S t e i n . R ø n n i n g



Stian Grøgaard: Expressivity’s underside

In the Norwegian context, Stein Rønning’s works can seem extreme. This is not because their form is so reductive, or “abstract”, as it used to be called. Abstract sculpture has been with us for several generations, and even the culmination of reductive modernism in the boxes of minimalism has long since found a place in history as tasteful if somewhat timorous design. The fact is that reductive modernism gradually began using design as an apology. On failing to attain its higher metaphysical destiny, it lost faith and contented itself with being form.

The reason why Stein Rønning’s works can appear extreme is that they do not use design as an apology. They are merely “reduced”, and that to the most expressionless and neutral state possible. In these works I recognise an interest in what in the 1960s was called non-visuality, a term that refers not to the invisible, but to what is visible yet unstated as such. The visual is an exception that flaunts itself against a background of what is merely visible. Fortunately, most of what is visible expresses nothing. Non-visuality came to refer to a certain type of art in a certain historical period, when it became expressive to choose materials that were not yet visual and did not flaunt themselves.

The choice of neutral or overlooked aspects of the visible world had few consequences for visuality, except in the odd case when it was deemed necessary to offer an apology. In such cases, the non-visual is more than just a background for all that is visual and flaunts itself. The shift between the visual and the non-visual affects classical problems in sculpture such as scale and site, proportion and sitedness, since it makes it unclear what a traditional definition of the artwork does and does not entail.

In this lack of clarity, American sculpture from minimalism onwards perceived an historic hiatus. This hiatus is important for an understanding of Stein Rønning’s point of departure and choice of sculptural design. Since the early 1990s, however, he has taken a chance on the opposite possibility, namely a (non-)visuality that affirms the continuity not just of abstract, modernist sculpture, but of the sculptural tradition as such.

Stein Rønning studied at the art academy in Trondheim and then in Bergen right before the big boom in European painting. Characteristically, he described his works as “a permafrost beneath the tumble-turf of 1980s neo-expressionism”. He has claimed that he was a late learner and that his artistic education could be attributed to four issues of the journal Studio international, of which one dealt with photography and another with conceptual art, the direction that got the greatest mileage out of non-visuality. His late development is probably an exaggeration. It is more a matter of a retrospective gaze. As the name implies, the neo-expressionists were also looking back in time. A backward view of greater relevance for Stein has been Rosalind Krauss’ 1978 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. In this text Krauss writes about the post-minimalism of the foregoing decade, discussing artists such as Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Robert Morris and Bruce Nauman. Borrowing an idea from literary theory (Krauss does not mention theories of architecture), she turns post-minimal art into an era and calls it “postmodernism”. Today no one knows any longer what that term really meant. The only thing that is certain is that postmodernism, like other eras, is less impressive from the outside than it took itself to be. A more sober term for the changes and the expansion of the field of sculpture that Krauss identified is “post-disciplinary”. Sculpture is a discipline. The question here is, what use can be made of what remains valid in such a discipline, when the post-disciplinary has become the normal condition of art?

In his essay “Anti Form” (1968), Robert Morris, who was one of those to have shaped the era ten years before, sought a showdown with minimalism, claiming that it had turned the cube into an a priori Platonic form, quite independent of the material in which the cube was embodied. By reversing the sequence and declaring the material primary, and embracing the way it fell in folds or solidified, Morris believed he had introduced a self-justifying anti-Platonism. More importantly, this strategy justified an artistic practice that encompassed a very different range of materials. But neither did anti-form find a justification to make it endure. As a term, it smacks of dependency, as do terms that start with “post”, and consequently it had to expect the imminent return of what it was rejecting.

In the works of Stein Rønning there is something more complex than good form or its material negation. Whether or not they are belated is in effect no more important than the tired prefix “post” in front of modernism. It is better to ask how one challenges that belatedness. The challenge with which Stein confronted a range of objects of typically minimalist design was something deconstruction has made familiar as the supplement. Actually, the supplement is a certain logic, which presupposes far less baggage in order to become operative than does the “expanded field”. The supplement inheres in the body of the sculpture and cannot be dissociated from it as something alien or as anti-material. Whether it be an irregularity in the object, or some superfluous overpainting, the consequence is a dissociation that suggests the quality of a sign and renders the object discursive almost from “within”. At the same time, the supplement is a part of the same thing and lives from its seamless non-difference with the thing it is. Even so, the thing sends out a signal, like an aberration, an initial murmur in the material, which opens it up as a sign. This opening remains just that: open. The supplementary object is not a representation or an abstraction of some other, fuller thing, and neither can it be totalized under post-minimalism’s informe, the expression Rosalind Krauss uses in The Optical Unconscious, from 1993.

