I’m always just looking for other ways out
Interview with Martin Erik Andersen at his exhibition half mask half space (the art of self-defence) at Gallery Susanne Ottesen, Copenhagen, 2016.
By Teddy Josephsen
TJ: Martin Erik Andersen, we are here at your show at Gallery Susanne Ottesen. Can you try to describe what you’ve done here?
MEA: Hmm. Well, it’s a combination of things, of course, but perhaps I could start by explaining that there are about twenty seven pieces on the walls, one piece standing on the floor and one piece on the window-sill (and additionally a tiny little bit of laser lighting). And it falls into the category of “Gallery Exhibition”, with reasonably clearly defined autonomous singular works that have quite a lot of titles.
TJ: I would like to return to the titles later, however, can you tell me how it became more about self-contained individual works rather than a unifying approach? Why is it more of a hanging than an installation, if we can make that distinction at all?
MEA: The larger act of installation is also always contained in the concept of art anyway, and this aspect of autonomy is really just gesturally annulled in installations, in so much as the gallery or art institution dons the role of an expanded “gilt frame”. So, with this in mind, the choice is not so dramatic. However, in the situation here I had the chance to break the works down into smaller units, thus focussing more on the micro detailing, which perhaps appeals slightly more to vision and reflection than the physical body, at least in relation to my past works. A small incorporeal distance — in order to come closer to some sort of essence. And, well, I’ve had problems with my knee, so I haven’t been able to work as close to the floor as I’m used to. This has made me to look at walls again; I have an old, unsettled score with walls; I see them as unreal.
The idea of the essence will also have to wait for the moment, as I want to try to understand how micro should be understood in the context of what you describe as detailing. Is it small differences between the drawn and the printed line; the frayed thread in the woven rug that one can sense behind the layer of silver coating the surface? Are these the sort of visual details or do the micro details involve other aspects?
It’s probably perceptible on many different levels, but here’s a specific example relating to the framings; a framed stain has a different status than an unframed one. A different, insistent focusing, at almost particle level, where sight is forced to look more thoroughly, be more concentrated. A position of less doubt where smaller nuances attain greater value. So yes, the small shifts in media between hand-drawn and digitally printed lines develop into independent micro-intensities within the boundary set by the situation, and hopefully are enhanced for others than myself. The autonomous insistence is a little bit like upgrading the strength of your glasses. And there may be another difference in relation to installations in that the priority on sight excludes a social aspect. You cannot physically read a framed stain if there is another body in the way, instead you are left alone with a micro reading and your perception — and are very directly confronted with mine. Maybe I want to force people to be a little sensitive. The silver rugs are something else again.
TJ: Can you tell us a bit more about “the something else” that constitutes the rugs?
MEA: I have to confess a certain reluctance here. It may be that what I say or how I understand my own work is not necessarily the truth. But OK, for me the framed drawings and objects represent a sort of focused, elastical impacts in perception. Our perception is a hyper-complex grid of intertwined corporeal and cultural conditions, that can and should be constantly negotiated, and art assists the elasticity in this grid. However, the silver rugs are different for me, more a kind of impossible proposal of what a total dissolution of the “perception grid” might look like, of course in a more transferred or overarching sense (they’re still stable objects in the category of art object). They don’t contain a prioritised focus on their expressive side (as medium, because they are rugs, as well, turning their backs to the room, discussing their own right as medium — or their lack of same). The coincidental convergence of icon and iconoclasm in an ecstatic minus-plane. I apologise, it’s not so easy to put into words of course — even for me, this is on the boundary of my own perception.
TJ: What temptation and/or necessity lies in the attempted dissolving of the perceptual grid? Is this also an attempt to sensitise us slightly?
