Mika Hannula

Mika Hannula, writer, lecturer, curator and critic.
Professor for Artistic Research at the Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Gothenburg.

Turning Butterflies into Worms
The Painterly Practice of Birgir Snæbjörn Birgisson

Now you see it, now you don’t. Now you think you know it, now you don’t. Now you feel it — or you fool yourself to believe so. Shades and shapes, emotions and motions. Nuances and connotations that run amok and stand still. Contradictions and collisions that are at the heart of the process of becoming. Always a singular and specific process through which a painting becomes what it is: a way for us to relate and reflect who we are, where we are and how are we where we are and what we are. And this, you know, needless to say, is just for starters.

The Icelandic painter Birgir Snæbjörn Birgisson does this all by telling us stories that we recognize and are familiar with, but he keeps telling them in a format and fashion that gets us intrigued — and confused. To put more specifically, these stories get us productively confused. He does this by painting figures we all remember and know about, and he does them with the colours of grey on grey, adding the slightest faintest touch of white on a surface that is, yes, white.

He does the trick, the trick that our eyes love to fall on by reducing the elements in the pictures to the max. And yes, he does this by inviting us to confront the whole wide world of problems and potentialities that are opened by the fact that what he focuses on in his latest comprehensive series is the portraits of all the chosen Miss World winners who, by their hair colour, original or manufactured, are blonde. A series of paintings that starts with Miss Number 1, dating to the year of 1951 when the competition was first launched, and that continues as long as these events are organized and women with blonde hair, original or manufactured, win them. 

It is a truly remarkable body of works that clearly form a direct continuation into Birgis-son’s painting strategy that started in the late 1990’s. A strategy within which Birgisson has been painting different people, different professions and different parts of our reality, which have one thing in common: the theme. They are all blonde. Blonde as in blonde nurses in action, blonde as in their uniforms, blonde as pure skin and blonde as blonde heads. And now, yes, year by year, not missing a beat, he paints Blonde Miss Worlds.

It is a series, first 15 of them shown — for the very first time — in Gothenburg Konsthall in the summer of 2007. They certainly take your breath away. A set of paintings that form a peculiar unity within which each painting, each gesture of a work becomes a singularity of its own, not only by the fact of it being that year’s winner, but through the subtle act how a single painting forms and shapes itself not against, but next to the other participants in this magnificent game of give and take.

Because that’s what it is about. It is about getting into them, moving closer, changing your viewpoint and your balance, and constantly being challenged with what you see and how you see it. It is a deeply physical process, which does not come without casualties. An anecdote as a story should be sufficient to prove this. When the assistants at the above mentioned Konsthall opened the crates in which Birgisson’s works were sent, they got worried. They got scared. They thought something terribly wrong had happened to the images. Perhaps some accidents took place during the transportation? Or perhaps it was just a question of light? These paintings were only possible to grasp as in seeing what the image is about when you actively stand less than two meters away from it. The assistants got bad vibes: How can we put these on the wall if people can’t see them immediately?

Well, yes, precisely. This is what in ethics is called an honest dilemma. A dilemma when one faces a somewhat nasty argument that it would be truthful to oneself to brush it off by stating that certainly, this is the very point of these works. They have to be perceived in a manner that is painstakingly slow as one has to move towards them and then moving away from them and repeat the motion until inch by inch a Miss World reveals herself intuitively when the talking is done by the hips. However, there is more, much more to the inherent painterly strategy at use by Birgisson.

Obviously enough, Birgisson is exercising the act of telling stories. And as always, it is not so much about what his story is about, but how it is told. The other significant central character in his works, besides this very how, is his deep-seated aim of challenging us to think and to think again how we see and comprehend colour as a political, social, historical and economical code.

Let us first focus on the particularities of this how. A hint of the actual process here can be very helpful. The idea to continue his obsession with the idea and ideology of blondes with the series of Blonde Miss World champions came to him by means of an old book he happened to find some time ago in a second hand store. It is a book that archives the knowledge, the history of these strange but so very real events of choosing the most beautiful girls of this world. A book that reproduced the winners in a solemn, almost shy way. Most of the winners are rounded up next to one another in black and white photographs that are not much bigger in size than your average stamp. And yes, here we get the initial dimensions, and here we get on the bumpy road of forming the idea into actuality. A distance from tiny press photos to the awoken and achieved presence of the paintings done with the faintest of faint strokes of colour and constructed and composed into the size of 120 cm by 120 cm.

