Don Bergland: The Dreadful Hope of Eternal Oblivion
Don Bergland creates elaborate composite images that tap into primal human fears, hopes and desires: the hope and desire for immortality versus the fear of oblivion and what that might entail– or, conversely, the hope and desire for oblivion and the fear of immortality and what that might entail. Paradox and conflation are central expository devices in Bergland’s work. Your belief in a higher ontological structure to your existence (call it faith), or your lack thereof will dictate how you process his unsettling images.
But what Don is really aiming at is for you to embrace the layered paradox at work in his imagery. Of course, this involves sustaining the mental, emotional and spiritual anxiety that this is bound to cause, because that is what a life of self reflection in the here and now is all about: hoping (with forced certainty) that you will carry on in some shape or form forever, whilst fearing that you won’t. Or worse: carefree and comfortable with the eternal present of your life in the here and now while some horrid cosmic clown in a parallel universe cackles in glee at your ignorance of things to come.
In Bergland’s art, it’s all real and illusory at the same time. More disconcerting still, these images suggest that in the vast scheme of things terms like “reality” and “illusion” are really just tropes for some hitherto unknown thing.
As Giorgio de Chirico rightly pointed out in Madness and Art:
It is an axiomatic truth that madness is an inherent phenomenon in all profound artistic manifestations. Schopenhauer defines the madman as one who has lost his memory. It is an apt definition because, in fact, that which constitutes the logic of our normal acts and normal life is a continuous rosary of recollections and relationships between things and ourselves and vice versa.”
Let’s look at some of Bergland’s recurrent motifs to elaborate on what De Chirico is saying here. If I walk into a room, I might notice a Tuba, a doll, a birdcage, a train and a raven perched on a tree outside the window. Maybe there are some wooden building blocks near the doll, and some cupcakes on a table flanked by a wooden rocking horse. While I may be pleasantly interested in any given one of these objects, I am neither startled nor dismayed by them, because both my episodic (i.e autobiographical) and semantic (i.e conceptual or factual) memories provide personal narrative associations and a logical framework for what I see.
But in Don’s universe something rather horrific occurs: my episodic and semantic memory database is jammed. I no longer can associate these objects as I encounter them in his work with a personal narrative or a logical framework. In other words, Don has re-defined these things in ways that don’t line up with my notion of reality.
Bergland’s art involves submitting one’s self to a process of induction. It is not a risk free enterprise if you really commit yourself to the experience. The imagery lingers in the mind in the form of nightmares that borrow freely from Don’s stage and props.
Don’s virtual stage (which is really an imaginative metaphor for the human condition) is, by his own admission, a theater of the absurd where the audience– being in a situation where the right memory associations are jammed, feels an ontological disorientation that induces a temporary sense of the madness described by De Chirico – that is to say, an insanity prompted by an environment where “normal” relationships and functions have taken flight and bid our minds farewell, leaving in their wake a timeless place –a cosmic stage, where players act out a surreal tragic-comedy.
What used to be nice, pleasant or otherwise innocuous objects are animated (maybe haunted is a better word) by an unknown and threatening force that feeds off your pain, secret fixations and unwitting applause.
The work is also populated by hybrid creatures… incongruent monstrosities that trouble the mind: in “Lobby” we see a perfectly symmetrical convergence of the hind section of a polar bear resulting in an animal with no upper body and thus no thought or means of survival.
In “Recluse” we’re presented with a skinned deer carcass dragon slug partly created from a television, gas pump, toy train and phonograph.
In “Doctrine” we see a guerilla with a tuba bell head with a missile stuffed inside and two distinct protruding tongues perched next to an impassive doll girl playing with toy blocks that look to me have Lenin’s face imprinted upon them. The piece reminds me of three drawings by Alfred Kubin (The Ape, The Lady on the Horse, and Lubricity) albeit less overt in its obscene profanity (but no less obscene and profane, just more subtle than Kubin is all).
A protracted look at Bergland’s constructions produces a similar effect one gets upon viewing films by Kubric, Cronnenberg and Lynch; or paintings by the top dogs of surrealism: Dalì, Ernst and Magritte. Like them, Don’s concerns lie in the direction of the larger ontological reality of the mind (often expressed through dream states or hypnotic triggers). There is also a shared desire to explore the nature of duality and, in Don’s words, “create a sense of disturbance” in an art that is simultaneously sacred and profane.
When I’m hanging out in Don’s universe, I’m reminded that the Delphic maxim “know thyself” is not just about strolling down the more pleasant avenues of your inner being. It’s about exploring secret corridors leading to hidden chambers where weird and arcane rituals curtained off from the conscious mind take place.
What Don calls the “threads of meaning” in his work is left deliberately ambiguous in these vaulted spaces. The meaning to be had here is in direct proportion to how far down the esoteric rabbit hole of your soul you’re willing to go. Each piece incorporates a carry-over of themes, objects and characters linking it to other pieces. Each image is a snapshot of an otherwise inaccessible play. The hermetic key is to follow the visual clues in the recurrent themes, objects and characters. Like the man says: “individual reflection is favored above and beyond social awareness” in this task.
And know this: all of Don’s characters are “scripted performers, posed meticulously in fixed expressions.” In other words, nothing is left to chance and everything is laden with meaning.
You can have your mind blown on Don Bergland’s website: http://donbergland.com/index.html
To get a fuller grasp of Don’s artistic program, I encourage you to watch this: