a crow’s caw.

Stacy Brafield - I've been told to come here
April 11th - May 4th, 2014
Bergen Kunsthall

In a group show with students from the fine art academy in Bergen, Stacy Brafield’s work is simple yet striking: she locked the main entrance to the exhibition. It is perhaps a miniscule gesture, but it immediately yanks the spectator into the present through the unexpected rejection at the gallery entrance. The rest of the exhibition is visible through the glass windows on the locked door, but one is unable to enter. The emergency exit is – as it always is – unlocked, so for the duration of the exhibition, this is the only entrance to the gallery. So what does her work mean? I guess it means everything and nothing. The piece itself needs a spectator to become activated, to become real in a sense, and so every single idea or impression that each of the visitors get is as good as any. Similar to any ritual, its impact relies on semiotic and its meaning lies elsewhere. In this case, however, there is no collective knowledge of how one should decipher it. I am of course here referring to Brafield’s work as art (which is what it is), and not her literal act of locking the door, which naturally does not rely on semiotics to remain locked.

As you are leaving the locked door the work does not, however, cease to be. Maybe, after interacting with Brafield’s subtle work, one enters the exhibition with a slight notion that everything might not be what it seems. After unsuspectedly bumping into a work of art, one might have a heightened awareness and suspicion towards every other abnormality in the kunsthall. Some people must have found the work thought-provoking, while others might have considered it humorous or even annoying. Maybe some of the visitors never even realized it was an artwork. Regardless of their intellectual responses to the work, physically, they would now have to enter the third room instead of the second. Thus ones every movement through the exhibition with the twenty-something artists is slightly altered through her gesture, as the artworks are uncovered in a different sequence than initially proposed. Despite having a major impact (if we can call it that), the work is still gentle and poetic, and does not do violence to the other works in the show, as it merely rearranges the order one views the artworks. And since there is no intrinsic order to experience the show (except from the limitations imposed by the physical architecture), the order Brafield imposes is no more unnatural than any other way of perceiving the exhibition. So for many visitors this point might very well remain unnoticed. On closer reflection, Brafield does not only offer another sequence. She also exposes the institutional order we more often than not unconsciously accept as natural. Every connection one makes between the different artworks is arbitrary, despite different interests (such as our own as spectators, the artists amongst themselves and the exhibition coordinator) in trying to make it appear coherent.

But instead of discussing Brafield’s work from a conceptual point of view or as institutional critique, I will rather propose taking a detour through concepts from Zen Buddhism and the ritual. The tea ceremony is a suitable example to start with, and an important facet of Zen culture. Before entering the tea hut the guests pass through a roji, a simple garden constructed with the sole purpose of helping the guests clear their minds of superfluous things of social existence, and mentally prepare them to achieve purity from the ceremony ahead. Reaching the locked door at the kunsthall and the few steps to the other entrance might be compared to the walk through the roji garden.

Did you turn off your oven? The anxiety that follows when you for some reason start to question whether or not you turned off the oven when you left home can be excruciating. Thankfully, you most likely turned it off. But in our everyday lives many of our miniscule gestures or tedious chores are so internalized that we execute them without paying any attention to them at all. Often our thoughts are concerned with the past or the future. In the past we can joyously recall fond memories or torment ourselves over bad decisions we have made, and seemingly every new and exciting adventure lies somewhere in the (hopefully not too distant) future. The present is perhaps little more than a fraction of a second before it is claimed by the past. Yet all we ever really experience is the present. And if we dwell too much on the past, we run the risk of not actually living our lives, or, if we spend most of our mental energy trying to see into the future, waiting for life to begin, we will probably feel cheated at the end of our journey. So, if all we really have is the here and now, we might as well pay closer attention to it.

Zen Buddhism became a major influence on conceptual artist from the 1950s and onwards, but ideas that art could act as a catalyst in achieving this state of presentness are much, much older. The conceptual artist Allan Kaprow realized that, “when you do life consciously, however, life becomes pretty strange – paying attention changes the thing attended to.” Thus, with these ideas, conceptual art needed not be material, and artists worked on an art that aimed to accentuate, alternate or distort the ocular which we use to perceive the world. And so the artist was freed from his or hers medium, or rather, their medium became something immaterial, simply an interaction or manipulation in relation to the spectator; existing as little more than impressions and thoughts. But then again, the study of a painting or a sculpture hardly does anything more on the viewer, regardless of its physicality.

I will return to Zen Buddhism for a final parallel with Brafield’s work. The purpose of meditation for the Zen Buddhist is to neutralize his or hers self-consciousness, which in turn might lead to the experience of an ephemeral moment that is disconnected from past and future. Only at such a moment, according to Zen beliefs, would we be able to come in contact with our true self. The Zen master Ikkyū Sōjun achieved enlightenment through the distraction from a crow’s caw. Unable to connect the sound with the source, in that brief moment of deep focused uncertainty where he had no means of associating the harsh cry with the crow, he reached a higher state of presentness.

So, if we backtrack this event some-six centuries ago and remove the religious aspects as we go, we might still have a fruitful approach to Brafield’s work. Detaching the religious aspects of the story is important, because, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, the work does not literally mean this or that, and I do not think the artist at any point hoped to create a vehicle that helped people attain enlightenment. But her work can be perceived as a riddle with no answer (another Zen trademark), questioning things we take for granted or pay little attention to. This is probably as close as I will get, trying to structure my thoughts and reflections regarding Brafield’s work. But still, if we are to disregard the answer in favor of the riddle, we are left with the simple delight of a perplexing puzzle.