MEA: I don’t know really but I think that with the silver rugs I’m a slightly on the other side of my own social intentions; they’re probably quite anti-social, really. For me, they afford a monumental space for something that is beyond our personal identities and our sociality. So in a way, they are not really quite so sensitive; in fact, in a physical sense they are demonstratively robust. In relation to necessity, I could point towards St. Paul and his dark glass: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part;” I always imagined he was referring to a silvered mirror. A highly polished silver reflects towards the white end of the scale whereas oxidised silver ends in black. The silver rugs are images of death that promise a milder sentence.
TJ: Conflations of icon and iconoclasm, ecstatic minus-planes, partial understandings and recognitions in dysfunctional mirrors. It sounds like there are some particular interfaces and liminal states that you are trying to approach, yet tempered by a bittersweet sense of this being almost impossible? (And now it’s going to get a little schizoid, with more questions all at the same time, but your replies are shooting off in various directions too). Images of death that promise a milder sentence? To Saddam Hussein, Ezra Pound and Michael Rockefeller for example, all who are named in the titles?
MEA: Yes, perhaps it’s difficult to grasp a leitmotif in all of these branching’s out in various bundles of direction, all of which are meaningful, as such. In a linguistic ordering, it might appear as if these branching follow a hierarchical structure, but they do not consist of this so clearly; there are many paths of equal value, even after quite simple choices. The silver rugs all share a common title; “Lenity”, meaning “mild” or “gentle”, however it is a word often used in courts in relation to sentencing, aka. “a mild sentence”. Paradoxically, a sentence is never mild but always hard, precisely because it is sentencing. Personally, I empathise with everything human, particularly when it fails (not that I’m a saint myself. On the contrary, I completely understand the dynamics of hate and projected self-loathing that lead to, let’s say, genocide). And so, through these images of perception dissolving, I allow myself the use of language to absolve evil through the act of naming. I could have used Hitler, but that would have been a parody, even though I mean it seriously. And also, even if I laugh I must confess I cried; when I saw the human being Saddam Hussein being hanged whilst he shouted that God and Iraq are great, the same with Gaddafi beaten to death and put up on Youtube, or Mr. and Mrs Ceausescu mowed down in a backyard in Bucharest, or the speech of Charles 1st of England on the scaffold. To me, the omnipotent who have lost power appear as pure incarnated despair. They resemble ourselves perhaps, through a mirror darkly. Michael Rockefeller wasn’t, so to speak, evil himself, but the overlap between the incarnated surname of Capitalism, the aesthetic, ethnographic collector obsession, and the living stone-age cannibal culture from New Guinea is violence and misunderstandings brought to an extended apex. Ezra Pound has the poems on his side, but directly and politically, he was a practicing Fascist. Dysfunctional mirrors are an apt description; mirrors unyielding to either images or emptiness remain hanging in a gentle in-between space. Of course, they are also just beautiful and empty — this is how they should be.
TJ: Does visual art have sufficient power in itself, to absolve evil? Alternatively, is the linguistic “clemency” (doesn’t “lenity” mean that as well?) more of a lever to push the rugs beyond a common sense of justice and an accepted moral horizon? (Hmm, does this distinction make any sense? Does the object have enough powers in itself, or is it necessary for language to lend a helping hand?) And, apropos language and object, here’s another related question: there seems to be a series of tempo shifts between the silver rugs and their titles. On the one hand, a manipulation of materials moving towards a state of dissolution, where the visible in all its multifariousness is encapsulated in a silvered monochrome; and on the other a three-jointed title, pointing towards very specific areas (the juridical, the cultural, and the historic-biographical). Would it be wrong to claim that this distance between object and title is a recurrent move, perhaps even one of your favourite manoeuvres?
MEA: That’s true, I’m probably way over in some linguistical exaggeration here. The silver rugs are evidently almost abstract and therefore risk a violent capitulation under the weight of language, and this is arguably a temptation, I cannot ignore. The distance between an object and its naming is reduced to almost nothing precisely in the act of naming: this is not something I’m making up; we all identify fiercely with our names and our selves. Even though the letters m-a-r-t-i-n actually have absurdly little to do with me. It’s a cultural construction — as is Art.