The fascination in the process of how does not stop at this point. Not only is the size of the painting decided with a deliberate purpose, so is the rehearsed act of trial and error Birgisson took away from the original images. He has cleverly chosen to make them bigger than these real persons would be in real life.

Thus, the size matters, but what matters even more in his personal way of telling stories is what we see when we see the paintings. Particularly as already hinted at, we don’t see that hell of a lot unless we pay enough attention. Unless we get closer than close, and unless we take part into the demanding and giving nature of the paintings. A painting that is not what it seeks and wants to be unless you, or me, as a viewer is there to take it by the hand. Yes, be with it, make it happen, make it twist and turn, burn and heal. Make it become whole for a passing moment that will never ever return.

It will not return, but it certainly will be yours — forever. It will follow you. Follow you home, follow you to the streets and it will both caress and harass you. Why? Well, here lies the ultimate beauty of Birgisson’s strategy of how. When standing close enough, we can make the vague structures of a female human head — her hair, eyes and lines of the mouth. But not much more — until we break the barrier and participate into the process of shaping the image, because the strategy of reducing to the max not only applies to the use of colour, it is at stake in the way Birgisson painted the figures of these supposed lovely women by taking away parts and pieces, not adding anything in order for us to see or recognize. We are provided with visual hints — like shadows of a smile, or a silent but thoughtful laugh. What we see is parts of the whole, parts of the puzzle and the puzzlement.

They are paintings as relationships about to become — like becoming a specific place and site. Without the interaction, they are like Swiss cheese — with holes and with melancholy almost too heavy to bear. And what about with interaction? Yes, there and then they become live — alive and tickling. They become something special, something unique. They become singularities produced in human interaction where everything can happen but nothing is guaranteed.

So what about the theme of blondes? Why such a common denominator that is seen all around us, and a subject that all of us has — mostly negative, some or other opinions and experiences about? Well, you guessed it perfectly right. Birgisson’s strategic hole-in-one is to focus on a theme everyone knows and shares a passion about. It is the one common door that everyone has passed through. Simply speaking, it is difficult to imagine a person on this planet (at least on the Western hemisphere) who does not have something to say about blondes. Now, as in the difference between what it is and how it is actually made, here we get to the magnificently important distinction between general and particular takes and definitions on blondes. In the language of telling stories, even if broadly seen, we all know what the idea of a blonde can be used to symbolize or mean. We are not saying anything meaningful before we get to the detailed contextual nuances of how a particular case of a blonde here and there and somewhere else is defined, categorized — and yes, normalized.

Thus, what Birgisson does is to steal our attention away from the expected and boring aspects of a common as muck sphere and lure us to concentrate on the small scale and micro-political acts of how the idea of blondes is manufactured, used and abused — for what, why, and against what. A strategy that must always keep close to the particular case and its inner contradictions and nuances, and stay far away from the closing doors of bland stereotypes and weary generalities.

The act of Blonde Miss World Series is putting the finger where it hurts. It forces us to re-visit our deep-seated habits of the heart. It makes us aware of the amazingly effective daily process of how, in this case, the idea of blondes is normalized and made to be at use for this or that want, value, interest or fear, and at the same time, openly or covertly functioning against something else. This is a series of paintings that do the dirty work. They throw us off balance. Paintings as an act of turning seemingly beautiful and taken for granted images and symbols into fabulously demanding entities that make us think twice, and then cajole us into doing it over one more round.

They make us aware of the difference between a productive act that only tries to produce a priori defined and framed result, and a productive act that is there to play around with our expectations and prejudices — to add suspense to life’s oh so common predictabilities and yes, to have results that cannot be repeated.

It is an act of a painterly gesture that takes us back to the very basics. It takes us to the core of the issues of — who we are, how we are, with whom we are and how do we treat ourselves, and the people we are with. It is, if anything, an amazingly productive act that both challenges but is also embedded with very powerful chances. It is the act of turning butterflies into worms.

Mika Hannula

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