Text by Elise Cosme Hoedemakers, curator of the exhibition Substratum, 2016

Jugendstilsenteret / The Art Nouveau Centre in Ålesund, Norway, is pleased to host the Swiss artist Samoa Rémy for her solo exhibition Substratum during the period of 2 October 2015 through 28 February 2016.The exhibition is displayed in the museum’s Jugendstil dining room, dated 1907, and three further temporary exhibition spaces.The exhibition centers on, among other things, the notion of nature being a philosophical, aesthetical and spiritual fulcrum for the Jugendstil movement, and that the style emerged as a “fresh breath of idealism” in the period between ca.1890 and the start of the First World War. Jugendstil was a reaction against the alienation and estrangement of man by machine, generated by the advance of the Industrial Revolution.

The layers beneath

The title Substratum refers to underlying and deeper layers. A geological, historical and sociological approach is applied to examine some of the underlying layers, visible and invisible, that shape our worldview and our understanding of history. It aims to explore the connection between past and present, and the potential of expanding the temporal view.

As an essential part of the exhibition, Rémy has been invited to create a site-specific installation in the museum’s upper class dining room, a Jugendstil Gesamtkunstwerk, whose architectural frame and interior decor form a unified work of art, encompassing furniture, mouldings, wallpaper and panelling.The installation is part of the series Samtaler/Conversations, initiated by Jugendstilsenteret, for which contemporary artists are invited to interact with this Gesamtkunstwerk through their own artistic intervention. Hereby, the room’s historical and aesthetic setting create the framework for a contemporary approach.

Rémy’s site-specific intervention is titled An Unlikely Outcome and refers to the disastrous conflagration of January 1904 which left Ålesund in ruins and triggered the rebuilding of the town in the Jugendstil.The installation contains a wooden board with the same measurements as the dining room table. Holes have been sawn in the board shaped after the outlines and contours of all the objects placed on the table, including plates, glasses, cutlery, candlesticks and napkins.The board’s surface has been charred black and is mounted a few centimeters above the table, appearing to hover in the air.The tableware – part of the museum’s permanent collection – partially emerges from the holes of the burnt panel. Hereby, a sort of “double geography” of the Jugendstil upper-class table is insinuated, almost as if two layers of historical and sociological meanings overlap each other.The work refers to a specific historical event, a site-specific geography, and a social class divide.The Jugendstil flourished in Ålesund in spite of, but also because of, the disastrous fire.The tableware sprouting up through the panel suggests a triumph of beauty over ashes.

Geological substrates countering trench terrain

Rémy uses a scientific approach in the artistic process. Drawing inspiration from libraries and image archives, she often bases her work on illustrations from encyclopaedias and academic textbooks from the 1800s and early 1900s.Two series of images, Ubi Consistam and Hallucinations, are based on such sources and contemplate the relationship between man and earth, in which the term earth connotes geology and shelter.

The first series, Ubi Consistam, consists of colour prints that depict remarkable, peculiar and almost anthropomorphic mineral formations. Its Latin title is inspired by the phrase by Archimedes “Da mihi ubi consistam, terramque movebo”, meaning “Give me a foothold and I will move the world”. In this context, Ubi Consistam refers to the minerals’ steadfast character, their solid substance and ordered chemical structure. Each of the images is mounted on a thick plywood sheet, whose surface first has been charred black, and then covered with a layer of red wax. Rémy experiments with the pictorial surface and the potential of the “invisible” substrate beneath. By employing a gouge and a counter sinker, several crater-shaped holes have been made on the print’s surface and the underlying charred, wax-covered panel. Hereby, several substratal layered levels are revealed: first, a layer of red wax under the colour print, then a burnt, black layer, followed by an inner core that reveals the plywood panel’s internal structure. The holes in the images are reminiscent of deep wounds, or craters with glowing lava, and the work bears reference to, among other, the earth’s internal power, both as a natural resource and as a destructive force.

These re-elaborated images of anthropomorphic mineral formations are placed beside distorted black and white photographs from the trenches of the First World War, a series titled Hallucinations. The photographs have been manipulated by moving and turning them on a photocopying machine in motion. Hereby, the horizontal plane and the figures are twisted and bent, provoking a sense of disorientation and “dizziness” within us. It was essential for Rémy to find images that were taken from the inside of the trenches, in which the dividing line between above and below ground can almost be felt physically, as if we as viewers would be standing below ground ourselves, stuck in the trenches.We are confronted with the trenches’ inner structure; they recall the tunnels of an animal’s den, but instead are dug by people for the protection of their own lives.

Both series reflect upon geological processes, conflict and war destruction.Tension arises between the geological, sub-earthly terrain and the industrial, power-ridden landscape above the surface. The same soil that provides nourishment and vegetation has now been exposed by physical intervention in a time of war. A centenary later, issues of environmental governance and the quest for geological resources, such as oil, metal and mineral deposits, are often conflict-prone, feeding dispute, insecurity, and corruption. The war of trenches has been replaced with more intelligent warfare and machinery. Past or present, the toil of war is peril and trauma; its ramifications taint our daily existence as livelihoods are being catapulted into crisis and leave wounds in our bodies, souls, and surroundings.

A pulsating disequilibrium

The remaining body of work in the exhibition tackles a similar subject matter, contemplating war, shelter, earth, and geology.The series An Invisible Force consists of four digital prints and is based on archival sources.The illustrations are decontextualised from their original historic and/or scientific context, and gain an artistic quality with a larger reference frame.Two refined illustrations of strange roots are collocated with two photographs taken during the First World War, and in their formal similarity they express the intrinsic potential threat which is found in any disequilibrium. Another series, Diminuendo consists of four small wooden blocks in which zigzagging lines of different depth have been carved out from the top surface.The deep lines that course through the surface can bear a reference to either the trenches dug by soldiers, river canyons in a landscape, or animal tunnels below ground.

A similar reference set is obtained in the installation Mirrored Tension: two old shovels with quite sharply pointed metal-blades are stretched out fronting each other in an oak frame by use of pallet bands. A military spade, presumably used to dig trenches during the First World War, steers towards a ca. 80-year old agricultural shovel. The two spades are suspended horizontally in the air with their pointed blades facing each other, as two arrows ready to be shot one against the other. In this way, friction is created between a war device and an agricultural tool, simultaneously implying a state of threat and attraction.

Lastly, the video Strategie ohne Strategie explores the tension between external and internal forces. A slowly rotating metal horse has been cut in two along its horizontal axis; its hollow form inside has been filled with bread dough.The leavening process alters and expands the form of the metal figure, and the object’s robustness is subjected to a pressing, pulsating interior.The work has a clear reference to the Trojan horse and strategic warfare.

In Substratum, the exhibited works create a conceptual dialogue with each other, in which the underlying layer, either historical, geological, aesthetic, or social, found the basis for new interpretations. We are led to the precipice of the Industrial Revolution, a moment where technological advancement and optimism give way to demolition and deprivation, and the beauty of Jugendstil evaporates in dire war circumstance.