The Porosity of Darkness: Kirstine Roepstorff
Kirstine Roepstorff and Solvej Helweg Ovesen in conversation with Jonas Tinius.
Imagine yourself wrapped in darkness, losing your sense of orientation, while flickers of light refracted through an architecture of glass and the sound of disembodied voices guide you through a story of myth, archetype, and loss. The theatre of glowing darkness is one section of artist Kirstine Roepstorff’s project for the Danish Pavilion at the 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, but it extends further, into the deconstructed site of the neoclassical 1930s gallery and 1960s extensions by Peter Koch. Roepstorff has reconceived and reconstructed these spaces as loci of regeneration, replete with soil, plants, and woven tapestry. The pavilion itself is part of a broader project called influenza, for which the artist has assembled—in a manner mirroring the viral transmission of its subject—a learning network and consortium of creative practitioners, including curator Solvej Helweg Ovesen.
Jonas Tinius: Kirstine, you have worked in a variety of different media over the past years, ranging from painting to sculpture, and even theatre. Could you tell me what these media mean for you and how one led to the other?
Kirstine Roepstorff: I started out by making sculptures. What intrigued me about sculpture was the materiality, the physicality, and the problematic nature of sculpture. The effort of doing, observing, and getting around it. It simply takes space and demands its attention, like life itself. I also soon realized that being an art student means you have to fail over and over again. You have to maximize your opportunity to fail in order to create space for new beginnings. Sculpture is not a smart medium in which to make failures. As students, we had a studio on the fifth floor, meaning you had to buy the materials from your tight budget, carry stuff to the fifth floor, present it, and afterwards you would have to carry it down again and throw it away. All of this meant a lot of effort, and the resistance against the effort eliminated the ease and playfulness of failing. So I was looking around to see if I could find another material that would be more accessible, cheaper, where failures would be fun to make rather than a hassle.
To cut a long story short: This was my way to collages. It was cheap and an easy medium in which to fail. For me, at that time, collage represented a useful way to negotiate with the represented world. The photocopier was a useful tool because I could place high-end glossy magazine photography alongside cheap newspaper prints, and the photocopier would create the same surface. It leveled the hierarchies of images. I used this collage technique for many years. Collage was probably a way to school my mind, and it has probably orchestrated the way I am thinking today. In the beginning, the products I created were very dense; I put pictures upon pictures, but eventually I realized that the images were less interesting than the space in-between them. Images were really just two objects creating a space for imagination, for the real story. When I understood this, I went back to sculptures because it’s technically about collage (in space). It just has more material embedded within it.
JT: Solvej, you have been working with Kirstine for a number of years. How did your collaborations begin and how did they lead up to your collaboration at the Danish Pavilion in 2017?
Solvej Helweg Ovesen: [laughs] We first collaborated in the late 1990s on an exhibition in New York that dealt with power relations and language. Not long after this collaboration, we published a book together in which we talked about “who decides who decides.” This phrase became even more important when she created a body of collages called The Beautiful Wonders of the World (2001). Many fragments that inspired her work came together there, including environmental and human rights activists. We talked a lot at that time about the German DADA artist Hannah Höch. I wrote a text that spoke about the different elements of Kirstine’s collages, relating to the data from NGOs she were in touch with then. Later on, we collaborated for one of my first shows called Life Policies (Portugal, 2002), about how we navigate in life. A very important change in her practice from collage into animations of the archetypal themes in her collages was a collaboration in Denmark 2008 for which you, Kirstine, developed STILLE TEATER (silent theatre). This was a collaged four-and-a-half-meter-high spinning kaleidoscopic glass structure, in which she embedded many of her characters: Balance, Resistance—who was a guy with one leg and on crutches, the Eel of Unfortune, and a Dog called LOSS. All these images that had been reappearing in your collages to illustrate the human psyche were put on a huge illuminated mechanical figure.
