Hanne Tyrmi – personal politics
Line Ulekleiv

The house: contour and container

Hanne Tyrmi starts her exhibition
The Lost Thing with a miniature house (The House, 2013). It is dark and compact, an oppressive structure that seems isolated from its surroundings. The observer is not invited into this abstract fortress of a building, closed in on itself. Although its form is familiar, this house departs in several ways from pure functionality: the amount of light getting in is restricted, stairways are illogically placed, proportions seem self-contradictory, and a sort of chimney seems misplaced, as if carelessly stuck on as an afterthought. Dysfunction is written on these walls.

The complexity of the house as a composition sets up a relationship between exterior and interior, outside and inside, that is fundamentally indeterminate. We struggle to define the line where the visible parts of the house meet the concealed parts. The house seems to have hidden history that might be both hurtful and aggressive; this is not a happy home. As a domicile it feels more like a threat to the freedom of the individual. A house that is difficult to enter or leave. A house that forms you, and which you would carry with you all your days.

The miniature size also suggests a condensed symbolism, a stylised statement of a mental state. A model is by definition a representation of something beyond itself. It might express an ideal, but is essentially an empty container onto which all manner of fantasies might be projected. Rather than being a technically resolved architectonic study, Tyrmi's house is a body with a stifling energy; a society body or a physical form encapsulating people whose character is mirrored in or suppressed by this framework. Something is fatally obstructed. As a result the house must be seen as a sort of ruin, with scars from the weighty imprint of time in its disturbed anatomy. In this miniature house are suggested themes that are further explored in the exhibition's sequence of rooms, through the shifting layers of mood in a clear scenography.

Architecture as basic form and the house as universal idea have long been important to Tyrmi, and found expression in her earlier project
Domestic (2012). Here Tyrmi placed a small house high up on a wall that was due for demolition in Youngsgate, Oslo. This house was also closed, and communication was made more problematic by the house being placed on an inaccessible gable wall.

The house as a narrator of dysfunctional stories can be found in the works of many contemporary artists, including Robert Gober who, at the outset of his career, created dolls' houses. There was a tendency with these houses towards the perverse, their often highly detailed rooms exposed to the observer. While the dimensions of the objects – such as tiny padded armchairs and lamps with shades – perhaps have a childish attraction, they also represent a disturbing displacement of concrete reality. Gober's artistic vocabulary is centred on the structural objects of everyday life – kitchen sinks, pipes, drains, taps, wallpaper, doors – but his interiors are broken at a point of violence. As with Tyrmi the domestic elements become pure archetypes onto which the observers can project their own ideas and memories. Everything belongs in a house; just as all the works in
The Lost Thing are collected in the idea of the house. Side by side we find elements that make a home and elements that disturb our sense of belonging.

Poetry of the room

The metaphorical qualities of the house are as old as humanity. My Father's house has many rooms. The house as a canvas on which the imagination can play was also central to the thinking of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who identified architecture as the existential point of departure for a person's life story. According to Bachelard buildings provide us with more than physical shelter, they also enclose our perception and contain our memories. The house is an instrument that introduces us to the cosmos. In his book
La Poétique de l'Espace (1958) Bachelard employs phenomenology to analyse architecture as direct experience. In his analysis of the loft, cellar, and drawers he describes how the personality of the house forms us, as does reality, but more importantly is an arena for daydreams. The childhood home becomes a defining horizon for our adult lives, yet we continue to dream about the perfect house, larger and lighter than any house we have ever known. Something better has still to be found, sometime in the future we will find the perfect place for our lives. The rooms of the house, whether past or future, are always imaginary rooms:
“Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination.”
Bachelard describes how our imagination constructs walls from shadows, an illusory shelter, the house integrating us as if it was a warm cradle, with its safe nooks and embracing corridors. Or alternatively: how our imagination trembles behind thick walls, not trusting their ability to keep out the rest of the world. The daydream, a human necessity, arises through a theatre of the past, carried by the memory. The characters of this theatre constantly play out their roles in the deep subconscious.

