Camilla Jalving, MA and Ph.D in Art History and curator at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. Her publications include Værk som handling (2011).
I It’s hard to say where the story begins. With the author Aksel Sandemose? With the artist Mie Olise? At Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center? With you – the reader?
Providing a full, coherent account of its source, impetus and offshoots seems impossible. What, for exam- ple, came first? Sandemose’s departure from the island of Mors? His escape to Newfoundland – an escape from the narrow-mindedness and ‘the who-do-you-think-you-are attitude’ of the Danish ‘Jante Law’? Or Mie Olise, the artist, also from the island of Mors, who has followed in the footsteps of the author and brings the story to life in the form of an exhibition? Restarts it by bringing it out of the history books and into the present – under the arched ceilings of the art space. The exhibition tells Sandemose ’s story, but it also tells Mie Olise ’s story, constantly interweaving the two in a continuous coupling of biography and autobiography. Of myth and truth, and that which exists in between.
The exhibition is called The Silent Station. The title is the same as one of the exhibition’s works: The monumental (re)construction of a train station that fills most of the main hall. But it is also the title of one of the chapters Sandemose never managed to include in his novel Brudulje. The station also embodies a reference to Millertown Junction on Newfoundland, where Sandemose claims to have killed a man. At the same time it is silent. It doesn’t tell us anything beyond what we, as visitors, can piece together from the sound and text fragments and the many tracks laid out in the exhibition that refer in different ways to the life of the artist and the life of Sandemose and the intersections between the two.
II Intersections like cross-stitching. The Jante Law on a taut canvas. The artist’s cross-stitched sampler with the ten cutting commands that can be read in Sandemose ’s 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, but which have also become part – albeit an ambivalent part – of Danish culture and self-perception. The local authorities on Mors often gave this kind of gift to the islanders for jubilees and anniversaries. Some of them probably ended up at the back of a drawer. Others reappear in the exhibition, printed in gold like shimmering codes to Sande- mose’s escape and direct references to his most famous novel: A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks.
The novel depicts the character Espen Arnakke’s early life in the fictional town Jante, said to be based on the town Nykøbing Mors. The geographical similarities and the plot of the novel provide a good basis for seeing Espen Arnakke as Sandemose’s alter ego, suffering the same hardships in the novel as the author himself. Espen Arnakke is also the name of the ship that can be seen as a fixed reference point in Mie Olise’s childhood memories.
In 2009 she set herself the task of finding the ship that slipped out of the hands of her family due to finan- cial difficulties after 11 years of ownership. Tracking down the ship led to a journey across Europe, a quest for the lost object of desire of her childhood – the ship of happy memories and her father’s sea shanties. The journey ends on the island of Texel in the Netherlands, in the company of ship owner number six, whose account can be seen and heard in the exhibition. The ship has been repainted in new colours and has a new name. Espen Arnakke has become Beloega – Dutch for dolphin. In the exhibition there is a series of wooden signs with carved quotes from the many dramatic accounts of the ship and its life at sea that Mie Olise collected during her quest. Yet another series of stories in Mie Olise ’s narrative, a narrative that continu- ously points in new directions.
But is what is told important? Yes – to a certain extent. Mie Olise’s persistent research can hardly be categorized as ‘sudden impulses’. On the contrary, it has a surprising determinism. Mie Olise does not only read about Sandemose, but heads off to Newfoundland hunting for traces of his life. One of the people she finds is Arthur Ludlow, the son of Walter William Ludlow – the man who helped Sandemose when he disembarked on Newfoundland and hid among the cliffs on the coast. Ludlow is the physical evidence that Sandemose was here. That his fiction and his life were intertwined. The detective can head home triumphant. The circle is closed.
Still, there is something more than factual evidence at stake in the work of Mie Olise. This ‘something’ is not narrative understood as content, as the revelation of the truth behind the myth that is any detective’s raison d’être and the driving force in every classical ’whodunit’ crime novel. It is more the story in itself – the telling of the story. The very act of seeking. Not necessarily to find, but to be on the way, in the process, nose to the tracks tying threads and making connections between then and now.
IV This search, understood as the search in and of itself, can be seen as performative, displacing the narrative from what is told to the actual telling. Here, performative should also be understood as self-referential, because Mie Olise’s narrative does not only refer to something outside of itself, but to an even larger degree to itself – itself as narrative. The subject of the investigation is the investigation of itself. The aim is not to reach a destination, but to be en route.
In the exhibition this performative approach, the displacement from content and plot, is in a sense monumentalised in the train station, which more than anything becomes an emblem of the longing to travel. That no train is likely to arrive here in the exhibition space only makes the longing more apparent, reinforced by the atmosphere of endless waiting that the empty train station evokes. The ship is emblematic in the same way. Whilst this ship is entangled in Mie Olise’s childhood memories, it also manifests the longing to travel, related as it is to romantic dreams of distant shores and endless horizons. Places never seen, only dreamt of.
V The work of another artist comes to mind. In the autumn of 1973 the Dutch-born artist Bas Jan Ader embarked on a long nocturnal trek through Los Angeles, from the hills of Hollywood to the deep blue of the Pacific. He documented his journey in a series of 18 black and white photographs with the title In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles). At the bot- tom of the photographs, line by line, are the lyrics from the Coasters’ 1957 song Searchin’ with the catchy chorus ”Cause I’ve been searchin’, oh yeah, searchin ́”. The work was planned as part of a trilogy, the second part of which was Ader fulfilling the sailor’s dream of crossing the Atlantic alone in a small boat, followed by a night walk through Amsterdam mirroring his walk through Los Angeles. Only the first part of the trilogy was realized. Ader disappeared at sea shortly after departure, and the project capsized.
Bas Jan Ader comes to mind because his searching praxis – or rather the way he makes ‘the search’ his praxis – provides a framework for the work of Mie Olise. Whilst her work may not hold the same tragic ending or the same melancholy, both artists work with the human drive that sends a Sandemose to Newfoundland and a Mie Olise in his tracks. Searching for Sande- mose. Searching for Espen Arnakke. Searching for childhood memories. Necessities. Tracks, junctions, intersections, coincidences and seams in the vast fabric of the narrative. Not neces- sarily to find, but to seek. Not necessarily to end the story – but to tell it.