sets right now? I don’t actually oppose these trends; I just like to move behind them. Can I find out how they fit into history? In this project Forms of Protest I hit a vein that a Buddhist monk in the 1960s termed dharma art, and which has inspired other artists at a later point in time. My approach is to gain first-hand experience with the material and then to produce art in accordance with this. In this case I ended up with two series of photographs, a few paintings on textiles and several other corny ideas. (laughter) But that’s how it has to be. This is how I work.

Marte Johnslien, from the series  Action Cushions, 2014.

Marte Johnslien, from the series Action Cushions, 2014.

This text is an excerpt from the exhibition catalogue for the show Forms of Protest by Marte Johnslien at Henie Onstad from 13th of November until 1st of March 2015.