Circulation underground

Everything in the house sinks towards the cellar. Fluids run down its walls, through its pipes, as if it were a living organism, down to the damp bottom of the house, dug into the earth itself. The cellar is a closed system of rumbling, bubbling pipes, stopcocks, and fuse boxes. These circulation systems contain the house's own functional logic, of necessity constantly ticking and gurgling. The house keeps going. At the same time the cellar is an irrational room that can stimulate our fears, its space associated with inertia, darkness, and earth. Death lives in the cellar too. Everything we want to store is there, alongside everything we want to hide. The old LPs. Clothes the children have outgrown. Memories that never materialised.

For Bachelard the cellar and loft define the verticality of the house at its two extremities, and with wholly different perspectives. The house stretches upwards, in the loft we can enjoy the sight of the joists, their exposed function and solid geometry – they support the roof: “Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear.”ii In contrast the cellar is the dark component of the house, drawing on subterranean forces. Rationality and daylight are insufficient, here in the deep where dreams and fears are easily stimulated: “In the cellar, darkness prevails both day and night, and even when we are carrying a lighted candle, we see shadows dancing on the dark walls.”iii
The stairways connecting these polar floors also behave differently. We always go
down to the cellar, we only recall our descent. On the other hand we always go up the steep loft stairs. We do not recall coming down them again. I lived for a few years in a house with a strange loft, full of old vacuum cleaners, canvas rucksacks, and documents arranged according to labels marked "humbug", "truth", and so forth. Daylight seeped in. But it was difficult to overlook the shiny black telephone attached to a rafter; from here one could listen in on all the house's telephone calls. Every time I was up there I was afraid it was going to start ringing. The cellar was large, dark, and secretive. Once I fell through the trap door, down into the hole, as if the house itself had tripped me up.
The Lost Thing begins in this dark room, the cellar; for Hanne Tyrmi it is first and foremost a space of mixed meanings. She is aware of the simple fact that one needs this darkness in order to see the light. It makes the cellar ambivalent. A light stairway goes up to the loft, and a dark stairway leads down. From the roof of the blue-black room a large black light bulb hangs: Sort sol (Black Sun, 2013). The title is a striking image of the ambivalent, the light that implodes and sheds its light inwards rather than beaming out. The light is paradoxical and heavy, perhaps melancholic as Julia Kristeva meant the title to be understood: with a blinding intensity and depressive gravitational pull.iv Or more generally, as a metaphor for a dark core of existence, a reversed energy field that accentuates our own complexity.

Throughout this cellar there is matte, black materiality. A dark bladder has attached itself to the intricate system of pipes that are entwined on both sides of a wall. It is almost as if some intestinal sludge has got stuck here. These forms are well-known from Tyrmi's art, not least from a form of breathing apparatus she showed at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in 2001 and the Vigeland Museum in 2003:
Pulmomeus 206.3. The breathing of a terrified person was recreated through an irregular rhythm. Layer upon layer of memory is stored by the body, like faint aromas.

Learning to loose (2013) consists of a group of black cocoon-like shapes that seem to be multiplying out of control on the floor. Tyrmi conceives these to be spider eggs, the sort one can find hanging from cellar roofs. The spiders have grown in their own secure houses and will soon be ready for hatching, and to begin their energetic and fragile lives of weaving and hunting. Life can seem like an exercise in losing: face, friends, things, family, and one's self.

In the studio

Hanne Tyrmi's relationship to the house embraces also an aspect of the artistic life – the need to create for oneself a space where one belongs. We all carry with us our own houses, the place where we grew up, our own body – we carry them into the house we construct piece by piece throughout our lives. It is a house permanently under construction, and all our projects and goals are rooms in it. Along the way we lose something we never thought we could lose, and some ties are loosened. The lost thing has its price, if one is fully to remain the same person. In this way the house can also said to be about politics, not least the role of the woman as an equal participant in her society.