I would like to be able to agree with the first point, at least in the sense that one considers arts intention as directly connected to the general elasticity in our culture and humanity. I am naive enough to believe this. Of course, I recognise that this has nothing to do with actual juridical practice and probably not even with morals, and is possibly reductive. The quality of absolving I am trying to articulate here lies beyond identity. So yes, perhaps it is about the silver rugs, negating representation and identity, and thus moving beyond any moral horizons. Rugs and silver are linguistic tropes or cultural codes, for me really, just as much as they are materials, and we could call this one of my favourite manoeuvres: that is, not actually accepting the demarcation of boundaries between language and materiality — and this can, no doubt, be (mis)construed as distance. However, this applies between not only object and language but also object/object and language/language. Overlaps or lacunae between differences, that create small new chains of meaning or spaces, are one of my basic working methods.
TJ: When it comes to forcing the rugs beyond perceptions and horizons, how does this come about? Is it with patient hands, Paul the Apostle at the back of your mind and literally trying different things in the studio or how? Can you tell me a little bit about the creation of the silver rugs?
MEA: Yes, well, this will probably sound like a pretentious lie, and maybe it is pretentious, but it’s no lie. I have been mentally preparing for the silver rugs for twenty-five years. Both St Paul, the silver and the rugs have all been lying dormant as potential convergences, just under the surface, going back years to when I started. I don’t have photos of the first rugs I worked on — I ended up destroying them, they were covered in large amorphous blotches of graphite (I couldn’t afford real silver back then). Ok, it sounds more dramatic with a twenty-five year lead up than it actually is — there are many other partial elements I’ve worked on, involved as well. I don’t let something go when I’ve first hooked it. I circulate it again and again and again, going through censure after censure until, bit by bit I release parts of it in, and through the work. This is also where the divergence, the branching out, comes from. Different aspects can, for certain periods of time then stand in for each other, mirror/silver/mask/wall. It divides, layering the methodical further, introducing new lacunae and overlaps.
TJ: How do new materials come into the centrifuge? Which magnets and filters do you use? There appears to be both some relatively recognizable sources and more peripheral areas that are brought into circulation. Does this happen through “gefühl” or have you gradually over time discovered certain recurring preferences in your choice of sources and references?
MEA: Some of the filters have a quite loose mesh, so to speak. An example could be coloured lighting, where technical developments have advanced, and introduced new and different possibilities. I’ve gone from using aniline coloured light bulbs to digitally programmed laser lights. Time simply pushes these shifts into itself (even if one has the crazy notion of trying to halt it completely) so I try to acknowledge this as an ongoing productive condition. I also have a soft spot for social and aesthetic debris, which is also constantly transmuting along with our common boundaries. However, a very large part of my work draws on a number of constituting artistic fundamentals that I remain very faithful to; fundamentals that I don’t believe I will manage to exhaust. For every choice I’ve made, there has no doubt been five other potentially just as good directions that weren’t taken and I meet aspects or interstices of these when I recirculate both new and old material. The difficulty, that often demands more and more acts of procrastination, lies in daring to blindly choose, daring to have blind faith in the method, understood as something running both externally and independently. My conscious artistic choices and ideas are a battlefield of things; I can’t stand being with them for very long. I don’t, on the other hand, have so much difficulty with verbal after-rationalisations like this, anymore.
TJ: Can the method/the centrifuge, fracture or shatter? Or spin more slowly, perhaps even backwards?
MEA: It’s always spinning forwards, backwards — and the opposite. It’s definitely not because I condone everything that stems from my method, it just can’t be any other way. And yes it can undoubtedly fall apart. I haven’t tried that yet, in any serious way. I have tried to want to, but it happen. In some existences, art is not enough.
TJ: So let me ask completely unreservedly; what are the artistic fundamentals that you have acquired, held on to, and continued to be faithful to?