I also want to highlight one further solo show, When You Light a Lantern in the Summernight, Many Strange Things Come Flying (2009) that I was lucky to co-curate. Kirstine focused on collage again, but the theme was masculinity. It overviewed her work, but with this show she expanded into a different range of subjects, addressing vulnerable masculine figures. This was a nice complement to her previous works, which dealt more with feminist perspectives and tried—with reference to Höch’s collages—to turn this patriarchal world upside-down.
JT: For the 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia in 2017, Kirstine initiated a project called influenza. It is conceived of as a learning network and discursive platform with a consortium of four curators: Sepake Angiama, Ute Meta Bauer, Solvej Helweg Ovesen, and Angela Rosenberg. The Consortium does not curate exhibitions, but is rather a “sounding board”: You were invited to respond to the idea of influenza and darkness as artists. How does this work?
SO: Leading up to influenza, Kirstine invited us to discuss a subject that is really a key theme in her work and her own thinking, namely loss. The consortium that Kirstine assembled had the role of a “sounding board.” I liked the social situation and the continuous dialogue a lot, but I did not think it was a curatorial model and the power relations were clear—the artist had the lead and was chosen by the arts council. To me, it was not democratic, but a ride full of discursive and personal pleasure. What she posed to us was the question: How can you share productive moments of reflection on darkness? She trusted us to step into what everyone saw as their own personal space of darkness with her. This was a performative sharing of knowledge over the course of one year. It may sound more New Age than it was, but we shared moments of physical and material darkness. Beyond these experiences, we also worked on how darkness relates to growth. Kirstine’s work is an attempt to gather fragments from many different people and areas of experience, such as loss or fear. For me, being part of this sounding board meant growing a common collective knowledge from different layers of interpretation of darkness and growth. Most people want pleasure and will avoid pain, and for a solidary collective to venture into spheres of loss and darkness was unique for me. I didn’t work as a classical curator. Instead, I came up with my own input, upon which I tried to map the contrast between transparency and dark spaces, the challenges this poses for intimacy under these conditions. Intimacy as a door into the less controllable moments in life.
JT: Kirstine, what does it mean for you to work in such a collective—rather than with a single curator—and to develop long-term projects rather than single exhibitions?
KP: For me, the project for Venice began with an image, or a word. And for me, this word was influenza. At the time, I had no idea whether it was physical or what the sound might give rise to. Quite soon, I found out that what I had in mind was not just the physical influenza virus, but a mental, spiritual, geistige, idea of it. A weakness that has to do with everyone of us. When I understood this, I also understood that one cannot have an influenza by oneself—one needs others to be infected or to infect. This meant it couldn’t be a one-person show, but had to be a collaborative entity. I remember we talked about the form this should take, because all I knew was that it couldn’t be a one-curator/one-artist project. Then I developed the feeling that I needed to turn the pavilion inside-out. I needed to do this with everything I would touch in the pavilion; the exhibition was more outside than inside the building. The theatre was not on stage, but in the mind of the spectators. The artist was not just an artist, but a trigger for the artistic curators. This gesture initiated and decided the whole process of the show. Therefore, I picked the curators and asked them not to do what they normally do, because I knew that I wanted to speak about the lack of darkness in their lives, our lives. Dealing with darkness means engaging with forms that are dissolved or tasks that have not been defined.
JT: So before you even thought of the form of the pavilion, or its content—tapestry, sculpture, garden—you thought of “influenza.” Influenza is a socially transmitted fever, but you also took it to stand for impermanence, the unknown, and transformation as a natural part of growth. How did this notion feed into the rebuilding of the space?
KR: Throughout the entire construction process of the pavilion, I had to deconstruct all existing forms in order to allow ourselves to work in obliviousness. I had to think of the social and the physical structure of the project together. What you would normally do in a national pavilion is produce the best artwork you can and hang it up or put it into the building on the wall. The whole pavilion, as we conceived of it, is an absence of form. Or rather, the form has a more fluid character than just a physical artwork. Everything was dissolving as we approached the project, dissolving the forms of the conventional set-up of a pavilion. Also between curators and artist.
