Åsmund Thorkildsen

AUTOMEMENTO – Remember that these wheels have even rolled

Åsmund Thorkildsen

Director of Drammens Museum, Drammen, Norway.

Car and landscape, technology and nature, civilisation and cultural criticism. These are topics and interpretation opportunities we face in Terje Risberg new images. The pictures look simple and dependable, but they accommodate a complexity that, if we take the trouble to go into it, opens many diverse experiences and interpretations we would otherwise have missed. Risberg’s large graphic prints looks like prints and they look like photographs. Both graphic prints and photographic prints in the analog technology are footprints, with the same structure as an index, as understood in sign theory as it was developed by C. S. Peirce in Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs, written between 1893 and 1910. Although the imprints of analog marks strictly must be seen as copies, they are, through the effect of the index, physically and visually and with irreversible necessity, credible representations in a strict classical epistemological sense. We can trace the origin of the imprint and we can rely on the connection.

If we look at the visual forms in the humanistic culture as signifiers, we can say that they point as an index – be it a wind vane that changes with the wind, or a footprint in soft clay, without interpretation or opportunity of sabotage or infiltration – to their meaning, their signified. The footprint is a necessary, negative result of the positive form of the foot and the nature of the clay. The relationship between the pictorial sign and what this sign represents, is thus objective, something beyond human control, something actually out in the world, something which is the prerequisite for human understanding and experience of the visual sign and its origins.(1)

All this changes with the digital photo technique and the processing of digital recordings in computers. Digital recording puts the index out of the function. Digital media is the fulfillment of the logic development towards the doom of the western countries as Oswald Spengler with great insight wrote in Der Untergang der Abendlandes (1918-1922). Another thinker who in recent times has been working with changes in Western culture since the classic, humanistic paradigm, is the philosopher Luc Ferry. In a series of books (French Philosophy of the Sixties (along with Alain Renaut, 1985, in English 1990), Homo Aesthteticus, The Invention of Taste in the Democratic Age (1990, in English 1993) and The New Ecological Order (1992, in English 1995), he shows how the notion of an independent, self-conscious and self-controlled entity has been systematically criticised and deconstructed in over a hundred years, mainly by German thinkers and their French commentators.(2) The mental change these destructions of the so-called metaphysical subjectivity led to, was completed when digital technology was introduced. These phenomena can be seen as symptoms of the same civilisation status, and it makes sense to discuss them in relation to each other.

Part of what Luc Ferry takes up is how the attack on the self-conscious and reflective subject goes hand in hand with a move away from consciousness and reason and their grounding in the world, over to the individual’s inner self with emotions, urges and super- individuality where it expresses itself in a raw will to power. Ferry repeatedly cites Nietzsche’s famous dictum: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” This “perspective- ism” and the turning inward towards purely subjective moods and pleasure impulses, causes the anti- humanistic, postmodern self to withdraw from an outer world they could have shared with other people as something objective, universally valid and permanent. Ferry describes this situation with the German term “Weltlosigkeit.” In its place comes a situation where every man- ‘atom’ is roaming around without shared values, without limits set by something above and beyond each individual. Activity does not have to be legitimised against something or someone outside each encapsulated individual. Whoever gets closest to the summit, enjoys the freshest air and gets the same overview as Nietzsche’s “übermensch”. He sets its own limits, monopolises opinions, and can muster a force through the sheer acting out of his will to power. The ultimate purpose in the world is to succeed in the battle to fill yourself with the most intense life experience.

In such a worldview the notion that statements and images have a valid and legitimate reference, disappears. Both morality and aesthetics separates from the objective, legitimising, contingent reference and interpretation. And it is these phenomena that are interesting in the discussion of what meaning we can find in Terje Risberg new prints. For these images are examples of simulacra, images that simulate something they do not directly and unambiguously represent.

Reproduction techniques, constantly emerging new generations of images (3) with or without significant changes, and the circulation of images in the technological distribution networks of mass culture, are necessary step on the road towards the pictorial richness available to the individuals in the postmodern world. Another important step towards the imaging phenomenon that (among others) Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard calls a simulacrum, was the development of the structuralist linguistics, developed by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 1910s. In the most radical critique of postmodern contemporary visual experience, it is emphasised that the images we encounter in mass media in their seductive freshness and often large size, are copies without an original. At least the way back to something that can be called an actual, objective reality (world) is so long that it is difficult to retrieve the image as one unified expression of one unified reality.