In the houses where Tyrmi lives the studio has a predominant position. Everything is in the studio. One can perhaps call her a classic studio artist: it is here she has lowered the anchor. All her scrupulously systematised materials are kept here in plastic containers along the walls: miniature plastic animals, plastic flowers from Brazil, all sorts of bric-a-brac. These are objects in a waiting zone, perhaps they have played a part in some earlier work, but now they are all items in her depot. They are potential building blocks in a future scenography for which the room always comes first, the objects after. Tyrmi has created a work called
Depot (1999), consisting of seven drawers containing a photograph of women's hands. They signal both safety and storage as a phenomenon. She doesn't repeat herself, but finds new ways of combining the elements through a focus on the constructive possibilities of the hands. Remounting the works on different occasions also allows her to add new chapters to their story.

Right outside her studio is nature, quiet, and open space, almost as an extension of the studio itself. In a sense the combined functions of this whole environment follow Tyrmi on her many travels. The studio is essential to her, it is here her head and her hand find their purpose.


One of the lines running through Hanne Tyrmi's art has been the presence of the body: as house, object, and concrete function. In Metaphors (first shown in 1999 at the Trøndelag Centre for Contemporary Art) she displayed abstractions of the body's anatomy. The scale of each organ was standardised, rather than realistic; a kidney was depicted with the same size as a tiny knot of nerves behind the eyeball. This was the furniture of the body, essential components whose functions are vital for our existence and sensibilities. As the title suggests, these components were presented systematically and individually as metaphors for bodily functions.

The etymological meaning of the Greek work metaphora is "to transfer". In its linguistic usage today it goes further than a comparison between two differing ideas or objects; with a metaphor one thing is described as another, with all its particular associations. Both directly and indirectly the metaphor is a linguistic image. These images are not necessarily poetic in themselves, but become so when incorporated into organic connections with other metaphors and linguistic devices. Tyrmi also favours the parallel use of text and picture. For Metaphors she included the Latin medical name of each organ, then followed this with a short, more poetic, often dark and challenging text: “100.1 (encephalos) Inside of me, sits a tiny me who keeps order, and with strict precision, directs my next move. That me inside integrates and interprets the body's chaos and its fluid demands to her/his complete satisfaction and filters out the irrelevancies. But wait – who sits inside that tiny me inside me and rules...”; or: “173.4 (stoma) The mouth always says what I wish to say...”; “181.8 (auris) ... so the ear always hears what you mean to say.” The hidden agents of the brain, governing our interaction with the world, coordinate the body's means of communication with the visible areas of contact.

Several of these organs were made into blown, crystal glass, 87 of them mounted on steel tubes forming the collection
Svev (2005) for the Borgarting Courts of Justice in Oslo. Tyrmi regards this work as a visualisation of the fragility of breath, and how our breathing may be affected during a day at the courts. This is an arena in which a distillate of our actions and body language is under scrutiny, and the outcome may have far-reaching consequences. Anxiety restricts the free flow of breath, out throat and chest get tight. According to Tyrmi the glass objects are pictures of changing feelings and moods, as well as hints of the judicial procedure: evidence as clear as glass, shattered arguments, transparent lies.v

We associate glass with display, as in shop windows, but also with visual magnification as in spectacles, microscopes, telescopes, and crystal balls. The mirror helps us to recognise the self and define its limits. According to Lacan, a child, on first seeing itself in a mirror, will not recognise itself. For the mirror is no more than an empty glass surface that will show anything that happens to be in front of it. Only when the child begins to move around will it be able to identify itself as something distinguishable from the surroundings and delight in the confirmation of itself.
vi One polished surface reflects another. The reflective effect of the mirror also led to it becoming a common vanitas symbol. Puddles and droplets also have these reflective surfaces – captivating, but transitory, soon to disappear as condensation.


The woman as mirror

I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it was wonderful.vii

Hanne Tyrmi's stylistic language is about essentials, there is no room for superficiality. This unsentimental core of her work also comes to expression in her choice of materials – a fact that explains why her early work seems as contemporary today as her most recent work. Both in form and content one can trace a line from Tyrmi to a celebrated artist like Louise Bourgeois, who to her last days maintained a symbolic interpretation of materials and forms. For both artists the metaphor of the house had resonance as an arena of suppressed emotions and conflict control, its façade part of the pattern of the female gender role.

Tyrmi regards materials as her tools – as if they were workable pencils. The material is, therefore, not the most important thing in her art. Her art is nevertheless rich with objects, often executed in steel, that have been created with clinical acuteness, with razor-edged precision.