The supplement constitutes a strategy in the sculptures Stein Rønning showed at Akershus Castle in 1987. Here something was added that did not accord with the expected regularity, an extension that countered the form, lending it an utterly different kind of dynamic. Even so, there was no code, no externally approved criterion. All one had was the thing itself, and the thing was never sufficient.
If non-visuality is an art historical construction line that carves out a space for the thing in advance, then the supplement is what reinvests the thing with non-visuality. By initiating a discussion of the concept of sculpture in relation to the non-visual, the supplement can in addition bring about an expansion of the field of sculpture backwards in time, towards sculpture as a tradition.

The following list will serve as an overview of Stein Rønning’s work, ordered in part chronologically:
1 The black casts of sticks from the early 1980s.

2 The white shelves at Trondheim Art Society (1983), and the white frame and box shapes at Kunstnernes Hus (1987) and the National Museum of Contemporary Art (1990). The formal similarities between the white and geometric sculptures is deceptive. The exhibition in Trondheim presented a work created in the space over a period of time, shelves encrusted with paint left over from the work of levelling the walls on which the shelves hung. The white, regular shelves coated in paint were a documentation medium, more a stage for an action (in the past) than a neutral plinth for objects.

3 The exhibition on the upper level of the Akershus Castle fortifications (1987), where the supplement was an explicit device intended to destabilise a series of different minimal objects.

4 Several “generations” of small, dark, abstract sculptures, all of the same simplicity, but with an increasingly complex poetics in each generation, shown at Galleri Riis and elsewhere (1990-95).

5 The digital photographs at Trondheim Art Society in 2007. Work on the photographs took place in parallel with work on the three-dimensional pieces, transferring typically sculptural problems such as proportion and sitedness to the documentational photographs. Consistent in the photographs is the way they negate the difference between monument and document, understood here as the difference between the monument’s locatedness (site) and the document’s movability (non-site). An early photographic series from 1978-9 asserted the photograph’s sitedness. By means of serial variation on the same motif, the camera was turned into a participant and became, as it were, physically responsible for the perspective of the site. This series manifested the medium as a “thing” that belongs to the category of things and actions, and which thus resists a naive reading. At the same time, this series can be read as an attempt to redeem immediacy in a medium that has become increasingly redundant. The exhibition in Trondheim in 2007 explored this condition.

This tentative classification could have been further reduced to two alternative series; ignoring the photographs, the three-dimensional works tend to fluctuate between white rectangles and black organic forms, white spaces and black volumes, white objects containing voids, and black, solid objects.

The white, geometrical works are site-specific yet at same time sculptures concerned with absence. They are works that frame and are more “parergonal” than “ergonal”, whereas the dark, organic sculptures, both the “stick casts” and the small, abstract “lump sculptures” of ten years later, have the appearance of more traditional sculptural works. The traditional aspect of these sculptures is nevertheless reduced to zero and vanishes in the material, which unashamedly links the objects to ongoing tradition.

The supplement enabled the thing to declare its character as sign, but not to breathe. There was a logical hiatus (or excess) in the regularity, but no organic resemblance. The black organic sculptures were the first to become pneumatic, while the stick sculptures of the early 1980s provided the earliest example of organic resemblance. The sticks were polyester casts of real sticks. Polyester is an oil derivative, and oil is compressed ancient organic material, partly from vegetation. The casts were then painted black, without the paint concealing anything that would have been visible without it. The paint belongs to a different order from the casts, at least until applied to the form, which then becomes the form of the paint. Even so, the natural history connection between the polyester and the stick shapes is conceptual rather than something we see. The painting splits our reading into form and material. The cast polyester is encrypted to become a concealed, higher or lower order association. Yet it is not this association between the stick form and the organic material that these stick sculptures express. The association prompts thoughts about a natural connection between sticks and polyester, but is not meant as a specific statement. On the level of common perception, it is sufficient that the various arrangements of sticks, bundled up or spliced together, look both familiar and strange.

The small sculptures from the early 1990s constitute several generations of the “same” sculpture. Although they resemble one another in terms of their immediacy and the simplicity of their visual appearance, their operational poetics becomes more complex with each generation. As signs they are more metaphoric than metonymic, more anthropomorphic than anthropocentric, and like all abstract sculpture draw breath from what the observer brings to them, all without losing any of the monumentality conferred on them by a plinth. This project affirms the continuity of sculpture, but using fewer means than sculpture usually requires, and with a curiously wound down métier. There is at the same time something expressionless and matter-of-fact about this winding down. It is as if the sculptures came from excavations. The expressive, gestural traces of the work in the objects fail to free themselves from the material.

