Looking at the overlooked
– An essay on Kirstine Vaaben’s art
By Ann Lumbye Sorensen
(Translated by Dan A. Marmorstein)
Visual art is silent but it nonetheless speaks to us through the agency of form and composition – and especially through the materials’ sensory qualities. The great challenge that lies before the artist is, consequently, to visualize those forms and structures that might not lend themselves all that easily to being transposed into a narrative. As a foundation for her artistic work, Kirstine Vaaben accordingly devotes a special measure of attention to the material, notwithstanding the fact that she makes use of different mediums which are determined by the particular focus she happens to choose for her current investigation. In their meeting with each other, materials’ and forms’ reciprocal dissimilarities point toward a greater complexity.
Kirstine Vaaben was educated as a visual artist at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and took part in the students’ graduation exhibition, EXIT97, (Kunstforeningen, Gammel Strand, Copenhagen, 1997). In the catalogue accompanying EXIT97, the rector of the Schools of Visual Arts, Dr. phil. Else Marie Bukdahl stated: “In the 90s, there are no overall trends but rather an interlacing pattern of diverse local trails,” a comment that undoubtedly ought to be considered especially against the backdrop of the preceding decade’s postmodern theories about meta-art, simulacra and delusions. Kirstine Vaaben started to study at the academy in 1990 and thus belongs to the generation that was busy distancing itself from the post-modern theories and busy shaking off the 1980s’ admixture of ironic detachment and despondency. Vaaben is one of the artists who are turning their attention toward a feminist discourse. In her work, she takes a phenomenological approach to texturality, process and extension in time and space. During her time of studies at the academy, she chose to work, first, with the proximity-seeking Vibeke Mencke Nielsen as her professor at the Graphic School and later on, with the controversial and (certainly in the 1960s) action-art based Bjørn Nørgaard as her professor at the Sculpture School at Charlottenborg. In this way, Vaaben created for herself a working foundation that clearly takes off and also distinguishes itself from the praxis- and material-forms according to which, respectively, the graphic artist and the sculptor oriented themselves. Since then, this working foundation has come to be an integrated part of Vaaben’s image formation, where she switches effortlessly between – or combines – sculptural form and structured surface in her visual presentation of the world around her; this applies to the immediately sensed proximity as well as it does to the carefully considered aesthetic dimension.
A fine example of Kirstine Vaaben’s approach to sculpture is Untitled, which was her contribution to the EXIT97 exhibition. The work is constructed of a two-dimensional vertical surface and a horizontally positioned three-dimensional object. The surface consists of sewn-together handkerchiefs in almost identical sizes and with very closely related edge patterns in varied colors on a light-colored base. The handkerchiefs serve as a backdrop for the low-placed floor object: a broken bronze cylinder in two parts, which lie on a black plate, which is resting in turn on a wooden pallet. The cylinder has irregular ends in the form of small taps and what delineates itself on the surface is a pattern of joined fields, which are trails of the beeswax sheets that the artist has rolled up and subsequently cast in bronze. The small taps are the visible trails left in the wake of the bronze-casting process. In this way, all of the sculpture’s elements have been appropriated and more or less touched up and revised.
It is the gaze’s zooming in on materials and details that lifts the veil from the artwork’s way of constituting itself. As viewers, we are basically being given a chance to follow along in the artistic process, seeing as Vaaben draws our attention to the joinings and the amassed elements’ salient characteristics. They are what they are, but the artist manages to make these materials – which are, in the most profound sense, alien to one another – function as though they belong to one and the same world. Meanwhile, the artwork embodies a meeting between mismatched sizes with widely disparate references, something akin to the famous surrealist artistic credo of “the fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”. Kirstine Vaaben is also renegotiating the 1960s’ material investigations, especially when she makes use of the securing grille structure – the grid – in her employment of the sewn-together handkerchiefs. Her renegotiations with earlier decades of practice ought to be understood as a further adaptation, as a jumping-off point that has been taken for purposes of being able to articulate novel artistic ideas in a reflected manner. Components of the past are being touched up and updated; in this way, they come to play a part in articulating the present. What crops up as a result of all this are questions of what these well-thought-out or spontaneous renegotiations mean and what consequences or implications they have.
