Text about the project Zoo, or Letters not about Love written by Stian Gabrielsen for Bristol Biennial 2012
A ring of pianos that conjures a sea between them, floating magically above an indistinct, darkened landscape; an abandoned theater stage in the woods with human legs dangling from behind the curtain; a dismembered hand holding a draped piece of cloth above a supine human figure; couples dancing on a frozen lake in the mountains, a large ominous shape covering the sky above them; a female torso with a window in her chest and a group of monkeys on a rocky landscape in the foreground. For all their eccentricity the compositions seem strikingly familiar, due likely to their semblance to the stylistic syntax of early twentieth century avant garde. They even insist on this likeness to the point where they, by virtue of their delicate nostalgia, could be conceived as little more than fetishistic evocations of a specific visceral paradigm: a colorless, transparent visitation of dada or surrealism - a soft edged, melancholic variation on Man Ray or Max Ernst. The “methodical madness” (a coinage by Ernst) of collage signaled, at its historical inception, a turning away from the notion of image making as a system where forms where developed via the hand of the painter to a wry staging of the pictorial surface as a site for the reconfiguration of images produced elsewhere. Perhaps realizing, as did Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, that art’s primary concern is the arrangement of images, not the making of them.
Curiously Maja Nilsen’s cycle of collages “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love” were originally conceived as storyboards for a film-adaptation of Shklovsky’s epistolary novel of the same name. Exhibited without the prosaic structure of an ordered and lucid narrative, their associative kinship to film is still preserved as they have been printed on back-light foil and displayed in light boxes. This specific form of presentation seems to spring from a need to mitigate the betrayal of the original medium. The result is that the surface of these collages become less of a final destination, they are literally transparent, floating over an absent story. Even if absent here, the story is still well known: While exiled in Berlin, the literary theorist Shklovsky (1893-1984) fell in love with the writer Elsa Triolet. His feelings were not requited, but Triolet still indulged his desire to let him write to her, though on one condition: He was never to write about love. His primary incentive for writing to her, his infatuation, was to be eluded. What ensued was a torrent of letters that exhausted every other topic – from observations on everyday life to critical reflections on poetry, but never mentioned his romantic feelings towards her. The predictable result was of course that the denied subject of love forced everything else to serve as its proxy. This exchange of letters between the two became the foundation for the novel that the title of Nilsen’s work alludes to.
How exactly Nilsen’s imagery relates to its literary source, excepting that of a historical approximation (dada and surrealism coinciding with Russian formalism, the movement with which Shklovsky was affiliated), is unclear. The unstable relationship between Nilsen’s idiosyncratic compositions and the narrative that they supposedly relate but remain persistently silent about, becomes an overarching problem when approaching them. By what authority or logic are these instantiations of arbitrary juxtaposition acting on behalf of the original text? Who has issued the proxy? Issuing a proxy is an act of resigning control over one’s representation, you transfer your agency so to speak. You are there, but only in name. You have taken on a form that only the proxy informs is you. You, as such, is rendered abstract, featureless, a contractual figure. If love in the story of Shklovsky’s correspondence with Triolet (or Alya, which is the name of her fictional alias) is mediated by proxy, recognizing its presence requires knowledge of that proxy, if not, his feelings would remain unmediated, and the drowning zoo animals that Viktor describes would be just that – drowning animals. As is the case with the relationship between the untold story and the collages in Nilsen’s work, the title is the guarantor for this otherwise improbable correlation. It is not in the nature of these aleatoric compositions to illustrate or elucidate, they are rather an exemplification of the very technique by which the image becomes autonomous – the uncoupling of the pictorial element from the context that renders it intelligible. Or, as Shklovsky himself put it: “An image is not a permanent referent for those mutable complexities of life which are revealed through it; its purpose is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object -- it creates a 'vision' of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it.”1 So despite their literal transparency, Nilsen’s letters not about love, are in fact not about love, challenging the title’s ambiguous negation. Their function as proxy for the story of Shklovsky’s unrequited love is only held in place by their contractual obligation to perform this function under the imposition of the allusive title. They are not fixed by virtue of some uncontestable, absolute bond, but only held in place by external authority, by contract. Nilsen’s subjective renditions in “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love” comprise an inquiry into the essential vacuity of images and the shiftiness of their attachment to the world.
1 Art as Technique, Viktor Shklovsky, 1917; translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis 1965; reprinted in David Lodge, ed., Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (London: Longmans,1988), pp. 16-30.