The structuralist linguistics did not state that signs could not form meaningful utterances, but the dual structure of the sign, the signifier and the signified, could no longer be understood as unilateral, necessary and firm. The language was no longer an objective description of the reality it describes, or as one might say, the language was not transparent to its meaning.(4) For Saussure the language was a system of differences, and relations between signifier and signified was shown to be random, and depend on convention and context, i.e. arbitrary. There is a connection between language and meaning, but it is determined by a built-in context in the language that is already there even before we start using it. As with Nietzsche, the different perspectives are the basis for different interpretations which acquire their temporary validity from the actual perspective and from the context that is the prerequisite for the meaning being sought. With this understanding of the possibilities and methods of signs to create meaning, the solid and stable references – whether they be things and facts in the world (Nietzsche’s “facts”) or mental images and beliefs – are sabotaged. This insight gave rise to the expression “The Play of the Signifier” used in deconstructive analysis and in the methods and practices of postmodern artists. For artists in the postmodern world the instability created a free space for them to play in.


This theoretical sketch is written to guide us towards a discussion of the themes of Terje Risberg prints. His postmodern method, in which he plays the signifier, allows for a localisation of elements of the motives, and also for a possible interpretation of what he does and how he does it. This essay uses an understanding of Risberg’s images as visual texts, with a split structure and syntax and grammar that will be used in the interpretation of the images’ origins and their possible meanings. First a description of some themes:

By inserting shapes identified as abandoned cars and traces of natural processes in his works, Terje Risberg lets two time horizons work together. Civilisation offers a consumer culture time axis, which changes rapidly in line with “taste”. The consumer culture form, manipulated seductively by designers and advertising people, presents photographs and artefacts that exploits and satisfies the hunger for the new.(5) Cars are typical objects for this understanding of time and the way this kind of time works. We discuss the latest model, last year’s model, a used car, an old car and wrecked cars. We use codes and abbreviations, and the phrase “Brand New” follows the vehicle in parallel with the calendar. The car’s time is short-lived.

Nature’s time processes are not unaffected by human action, but they also act by themselves; seasons, days, geologic time, life span of species , decay etc. In the real world, as in Risberg’s works, these two time axes meet. Broken down cars, left to themselves, may end up in a “car graveyard.” There they perish. Car wrecks are taken over by nature remarkably quickly. The car’s life ends with the car’s demise. In that sense we can claim that on the most obvious, manifest level, Risbergs images shows us cars that are slowly becoming their own tombstone, a memorial of that which previously moved super fast, but is now laid to rest. The inscription on the tomb could be auto-mobile-memento; remember that this one once moved fast. And remember that increased speed is one of the symptoms of the advancing modernity. In this interpretation the wreck becomes the empty shell of a movable thing, just as the vanitas paintings’ skulls are the empty shells of a living person’s head.

In addition to this dual understanding of time Risberg introduces a new era: the virtual-world time. In the virtual world, where the pixels in a computer can be manipulated quickly, 20-30-40 calendar years alteration or degradation can be simulated in seconds. A filter may be added, a new structure, a colour layer, a surface texture. Thus, in the course of a short working session rust breaking out under paint flakes can be simulated. You can make a car body sink into the ground, with moss and roots embracing and holding it down: The permanently parked car.

And we find even another layer of comprehension of time. The layers become readable as visual forms, signifiers referring to various significants. Such a new layer is mental time, where consciousness reflects on how we perceive and interpret the vehicle’s time, nature’s time, the time of the computer and of our dreams and of our lust. What can be seen in Risberg’s images, together with the insight in the method used to create these synthetic images, will arouse emotions, moods we call memory, longing, sadness, apprehension, melancholy. The mood is set in a minor key. The pictures are ambiguous. We sense that there is something artificial here, something that is not right, particularly with the use of light. The images bear signs of construction, they are scenographic and the lighting is reminiscent of studio light in film, where nature scenes are built up in the studio and daylight simulated electrically. The computer becomes Terje Risberg version of Universal Studios. This creates an alienation that often also accompanies the film, the great dream factory seduction strategy, which may choose to divulge their art skills. This gives the experience an extra timbre. The experience also depends on the perspective and the history of the artist, the interpreter and the audience. Your age, how images used to be, how images will be in a future with different agendas, will affect your experience. That both Terje Risberg and the undersigned are Norwegian men over 60 years is not without significance, but is not crucial.(6) Melancholy depends on the history of the melancholiac.

