Materia et Spiritus. Materia et Corpus. Materia et Frictio. Materia et Actio. Materia et Syntaksis
04 Dec 2020 – 20 Mar 2021
Demonstrating recycling assembling
By Magnus Thorø Clausen
Many of Bjørn Nørgaard’s works are action-based. The invention of the action format in the sixties became a way of transgressing the concept of the artwork and traditional art mediums, in favour of an open and unmapped field of actions. In Nørgaard’s case, an action is a starting point for interactions between body and materials in what he terms “demonstrations”. It opens for an intuitive and conceptual state of being, a kind of zero-degree where materials are emptied of meanings and become purely self-referential. The bodily energy in the actions make them somewhat similar to rituals. Viewer participation is generally absent, and the movements of the actor take place in a closed sphere. One of the aims is to shift the focus away from the actor’s subjectivity toward an objective plane, where the artist is reconceived as a state of being, not as a personal identity. Moreover, the actions outline a type of practice that everyone can repeat and where the qualities of the materials involved literally co-determine both the process and the outcome. The 27 to 30 plaster objects titled Sagforhold (Atomic facts) after Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, is an example of an action-based work, that does not evaporate in its process but leaves behind a series of physical objects distributed as a floor installation. They are simultaneously things and events. By naming them objects instead of sculptures Nørgaard moves them away from traditional modernist genres into a new structural language, with the aim of rearticulating art and reality. The objects appear as various serial sequences where combinations of plaster, cardboard boxes and steel wire are tried out and demonstrated in jumps and collisions: Order and disorder, architecture and nature, idea and body. As a whole they become a sculptural alphabet between readymades and free materials which can be assembled in a vast number of ways, like mathematical equations or sentences in a language. The work suggests a transformative concept of art in reaction to a reality that has collapsed and comes together in new patterns.
Soon after the sixties Nørgaard’s practice broadens to encompass the surrounding society from everyday life to actual political affairs. Plaster, cardboard, and steel wire are supplemented and overlapped by references to religion, mythology, architecture, history, and politics. The performative and structural logic characterizing the material demonstrations, A, B, x, y, … is thereby transferred to a cultural tradition of images and narratives, all the structures that society and power are ideologically based on. Based on self-invented concepts such as Recycled Classicism and Folk Classicism Nørgaard steals left, right and centre from a great archive of visuality and language that constitutes our shared public space. His eclectic reimaginings of past and present contribute to expand the notion of art as a model of reality. Like in his action-based works, his approach to the image is not bound to a specific medium, but can be actualized in a range of different formats such as films, posters, installations, tapestries, sculptures, architectural works, etc. Nørgaard’s intervention in Western society’s images of itself is also a way of expanding the action-type work, by literally mixing the open register of materials with stories and symbols: fish, roses, coffee cups, canes, faith, hope and charity. In this same movement, human-like figures are also reintroduced as reflections of all those images that speak to us from the past and present. The figures quote various image contexts alternating between high and low culture from Michelangelo to Donald Duck. But they are significantly thrown off balance and transformed into a universe on the border of time, space and recognizability.
The pictorial language that characterize Nørgaard’s works may resemble a private language but is probably closer to a common language. It consists of things that can be easily read in a conventional manner, for example the rose as a metaphor of love. This is similar to Wittgenstein’s arguments in Philosophical Investigations, that all meaning is public, that a private language is impossible, and that “meaning is use”. Another image that appears in many of the works is the boat: A metaphor of travelling towards the unknown, of globalization, of movement across nation states and geographical borders. In his sculpture Beowulf, Nørgaard has constructed a boat as a complex montage of materials and signs. At the beginning of the epic poem Beowulf, which the work is referring to, King Scyld is buried in a boat with his belongings and sent out to sea. In this way the journey toward unknown regions is also the final journey towards death, and the boat in turn becomes a cenotaph. The cenotaph is another recurring image in Nørgaard’s work and is also linked to the origins of the medium of sculpture. The first known sculptures were probably cenotaphs, where stone stands in for flesh and temporality becomes permanent. Nørgaard often uses elements by turning them into relational or performative objects. They are objects that connect people in a physical and social way while establishing an interface between us prior to language.
By appropriating the images and narratives of Western culture, the works also intervene in the collective memory of who we are. Sometimes the appropriations can have a fragmentary form, resulting in an isolation or decontextualizing of the image. In other cases, they are structured as accumulations or collections, accentuating togetherness, and cross-connectivities. In the late sixties Nørgaard makes an exhibition in the Cellar of the Student Council, a student-run exhibition space in Copenhagen. He builds five spatial sections divided by steel wire next to another more minimalist space, and fills each of the five sections with different kinds of materials: plaster, kitchenware, sand and glass, carpets, and finally objects borrowed from the artist’s grandmother. This inclusion of autobiographical objects can be understood as a model of social space, how we as humans are connected to others through the things that we share. In his recent installation Ornamental Shelves (From My Father’s Book Collection) plaster objects, coffee cups and books from the artist’s father have been assembled in a modular system of shelves. The assemblage of minimalist objects and specific books produces a multifarious and open constellation making it possible to perceive each of them differently. As a form of display, the collection of things relates to the material demonstrations of the sixties, connecting order and disorder. But now a layer of memory has been added, because of each book having its own time and context, and autobiography, by referring to the father’s collection.
The action of assembling and collecting is a way of structuring chaos by giving things and memories a rhythm, much like in ornamental aesthetics. By constructing a system or a plan it becomes possible to perceive the jumble of impressions differently. Materials and concepts are rarely presented in isolation. They are brought together in constellations, accumulations, and repetitions, often based on an underlying almost magical logic of numbers. Their entanglement and distribution create a multi-layered space. In Nørgaard’s work one material, one image, or one system is never enough. His work has always consisted of and moved between a wide range of techniques, mediums, and styles. Because of this, contrasting forms can exist side by side, and therefore the utopia of a better world can be transformed into the atypia or the deviation from the norm. In the artists own words: “The function of utopia is to break down, only then can we move forward.”