Whereas the white, regular forms were based on the exhibition space and were “grounded in a concrete situation, these sculptures are grounded in a conventional conception of sculpture.” In discussion, Stein explains how the small black objects were modelled using a long steel rod with a spoon-like attachment on one end, a method that made the process so “laborious and strange” that the objects unwittingly ended up referring to that process itself. The tool created distance, thanks to which the sculptures acquired the character of miniatures, in other words, of models of something bigger. Again, there is something that pushes the thing towards something else, a sign-like quality, although the materiality of these sculptures hardly signals anything other than their weight, and their condition as amassed substance.

The sculptures have the appearance of miniatures, and thus suggest a fictional quality that refers to a shift in scale and hence an idealised perception. It was post-war artists such as Barnett Newman who insisted on “real scale”, in other words, on art displaying the proportions of reality itself. In Newman’s case, real scale implied the common perception of the thing on the scale of 1:1, which duly led to the requirement for paintings to be of human size at the very least. Art was not to operate with its own type of imagination or empathy, which was the mistake that European abstract painting made. Stein has considered the possibility that with these sculptures he has in fact “Europeanized” real scale. Newman would no doubt have assessed the models along the lines of figuration, as a weakening of the object. Perhaps the European scale repudiates the dualism of concept and perception, which, as far as it goes, is real enough, since perception never operates on its own, without a supplement. Thus, the Americans accused European art of being smaller than reality. A response might be that American art makes it precisely the same size, and that something is lost when there is no difference from common perception.

The next generation of these sculptures came about by replicating the material with a range of variations. The same expressive quality was transferred to this subsequent production stage, although with each stage the formal elements became more redundant and generic. In other words, they carried a stronger resonance of themselves and of typical “abstract sculpture”. With each generation they looked increasingly abstract, ultimately manifesting a figurative dimension in resembling a concept.

Then, in the final generation the entire process was digitalised. An old industrial robot was used to scan the objects of the earlier generations. The scan was subsequently modified within the machine, which was then used to mill the objects anew. This digitalisation introduces a “black box”, a hidden operator that leaves certain traces in the material. These traces are visible, but we cannot say where they come from. This digitally distorted process in the final stage of production connects the sculptures to the general visuality around us. At the same time the objects’ classical sculptural quality is thus preserved. They are concerned with proportions, and proportion is always a question of sitedness.

Photography has accompanied Stein Rønning throughout his development. He first exhibited photographs back in 1979, while the latest occasion was in Trondheim in 2007. This latest exhibition may well seem innocently focussed on materiality and proportions, but in neutralising photography’s capacity to document, the point was to trace the growing, historically conditioned redundancy of the photographic medium. At the exhibition in 1979, the physical motif was meant to be read into the medium’s lack of physicality and location. Meanwhile it is the manner of reading that is read; the way we instinctively read photographs is influenced by unconscious ideas of what photographs are meant to achieve. As Stein has put it, photography is “less ‘rooted’ in the object than in the traditional expectations and ideology that the object carries. The connotative aspect moves more easily in a flat image than in the body of a sculpture,” although here the “flat image” is deprived of a vital resource. For there is so little that is iconic in these photographs that they fail to connote anything. The latest photographs halt the iconic movement by means of something similar to modernism in painting. Cleansing the “icon” of what is iconic and preventing the viewer from bringing something to the picture strengthens the impression of a photographic medium that reminds us only of itself. The observer is shown some fine but boring picture arrangements, but beneath the disappointment one feels in one’s “photographic unconscious”, one glimpses something that is strangely undisturbed by the camera, yet there for nothing else. One notices an eye that is situated, and the situatedness is general; in other words, it reasserts a condition shared by all photography.

A redundant and increasingly assertive medium also becomes more dependant on situation and the way it is displayed. This assertiveness does not mean that the photograph has begun to lie, but only that the illusion we have of photographic truth is not due to what the viewer brings to it. The illusion of truth is attributable to social conditions that make ever greater use of photography, but where at the same time photography is used to outdo itself and its own unique function as witness.

The photographs in Trondheim were digitally manipulated. The fact that the photograph outdoes itself as witness constitutes a defeat of principle for digitalisation. The digital photograph still serves as a witness, but not of what we would like to see. What is stored in the medium and is mediated is refracted by conditions that repeat themselves, by something generic that has the same taste regardless of the information.