Terje Risberg images are thus far more complex than they seem. What we see is synthesised so that it resembles photographs of real-life situations, a scene in the world he has come across and photographed, processed in Photoshop and made into beautiful prints. But what we see in the images is not something that matches the description. What we see can be analysed and interpreted based on what we have outlined in the above. The pictures are simulacra – in radical sense – built up, only apparently seamlessly, the wholes made up of bits and layers of information obtained from various digital photo recording and various files that the computer program can offer. This is a technology that is on a collision course with the classic, analog printing technique he uses, where we can clearly see that pigment and real, physical printing plates are pressed physically into real physical paper. But even this traditional printing technique consists of layers. These again refers to situations, layers of information and matrices from the computer. But these layers and matrices can not on the basis of the final image be traced and serve as a solid, objective reference for meaning. All this points to a world where phenomena are no longer interrelated.

Terje Risberg new images are indeed simulacra, copies without an original. And since they are prints and they are shaped in the computer and have their base there, they can be shared, disseminated and distributed electronically and as paper copies. And each of these copies is identical, but is also without an original. The truth that appears is that the project exposes a lack of truth in relations between the signifier and the signified. But in this process, where thought structure and visual syntax is reflective and opened up by showing the method used, also opens up for reflection in the viewer: Given that this is art, we can assume that they are based on an intention by the artist, an intention that presupposes that there is an observer who will look for the meaning(s). It is therefore possible to ask the question: Is Terje Risberg an auteur, a self-conscious, self-directed actor, whose intention creates a pictorial structure and a mood, which in turn can provide understanding and meaning? And if the answer to that question is yes, is it also possible to ask the question whether this is a postmodern project and also a critical one? Is it critical because it shows both fragments and also its syntax, that this is not organic, analog image, and that it utilises two conflicting technologies? That with postmodern logic (the play of the signifier) it is possible to expose the where, how and why postmodernism falls short compared to the universal, existential questions? Has the car dream become a nightmare? Is the car a stand-in for the emptied human subject?

Since Terje Risberg relates to themes and images that already exist in our Western visual culture, there are some structural leads that can guide our interpretations. These are objective in the sense that they can be verified by referring to common references (unbiased correlates) that appear in the argumentation. Based on such a position one may ask whether these are images that contemplate and watch over the termination of the oil boom in Norwegian and western economy, an epilogue of the automobile and its youthful, modern, sexy, freedom- and future- optimistic symbolic value. Is this the end of the automobile as we remember it?

Or is this the end of Western civilisation as we know it? For Spengler the transition

from a coherent culture to a fragmented civilisation started within mathematics. According to Spengler it began with the new geometry of Descartes (1637). He writes: “In place of a sensuous element of concrete lines and planes – the specific character of the Classical feeling of bounds – there emerged the abstract spatial un-Classical element of the point which from then on was regarded as a group of co-ordered numbers. The idea of ​​magnitude and a perceivable dimension derived from Classical and Arabian traditions was destroyed and replaced by that of variable relation- values ​​between positions in space.(7)“ The development can thus be traced directly in modern mathematics, a point which Spengler finds so important that he italicises the whole sentence: “And so the development of the new mathematics consists of a long, secret and finally victorious battle against the notion of magnitude.”(8)

Western civilisation is to Spengler “the Faustian world”, and the machine and mechanics is one of its main symbols: “Pure contemplative philosophy could have dispensed with experiment forever, but not so the Faustian symbol of the machine, which urged us to mechanical constructions even in the twelfth century and made the “perpetuum mobile” the Prometheus- idea of ​​the Western intellect.“(9) 