MEA: Well, it’s not actually so dramatically programmatic, but if I were to articulate it a little more manifestly, then it would be something along the lines of visual art being an independent primary field of epistemological recognition. Both ballet and philosophy are perfectly fine in their own right, but they don’t have any articulated primacy or legitimate right in relation to the epistemological knowledge inherent in the visual arts. Pictorial morphologies and analogies are primary artistic tools directly connected to how our perception is fundamentally constructed. We live in a cultural construction, and art is the undertaking that has the closest and most nuanced and cognisant connection to the building blocks of that construction. In the context of our Western concept of art, the visual arts contain the highest degree of reflective critical complexity in the conscious handling of cultural codes and decoding of our perception. So yes (sorry, other artistic disciplines, I’m being a bit mean here, but you have to get your acts together…) the visual arts today are Western Civilisations highest and lowest artistic expression. Lowest because the visual arts also have the toughest critical subversive ambitions and parasitically can utilise all levels in our cultural space as required.
In addition, there are for me a number of local methodical basic elements of knowledge that concern geometry, body, vision and space. For example, how the eyes are placed in our body in relation to gravity and how this constitutes a fundamental schema of horizontal and vertical orientation, around which, to put it bluntly, every other cultural meaning organizes itself.
And a final, important note: the signature in the visual arts is an illusion. Without doubt a necessary illusion for stabilising the intensity of the works locally, but nonetheless an illusion. Visual art is, in its substance, transpersonal and collective. Or slightly more poetically expressed: if I move a small piece of clay today, then something also moves slightly in the indentation of Rodin’s finger in a bronze statue somewhere else. The same applies, for example to music and architecture; but they simply don’t recognise it as clearly as the visual artists.
TJ: Well, that was articulated quite manifestly. (A beef stock cube of challenges.) Your answer may need a couple of recirculation’s to sink in fully. You claim that visual art is not only an independent, but in addition, a primary field of knowledge. Is this a kind of double incantation that wants to both protect and boost the “activity” of the visual arts? A speech for the defence that will simultaneously ensure its autonomy whilst emphasising its special access to the “building blocks”?
MEA: When you begin to try to verbalise what is happening structurally in the works, it’s quite interesting that language very, very quickly becomes about language, instead of the work — this is actually a very good, little, and concrete example of how the artistic quickly evades description and at least appears to become secondary instead of primary.
When I think of visual art as primary, it is simply because, out of necessity, it draws both cognitively and discursively on the basic tactile and visual registers that place and orientate the human being in space. And I believe that this applies in an uninterrupted stretch from the construction of the “Ego” to the complexities in the macro-social. The visual arts do not merely use perception to “look at things”, the visual arts also enquire of perception itself, and it is perhaps partially out of this double vision that the autonomous, self-reflective and work character of the piece constitutes itself. When I contend that the visual arts are primary, this is not the same as saying that they have universal, absolute precedence over everything else. On the contrary, it’s obvious that seen in isolation, in all its short-sightedness, it is weak, bordering on completely helplessness. Paradoxically, it is when visual art is invisibly absorbed or internalised in our perception and distributed as cultural coding and identity that it performs most potently in the social — religion or nationalism could be example of this.
One of the reasons it may sound a little bombastic is that I don’t differentiate between institutional “free art “(that historically is not very old, from approximately the Renaissance forward) and a general broad practice of image production. Some may think that’s a crazy postulate — envisaging visual art as a single, collected field. But, OK, it’s a choice, an understanding of art.
TJ: Yes, unfortunately, language likes to butt in, often stealing the picture. It’s one of its standard chauvinisms. So, let me, by all means, continue in that vein. You’ve written that visual art contains “the closest and most nuanced cognitive link” to the perceptual building blocks, and elsewhere, that it draws on the “basic tactile and visual registers that place and orientate the human being in a space”. Is this the body as measuring rod, and sensation (or sensory-driven thinking, if you will) as premise and medium?
