In a short film about crisis, liminality, witchcraft and quantum physics, artist Solveig Settemsdal and producer and composer Melkeveien a fiery critique of the materialist relationship between subject and object.
the i sea, the latest video work by London-based artist Solveig Settemsdal, owes its structure to one of the first verses of the epic poem by 14th-century poet Dante Alighieri Hellthe first part of The Divine Comedy: “in the midst of this mortal life, I found myself on a dark, lost path.” Working in response to what Settemsdal calls “a great flattening”, the artist targets conventional and materialist theories of the observable universe, looking towards speculative fiction, alternative models of understanding and the contemporary condition of the image at a times when reality can be said to unfold simultaneously in virtual and physical space, for a new way of looking at the world from a position of emotional and literal entanglement. “It’s about knowing, for a fact, that at most times in the past, where I was born, I would have been burned like a witch,” Settemsdal says of the film. “It’s about quantum physics, but first and foremost it’s about relationships, how we see and are seen, how we change and are changed. And I don’t think you need to know anything when you watch it. Drawing particular influence from Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli’s recent book Helgoland, which details his thoughts on quantum mechanics and relational interpretation, first developed by Werner Heisenberg while isolated on the titular island of the North Sea in 1925, the sea developed Rovelli’s desire to move away from “naive materialism”, working instead towards, in the physicist’s own words: “a theory which accounts for a structure of the universe which clarifies what it is to be an observer in the universe – not a theory that makes the universe depend on me.”
Settemsdal, like Rovelli, criticizes a model of understanding in which the omniscient subject operates outside of the observable universe, granting presence by categorizing and labeling the objects the subject observes constitute the materialistic universe. The artist draws parallels between this point of view and Rovelli’s critique of cubism in Heligoland. “Rovelli is particularly scathing about cubism – built around an ‘I’ who knows, for whom the world works, and a self that, with its ego, is somehow outside of nature,” explains Settemsdal. “Cubism anchors reality to a subject of knowledge, being apart from nature and knowing better by holding the top of the current food chain, which has led us to our current precipice”, a precipice the artist claims is characterized by, “a great lack of empathy and contempt for life. In the first moments of sea i, this pattern of understanding is immediately countered, our view as an audience of Dante’s dark forest being immediately obscured by tangled strands forming on a perpendicular plane of reality.This then becomes complicated with another entity’s point of view, flaring up the everyday objects of another simultaneous existential space – a brick wall, a green lawn at night. Ever present throughout the work is the expansive darkness of the North Sea, which Settemsdal and Rovelli see as a case study for the shortcomings of the naive materialist view of the world.” ers were thought to be quiet and used as toilets (still are) but stopped being quiet when we developed hydrophones that could pick up sound waves underwater,” says Settemsdal. “Suddenly everything is talking, but we still don’t know.”
In the world of the sea, the silence of the sea is filled with an ever-changing score by Kristian Møller Johansen, the producer known as Melkeveien, whom Settemsdal at Oslo art school in 2005, who oscillates between a disturbing low mood and a science of synthetic rhythms, as if oscillating between two perspectives contradictories of the same scene, created using analog drum machines, organism synthesizers and monophonic and electromagnetism recordings, including recordings of fluorescent lighting from elevators and telephone booths. Confused between these perspectives on the world, we are presented with a literal eye, endlessly gazing at the viewer, a mirror image of the participatory observation in which we as the audience are entangled ourselves when looking at the work. from Settemsdal. In this way, the artist brings to light what she perceives as a lack of empathy for both the viewer and the watched, illuminating greater meaning on both the roles of observer and listener. observed as active shapers of the universe, collapsing the distinction between artist and audience, between reader and writer in a movement of defiance against the dissolution of the materialistic world into content. “There’s a great flattening happening, with all of the human experience compressed onto screens, all things condensed into human language and culture, everything becoming a second, third hand experience,” Settemsdal says. “We are told, we do not feel. We don’t play. We are so tempted to escape into a clean digital future fantasy, which seems increasingly unsustainable as we struggle to keep the lights on. In response, the artist offers a different way of thinking and feeling the world, of operating from a point of view inextricably linked to the world.
Pointing to a possible alternative, Settemsdal invokes Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges centering on a secret organization, Orbis Tertius, responsible for creating the fictional city of Uqbar and its fictional legend of Tlön, a mythical world in which a materialistic understanding of the universe is rejected in the profit from subjective idealism. Tlön is a world that is understood “not as a contest of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts”, a world in which, during the short story, seems to step outside the bounds of the universe. fictitious of the secret organization and infiltrating the universe in which Borges himself dwells. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the sea i, in which a series of objects, cobbled together from LEDs, wires, silicone skin casts of toy animals sewn together and egg yolks suspended in the space, are superimposed above and between the different perspectives of the universe that are presented to us. “As in Borges’ Tlön, fantasy takes precedence over reality and the membranes between them are worn down to the point that impossible objects seep between the realms of fiction and reality,” Settemsdal explains. Both the presence of the artist and the presence of the audience are reflected in these objects, as Settemsdal’s own practice is presented from multiple different angles.
As his sculptures spin, are submerged in primordial silt and reduced to ashes, it is our entanglement with these objects, both Settemsdal’s and ours, that gives them their presence. “To look is to change something”, concludes Settemsdal. “What does nature care whether something is observed or not? We could see the world reflected in the viewer and not the other way around. The only way to learn something is to get tangled up in it. The cat yawns.
For more information about Solveig Settemsdal and her work, you can find her on Instagram and visit her website. You can find Kristian Møller Johansen on Instagram and discover his music as Melkveien on Spotify.
Then watch: Maelstrom & Louisahhh soundtrack of William Guillon’s visceral sculpture in Anatomy Of Chaos