The Faustian world has developed three characters that most typically expresses its worldview: “the entrepreneur, the engineer and the factory-worker”(10) i.e. those who make cars. The result is grim, for as a consequence Spengler holds that “… the Faustian man has become the slave of his creation.(11)”

Do we not recognise this in the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s where populist movements wanted to retreat from the big city bustle with its professional competition to start a new life in the countryside? Do we not recognise this in the same period’s new interest in the “Heimat”- movement, where everything should happen locally, where production should be local, where one should again live in harmony with nature instead of being slaves of industrial production and an increasingly higher material consumption? That everything should again become organic, harmonious and GREEN?

One inevitably notes that many of these ideas have been particularly thoroughly discussed in German intellectual life. There we also saw the first green environmental party, and it is there that the recent interest in the “Heimat”- movement from around 1900 often is linked to environmental protection. There are many paradoxes here, even political and moral ones, perhaps even dilemmas. A return to a life in the countryside with horse and carriage – or Volkswagen Bus – can not happen in isolation. Such a life must be reserved for the privileged few.  It is located on top of – and benefiting from – a complex chain that creates economic profits just in the industrial society that this alternative form of life denounces. Put a little cynical, one can say that these are the winners in the West’s pyramid scheme, that they “can have the cake and eat it too.”

And there is another paradox: Although we reside in the sensuous world of things, in the reality and the nature of everyday life, and are aware of the negative consequences of our western life form, the scientific knowledge base for policy decisions are produced in abstract models, electronically operated in a relational, digital technology which is typical for the development Spengler believed started in the early 1600s in France. Changes in our immediate surroundings are interpreted, conveyed and extrapolated using complex computer models and gargantuan amounts of data with various sources of errors and varying hypotheses that no one except a few Faustian experts have a grip on.

I see Terje Risberg melancholy tragedy play of the once so appealing car as an allegory. Paradoxically the allegory is a mechanical, non-organic form of expression, which had its heyday during the Baroque period, just as modern mathematics developed its functions. Allegory can and must be interpreted for it has no real core, it has no “being.” An allegory has no other significance than those allegorist himself or his interpreters put in it. This essay has proposed some possible interpretations of Terje Risberg Automemento.


1. What may undermine the index’s imprint is nature’s own decomposition. Analogue photography based on one recording and one development has an advantage over graphic prints, which often can be the result of several pressings and colourings in addition to the shapes that are incised or drawn or etched to the printing plate(s).

2. Ferry is Heidegger expert and his analyses revolve around readings of particularly Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, and the French thinkers Lacan, Foucault, Derrida and Bourdieu.

3. For example, a painting that mimics nature, a photograph that mimics a painting that mimics nature, a painting that mimics a photograph of a painting that mimics nature etc.

4. English literature used phrases such as “the arbitrariness of the sign” and “the materiality of the signifier” about exactly this. Conceptual artist Mel Bochner already in 1969 used following title of a text work: “Language is Not Transparent”. He used a rubber stamp with exactly these words to fill the image with stamps so that the original words (the materiality of the signifier) disappeared in the ink. The signifier must have a physical medium, whether it is sound in speech or printing ink in printing. It is enlightening in this context that Bochner when he wants to show this linguistic point, uses an analog – material – print method.

5. New cars were until quite recently linked to gender coding; the car was the man’s object. He desired it as much as he desired a lightly dressed woman. Therefore, the new car models at fairs presented with a bikini girl on the hood. The era of consumption is also the era of sexual desire. Some of the images carry a similar structure, as in the dream interpretations of Freud; they convey “condensation” and especially “displacement”.

6. There is a slight mood that echoes Norwegian art of the 1970s with themes like depopulated farms with agricultural objects and tractors. Risberg has himself worked with silent, evocative depictions of farm houses and outbuildings. In that sense Risberg’s new images can be seen as a symptom of an adaption of feelings towards cultural changes in the recent past.

7. Oswald Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918-1922, cited by Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, An Abridged Edition, New York, 1962, Vintage Books Edition, 2006, page 54.

8. Ibid., page 56.

9. Ibid., page 340.

10. Ibid., page 412.

11. Ibid., page 412.