Ellen K Willas
Aug 25, 2015 5:01PM

A text by Stian Gabrielsen.

How does an image today let you know that it’s art? Art’s exemption relies on external valorisation procedures, which makes it sometimes difficult to untie from the torrent of digital media flotsam that crowd our perception. Digital images straddle the entire spectrum, from “worthless” jpgs cloned across numberless screens to the monumental, editioned print looming over you in a gallery. The latter derives its value from a conspicuous immobility. But its uniqueness is only an approximation; underneath the guise of exclusivity lurks the proliferative threat of the data file, ready to upend all valour. Dissemination needs to be halted to avoid bleeding the object of retail value. Copies are limited, bulk is increased to impede distribution; value and stupid mass get tangled. Size, technical finesse and meticulous execution impress that this is not for a Tumblr feed, it’s for actual walls (or, alternately, bubble wrapped storage).

If unchecked proliferation and dissemination is encoded in the DNA of the (digital) image, the conditions of art display is a form of enslavement (bear with the animating metaphor); the image is held back from realising its viral charge. By printing, framing, hanging we enforce substantiation. We bind the image to a material ground and give it physical form. We endow the image with a body that mirrors our own—or at least addresses it—and expect it to act accordingly, to talk to us.

Twiggy growth and a structure of narrow beams entwine and branch across the surface of Steinar Christensen’s Kerberos series. This mesh has a distinct capillary quality—it suggests a refined circulatory system, like the ever furcating blood vessels we can observe under our own skin on close inspection. Contained within the discernible limits of the image frame, this mesh-figure is antithetical to the kind of circulatory activity we tend to associate with images today: their dissemination through digital networks. The use of expressions like “image economies” and “image populations” in art discussion indicates that swarms of image objects and their behaviour have replaced the pictorial content of single images as the object of inquiry. Perhaps the sheer mass of images we’re surrounded by forces a shift of critical attention from image content to image behaviour. Still, the old engagement model— the interrogation after meaning in singular images—persists, bolstered perhaps by the emotional reward that we’re hardwired to get from pursuing the “message content” of visual experience.

Artist Steinar Christensen - Kerberos Past 2015 - Courtesy WILLAS contemporary

There is also image multitude contained in Christensen’s Kerberos pictures. Semi-transparent scenes are layered over each other like stacks of frozen film fades. (As if to allude to the temporal structure of film the title of each picture is Kerberos plus a time indicator: Present, Past, Future.) Digital image handling tools enable a traceless merging of distinct spaces. Multiplication and disorientation of the relation between figure and ground is no longer the default effect of collage—it can also synthesise images into unified spatial representations. (Traditionally the creation of this kind of fictional space was the purview of painting; fittingly, Christensen describes his Photoshopping as painting sessions.) Again we encounter substantiation, this time on the level of composition; parts are coaxed into a spatially integrated whole, to form a relatable—even absorptive—image object. The art image, unlike the image-as-data, stakes a claim to self-containment. 

Artist: Steinar Christesen - Kerberos Future II - 2015 - Courtesy WILLAS contemporary

The size of the prints (the biggest is 150x200cm) enhance the pictures’ stand-alone impact—their affect on the viewer. Christensen’s subject, death, is not made a secret of; Kerberos—the dog of Hades—guards the entrance to hell, he devours the flesh of those who pass. He is  the boundary between the world of autonomous bodies (art, subjects) and unencumbered, perpetual transit (data). Death disintegrates the whole, turns one into many. Christensen would rather art stay alive.

Artist Steinar Christensen Title Kerberos Present II 2015 Courtesy WILLAS contemporary

Ellen K Willas