Norwegian artist Stian Ådlandsvik is fascinated by machines; much of his recent work has been about taking them apart, transforming them and reconfiguring them.
Commissioned as part of the South East’s Cultural Olympiad’s project RELAY, Ådlandsvik was asked to respond to the archives of the National Spinal Injuries Centre archive at Stoke Mandeville hospital.
The archive is a record of the hospital’s 64 year history of helping people recover from debilitating spinal injuries. In this context, Ådlandsvik’s focus on the industrial trail of objects left by humanity found a new resonance. Ådlandsvik became interested in the record of the constantly unfolding ingenuity of the devices created for and by the patients. The resulting exhibition at MK Gallery, Take These Hands, includes fifteen collages developed from the photographs and a sculptural installation created from two wheelchairs.
Collage, Take These Hands, MK Gallery 2012
Stoke Mandeville’s Spinal Injuries Centre has particular relevance to the Olympic year. In its founding year, 1948, the hospital also hosted the first Stoke Mandeville Games. Organised by wounded servicemen who had been inspired by London’s 1948 Olympics, the Stoke Mandeville Games became a precursor of the modern Paralympics.
Stian Ådlandsvik spoke to Frame and Reference from a house just outside Bergen, Norway.
Take These Hands, MK Gallery 2012
What made you interested in taking on this commission?
The main thing was the possibility of working with that kind of material from archive at the health centre there at the [Stoke Mandeville] hospital. I really liked the challenge of just looking into it and seeing what I could find and letting that take me along, rather than have a preconceived idea of what works I wanted to make. That was the main thing – not knowing what to expect when I looked into this time machine.
At the centre of the whole place is this idea of trauma. Were you at all apprehensive about working in that space?
I think there is a seriousness through the whole thing. I know very little about these kind of injuries mean and I still don’t understand very much about the lives of the people involved. I try to be honest about that; I didn’t try to find images that show the trauma and the pain, or goriness.
Laissez-faire unit # 1 by Stian Ådlandsvik 2009. Baggage cart, cast aluminium coin.
Your recent work shows an interest in machines and here you are, exploring these very complicated relationships between machines and humans – even exploring the failure of the human machine.
Definitely. This has been very present in a lot of my works over the last three or four years. For me it was important to kind of see if there was anything in this archive that I could somehow relate to what I have been working on previously. In my first visit to the hospital I found a lot of images that were just machines – strange parts that I didn’t really understand. I didn’t know what they were used for, but I could imagine a use for them, even if it was maybe completely wrong.
So from quite early on I chose to aim for that openness of not knowing what was happening with the actual machine in the photograph. Instead of showing what the machine does, just showing the machine. And you can figure out or imagine the use at the other end yourself. So that is also a way of making it more open… also of being more honest about the fact that I don’t know what’s happening on the other side.
Collage, from Take These Hands, Stian Ådlandsvik 2012
There’s a fragmentation of things in your work. Even the space in the gallery, you’ve removed part of the space. Would it be too simplistic to say that this is seeing things from the point of view of someone who is remaking themselves?
I think that is one of the reasons why I chose the format of collage in the first place. You have this remaking of humans with the aid of different objects that they try and develop – objects that are perfectly fitted for one particular human being with this one particular type of damage.
Take These Hands, MK Gallery 2012
And a lot of the photos themselves look like collages. And then I’ve tried to broaden it into the room where you have these walls…Walls are something you don’t give a lot of thought to, something between a thing and nothing. I was was hoping to achieve a room where the walls would be more present as obstacles – as these things that are in the way. I was trying to turn the walls into sculptures – and more into being like bodies, because they are damaged.
Collage, Take These Hands, Stian Ådlandsvik 2012
Did the connection with the Olympic theme play a part in your thinking?
At first I didn’t think very much about the Paralymics but I think that connection is there. For me it was much more about going into the archive with open eyes, looking at what I could find, not looking for images that would have something to do with the Paralympics.
I think that the works can also very much be seen against the whole history of the Paralympics. It’s very present in the archive, so in one sense it is there, but I think my interest was much more about people and this notion of functioning and non-functioning.
Take These Hands, MK Gallery 2012
And then there are these two car jacks in the middle of the floor, right where you could almost trip up on them. An object from the everyday world.
You have this understanding of function and this notion of repairing. You have people who are dependent on various “aiding devices”. I just thought I would make a very straightforward comparison between two aiding devices. People who don’t have these kinds of injuries are also dependent on some sort of aiding devices for getting around and we don’t always think about how dependent we are on these things. We just don’t think about it like that.
These car jacks are made of two wheelchairs that have been melted. So the wheelchair wheels are just leaning onto the walls and the car jacks have been made of the aluminium that the wheelchairs were made of . So for me it was just to make this transition between one kind of aiding device that is labelled by society and another one that is unlabelled.
The Engine by Stian Ådlandsvik 2008. Angle grinder and sliced display case.
You have this fascination about machines. Did you enjoy the ingenuity of some of the devices that were recorded in the archive?
Yes definitely. I think what I really liked about the images was that they were of things that were obviously so quickly made, so quickly conceived. They were precise but quick solutions to a very distinct problem. They are always truing out ideas. So it’s like a kind of avante garde of hospital devices. I really loved that. What you see in the objects and devices is this shared idea. “Let’s just fix this.” We take what we have and make it work.
Interview by William Shaw