DRIFT (2007)
Between Two Deaths Curated by  Ellen Blumenstein & Felix Ensslin ZKM, Karlsruhe.

Úlfur Hansson

Edited by Ellen Blumenstein
& Felix Ensslin
Hatje Cantz

In her 2005 work Spot, Elín Hansdóttir produced an almost skeletal structure designed to focus the viewer on what he or she was doing: paying attention. Opening a door, the viewer walked into a small room and closed the door again. A small spot appeared on the floor, but it would disappear again when one opened the door. “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” Hansdóttir accompanied Spot with this quote from William James’s Principles of Psychology of 1890. However, as in much of her other work, she played with the statement in a dialectical manner. There was nothing else to pay attention to, nothing else to “take possession” of, other than the little spot illuminating a small area of the floor. In Untitled (Nafnlaust), she took this approach to a further extreme. With the help of her collaborators, she built a maze of blindingly white walls in a newly renovated farmhouse. Whoever entered was confronted with a narrow path without any signs to help orient them, an experience quite close to sensory deprivation. The only locating signifiers were the slightly sloped floors and the corners one could feel more than see. After some time—a “time” that had disappeared from one’s experience—one reached the exit. In fact, the exit was just a step away from the entrance. Again there was seemingly no “option,” no choice one could make, regarding what to pay attention to. But the James quote is nevertheless appropriate, for what Hansdóttir lets us get close to is a realization about how we “pay attention” in normal, everyday experience. It is “tunnel vision.” While we live in a world of options—to consume various products, to narrate ourselves in various ways, to define our preferences or identities—we never, in fact, exercise them freely. We “pay attention” not because we consider everything, but because a certain something focuses us, gives direction to the tunnel of our vision. In her piece You (2004), Hansdóttir almost literalized this certain something. On a yellow, plastic material that “memorized” one’s steps for a certain time, the viewer walked in the vicinity of a globe containing a light-source. The closer the viewer got, the brighter the light would shine. Within the calming fields of color—the white walls, green- white, fence-like separations, the yellow floor—there was but one “object of desire” to which to pay attention, and eve­ryone paid attention to it. Thus, with her minimalist gestures and anti-dramatic

installations, Hansdóttir focuses us on our own focus. We follow a tunnel, a light that shines brighter the closer we get, much as any animal would respond by following an object that stimulated its instincts. The only difference is our following is not “instinctual.” If James says that we “take possession by the mind,” Hansdóttir’s almost underhanded installations make us reflect upon the fact that something else has always already taken possession of our mind. By reducing the environment almost the way an experimental scientist would in order to control all of the individual factors, she lets us contemplate the question of whether we really choose what we pay attention to, or whether it chooses us.
This approach opens, quite indirectly, a question of ethics within the domain of aesthetics—an aesthetics that unabashedly borders on the language of minimalist design. If the aesthetic qualities of an object—quite broadly understood as what literally “makes us” pay attention to it—force the direction or the scope of our perception, where is the dimension of choice? Is it in the maker of the object? Or is it in the viewer? With Hansdóttir’s work, the field is opened up for both artist and viewer to face the necessity of claiming responsibility. While she refers quite coolly to the romantic topos of the art object’s siren-like quality, which fascinates and draws us to it quite outside any register of rational choice, she thus refers back to the viewer, forcing him or her to question his or her fascination. With her installation for between two deaths, Hansdóttir broadens this approach to include a “Risotto-Scale,” a musical object, into the register of fascination. These scales produce the auditory sensation of listening to a continuously falling or rising sound that seems to have no purpose. The artist simply contained a staircase—a renovated, nineteenth-century structure from the original munitions factory in which the Museum is housed—within white walls. The viewer enters this encasement and, while walking up the steps, listens to an ever-descending tone that cannot help but produce an inward, meditative, and even trance-like effect. But due to the structured, experimental nature of Hansdóttir’s work, the experience never stops at mere fascination: one ends up questioning the nature of the aesthetic effect as such.

Felix Ensslin