Isolation of the Parts
08 Jun – 02 Sep 2023
Per Kirkeby. Isolation of the Parts
By Andrés Valtierra
But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting
Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal.
The history of European painting has taught us to consider the exercise of looking at nature as a static activity, as something an individual does from a fixed spot in a landscape over several hours, if not days, absorbing carefully that which is before them. The paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or Peder Balke make cases in point, both important references for Per Kirkeby as an artist. Yet, the fixed image depicted on a canvas, even if painted en plein air, is only one side of the process. To reach that location, the artist had to traverse the landscape, oftentimes even had to travel, if the urban centres in which they live do not offer access to such scenery, or at least not as thoroughly as the paintings would suggest.
The many facets of Per Kirkeby’s work present quite a different stance. His travel sketchbooks, the many photographs and occasional footage he took on expeditions, or the long series of prints he produced throughout his life, to name a few, evidence that such contemplation always existed in the context of an expedition—a journey that is as thrilling as it can be gruelling at times, and which ultimately signifies the transit and transition of bodies. Travelling is never passive, even if one is sitting in a means of transport. The conditions in which our bodies shape our experience include comfort and discomfort, and that which we can apprehend, or not, through our senses.
Judging from both his artworks and his writings—which are pieces of an intricately unified production—, Kirkeby’s perception of nature appears to focus on particulars. A tree, a rock, or a glacier can be the centre of his depiction, and yet none of them are ever static. We always see traces of their movement, or perhaps of the artist’s motion around them. His careful evaluation of what it is to look at geological formations, or at the structural system of a plant, echoes his approach to sculpture, regardless of the material he was working in.
The brick sculptures are peculiar, not only within Kirkeby’s body of work, but more widely within the practices of artists at the second half of the twentieth century. They are highly ambiguous. They establish a dialogue with those buildings of the same material that are distinctly present in the cities of North-Western Europe—and can be found, though less frequently, in other latitudes—, except that they cannot be inhabited. They can only be seen or, in some cases used, temporarily. They might resemble ruins or constructions that were abandoned halfway, but they are not fragments; they are independent compositions in which every detail, ornament or asymmetry was carefully planned and executed. This multiplicity of meanings can only be appreciated by traversing the space around them; by entering them, if the design allows; by noticing that one side, or even one corner, is not entirely as you expected. And, sometimes, their serendipity lies precisely in the regularity of lines.
Some public plazas might look simple in their shape, with not much ornamentation in their architecture. Sometimes there is only a concrete plate that stands out from its surroundings, or perhaps a space is built with an elevation that marks that area as singular. The principle of these public squares is that they are accessible to everyone, and their distinction from the rest of the city enables a different way of relating to the urban landscape. It even alters relationships between the people who occupy them, though often we are not fully conscious of either effect. Kirkeby designed many public sculptures that play with these notions, except that these pieces, despite their apparent lack of ornamentation, are loaded with abstract content. There is something slightly off, as elements in a space. They are never fully what you expect of urban design or of architecture, because, of course, they are neither of those, and they tend to make you self-conscious about how you interact with that space, of how your body behaves as you walk around them. This inevitably forces you to turn to see what shape this uncanny element has; to consider why it is that this composition of bricks is triggering such unusual responses to those immediately near them, and what sensations they provoke in a viewer.
Chronologically, these outdoor sculptures were created after Kirkeby had produced many brick works for gallery settings. However, it is quite possible that one’s experience of them nowadays happens in the inverse order. Maybe you have encountered one of his public pieces in or around Copenhagen, perhaps even unawares, and then go into a gallery where a slightly smaller mass of bricks is almost hampering your entering. This is set to alter how you operate in this exhibition space, and how you navigate around it. Not only does the disposition of works create a path, a choreography indeed, through which you traverse the gallery; its shape and dimensions are also quite striking. How is it that such a low structure can have such a powerful impact on its surroundings? Is the brick not something we are used to living with? But there is more: this sculpture is so regular. There is nothing to adorn its surface, no variation in its patterns that change the visual rhythm. It should appear so plain and simple, so familiar, like something we have encountered somewhere else. But the regularity of this arrangement of bricks becomes so puzzling, silent and discreet. Nevertheless, it seems to want to say something. It is almost mystical, in a sense, like the patterns that were so present in abstract painting throughout the twentieth century.
When walking around a sculpture like this, one may wonder if this is how Per Kirkeby walked around rocks or mountainous formations. Were these the kind of interpretations he sought in those elements? Such a careful and slow exercise of looking is certainly akin to his observations of both architecture and natural landscapes. And when you are exploring a terrain like this, no objects are ever identical. There may seem to be constant repetition, but similarity also entails variation. If there are two trees, or two columns designed to look alike, their very location in the space changes how you relate to them, how you approach them. In other cases, you may turn around and the object will reveal a shape you were not expecting at all. A larger rock, or a wall, may be hiding something entirely different. And yet one starts finding a rhythm in this tension between likeness and difference, a route that may have been designed for us, but which also changes through our own discoveries. What surprise—what fragility—may lie around the corner?
Click here to discover Per Kirkeby’s practice further.