Veslemøy Lilleengen and Gregus11

Exhibition text by Trine Krigsvoll Haagensen, PhD candidate in Art History at University of Bergen.

In a presentation of her project Portrait of Gregus 11 Veslemøy Lilleengen writes about how she once, standing in front of the famous artist Hannah Ryggen’s tapestries, was struck by the notion that her “grandfather and his community was present somewhere in that blue color”, and how she “realized that this way of making blue could become a portrait of a community at a specific time”. The thing is, Lilleengen grew up on the same island as Hannah Ryggen, outside Trondheim city. Here, Ryggen created some of her most stunning art pieces, with the beautiful Ørlandet as both backdrop and motif. This is also where Lilleengen’s grandfather contributed to Hannah Ryggen’s artwork by pissing in a bucket.

As the daughter of an artist and an inventor at a small farm, things were constantly created around Lilleengen as she grew up, and things were created well. As Ryggen, Lilleengen finds her inspiration in her immediate environment, her history, as well as in political or ethical questions. But her works cannot be reduced to one theme or one medium. Foremost, Veslemøy Lilleengen is a creator. She creates whatever needs to be created, in whatever material necessary.

The disperse work of Lilleengen includes a waiting room (where people were actually just waiting), an installation with an inventory and fake souvenirs from where she grew up (Fjell/Mountains), a video work of an elderly women putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and a rocking chair turned into an instrument. Her exhibition «Finske fisker og noen hundre handlelister» (Finnish fish and some hundred shopping lists) consisted of a video work of two women talking about fish, and yes, a few hundred shopping lists. The found shopping lists were also turned into the beautiful book, Mer enn eple (More than apples), and a tapestry of one of the shopping lists. Her final work at her BA at Trondheim art academy (2016) was a tent constructed from the different memories of her family members. At the moment Lilleengen is working on a project on Titanic, a film she has never seen. This work in progress consists of an old VHS, a hat made as an ice berg, and the collection of other people’s memories. With her unstoppable inventor/artist brain she also started the world’s smallest art gallery, the mobile Kunsthall 15, which she carries around the city of Trondheim, generously presenting fellow artists’ works to the city.

Gregus 11 is Veslemøy Lilleengen’s intriguing portraiture of her neighborhood, where she has been living for more than 16 years. The portrait is an installation consisting of wood, glass, bottles of fermented urine and indigo and beautiful silk draperies in nuances of the specific blue, potteblå. You really don’t have to understand or grasp the idea behind this wonderful installation to take part in its beauty, but as you approach it, it opens up, gives away weird clues of a complex background and a specific mode of storytelling. Gregus 11 is a portrait, a homage, and a monument.
The first thing one notices about the installation is its size. As one enters the room, Gregus 11 rises above you, claiming its right to be, without being threatening or hostile. Not looking anything like a tree, the form of the piece nevertheless gives associations to solid grounding, with its roots calmly taking the space needed. As the monument stretches towards the roof, it branches out in a complex network of wood, glass and beautiful blue silk. The softness of the fabric moves gently, sensitive to the movements in its surroundings.
Gregus 11 is Lilleengen’s home address, and with this portrait she has made a declaration of love to her neighborhood. It displays her neighborhood as a place within the tradition of DIY and punk, as an ongoing protest against the housing politics, and of hard collaborative work. Gregus 11 is located in the area of Svartlamoen, in Trondheim, Norway. The area is known for being a city ecological housing project, and for its history of resistance and fight against the hegemonic governmental and capitalist housing politics. As a portrait Gregus 11 is built partly of found material from the backyard of the neighborhood. As a work of art, it represents this particular address, its network of buildings, materials, and politics, stretched out in time and space.
But Gregus 11 is more than a mere address. With its nine apartments, three bathrooms, and 16 people, Gregus 11 is a rather unusual place in Norway. The portrait is consequently not an ordinary portrait, neither in its appearance or in its creation. One of the most significant qualities of the portraits is the dying process. Over a long time, Lilleengen collected absurd amounts of urine from her neighbors, experimented and developed a method of fermenting, and mixing with indigo, to transform its qualities from bodily waist to beauty. Urine is more personal than a fingerprint; it contains not only an individual’s DNA, but also personal culture of bacteria, and each personal sample of urine gives away its own specific blue color. As a portrait Gregus 11 looks nothing like its subjects but represents each subject as a unique shade of blue, in a bigger collection of blueness, connoting sameness and difference, blue skies and freedom.
Because of the dying process, this portrait has a particular relationship to the tradition of photographic bourgeois portraiture. Photographic portraiture is indexical, made by direct traces of the reflections of light from the sitter who was once in front of the camera. This iconic picture, made from these traces of light, can be seen as a claim to truth, striving to represent the true inner characteristics of the sitter.
Similarly, the colors of Gregus 11 are the result of a direct relationship between the portrayed and the portraiture, but without iconicity. The identity is not made by the true bourgeois self, emitting the sitter, but by fermented body fluids emitted by the sitter (on the toilet). The work can be seen as a a rejection of the bourgeois tradition of portraiture (and housing politics) and is a celebration of the collective collaboration. Furthermore, the generous contributions from the inhabitants of Gregus 11 makes this a portrait not only a display of the people who live there, but also, in part, made by them. Gregus 11 can be seen not only as a portrait, but as a collective self-portrait.

How deliberating is it not, in a time filled with selfies, self-promotion and Instagram looked-at-ness, to be releaved from another bourgeois facial portrait. With this work Veslemøy Lilleengen shows us her neighborhood, its inhabitants, and herself as part of this environment without revealing recognizable features, but still making it unique and familiar. In its beautiful cacophonic complexity the portrait reminds us that more than our looks, we are unique individuals, co-existing in entangled relationships.
The dying process puts Gregus 11 in a direct relationship not only with its sitters, but with Lilleengen’s personal history. With its link to Hannah Ryggen’s works, and her grandfather’s urinal contributions, the work also reminds us of how, as Simone de Beauvoir puts it, we are a situation and a history. In the portrait, situation and history comes together as a beautiful homage to the neighborhoods where Lilleengen lives, and where she grew up.

Lilleengen tells her stories by stitching together her materials piece by piece, each piece a symbol of belonging and with a history in its own. With this she creates not only new stories, but shows us new ways to look at the world. The art of Veslemøy Lilleengen cannot easily be categorized by genre, materials or form. Rather they are recognizable as a specific way of storytelling, of being, and coming to life. As stories, Lilleengen’s works have no beginning or end, or no specific truth claims. She never claims to have a final answer, but invites the audience to take part in a world of beauty, mysteries, coming together and co-existence. Lilleengen chooses her questions, objects and materials, but she never forces her ideas on to her art. As performances, situations, performance lectures, iceberg hats, pictures or installations, her art work comes to being through careful dialogues with the materials. Combining the serious with humor, truth with lies, the obvious with the confusing, pleasure with disturbance, Lilleengen has already positioned herself as an artist to follow.