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Drop zone, evidence on street level

Tina Jonsbu: Chewing Gum Markings

Book release, 2008:
GENERATOR 2007, 9 art interventions in the public space of Trondheim

By Line Ulekleiv

British art historian Claire Bishop has advocated an understanding of public space as an ambiguous and veiled shape. She emphasises that even though art in public spaces does not operate within the narrow and stringent confines of the gallery space, the street and the square are “institutions” to no lesser extent than the gallery. Out there among the general public art must compete with all the other signs and objects in our surroundings – signs and objects which are almost without exception associated with commercial interests. The problematics of the public space is one that concerns many artists; naturally enough, since the gradual transition between different common spaces – between art and its surroundings – is the sphere in which artists operate. Different working methods may lead to contrasting understandings of public space, which can be approached as a site for separation rendered visible or, alternatively, a site for tentative integration.

Tina Jonsbu’s methods include drawing, installations and site-specific projects. She has consistently sought to draw attention to concealed, inconspicuous visual phenomena, especially in terms of subjective movement patterns, and above all regarding one’s movements in public spaces. An example of her method is a series of drawings made on board a tram, where the pencil was placed against the paper, thus registering the tram’s progression with its jerky motions and stops and starts. Doodly drawings made with a light hand suggest varying time lapses as time is extracted and visually deposited on the paper. At the same time, the systematic aspect is a basic and patient approach through which the process – the repetitious and the unfinished – is lifted to the fore. The drawings’ often firm concentration around enumeration and numbering echo older, conceptual methods. For example, one basis for approaching Jonsbu’s art can be found in On Kawara’s works from the 70s; such as his series of so-called date paintings, for which he painted the date on which the work was produced against a monochrome background.

This insistence on unhurriedness and on illuminating the disregarded – that which is largely overlooked – is in a sense also reflected in Jonsbu’s Generator project Chewing Gum Markings. The implementation of the project took place on June 10, from morning until evening, within a restricted area defined by the streets of Munkegaten/Nordre gate and Dronningens gate/Olav Tryggvasons gate. In collaboration with students from Gerhard Schøning’s School working according to her instructions using a circular template, Jonsbu drew white circles around trampled-down chewing gum on streets and pavements – circles that disappeared after a few days of heavy rainfall. The collective aspect of the implementation integrated the work into the local context, and in this case some of the chewing gum may even, theoretically speaking, have belonged to the student assistants. Discarded chewing gum is scattered throughout the entire country in the shape of grey and white blobs concentrated in the places where people gather: outside the entrances to shops, cafes, restaurants and bars, or on bus stops. Chewing gum tends to be spat out in secret, but it leaves visible, long-lasting, and for many no doubt irritating, evidence.

The unrestrained and effortless line Jonsbu demonstrates in her drawings finds its parallel in this fundamentally unpretentious material. The intention was to lift out an element of urban life that normally goes largely unregistered. Artists have used chewing gum, picked up so to speak straight from the gutter, as their starting point before, however. The silver-cast wads of chewing gum in Rosemarie Trockel’s work Untitled (Mouth Sculpture) from 1989 demonstrate how chewing gum can form an adequate starting point for bending established understandings of significance. The precious metal is synonymous with concentrated value; and here it is combined with something that is totally worthless, discarded and exhausted into a simple dichotomy. Moreover, Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, among others, has drawn attention to the physical contact between this malleable material and the teeth and gums: the mouth as sculptor. Szapocznikow’s work Photosculpture from 1971, shown at Documenta 12, features black and white photographs of oddly shaped chewing gum “sculptures” accompanied by a text:
While I was pulling astonishing and bizarre forms out of my mouth I suddenly realized what an extraordinary collection of abstract sculptures was passing through my teeth. It suffices to photograph and enlarge my masticatory discoveries to create the event of a sculptural presence. Chew well and look around! The creation lies between dream and everyday work.

In her project Jonsbu approached these trampled-down sticky masses as a sort of record of minute stories and of pedestrians’ progress through the streets – in other words as a registration of a visual and behavioural phenomenon. Hence, they become a kind of map depicting urban movement and social patterns. Against the background of the formlessness of the everyday, Jonsbu is committed to the possibility of regarding the chewing gum as something other than deterioration of the urban environment. With a particular gaze the circles with the spot of chewing gum in the middle can be read as ornamental elements in a clustering constellation formed over time. The result is an extensive drawing on the ground in the middle of which one can move around, without access to the overview of a bird’s eye perspective: one is basically situated on street level in the encounter with this type of “low” street art. The differences in density underline differences in patterns of movement tied to different functions and different types of use. How does one stroll around town? As a possible reference one may draw a line to the situationists, fronted by characters such as Guy Debord and Asger Jorn. From the late 50s until the early 70s this group sought to wrest from people the paramount and anaesthesising focus on consumption under capitalism, for which they believed the city had become a mere backdrop. Among their cultural practices was the dérive, which can be translated as “drifting”. This involved aimlessly strolling through the urban landscape in order thus to escape expediency. The intention was to release a playful and constructive instinct in the encounter with varied and changing urban environments. Thus, one may say that Jonsbu dwells on the experience of being present in the city and creating one’s own rhythms.

The patterns arising in Chewing Gum Markings were by their very nature subject to change and continuous disintegration, and the photographic documentation is now the only indication that the work ever existed. This temporary aspect adds a poetic potential willed by the artist: a presence which calls attention to an absence.

Translated by Lise Utne