Ana Dunjic – B-SÅPE

by Gustav Svihus Borgersen

The origin of the exhibition “B-soap” is nine modest pieces of soap. They are hidden inside a drawer in the exhibition. They are bought by the artist from secondhand webstores, amid various other old junk, potential antiquarian treasures, heirlooms, and in general, old objects someone wants to get rid of, for free disposal or speculatively overpriced. The furniture holding the soaps – a mirrored chest of drawers – may be understood as being a generic, old sort. Two other pieces of furniture are also part of the exhibition: a sofa with a simple, cylindrical cushion and a telephone bench. Nearby these, the visitor may listen to a voice reading.

The more one perceives the totality here, the clearer it becomes that these pieces of soap are the center. On the walls are six photos – or rather, close-ups so detailed that every picture seems composed by multiple photos.  In these pictures, the surfaces are so distinct that every meticulous detail is visible. It looks more like rock-hard stone than soft soap with a pleasantly high content of fat.

And, speaking of stone, a time aspect is embedded in this exhibition. Bars of soap are inherently

transitory, utilities literally meant to dissolve – either through time or through use. But in this case, they have kept their distinct shape for around 80 years.

The bars of soap are so-called B-soaps, the kind of rationed soap produced in this country during, and for a period also after, the second World War. They were numbered according to the factory in which they were produced. In this case, we talk about the numbers 33, 69, 24, 44, 15, 10, 33, 70, and 31. This numbering was presumed to anonymize from which factory the soaps originated and the bars of soap were preferably meant to have exactly the same colour. This obviously is no longer so.

Whether these nine pieces of soap ever have been the same colour or whether they have changed over time is unclear, but for these specific soaps, something immediately makes a comparative analysis of  interest: two of them share the same number – 33. But one No. 33 is white while the other one is green with a scattering of lighter spots. Green was supposed to be the colour of all the soaps. They now are tinted everything from white to nearly black.

The B-soaps were produced with considerable variation in ingredients, which naturally resulted in different outcomes both in smell and shape. Corresponding with a gradually lower content of fat as the war (and the destitution) progressed, the percent of fillers increased accordingly, up to what became the standard: 70 % fillers in a soap made from fish-fat, chalk, talc, ground minerals, and lime – with algae used as a binder. Not surprisingly, these diluted “soaps” neither smelled good nor were effective in use.  On the contrary, they were described as damaging to the health of skin and lungs.

The anonymization, through the numbering of the soaps, throws a veil over who made them and where they came from. Trondheim had two of these factories: Lade Fabrikker and Elgeseter Fabrikker A/S (often called Elfas), situated on Øya. And neither does Ana Dunjić do anything to inform us more about what numbers these local factories used.

The photos are not accompanied by any descriptive information – plaques telling us where she bought the soaps and from whom, from where they came, what number belongs to what factory, nor the components of each soap. Nowhere do scientific reports explain why one soap (No. 15) has the colour of a polished coconut while another (No. 24) looks like a slab of grey slate. Neither are we introduced to historical texts that may supply us with a bit of background information for the name “B-soap” – like a “Plan-B” of soaps  – nor of how long after the war (a period obviously also known for the shortage in commodities) they were produced.

Because, even if this exhibition uses these nine bars of soap as a mysterious element and a concrete pivot point, this is no cultural-historic exhibition in the way the science- and arts-and-crafts museums run their practice. The exhibition does not use historical facts to equip the visitor with an exact knowledge of the specific course of events or highlighted dates.

Though we may come close to the materials, though we may take part in the readings of the voices in the room, no identifiable personal histories are communicated. Maybe because this would be limiting? Maybe just because such a clarifying and revealing act would reduce the potential of these objects to contain our different imaginings of how it must have been at some time or some where.

To put oneself in another’s place is in itself a different and sometimes impossible task. And especially when the ocean of time between now and then, us and them, is so great that we must turn to  books and journals to learn more, to know more. We can just imagine. And the exhibition “B-soap” can maybe open us to this imagination.

And here, Dunjić serves us – completely without instruction, formula or historical analysis – an opening: the relatable and commonplace within the phenomena of soap. If you open the drawer and look down onto the small pieces of improvised chemistry, you recognize the fact that they are not hidden like treasures, they are put away to shield us from them, from the harsh smell that reminds us of anything but something you would reach for to wash yourself and to feel well. A painful archived memory.

Another thing one may notice is the size. The solid, square shape seems large and strong in the photographic reproductions, where one may study the traces of time and perhaps also the missing traces of use. But within touching distance, one notices how tiny they are. Too small to comfortably fit in an adult´s hand. The war’s lack of logic literally becomes touchable.

One may only imagine why these bars of soap were not used. There are many more of them.

Immediately, it may seem to be a paradox that we still have a mass of leftovers of an essential product, which, on paper, was in short supply and had to be fairly distributed to the population.

Ana Dunjić has her background from film and film-production. Essential for this field is the archive, the storing of production, the resource for new productions. Archive as storage, as a collective memory, is a prerequisite for talking about film. Otherwise, it is just something which swirls past and disappears. And in “B-soap” the bars of soap are the archived items, the highlighted objects, but not from glass cases and museums – with their precious breastplates, advanced silversmith-works, detailed wood carvings and other valuable cultural historical objects, reserved for the rich and privileged, which have stood the test of time just because they are elaborate, solidly made, and by their owners, taken care of through generations before finally being carefully archived by the museum-institutions’ protective care and practices.

Here, the archive is the undisturbed attic room, the drawers left to remain closed in the chests, the dusty trunks of which no-one remembers the contents.  And just like this, one may begin to see in which hands and in what shipments these nine pieces of soap have existed. Who owned them, why they kept the bad smelling and almost useless objects and how they have survived for a generation are not revealed. Dunjić opens for associations within each of us. The recognisable, the everyday, becomes the active ingredient. The soaps become the entrance back. Not to anything definite, we should learn, but to a recognition of that even in war there is a ordinary weekday, and so also (the need for) an everyday routine.