Omen (2008), for example, is a shopping trolley converted into a pram, with a suggested overlap between consumerism and imprisonment. Bourgeois was also known for employing a shape that might be construed as a cold apparatus, the sort that keeps both feelings and physical expression in check. At times the organic and the vital is overpowered by constraints on form, at other times the balance is reversed and the senses and shapes of the body are let loose, with all their bulges and limbs. A mild form of surreality arises from this conjunction, as if human intimacy has been derailed, spilling its own essence. And in this we find both pain, vulnerability, and a glimpse of a devil-may-care attitude.

Bourgeois’ made extensive use of enlarged dentist mirrors, the sort that distort the reflection of the person and surroundings, exploding preconceived notions of objects, relationships, and concepts. They come under close scrutiny, any hidden agendas have to be disclosed, transparency is the ideal: ”…I like to be crystal clear when I speak. I like to be a glass house. There is no mask in my work. Therefore, as an artist, all I can share with other people is this transparency.”
viii Her past experience – the dysfunctionality of a family in which the authoritarian role of a father forms the world as if it were wax – seems to underpin this statement.

Illuminated dust

A huge dust ball on the floor is illuminated so that nuances of light and shade play across the seemingly soft mass. On touching them one discovers that the curly fibres making up the installation Dust (2013) are in fact made of steel wire, as if shaved from a metal block. The sheer amount of simulated dust is overwhelming, this is not a dust bunny that can be brushed away at a single stroke, instead it threatens to engulf the room. An unwanted element is assuming abnormal proportions. Almost as a form of entropy, this dust is the concrete visualisation of time that has passed and the detritus it inevitably brings with it. At the centre of this accumulation of dust, isolated and barely visible, there is a chair. When in use a chair is the item of furniture with the closest relationship to the body, it functions as a scaffold for the resting skeleton, or a stand-in for the actual body. Ask the dust.

Transience etched into everyday experience is also at the core of the installation Domestic Accidents (2012), a combination of banal realism and otherworldly exaltation. On a thin-legged table are piled staggering amounts of cups, saucers, and plates. Everything has been made from white linen paper, rendering the installation dreamlike and transparent. It is like the remains of a feast, as if a parallel to the Danish film Festen (The Celebration, 1998) by Thomas Vinterberg. Everything gets broken, and once the party is over the family are left like broken crockery, impossible to mend. This mammoth washing up also serves to remind us that everything goes in circles. Housework is a Sisyphean task that perpetually bites its own tail. Something is always getting used and needing washed. But in the routine and the repetition there can also be healing.
Another of Tyrmi's works, Amulett, was made in 1987, but is being exhibited for the first time. A teddy bear sits on a shelf, a small ball beside it. Both objects are made from hair – to be more precise, the hair of Tyrmi's son. The hair objects are fragile and insubstantial, they look completely down-at-heel and abandoned. The care and attention that has gone into them, however, is abundantly clear. As an organic material hair has a long history in art, particularly in the portrayal of women as mystical creatures of nature. Women's hair entices and envelops, it is a sort of nest for erotic projections. But hair has also often had a concrete application in a memento, for example in the hair lockets that were so popular in the nineteenth century. A decorative brooch or pendant containing the lock of a loved one's hair might serve as an everlasting token. The amulet, by extension, was a magical fetish protecting the wearer from harm.

Untitled (1999) we see another form of ritual cult object. Here the bars of a child's cot are made out of neon tubing that give the room a blue tint. It brings to mind advertisement signs that only promote emptiness. Like technological veins the cabling lies in a heap on the floor. The clinical chill spread by the cot conflicts directly with the tenderness we usually surround babies with. This baby seems to have been born into a lonely and instrumental existence. Fear of the dark can paralyze a life in a lying position.

Our brutal start to life is also the theme of
Embryo (1998), this too an incubator-like structure. A nest of twigs is supported by a frail iron frame on wheels. Two round holes for nursing hands expose an absence. Gaston Bachelard has described the expectations we have that a nest should be an extraordinary construction: ”We want them to be perfect, to bear the mark of a very sure instinct.”ix People admire nests of the animal kingdom for their expression of protective instincts and building ability, a tiny chick will have a duvet-like structure built round it. It is the nest itself that seems to have been incubated in the animistic Embryo, this lifeless object needs nurturing.


