Waiting for the Spring, Thorbjørn Sørensen

By Elisabeth Aarhus

The first thing I notice in the not too large studio space that the painter Thorbjørn Sørensen rents in a former warehouse at Ensjø, (a fifteen minute walk uphill from the old Munch museum at Tøyen), is one of those plastic cake trays with a translucent cover propped up on the edge of a desk, next to paints, brushes and a lamp that might as well have figured in a watch-repair shop. Under the plastic cover however, there is neither cake nor a watch, but a small mound of soil with a tiny seedling of some sort growing.

Right here, right now I face a real life version of a painting that recently came to my attention in another context, and prodded me to go knocking on this very artist’s door.  I came across his watercolours while drinking coffee and eating biscuits in front of the fire at the painter Halvard Haugerud’s house. He handed over the book Fra Naturen, with Sørensen’s watercolours of seedlings, soil, birds and dead birds without saying a word. I felt a pang of guilt at not having seen those particular works before, but all the more grateful after looking through it, slowly. Grateful, and emotional. Particularly the soil and weed paintings stuck with me.  They had simple titles like “lump of soil with grass”, “dry leaves on soil” and even just “soil”, making clear that however alike they all seemed, they each had an individual character and temperament. They are meditations on the ordinary, painted almost to scale and with a certain light touch, they are beautiful in a very matter of fact way, as if beauty itself needs no embellishments.

Curious child

Thorbjørn Sørensen was, according to himself, one of those children who drew.
Everything. And all the time.
Encouraged by his parents (he would ask for drawing paper from his father if he beat him at cross country skiing for example) he would study the world by re-presenting it on paper, finding in the act of drawing a companion to a well-developed curiosity about the world and how it makes itself visible. Sitting on the tram for example, as a child, observing the goings on around him, the other passengers and the shifting shapes outside the window, his gaze was vociferous, internalising what it saw, desiring somehow to translate it, to set it down on paper and describe it. And yet – he had no ambition of being an artist.


A handful of soil

And then, fast-forward half a century, to the childlike wonder and insistence that appears in his eyes behind the science teacher-like glasses when I ask about the cake-tray.

-I’ve always been interested in figuring out what goes on right below our feet – have brought out my magnifying glass and let myself really spend time looking at a kind of macro-level of existence. To be an artist, a term which now seems as good as any other to describe what I am and do, is to have the privilege to really spend time immersing myself in the minutiae of day to day life and specifically nature.  

To a visitor, it sounds simple, the basic coordinates of an active life, of looking and creating, but Sørensen tells me that some years back, he had a real watershed moment, something which he didn’t realise until later had an enormous impact on his life and work.

-I had plumped down outside Borgen (The castle), one of Oslo’s most revered studio collectives where I had a studio for years, just months before it was to be torn down. I could see the developments creeping ever closer with the promise of progress with a capital P.

Woefully resigned to the fact that that his beloved landmark was done for, Thorbjørn set up his easel like a landscape painter from a bygone era ready to record the changes taking place. He smiles; -of course it was futile, completely hopeless. But, instead of finishing an easel painting, he dug up a handful of soil and weeds and brought them back inside, into the studio, and there, that was the transformation; nature was taken out of its original context and brought inside. The nature of some random weed growing just on his doorstep..

It started with the birds

It had been a long time in the making though, this watershed moment. According to the artist himself, it started with the birds.
–In 2001 I’d gotten lost in painting, in all the layers and the constant need for a why, and don’t even get me started on those early mornings when your mind starts racing…So I started painting watercolours, of birds!

Whether they are resting on branches, caught in attentive moments as if ready to pounce or fly away, or still, dead and even decaying, what unites them is the careful gaze of their beholder, the artist. Even though they put me in mind of a certain scientific studiousness, they never cross over into cool detachment and instead imbue these detached scenes with a certain serene calm.
-I removed the bird from its original habitat by photographing it, bringing its image into the studio and focusing in on it, eliminating its surroundings and in essence, decontextualizing it. Looking back on it now, it is this very process that is at the heart of how I go about painting the mounds of dirt, weeds and other small plants.

Listening to this story, it occurs to me that the way Sørensen brings these microcosms into his studio in order to preserve them, if only in an image, is not such a far cry perhaps, from the way the artists of Borgen felt like they were pulled up by their roots. These paintings and gestures espouse a kind of grief, a wistfulness at that which was but no longer is.

Taken out of context

And still, looking at his birds or the small flowers and weeds taken out of context and reassembled next to one another, there is a very subtle yet insistent willingness to engage with the environmental collapse we all know is happening all around us, but that very few of us actually know how to properly acknowledge or cope with. As a companion to those bearing placards with unequivocal slogans and cries for the masses to wake up, Sørensen’s work exhibits a kind of tacit acknowledgment of where we are heading. The meditative, or pensive image as Jaques Ranciere would call it, has its own very powerful force, and it generates meaning in a different way from what we typically designate as conceptual art. And perhaps, as such, the familiarity of a Sørensen image enables those whose views on art would fall on the conservative side to engage with it, rather than making art that preaches to the choir. I mean, hasn’t painting itself existed on the periphery of academic discourses on contemporary art for quite a while already?