JT: Some commentators and visitors focused on the darkness of the theatre auditorium at the Venice pavilion—a dark space in which you were confronted with a thirty-minute light play and audio theatre piece—but what struck me more was the opening transition into the rest of the pavilion: a lush garden, interspersed with woven tapestry and paintings. Tell me more about this transition and the role of crossing a liminal stage, erecting a border or a wall, and then making it porous again.
SO: I like that question, because by looking at the pavilion as a medium or a format, what is novel is that we focused on these inversions. There were no actors in the theatre play, just voices that speak directly in dialogue with your own inner dialogue and fear of the dark. The language used is very naïve and explicit. It’s an unusual format because it’s neither a black box with a video nor just a performance or theatre; it’s a kind of sound piece playing with space and position—it feels like theatre because you sit on a bench, but when the curtain opens what is revealed is utter darkness. It is therefore just as much a sound piece as a theatre play that is distributed across space. The voices could come from the stage or from your own head. And at the same time, it is a light piece that deals with diffused and diffracted rays of light, like photons. The piece, theatre of glowing darkness, is a liminal space itself, but one that you are not allowed to leave.
KR: The transition is a different one for me: It is one from resistance to acceptance. In this very simple and yet extremely harsh movement lies the possibility for transformation. This transition is when you go through pain; that’s when you grow, gain confidence, and reconnect to your interiority. This is the transformation around which we spun the entire project. It’s here that we move borders between interior and exterior. And these borders, of course, represent all other kinds of borders that are constructed in our mental and physical world: national, ideological, sexual… borders between what is considered real and unreal. For me, this is what we need to talk about. It’s difficult to do so directly, because you are always meeting resistance. Therefore, it was very important for me to keep everything in this pavilion on an artistic and poetic level instead of a socio-political one. For me, we can talk about all of these dimensions from the poetic, but if I had started out saying this is a political show, I would have excluded a lot of other perspectives. It’s a universal subject matter.
JT: You have described this experience in the theatre as a “fully immersive environmental experience about darkness as a condition of healing and reconciliation, an integral part of the natural cycle of death and rebirth” (exhibition booklet). But darkness is obviously linked to both fear and to endless possibility.
SO: Yes, you are confronted with yourself and your own fears. If you decide to go in, you have to deal with your darkness. I didn’t feel like I wanted to leave, but within half an hour I went through this crass theme of loss of control. These feelings are captured by characters in the play that have abstract names and speak to your fear. The Seed, for instance, is a character situated in the earth, in darkness, and speaks from a non-human perspective. It can grow, but there is huge resistance. This for me is a liminal space. After going through the tough mental journey in the dark space of the theatre and being released into the lush garden, growth received a very different meaning.
KR: For me, failing is one of the most important tasks in life, and yet, failing doesn’t really exist. What fails—when something fails—is our awareness, and by failing, we learn awareness. It’s the same when we talk through darkness or pain; we can experience pain, but the most intense pain is the one we don’t understand. As soon as we understand, we can cope with pain and it transforms into sorrow. Sorrow is love in absence. The pain that we suffer through life is when we don’t see patterns or when we don’t accept them. This resistance against loss is what gives us pain. For instance, I feel pain because I haven’t got what felt I needed. But if the very same “need” remains as a wish, it’s not painful—it’s just an inner motivation. In our minds, we get so comfortable when we have a form, a recognizable entity. Pain is not understanding the form of any given experience. This is what’s being challenged when you walk into the theatre: You don’t know why you have to sit there for half an hour. You don’t see the form. Intentions have been swapped: They take place in your mind and not on the stage.
JT: I was intrigued by the combination of theatre and landscape gardening, tapestry and sculpture: Things seemed to flow and change form, change light and matter. What did it mean to you to break up the structure of the pavilion—literally unearthing it—and recreating its usage?
