“Good artists never take holidays,” it says on the side of the desk at the centre of Hold Everything Dear, Lotte Konow Lund’s mid-career exhibition at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. The phrase is quintessentially konowlundian, demonstrating her keen sense of the ambiguities of everyday language. It might be perceived as an expression of common sense or as a resigned reminder of difficult working conditions; by turns an anti-establishment, Romantic ideal vision of the artist and a neo-liberal mantra. We cannot be certain what Konow Lund herself associates with the statement. In an interview with Kunstkritikk ahead of her exhibition, she says; “I draw because drawing has allowed me to work anywhere at all times.”
The exhibition at Henie Onstad focuses on Konow Lund’s drawings – out of the 200 works on display, only four are videos – and places particular emphasis on the socially, politically engaged aspects of the artist’s work. Curator Milena Høgsberg has made an excellent, representative selection from the total body of work, focusing especially on series from the last ten years. One might complain that the selection is somewhat predictable and without any major surprises, for most of Konow Lund’s best-known works are featured in the exhibition. These include Self Portrait as Five Dictators and a Victim (2007), where the artist’s facial features merge with those of dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin. Also featured is the project Why do I draw? Hommage à Dagny Tande Lid (2006), which saw Konow Lund volunteering to be a guide at the Naturhistorisk Museum in Oslo in order to keep an exhibition of works by woman artist and drawer of botanical subjects Lid, open to visitors. The presentation of Konow Lund’s own botanical sketches is both the end result and byproduct of this performative gesture.
The show also includes some fifty works from the ongoing series The Konow Lund Collection (2009 –), where she sets up her own canon of recent Norwegian art history by reproducing selected works as uniform drawings hatched in black and white. The idea of a private collection for the less affluent might equally well have been carried out by means of photographs, but consisting as it does of original drawings, this collection takes on monetary value. At the same time the act of drawing becomes one that combines appropriation and dedication in equal measure; The Konow Lund Collection is also an homage.
Most interesting of all is reading the artist’s oeuvre across the fifteen-year span covered by the exhibition. One thing in particular becomes clear: regardless of whether video or drawings constitute the dominant vehicle of expression, language is often Konow Lund’s true medium. For example, she effectively and explicitly demonstrates how language is an instrument of social adjustment in her early, obviously feminist video work French Lesson (2001), in which a young woman stutteringly repeats sayings such as “The higher you climb the deeper you fall” and “Everything will pass”. While “the social” appears to be a structuring, mildly repressive and anonymous entity in this work, it takes on a more positive aspect in her later works. One example would be the series Images from the inside (2007–), to which plenty of space is allocated in the exhibition. The series is based on Konow Lund’s volunteer work at the Breitvedt women’s prison, where she has given drawing lessons for the last nine years. In her teaching, the act of drawing helps establish a sense of community between Konow Lund and the inmates – “art becomes a conduit of personal narratives” as the exhibition explains. The fragments of these personal stories are by turns brutal (“Freedom is not having to bend down and show your asshole every time you’ve been shopping”) and lyrical (“Freedom is to hold my sleeping daughter”), but in contrast to French Lesson language becomes a liberating force here. If the incarcerated women are unlikely to ever take on any defining power in the expanded sense of the concept, the drawing and talking sessions at least give them opportunities for defining what is important to them.
In the exhibition the inmates’ statements are presented via Konow Lund’s hand-drawn renditions. The series’ “drawn texts” feature a range of different font styles, sizes and background and evince some of the whimsical arbitrariness one often sees when text is presented as an image. It seems as if Konow Lund wishes to lend individuality to the statement by furnishing them with different graphic modes of representation, but instead the format somewhat diminishes the hard-nosed efficiency of the statements. Such formal details are usually of little importance in social projects like this, but I latch on to them nevertheless because drawing, however much of a tool it may be, is never truly secondary in Konow Lund’s work.
The importance of the format and feel of drawing is clearly demonstrated in what I consider a highlight of the artist’s oeuvre, Dagbøkene januar 2014–februar 2016 (Diaries January 2014–February 2016). Published earlier this year, this artists’ book is a weighty collection of drawings and brief texts from her journals, bound in a fetching Moleskin-like cover. Konow Lund’s journals are on display in this exhibition, but even with 30 spreads on show the presentation will, of course, fall short of the total impression provided by hundreds of pages in a book. This issue has been partially resolved by redrawing some of the sketches from Dagbøkene on a larger scale. Hung closely together, the drawings take up an entire wall at one end of the room. Here, jagged hatching has been replaced by more elaborate, loose and soft lines drawn by means of ink and brush, but nevertheless some of the energy that seems to emanate from the diary pages remains.
With Dagbøkene Konow Lund has found her perfect format. The hatched, spiky drawings are coarser and less articulate than anything she has previously shown. Although many of them resemble doodles, they are neither distracted nor directionless. Some are provisional figures or disembodied limbs. However, what truly carries this publication aloft is its text, which has also been hand-“drawn”, using simple, bold lettering that spreads tentatively, nervously across the pages in staccato movements: “It begins / the same / way / every / time / a small violation / a blow / a sentence / an app /roach / that gets / justif / ied / normalise /d”. The texts consist of seemingly random thoughts, anecdotes and arbitrarily snatched remarks from Konow Lund’s everyday life. But they have obvious literary qualities. More than anything, they demonstrate her acute receptiveness to how the spirit of a society is embedded in its language. “Without money you don’t exist,” it says somewhere. But even if the book’s rickety figures and mental images seem cowed by such conditions, hope still remains. One of the textual images features the crestfallen, resigned legend “we are just trying to make it through the day”, but this is immediately followed by the more chipper “and there is much to be done.” Konow Lund’s works are ultimately uplifting.