MEA: Gravity tugs on us, vertically, and within our personal, corporeal circumference: in other words, it doesn’t care about seeing, instead it constitutes a blind axis with the soles of our feet as a membrane against invisibility (it’s reasonably difficult for most of us to even see our soles at all). The position of our eyes in our face constitutes a radially unrestricted horizon that casts consciousness/and language away from the body. I believe that this is the basic cross-shaped configuration that we all share as structural human bodies and from which all nuances and subdivisions gush forth. For example, the bifocal element of the placing of the eyes gives us depth of vision, or the curvature in the eye-sockets gives us a spherical, blurred, visual boundary of the frontal, and so on, and so on. All of which are fundamental and essential boundaries in relation to the production of perception and the production of objects, and in particular the hyper-objects that we call art. The productive responsiveness that we call artistic sensibility is, I believe, intimately connected to a drawing back towards the fundamental structures of perception — and importantly, at the same time, being able to rearticulate this in social form within contemporary social conventions and cultural languages, and constantly introducing new micro elasticities. And yes, yes, it’s completely understandable if an eventual future reader thinks this in unintelligible, but it’s nonetheless what I believe is happening in my work when I rationally examine it from the wrong end of the telescope. The actual artistic process, when you’re in the midst of it, is much more complex and filthy; compounded from assemblies of social and psychological objects of desire and projections, of course.
TJ: I have another, simple, and perhaps more irritating question. Why epistemology? Because it seems that the driving force is a search for epistemological recognition? A desire, a need, or a longing for epistemological recognition, calibrated by the conditions and factors you’ve described. I’m putting this out there in the ultra-violet mess of metaphysics and psychology and maybe it’s a very stupid question.
MEA: Yes of course it is a semi-philosophical or semi-religious expression (as you can sense in the quotation from St. Paul), but I think it is a beautiful word: ”cognition” and “re-cognition” the word chimes well with the dual meaning of reflection (reflection as image and thinking); aspects of the labyrinthic cabinet of mirrors of partially and fully transparent shifts of signification that I believe are part of the visual artistic practice and present in the work.
I prefer the verb “to recognise” to the expression “to create”, as I have always had a sense of recognising objective quantities or their schematic structural categories (and their lacunas) rather than inventing or creating them, at least in those instances where I think my work has succeeded.
TJ: In relation to the semi-religious there is a title here in the exhibition that has been haunting me me; “Mother of Pearls (there is no death, I say)”. The first part might refer to an ingredient in the work, whereas the second part, in brackets, could be a quotation. Can you tell us about this?
MEA: That’s funny, I was just going to ask you for a question that could send me directly back to the framings, and here it is! It is the work in the exhibition that are the least work, so to speak. That is, the least in the sense that there is very little from me; the back of an offset poster, some dust on reflective foil, and a little dust traced with mother-of-pearl glitter. They were the first thing to go straight into a frame, the piece I was most sure would be included. Pearls are, of course, produced by the mussel as a sort of encapsulated self-defence created around the speck of sand (or speck of dust). And the violence necessary for the pearl to exist as an aesthetic luxury object, is the death of the mussel. The link between “Mother”, hyper-luxury, self-defence and eternal life (or death, if you will), I find fascinating and extremely beautiful. The brackets in the title are a little nod to David Tibets brilliant lyric in “Dormition and Dominion”, a compact pearl of a text in itself (by encapsulating Blaise Pascal’s posthumous confessional note which was not dedicated to Jesus or The Virgin but to Fire and the singular God the Father of the Old Testament). Ahh, I’m sorry, as always it’s a bit obscure and difficult opening up for language, without residue, but I hope this explains somewhat; I’m not at all interested in closing off other narratives. I guess, for myself, I’m always just looking for other ways out.
And all the framings represent concentrates of complex negotiations schematised between a reduced body (the fingertips) and a reduced look (the limitations of sight and the focusing on the plane instead of space), an attempt to condense and concentrate the insertions of elasticity in the micro-space of schematic perception, perhaps aestheticized pearl-like — and certainly contained within the category of a work.