SO: With the tapestry that you hung in the garden of the pavilion, Kirstine, you referred back to situation between life and death. That’s why I emphasize the liminal experience; you are initially hesitant to put yourself through half an hour of darkness, but you are rewarded by the liveliness of the garden. Coming out of the theatre, you also see in the building-transformed-into-the-garden a woven tapestry that could last another hundred years, but could also decompose. It is woven into this landscape of the garden. For me, entering the garden was a refreshing experience; I felt like I could see again, but due to the limited visual experience of the theatre, some people also said they felt drunk, dizzy, disoriented. In the middle of the Venice Biennale, this is an unusual experience; amid the glaring sunlight and social buzz, you are suddenly taken out into darkness and then released again, through a liminal step, into the light and green of the garden. To work with viewers in that sense was quite an exercise for us.
JT: This pavilion contains all kinds of artistic elements: design, architecture, theatre, light, choreography, weaving. Why did you want to relate them all in one setting?
KR: To me, the whole entity is one statement: the garden, the concrete, the theatre, the tapestry, the consortium, and even my opening speech. You walk into a very solid black box, but as the theatre stage is internal, you have the chance to open up yourself to infinity. The light, the darkness, but also the infinity of consciousness. The fixed room contains absolute open-endedness. In the garden, you find what used to be a white cube, which is now turned inside-out. The gallery is now turned into a garden. The inside of the room is the skin, and the outside is the body. The role of the consortium is flipped. Many didn’t recognize that the entire pavilion was manipulated and transformed. The tapestry in the garden is the only conventional art piece in the entire show. And one might think it is misplaced in the garden, but I consider it a door handle. It’s an opener. It contains all of the components of the theatre. It’s more like a fable, a tale that contains fragments of all other aspects. We took out the windows and the glass of the original pavilion, and metaphorically placed them into the theatre and onto the tapestry.
JT: Solvej, you wrote a text for the exhibition booklet (‘the architecture of intimacy—in search of dark spaces’) in which you relate the notion of darkness to security, privacy, intimacy, but also to transparency. You mobilize a series of vastly different concepts—the “cave,” the “Victorian home,” the “Club”—to rethink the values attached to darkness. But you also speak about mental health: the pressure to be transparent and the inability to cope with darkness.
SO: Initially, I experienced my own resistance to problematize darkness. Or to localize what darkness means to me. I just know that the moments of inactivity, when we are unable to react nowadays, are actually the more productive ones—when our mind wanders. It is easy to speak about social media as an escape from the bigger questions luring over our lives. We are on the cusp of huge transformations brought about by the devastating effects of capitalism, such as climate change. We don’t know what will happen after. Many of our values attached to capitalism—such as our ideas about our subjectivity as consumers—are thrown into question right now. It is almost impossible for a single subject to control all of this; the only way to create one’s own input, vision, or corrective to this trajectory would be to allow ourselves to face pain, to face the fact that we’re on the wrong track. In this text, I also wanted to say that rationality does not always help us out of these predicaments. We have had twenty years of artists showing mirrors in art spaces; at this point, I think darkness is the mirror we need.
JT: How far does this racist stereotype associated with darkness (Africa as the dark continent, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) play into these discussions?
SO: People who migrate without social support need to orientate themselves intuitively; they throw themselves into an opaque future, with unknown rules and outcomes. So in that sense, this project is also about nuancing our western and northern European idea of darkness. It also means to reintegrate the value of being able to deal with not-knowing and to live through it. As you mention, darkness and blackness have been strongly associated with negative connotations as a color related to death, night, and dishonesty—in opposition to white. Darkness is encapsulated in the description of the ‘non-white,’ but also in racist ideas about skin color. It’s about changing categories in our society and I think artworks can do that. Emeka Ogboh’s project dark beer project Sufferhead Original at Galerie Wedding in Berlin and then later at documenta 14 deals with this playfully, questioning our ideas of purity and fear.