Materiality of the home

Running Kitchen (2012) has its own light playfulness, as if set in motion by a breath of wind through the kitchen window. Small porcelain figurines, mounted plates (the sort that were the housewife's pride), miniature cups and teapots all run around on their quick little legs, escapees from a designed décor.

This personification of everyday objects and domestic attributes is typical Tyrmi. They are objects of the housewife's chores, the continuous cleaning and food making in homes that are in a state of natural decay, and in which regular strenuous effort is required to stay the approach of ruin. An aesthetical light has been cast on trivial utensils such as buckets, whisks, sieves, and brushes in the installation
Kitchen (1998), 79 objects rendered in spun aluminium. From them Tyrmi has fashioned a kind of house notice board; here we can register their appearance and unassuming poetry. To the artist these utensils are memorials from the manual battle against dust and dirt. At the same time, behind the metallic elegance, personal stories of daily hardship attach themselves to the utensils, they have real substance. Framing them is a yoke and, at the bottom, a rolling pin to stabilize and smooth the whole.

The basic formula of this kitchen universe is repetition and routine. Chantal Akerman's famous film – one might almost say infamous – from 1975,
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, follows for three hours one woman's activities by the kitchen bench and in the bathroom, almost without dialogue and with long, real-time sequences of her washing up or laying the table. Her actions are carried out mechanically, being a slave to routine has brought her life to a breaking point. Now and again she performs sex with men – which takes exactly the same amount of time as boiling the potatoes. She keeps her earnings in a soup tureen on the table. Akerman described the film as a love song to his mother. All members of the film team were women. The anti-illusionism of the film was also intended as a critique of the hierarchy of cinematic imagery, a kiss or a car chase valued higher than cooking or washing the floor. Seen through Akerman's explorative lens the woman's chores become a springboard for personal reckoning, forcing her to examine her life.

Martha Rosler also sustains an assault on the traditional domestic chores of women with her iconic
Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). In a performance and video she presents a selection of kitchen utensils, then uses them in both a clumsy and violent fashion. The claustrophobia of these female spaces is acute, and emphasis is given to the words used about the utensils. Kitchen terminology assumes symbolic shadings, its internal meaning extended. Women stand as a general sign system for food production and frustration. Tyrmi moves within this critical tradition, creating a fundamental ambivalence between the usefulness of a utensil, and the subjugation it leads to as the tool of an ideology.

The concept of cleanliness
The overriding ideology that still keeps women in their places is mostly concerned with concepts of beauty. Women are supplied with a large palette for their constant improvement, and the incessant noise about how women should look spreads like a virus. Hanne Tyrmi's take on this theme in WoodWorks,(2004-2007) consisted of a 29 metre shelf filled to overflowing with a forest of lipsticks, cotton buds, pill boxes, and Botox needles – every last one of them hand whittled from wood. It is an overpowering display of the instrumentalised body.

For her installation
Soap Stories (2004) – bars of soap in a glass case – Tyrmi sought to convey
how soap can be both enticing and repellent. When a bar is clean and new it promises perfume, care, and hygiene, all subtly underlined by a delicate pastel shade. Once used the bar of soap degrades, it gets dirty and uneven – a mere sliver of its former self. Perhaps a hair gets stuck in it. It is like a body, smooth and soft to begin with, but once it has been through some rough handling its intimacy is off-putting. Having been so close to our bodies, they all have stories to tell. Tyrmi places the bars of soap in a female sphere of reference where various identities have each made their mark.

“She washed herself thoroughly. A week has passed, and nothing has happened.” “She thinks he likes this smell. She loved her own smell.” With succinct texts like these the artist suggests mini-biographies associated with the rituals of hygiene, everyday monotony, and a metaphoric absence. For here there is no body present.