Well. Sørensen seems quite unfazed by this last proposition.
– I don’t really spend much time thinking about the context in which I belong, or not. I try to be a painter by looking, and painting. Looking at pictures inspires me, whether it be the paintings of Rembrandt or the photographic work of Jeff Wall, and if nothing else, engaging with art is a good way to spend your time because in my view, when you get right down to it, art matters. We live in a time when words infuse the space around us and precisely because of that it seems ever more important to work with something beyond words, beyond explanations. -I suppose you could make the case that the most defining art of the moment is not painting, and that cross-disciplinary practices are the safest bet on contemporaneity right about now, but all of that really doesn’t affect me very much.

Nature as autonomous

Instead, Thorbjørn relates to me his very personal encounter with the works of renaissance master Albrecht Dürer, an artist whose influence on his works and education has been immense.
–Thanks to my gallerist, Ben Frija, I got the opportunity to study the magnificent collection of Dürers work in the Albertina museum in Vienna. Sørensen was granted access to the holiest of the holy, the darkened basement of said museum where the largest collection of Dürers original prints is stored.  

The collection of originals, unsurpassed and seldom allowed “upstairs” where they instead choose to show copies, were shown to Sørensen, one by one by conservators in white gloves.
–Just the thought of the whole ordeal made me nervous. I mean, representatives from the Frick Collection just happened to be there that day as well, but they were relegated to standing behind me, stealing glances at these fragile prints that were covered as soon as I sat back in my chair and the dim overhead light landed on them. I really had to take this in, to absorb all I could. It was truly an outrageous situation. I just sat there and stared. I mean, these are works of art that only come out one at a time, on rare occasions, so to have these hours down there was truly remarkable.

Albrecht Dürer regarded nature as autonomous, as having and generating its own force, and today, when considering the future and the fate of our planet, there are few things that are as laden with symbolism.

Obviously nature is a preoccupation for Sørensen, and in collaboration with Hege Nyborg, Ingrid Book & Carina Heden, Helene Sommer, Per Christian Brown and Elin T. Sørensen, he has started what he calls ‘naturgruppa’, or quite simply, the nature group, whose exhibitions dot the landscape every once in a while. The last exhibition they did was at Kikutstua, a destination in the middle of the woods surrounding Oslo, reachable only by cross-country skis in the winter, and bike or on foot in the summer. Though not your typical gallery setting, the group realised that showing in such a place reached an audience not necessarily typical for the art-crowd, and add to that, the visitor numbers were off the charts. 15000 during the presentation…!


Portraits next

Returning again to the studio, I notice one lonely face hanging on the wall, immediately to the right upon entering, one solitary canvas with a face and one blank canvas on an easel, waiting.- As I’m waiting for spring Sørensen explains, I am painting portraits.

-There’s something very elementary about portraiture. Not as an exercise in painting, but as a back and forth, the reciprocal gaze. Perhaps it has to do with the patience required. I have this bad habit really, as a painter – every picture I make is rather different, so strangely, painting is a kind of pastime, a constructive way to wile away the hours.

But I’m curious. Portraiture, what does he actually mean by that, of portraying a person; does the wordless and tacit reach into this sphere as well? Or, is it even conceivable to really re-present a whole person?

-Well, you know, when looking at Rembrandt’s portraits and his subjects; someone remarked that perhaps they weren’t  as soulful in real life as the painting makes them out to be? Saying that,- so much happens in the encounter between the sitter and I. Spending time together, a lot of time, being quiet together but also sporadically talking, sometimes at length even, perhaps too much talking. All of that somehow ends up in the brushstrokes themselves. I prefer working with live models rather than photographs. It can be quite difficult to remove oneself sufficiently from the photograph in order to truly see the complexities of this other sitting right in front of you; in order to see the other person, to truly see them, you need to be in the same room as them and be present, above all.

I look above his head and see the name Lucien Freud shine out of the bookshelves, remembering interviews with some of his sitters who felt that the final result was entirely dependent upon the relationship generated between the painter and the sitter, of Freud’s presence. I come back again to this idea of the object, or in this case the subject displaced or seen out of context, for Sørensen’s portraits also have this quality of displacement. Literally the face is removed from its original scene, seen apart from the body, and there is something delightfully simple in how he highlights the importance of the physical interaction and togetherness of model and painter, because when it comes down to it, who are we without an “us”?  How could an artist truly bring forth an other if that being is not there in front of him or her, in the room staring back, like a mirror, turning the artist into another as well?



-At times I am startled by my mirror image Sørensen says and laughs. I might be knee deep in contemplating something, a bird, some weeds, a model, anything really and as I pass by a reflective surface, it will take a moment before I recognise that the person staring back at me is myself!

-So observing, and working, is at any rate a way of forgetting oneself Sørensen explains, of getting outside one’s self.

-I’ve even noticed at times that I’ve become so immersed in a painting, or looking at a work of art, that if anyone were to ask me what it was I was just staring at, I wouldn’t be able to say.  And in that there has to be some relation to this ‘wordlessness’ we spoke of earlier. To describe the world by drawing it out is a way of internalising it without having to turn it into words, or explaining it, and as he talks about this, my thoughts stray to the boy on the tram, of Sørensen as a child, of the wonder in his eyes as he talks about immersion, and one of the things he said early on, when relating his experiences of being that boy was that there was a kind of sorrow, now, as an adult, at not being able to just ‘be’ that observer anymore. That now, with age, there is always a distance, self-consciousness perhaps, a detachment that takes away from the wonder of the journey of simply moving from A to B.