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13 In Memoriam: Lillebeth Foss (1930—2017)

Two of Lillebet Foss’ ceramic sculptures stood on the table in front of us. One was a full figure jaqual, the other a bust depicting a young man, mustachioed, his forehead partly covered by a spill of black extending from his hair line. It reminded of coagulated blood, as if he had been struck with a sharp instrument. There was even a crack running along the left side of the head, indicating forceful impact. The bust—our host, the artist and archivist Guttorm Guttormsgaard, explained—was of Foss’ former lover and heir to the recently departed artist’s estate; if he could be found, that was. The black that flowed down the man’s head strikingly prefigured the memory loss Foss herself would experience later in life, following a stroke at the age of seventy. The last seventeen years of her life she spent in a nursing home, a shadow cast over her mind that severed her from her past and made her life a succession of present moments.

An ethos of what could be called ‘presentness’ can also be seen in Foss’ art. In passing Guttormsgaard described her as a ‘classicist’. A fitting term, as it hints at an intimate and skilled involvement with the materials and techniques used, as well as Foss’ reluctance to bend to fleeing trends, retaining an attachment to a somewhat timeless sensual-figurative idiom. But the term ‘classisist’, with its invocation of mastery and perfection, overshadows a less rigorous aspect of her practice: the way she made an accomplice of the capriciousness of her subject. Foss was an avid traveler, and her nomadic lifestyle made drawing a prefered medium. There is something restless and open-ended in many of these drawings—a piece of the territory always left in the dark.

Foss frequently used live models, and she was especially fond of animals. Her animal drawings are for the most part quickly pencilled impressions, capturing a pose as it passes into the next. Rather than trying to reify their object, Foss’ drawings allude to the instability of the compact between perciever and perceived, between artist and model. Her animal models signal an affinity for volatile subjects, someone she could not pay or beguile to sit still. The animal’s readiness to move puts pressure on the act of comitting its appearance to paper, inviting a descriptive economy to creep in. The efficient facture relates to the shallowness of our access to the world. Foss’ sketch drawings are not cuing us to the presence of a more complex subterranean reality; they are testimonies to a sensory grappling with the shallow phenomena of embodied experience.

Diorama’s space has begun shrinking and the walls have turned green. Only a narrow storefront is left of what used to be a lavish exhibition space. The room now is one of almost vulgar transparancy. All is visible, projected through the windows in an instant. Paradoxically this change has nudged Diorama’s physical identity closer to the architectural format that its name denotes. In a sense Diorama has come full circle, allowing the name inherited from where it was inaugurated—the former premises of the 90s nightclub Diorama—to determine its evolution, like names are wont to do.

The diorama was invented in the late 1800s and quickly became a fixture in museums, specifically those dedicated to natural history. Usually it offers the viewer a surveyable model of a natural habitat. For our memorial exhibition of Lillebet Foss (fittingly also the final exhibition at Diorama’s premises in Sannergata), we are showing a handful of the artist’s sculptures, mostly animals, all of them created in the 80s and borrowed from Guttormsgaard. The immediacy of pencil and paper—arguably the medium with which Foss had the most profound connection—is replaced with the patient manipulation of resistant substances. Sculpture possesses a physicality that is particularly responsive to the exhibition’s spacial form, while also recalling the historical function of the diorama. Foss’ animal sculptures hence sutures the art exhibition and the diorama as modes of display.

The traditional diorama encourages the audience to double down on their role as detached onlookers by halting them from mingling with the species and objects on display. The-gallery-Diorama-turned-actual-diorama, however, suspends this schismatic model, allowing the audience to flood the representation and merge with it. Unlike the visitor to the natural history museum you here have the questionable privelege of being inside the box being looked at from the outside while you congregate with the other display-inhabitants, be they flesh or bronze. The bucolic scene suggestively immerses the viewer in what you could call a purified or heightened version of an ‘ancestral ecology’, that is an ecology fitted to our evolved inclinations and intuitons.

Paradise is not a fatuous religious fiction but a possible outcome of the morphological omnipotence our deepening grasp of the physical world is delivering. In functional terms, paradise simply requires an absorbing existential frame tailored to our shallow natures—like an augmented game of Dungeons and Dragons—, stripped of information about the nature of these natures. To make this heavenly vision palpable, Diorama treats Lillebet Foss to a questionable compression. Is an artist’s oeuvre amenable to the same selective formatting as a snippet of the natural world—a professionally lit, immediately surveyable arrangement of crafted items? Is perhaps Foss absent here in the same sense that she, or some element of her, was absent in the final stages of her life?

—In Memoriam: Lillebeth Foss, 14 December - 20 January 2019, Diorama, Sannergata 25 N-0557 Oslo

12 Sigmund Skard: Plommer i egget

11 Nora Joung: Operette Morali

10 Exhibition A 025: Jakob Weidemann

09 Exhibition Y 003: Multiples

08 Exhibition Y 009: International Photography & Conceptual Art

07 Calle Segelberg: Logo till 30-åriga kriget

06 Sanna Helena Berger: The edge must be scalloped

05 Lise Soskolne: Bethenny

04 Nils Rundgren: The Underbidder

03 Sigmund Skard: Plommer i egget

02 Axel Ekwall: Big Sur

01 Andreas Slominski: A Hunt for Optimism