The title of Erlend Rødsten’s exhibition refers to the lost treatise De segni de' tempi from 1577 by the monk and Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno. Very little is known about the contents of this piece of writing. We can speculate on the basis of the inquisition’s
interrogation of Bruno, which took place before he was burned at the stake on the Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600. Bruno is best known for his heretical belief in an infinite universe; did his manuscript consist of astronomical predictions? Or other mystical speculations? Since the Vatican destroyed all the documents in the case, all we are left with is guesswork. We know nothing about Bruno’s trial in Rome. And, no matter how well-documented his trial in Venice (the main source for almost all that is known about his life) might have been, the judges and
witnesses were sworn to silence.
In the exhibition’s title, Bruno’s opus takes on a shift of meaning, and hence refers to a constitutive loss. The Signs of the Times gives us the signs, not of what was lost, but of the
loss itself.  The environment in which Bruno operated fits the classic pattern of a conspiracy.
He is largely portrayed as a truth-teller, but at the same time he is enveloped in the fog of conspiracy. The secrets that are withheld from the viewer are also his own. For Rødsten, the conspiracy is the apparatus of gestures, design and control that binds us to a certain place. Dealing as it does with safety equipment, such as parachutes, oxygen tanks, airbags and fire
extinguishers, his work prompts the feeling of an accident about to happen. Objects that are supposed to guarantee our survival not only turn out to be dysfunctional, used up, or in some way rigged, but often carry the seeds of the crisis from which they promise to rescue us. The thing that is supposed to save us is, in fact, the thing we need to be saved from. Within the current paradigm of biosecurity, where concern for our health is confirmed by heat detectors, motion alarms, corona apps, etc., individuals are put into a state of permanent risk awareness. Rather than mystifying these configurations, Rødsten’s precise interventions explore their internal tensions and anomalies. His work is often situated in rural contexts and landscapes, trapped in socio-economic and technological processes of transformation. In referring to survival strategies in times of crisis, it creates an intersection between ancient modes of production and those appearing in the digital era. The connotations of the word “crisis” (from the Greek κρίσις; to separate, to see) are indeed symptomatic of Rødsten’s practice, which often has the material change its conceptual composition by being split up, reshufﬂed and reassembled. An anecdote in a local newspaper article caught the artist’s interest. It was about a Norwegian farmer, who by utilizing the excess heat from a large bitcoin mining facility, was able to dry firewood much more efficiently. The wood was then distributed to the locals. This gives us some clues to one of the exhibition’s more mysterious pieces. The artist has employed optical geometry to make an exact replica of an old cast iron stove. Its ornamented surfaces have been carved out of wood, with the aid of a computer-controlled cutting machine. As a consequence, the object undergoes a paradoxical transformation. The stove takes on the same material properties as the wood that it was designed to burn, which seems to suggest a form of self-negating reversal. Here we can perhaps think of Giordano Bruno once again, and of his last moments on the Campo dei Fiori. The pyre is still burning, but the machine intended to obliterate the heretic is at the same time sealing its own fate. “Perhaps
your fear in passing judgement is greater than mine in receiving it,” Bruno is supposed to have said to his executioners. The material paradox in Rødsten’s work can also be seen in the vacuum-packed parachutes and airbags hanging along the wall. The objects hold their shape through the absence of air. The element that is needed to unfold the parachute and inflate the airbag is excluded – but it is that very exclusion that ultimately guarantees that they stay as they are.
In 1548, Thomas Elyot defined a lawn as ‘a place voyde of trees’. According to this negative definition, a lawn is a place where something is missing. What is missing is not just trees, butthe core of what we call nature: the feature that made nature into a phenomenon that was definitively not a human creation, and thus nor could it be challenged, manipulated orreshaped by human power.
The cultural history of the lawn is the history of the anthropogenic landscape, oscillating between the pastoral dream of the clearing and a technological surface carved out of the wilderness. For the walled meadows of the Middle Ages, turf was broughtfrom outside, scalded and sprinkled with seeds to form a green surface. During the Renaissance, when the medieval enclosed gardens were opened up to the world, the lawn became more closely bound up with an idea of itself as an object of human control. At the same time, the lawn embodied a piece of hypostasized nature that pointed back to antiquity. Cicero’s Brutus contains few detailed scene descriptions, but the small lawn on which Cicero, Atticus and Brutus meet to discuss oratory is a pratulum (from pratum, “meadow, broadfield”). This forerunner of the lawn manifests nature as no more than a shadow of the eternal, unchanging world of ideas. Culture’s infiltration of nature, the lawn as an expression of the landscape’s pact with the eternal, and the way that in itself spending time in such a landscape takes on an ideological form. It is against this background that Rødsten approaches the lawn. Rolled out in a room at the far end of the exhibition space, the lawn can be glimpsed througha red-rusted garage door. Simultaneously, looking into the garage gives the impression ofgazing out from it, since the lawn is laid out on the inside. Is not the fact that we refer to the lawn as a carpet – tapis vert – a result of this very collapse of interior and exterior? As if the home has displaced parts of its interior. The idea of distance is renegotiated, the lawn puts the distance in the foreground.
Just when something that is like itself most resembles itself, something different appears. So writes the Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa cryptically in one of his short stories, Honeymoons. The strange enters in precisely because the thing that is like itself has become too much like itself. The implication here is not that too much of the same thing inevitably compels something different to emerge. The point is rather that every phenomenon carries with it an abundant horizon of otherness. Think of a lawn. When the lawn becomes too like to itself, something odd happens. For a brief moment, we do not recognize it, that is: we no longer recognize ourselves in that place. Like all true fantasy objects, the lawn balances on the boundary line between idyll and disaster, life and death, nature and antinature. To maintain its uniform greenness, the lawn relies on moss killers, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. The dysfunctional aspects of this space are accentuated by the main element: a converted lawn mower with its blades removed. The machine has been modified for the peculiar practice of lawn mower racing. Raised up, almost cadaver-like. The machine looks like a monument to its animal predecessors (livestock grazing was the technology that kept up the look of the lawn before the invention of the lawn mower). The lawn slowly disintegrates. The machine nolonger recognizes itself, and neither do we.
Erlend Rødsten has faith in objects’ ability to speak for themselves. They tell their own stories, material that would otherwise go unspoken. ︎
An irreplaceable experience, marked by an original loss. In art the truth constitutes this eternally elusive object, which the artist searches for only to find that it has to be rethought and revised. The elusive moment of truth is
encapsulated in Dostoevsky’s Demons. “I never said anything like that…,” Stavrogin exclaims when he is reproached for having said something he does not want to admit. “Never mind,” replies Stepanovich, the agitator for whom nothing is sacred, and adds: “Se non è vero...” The Italian expression comes from Bruno’s dialogues, which in full is: “Se non è vero, e ben trovato” (“If it’s not true, it’s a good story”). The same could be said of Bruno’s own statements, likewise of current information pathologies (cf. “fake news”).