OSLO FORM LAB 2018

Hotel Occidental: Exploring the Anthropocene through Espedal’s Installation

By Elnaz Azadpour.


On the second floor of Kunstnernes Hus Autumn Exhibition 2018, a spacious area is dedicated to a huge installation, Hotel Occidental by Johannes Engelsen Espedal, who has won the prize of the best work of this exhibition. Hotel Occidental is an activist artwork in which the artist tries to connect human elements to natural elements through the composition, but also through iconography. As is the case with any other installation, this work should also be analyzed in its entirety - viewing it from different angles would offer different interpretations.

"Hotel Occidental" by Johannes Engelsen Espedal at Høstutstillingen 2018

A formal analysis of the work reveals that this artist is joining forces with those who believe an artwork with environmental concerns should directly be relating to nature: this artwork has been made entirely by recyclable materials. Also of interest from this point of view is that the materials used in the work are all thrown-away things the artist had found around his neighborhood.


The work, as a whole, has a symmetric and rhythmic composition similar to the composition of waves in an ocean. It is consisted of a multi-piece board which looks like a partition painted in greenish blue. The colors are used, it seems, purposefully to remind the audience of certain stories. The color gradients, from darker towards the bottom to lighter towards the top, may signify an island which is still somehow habitable with the sun (the object located top left) still shining (i.e. life is still going on). Another person may interpret this as an island being washed away by a storm. Walking around and behind the partitions, other elements that are not visible otherwise can be seen. A boat-like object, for instance, supports the island interpretation. On the whole, the artist has created a room within a room, allowing the viewer to enter a journey into the narration they choose to as this somewhat mystical work is open to several different interpretations depending on the individual.


Naming an artwork is a tool often used by artists to push their audience towards the narration artists have in mind, at least to some degree, while giving them a degree of freedom for interpretation as well. Espedal has named this work as Hotel Occidental which is worthwhile to be analyzed. Occidental, i.e. relating to the countries in the West, is chosen together with elements such as the four columns placed around the work which resemble Doric style Greek columns giving an overall western context to the work. With the “hotel” part, the artist seems to suggest the island, perhaps a microcosm of the planet earth, is to be inhabited only temporarily by us humans, as “guests” rather than “owners,” who have almost destroyed the island as suggested by the composition. The resemblance of the word “occidental” to “accidental” may also not be merely accidental but referring to the idea that we are here on earth only by blind chance [1].


Focusing on the western context, hotel could mean a place which is inhabited not only by its owners (i.e., here westerners), but also by those who do not have their origins in the area. This could, therefore, draw the line of thinking to issues related to western-nonwestern interactions particularly colonization and the current challenge of refugees.


Overall, it appears from the above analysis that Hotel Occidental seems, from my point of view, to clearly have a critique of the concept of the Anthropocene on its agenda. The Anthropocene, meaning the era in which humans are the central geological force, is a controversial term as there is no consensus among historians as to when it has begun. Some scientists argue it started by the time the steam engine was invented, and as a result, carbon dioxide was mainstreamed in the economic system. Others argue it started by the invention of the first atomic bomb [2]. However, in their book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin argue that the Anthropocene was began by the colonization of the New World by European explorers, soldiers and settlers in the 17th century. Striking in their analysis is that in addition to the known human consequences of colonization (e.g., slavery), it has also altered the earth’s composition in such profound ways. For instance, the colonial past altered the eco-balance of our planet through the introduction of maize into the American lands causing on the one hand deforestation and on the other hand population increase. As the authors observe: “The Anthropocene began with widespread colonialism and slavery; it is a story of how people treat the environment and how people treat each other” [3]. The Anthropocene takes the idea of the ‘superiority of some humans against others’ of colonization and extends it to the ‘superiority of humans against nature.’


The Anthropocene, as its prefix anthro meaning human suggests, places the attention to the direct human activities while there is an interconnected dynamic of social, political, economic forces that underlie the asymmetrical power relations resulting in a view that the earth is to be used for our benefit without thinking twice about future generations. Artworks such as Hotel Occidental could therefore be helpful in order to direct the focus to fundamental questions of Anthropocene ultimately to help make a better mindset to address the consequences for our planet. Unlike the geological forces of nature ours is reflexive: “it can be used, modified, or even withdrawn" [4].


Notes


[1] This resembelence is the main reason why the title Hotel Åccidental is chose. While the letter Å in Norwegian looks like an A it sounds like O.

[2] Davis, Heather, and Etienne Turpin. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies. Open Humanities Press, 2015.

[3] Lewis, Simon L., and Mark A. Maslin. "Defining the Anthropocene.

[4] Ibid., 262.


References


Davis, Heather, and Etienne Turpin. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies. Open Humanities Press, 2015.


Høstutstillingen (2018) Høstutstillingen 2018

Available from: <https://www.hostutstillingen.no/2018/> [10. October 2018].


Johannes Engelsen Espedal fra Østre Toten vinneren av «Høstutstillingsprisen» 2018. Available from: https://www.oa.no/nyheter/kultur/ostre-toten/johannes-engelsen-espedal-fra-ostre-toten-vinneren-av-hostutstillingsprisen-2018/s/5-35-705046


Lewis, Simon L., and Mark A. Maslin. "Defining the Anthropocene." Nature 519, no. 7542 (2015).

Illustrations


Pictures from Høstutstillingen: https://www.hostutstillingen.no/2018/johannes-engelsen-espedal/