50 Billion Micrograms
In Search of the Aftermath of an Event
“The first star began to shine, and I said to myself that this pure surface had lain here thousands of years in sight only of the stars. But suddenly my musings on this white sheet and these shining stars were endowed with a singular significance. I had kicked against a hard black stone, the size of a man’s fist, a sort of molded rock lava incredibly present on the surface of a bed of shells a thousand feet deep. A sheet spread beneath an apple tree can receive only apples; a sheet spread beneath the stars can only receive star dust. Never had a stone fallen from the skies made its origin so unmistakably. And very naturally, raising my eyes, I said to myself that from the height of this celestial apple-tree there must have dropped other fruits, and that I should find them exactly where they fell, since never from the beginning of time had anything been present to displace them. Excited by my adventure, I picked up one and then a second and then a third of these stones. And there is where my adventure became magical, for in a striking foreshortening of time that embraced thousands of years, I had become the witness of this mistery rain from the stars. The marvel of marvels was that there on the rounded back of the planet, between the magnetic sheet of these stars, a human consciousness was present in which as in a mirror that rain could be reflected.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars (1939)
Last spring, I was working in the deserts in California on a project that explored questions about landscape, time, and observation. I started to read Wind, Sand and Stars (1939), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memoir about being stranded in the Sahara Desert. I came across his account of discovering meteorite fragments in the desert. What interested me was the verbalization of the span between the tangible and the human imagination — and also the limits of our knowledge about the world. In many ways, it inspired my reflection on the sense of wonder in a story about a meteorite from my childhood. The passage was also a reminder of the fragile enterprise of meaning-making that became important for working with this childhood story. What is the connection between what is seen, heard, and remembered? This led to a more specific question asked from an artistic standpoint: how can one materialize and photograph an event that is not visible anymore, and which perhaps never was?
In “50 Billon Micrograms” (2015), I took an unsolved mystery and a forgotten media event from 1979 as my point of departure. Almost forty years ago, a giant meteorite reportedly landed in Svanevannet (Swan Lake), on the west coast of Norway. Based on the size of the hole in the ice, it was estimated that the meteorite weighed about 50 tons. The interest in this event was so high that the Norwegian National Broadcast Company (NRK) went to Swan Lake to report on the story. However, after a long series of articles in both local and national newspapers, and further investigations at the site, it was concluded that the item at the bottom of the lake was not from space.
In this exposition, I would like to provide an example of how art can offer an alternative way of understanding the past. Since I am an art historian as well, I have tried to reflect on some of the differences between being an artist and an art historian when it comes to dealing with the past. First of all, one thing is very similar: the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty that we are faced with when we look into and try to understand history. While uncertainty and ambiguity are desirable in many art projects - they might even be an energy that fuels these projects - ambiguity is not the ultimate goal for historians. Their material might be inconclusive and obscure, but historians will not attempt (at least not consciously) to render it more incomprehensible. Their task is rather to find some structure in the chaos. While a historian tries to analyze, to find comparable examples and historical explanations, an artist can allow uncertainty to be part of the working process and part of the finished work.
However, on a more general level, I think it would be difficult to draw a strict line between my two competences (as an artist and as a historian). Since both artistic research and historical research can be enormously varied, I am skeptical about efforts that attempt to essentialize the differences between them. These differences have to be mapped out in concrete examples, as I try to do in this exposition.
An important reason for this openness in art (in addition to the fact that an artist and a historian work within different frameworks) is a wish to make room for an active spectatorship. With my work, I can let seemingly irrelevant and speculative elements be part of the artistic process. In this particular instance, I did not confine myself to working with themes that were strictly connected to the story I set out to investigate. The story itself became more of a spark for my work. I think this approach has a logic that many artists can recognize. In the process, the different conceptual and esthetic elements have to be considered carefully, and the artist must ask if random ideas and speculative elements are relevant for the work. Such an open-ended approach is often fundamental to artistic research. This was perhaps especially pertinent in this case, as the origin of the event that I was interested in was opaque and open to speculation. I had no hope of finding the answer or explaining this natural phenomenon. Maybe it was an illusion created by the media, or perhaps not. My interest was to dwell on the uncertainty and keep the wondering alive. What became increasingly important was to explore the search itself through images and sound. I also set out to explore the poetic potential of water, space, and the abyss. Photography had many roles in this investigation: it was important as archive material from the original media event; it was a poetic means in my encounter with the place. Photographs were also used as a documentation method, and perhaps as a membrane between myself and event. They were a place from which I could attempt to grasp the past.