Stein emphasises that the most thought-provoking aspect of this process is that it simply reinforces the definition of photography as a temporal medium, underlining its ability to freeze the present as the past, as Roland Barthes described the mechanism in his Camera Lucida. The ability of photography to capture a moment such as grief, as if grief were the moment in black and white, is part of a mechanism that is producing time as something lost at ever greater speed. In other words, what is stored now transgresses time and at a pace that is only increasing, while simultaneously the notion of documentation or storage, which now applies to everything, becomes ever more trivial.

Stein Rønning uses the possibilities of reductive modernism in the way these have been redefined in minimal and post-minimal sculpture. Following this redefinition it is no longer appropriate to speak of reduction. There is no longer anything wholesome and entire from which to reduce; there is merely a style, which in Stein Rønning’s works operates without emphasis. All that remains are individual things and actions and the intricate relationships between them. The starting point for these works is a material described as “non-visual”, meaning something neutrally visible. He uses this form of visibility to lower the threshold for expressivity in sculpture.

Another feature of his works is the reflexivity they borrow from modernist painting, where it is taken for granted that reflexivity confirms the medium. In Stein’s works, reflexivity is understood as a supplement that tends rather to invalidate and to contextualize the medium from within. As Stein stresses in conversation, his works retain the modernist resistance to communication, although resistance is not an idealised form. It can be traced back to the objects as a weakness of their visual design.

Reflexivity likes to think that it begins with itself, and it considers it an insult to be portrayed as supplementary. Even so, reflexivity manages to exploit the self-depletion of media, and this is also true of effective storage media such as photography. Reflexivity is an aesthetic strategy, but it is also a curse associated with historical changes of function within a medium. A good word for this curse is aesthetic autonomy – something that it takes more than money to revoke.

Throughout the years, Stein has shown fastidious, almost reticent works that look as if they have no need either to express or to conceal something. Nonetheless, his works are open; it is just that they have no interest in filling that openness. The reason why it can be difficult to work out what they are after is that they – such as the small black sculptures at Galleri Riis in 1990 – succeed in lowering the threshold that distinguishes the visual from the non-visual, expressivity from neutrality, almost to the point of imperceptibility.

This almost imperceptible threshold might well adapt itself to general conditions, or the conditions might adapt to generality, to what is generic in visual culture. This puts me in mind of an expression used by Bataille, albeit in a very different context, namely “a general economy”, where general is used to imply an economy without reservations, an economy that does not put something away or accumulate, but is on the contrary excessive, overbidding in a way that risks the entire accumulated surplus. Bataille had read too much ethnological theory and dreamt of reversibility and the lavishness of precapitalist society. One could well say that art in modern society is excessive and justifies itself by overbidding, but at the same time it is the curse of aesthetic autonomy that art is reserved and that the overbidding takes place in pre-defined, fictionalised spaces. I can imagine a less expressive embodiment of a general economy, which prefers the path of calmly weighing up between visuality and non-visuality, between the sensual and the merely visible. For sculpture a general economy does not mean first and foremost an expansion – either in the form of an expanded field or an expansion of visuality in the expansive visual culture of our age. For sculpture the route to a general economy can only go via inexpressivity.

There is nothing strange about the inexpressive encompassing the expressive, thus making it more accessible, or vulgar, and at the same time overlooked. It requires something more to notice that inexpressivity outbids what we usually attribute to vulgarity. Perhaps this was one of the lessons of minimalism: what is expressionless conceals nothing. However, minimalism overlooked the extensive but unexplored qualities of the sculptural condition. In the works from the early 1990s, Stein Rønning attempted to shift accessibility back in time, as if tradition had never been interrupted. In doing so he relinquished some of the control over what the works mean. The icy, expressive simplicity of these objects is deceptive, but when confronting a strongly traditional continuity, the objects benefit from such simplicity. Stein’s sculptures show how much our perceptions depend on the traditional authority of the work. We should not feel surprised that small black sculptures of this kind can be so assertive and powerful.

At one point in his Anthropology, Kant writes that metaphor and wit call for “Liberalität der Sinnesart”, because they see similarities where there are none, while judgement, which is a more serious business, derives its seriousness from an eye for differences. Stein is often witty and metaphorical in conversation, whereas his works are characterised by a judgement that does not delete differences to the benefit of metaphorical similarity. His works eschew metaphor. Differences encompass a repressiveness which some manage to exploit creatively, and even to derive pleasure from, but in today’s post-disciplinary aesthetic, little can be said in favour of this kind of concept of conditioned creativity. The neutrally visible pins down a way of working that is more open than metaphor, which despite its “liberality” adheres to a strictly speculative logic that compensates for the differences it overlooks. In their inexpressivity, in the sensitivity these works demand, there is an accessibility that manifests not just the idea of an unreserved and accessible sculpture but the idea of a similarly accessible tradition