JT: Nature as you portray it, repeatedly appears Janus-faced: It is giving birth to things, but it is also destruction, decay, and chaos. Just as with the notion of influenza, you often shift from one description to another—writing, for instance, that it is “truly democratic,” but also that it is a “disease.”
KR: You’re right. Influenza is a disease, but it can also strengthen your immune system. Everyone needs to have the flu occasionally to navigate the world. Influenza is material and immaterial. It may be a sinister approach to it, but I see it as heavy and light. It rests in your body, but it also passes through your body. My bacteria is passed on and goes into your body, then it belong to you, and you pass it on. Basically, it is a beautiful metaphor for social media, and the internet—but also for nature and the rhizomatic nature of growth. The craziest stuff is going on invisibly under the ground, where plants communicate with one another, unterirdisch, while human beings are very clumsily talking to one another above the earth, überirdisch. It’s just a pragmatic and practical image for combining how we are completely dependent on one another.
JT: The influenza project is open and keeps opening in different directions, also after Venice. Where is the project is going now?
KR: After another workshop in Venice, the entire project will relocate to Copenhagen in the summer of 2018 to a centre and exhibition space called Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Like influenza, we always ask participants to infect more people and bring them into the project. We have a filmmaker, Bjarke Underbjerg, for instance, who is currently editing a feature-length documentary about the entire project with the intention to launch it for the opening in Copenhagen. In Denmark, the exhibition will be realized with the theatre, but in a different form. The exhibition space is in the central square of Copenhagen, so the garden will need to be transformed. In connection with the opening, the plan is to host a Festival of Darkness, focusing on the idea that we are all linked to the idea of darkness—might you be an astrophysicist or a sleep scientist, a Butoh dancer, a writer. Creativity for me, is how we navigate in and through darkness and the unknown. It has become so linked to artistic practices, but it is an everyday tool of all of us. Our task as artists is to use the tool consciously. It’s repetitive; to grasp something that does not yet have a form, and implement it with intentions so that it receives a form that I can give to you for you to dissolve.
Kirstine Roepstorff represents Denmark at the 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2017 with the exhibition influenza. theatre of glowing darkness. She has held numerous solo exhibitions among others at Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen, DK (2016); Svit, Prague, CZ (2015); Kunstverein Göttingen, Göttingen, DE (2014); Kunstpalais Erlangen, Erlangen, DE (2013); Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, CH (2010); National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, NO (2010); Galerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck and Stadtgalerie Schwarz, AT (2010). In recent years, Roepstorff has created several large scale public art projects, including an upcoming installation at Middelfart Townhall (2017), a major mural decoration at Lillebælt Hospital in Kolding (2016), “The Gong” for Dokk1, the Urban Media Space Aarhus (2015), and “Klangfrø” for the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics at the University of Copenhagen (2014). Her work is included in the permanent collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; The Saatchi Gallery, London, UK; National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, NO; The Royal Museum of Fine Art, Copenhagen, DK among others.
Solvej Helweg Ovesen is a curator and cultural studies theoretician (Master in Communication and Cultural Studies Roskilde University, Copenhagen University and Humboldt University of Berlin). She is currently the Artistic Director of Galerie Wedding together with Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, where the two-year-long exhibition program Post-Otherness Wedding concluded in 2016. The current two-year program Unsustainable Privileges (2017-18) at Galerie Wedding continues with an exhibition, performance and theory program directed by her and Ndikung. She is also the Curator in Chief of the performance project Songs of a Melting Iceberg – Displaced without Moving, as part of the Nordwind Festival in Berlin, November 2018, at Savvy Contemporary. She is Associate Curator of the Riga Biennial for Contemporary Art, opening, June 2018.
Jonas Tinius is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), co-funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and based at the Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. His current research explores how Berlin-based curators, contemporary artists, and art institutions engage with notions of alterity and otherness through critical curatorial strategies to reflect on German and European heritage and identities.