The eyes as keyholes
I am seen, therefore, I am is the affirmative title of a work from 2013. Two keyholes are attached to the wall, staring like an extra set of eyes. With Scale (1999) – a glass eye set in bathroom scales of glass – the artist comments on the weight of our gaze and the need for visual affirmation. We need to be seen, we want to be seen. A life where one cannot look into another's eyes is worthless. At the same time we struggle to shake off the looks someone has given us that have got stuck in our mind and form us.

In Hanne Tyrmi's hands objects become beautiful, an aesthetic that counteracts the often harsh and painful stories they convey. That's just how they turn out, she says. So to study her objects is to go on small adventures, they are radiant, with a weightless sensibility and a concrete materiality.

Ever since the time of the Ancient Greeks the eye has held a privileged position among our sensory organs, often regarded as weighing up the world in an intellectual, calculating fashion. It is an attitude in affinity with the Enlightenment ideal of cool-headed gathering of knowledge. Historian Martin Jay, among others, has thrown light on the countless optical references in our everyday speech: for example words such as vigilant, surveillance, demonstrate, inspect, scope, and synopsis all derive from roots describing looking or sight. We fear the evil eye, and acts of blind stupidity. Optical allusions are so widespread in our culture it makes it difficult to know when a reference is literal or metaphoric. Jay details how the eye develops in the foetus, the last of the senses to do so, and the most complex. Along the optical nerve some 800 000 fibres carry an incredible amount of information to the brain. Although sight is often described as a static sense, the eye can only perform its functions by being in constant motion. Far from being a mere passive light receptor, the eye is also our most expressive sensory organ, after touch. The eye is a window to the world and, as the cliché puts it, the mirror of the soul.
x In the mirror one sees one's self seeing.

Tyrmi's world is sensory, she neglects neither the gaze nor the touch. The body – and the house – are always present, as containers and as complex realities; with
The Lost Thing she leads us on a phenomenological trail through these labyrinths. We are participants, both seeing and being seen. Linguistically and sensorily our position is unclear. Tyrmi is always edging up to language, challenging its familiar concepts and static images with a grammar that juxtaposes the fragment with the whole and the internal with the external. The naturalised world, which we take for granted, is turned on its head – just like that knot of pipes running from the cellar to the loft, and the shadows that slip away.

Stories of vulnerability always have an audience, and perhaps especially those told by madwomen in the attic. Female novelists of the Victorian era felt obliged to create female characters that were either angels or monsters, following the model of male authors in whose books women were either pure or raving lunatics. Virginia Woolf implored female authors to put an end to this aesthetic ideal and to seek nuanced definitions that defied this dichotomy.
xi The falsity of received wisdoms and inherited ideals is also Tyrmi's enemy and with her head and hands she goes to work to create precise, strong, and poetic alternatives.

Curtain fall
Curtains of lead run heavily along much of the length of one exhibition room. This monumental work, Dusk, is concealing something. In the half-light contours become less defined, everything contributes to some higher unity – a smooth screen of impressions. The lead curtain hinders our overall view, but its effect is built on paradox, much as life itself. The curtain is ponderously heavy, but it also soothes and protects. It unites all the works in the exhibition. Although there is a wide variety of expressions, the framing metaphor of the house brings them all under its personal and universal roof. Through objects we see, live, and experience. This dramatically heavy final object brings down the curtain; our story has transported us from cellar to loft, and from Dust to Dusk.
i Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston/Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1994), p. xxxvi (foreword).
ii Ibid., p. 18.
iii Ibid., p. 19.
iv Julia Kristeva, Black Sun – Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).
v From Hanne Tyrmi's web page: http://www.tyrmi.no/page12/page21/page21.html
vi See, for instance: Jaques Lacan, ”The Mirror Stage” in Écrits – A Selection, Tavistock/Routledge, London, 1989, pp. 1-7.
vii Louise Bourgeois, Untitled (I Have Been to Hell and Back), 1996. Embroidered text on handkerchief.
viii Interview med Bourgeois in: Robert Storr/Paulo Herkenhoff/Allan Schwartzman, Louise Bourgeois (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2004), p. 8.
ix Bachelard, op. cit. p. 92.
x Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes - The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 1-10.
xi This is a theme that was explored by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Yale Press, 1979).