The American art theorist Rosalind E. Krauss demonstrated in 1979 that a particular structure, which she identifies as a grid, becomes almost emblematic of the entire 20th century’s art and continues to make its impact. Krauss ascertains that the grid assumes form in the 1910 decade’s Cubist painting in France and spreads from there to Russia and the Netherlands. It was effective vehicle for the artists’ attempts to distance themselves from – and, in the best instances, to completely disengage – visual art’s connections to the literary in any form whatsoever; this was something that both modernism’s pioneers and the avant-garde artists were bent on doing. The grid became synonymous with the new, with that which had not existed before. But what is paradoxical, as Krauss emphasizes, is this structure’s intrinsic capacity to secure and thus withstand any kind of development or growth while simultaneously being apparently indestructible and assuming many different forms – in the course of the approximately one hundred years it has come to occupy a position in many artists’ praxes. In addition to offering this overall reflection, Rosalind E. Krauss summarizes the grid’s two ways of functioning: one is spatial; the other is temporal. The spatial, which is most relevant in relation to Kristine Vaaben’s application in this work and also in other of her more recent works, is encircled by Krauss with the following characteristics: in its spatial function, the grid underscores art’s autonomy inasmuch as it renders the picture “[f]lattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal” (1). It is aesthetically conditioned and I would add that it is also a means of influencing perception and the senses, inasmuch as the grid is based on a repetition principle and insofar as it fragments the area that is being “framed”.
Kirstine Vaaben’s grid, built up from handkerchiefs, stands as a distinctive example of its incredible staying power and flexibility – it can always be used and can be constructed of anything whatsoever. However, her choice of handkerchiefs is worthy of note. The handkerchief made of fabric is a wardrobe accessory that formerly was indispensable but was later rendered superfluous following the invention of Kleenex, which was most certainly a marketed commodity in the United States in the 1930s but didn’t become a truly widespread phenomenon until the 1960s. At one time, a stack of handkerchiefs filled out a lot of space inside one’s drawer, so Kirstine Vaaben’s use of them is memory eliciting and constitutes a narrative that is replete with nostalgic implications. In this way, it is also an example of the same kind of suddenly emerging recollection that the writer Marcel Proust experiences in Remembrance of Things Past, when he recaptures the childhood summers he spent at his grandmother’s home in the French province, memories that are triggered off by the taste of the petites madeleines which he dips into his lime-blossom tea.
The work, Untitled, makes use, on the one hand, of the grid as emblem of the surface’s flatness, repetition and spurning of mimesis in favor of construction. But on the other hand, this aspect of the work is overflowing with narrative, memory and possibly a longing for the past. What the gentlemen's handkerchief expresses, in a purely semantic sense, is, of course, masculinity – like the grid in general, since it can be ascribed to an ordered male discourse. However, the handkerchiefs have been stitched together on a sewing machine. In combination with the female sphere’s tradition of craftsmanship and the handkerchief as a matter of concern for the woman in the household, we could be tempted into a feminist understanding or reading of the work. With the grid’s frontality in correlation with the placement of the bronze cylinder on its podium, the artist actually assigns the viewer’s placement, namely in front of the work – as a reflection’s place – with the cylinder as an object for contemplation, emanating a distinctly masculine reference. The juxtaposition of the two elements – cylinder and handkerchiefs in ensemble – also fashions a potential springboard for the imagination in the field of tension between what, conventionally speaking, are polar opposites. Aside from the already mentioned memory-provoking and feminist levels, what supervenes is, above all, a pre-linguistic meeting with the work in a phenomenological sense, where the materials’ sensory qualities are crucial to the meeting’s character. The work is silent – it has neither title nor figurations of any kind – but it speaks through material and form. We are not being met by some impenetrable wall but rather by a tactile lightness’s surface, by an ornament’s fascination, and by repetition’s minimal variation in the grid’s pattern, which has been transformed from a symbol of art’s autonomy and displacement of nature and narrative to the homelike and recognizable but nonetheless cryptic: an investigation of sculpture’s possibilities – in the expanded field.
Installation art made its imposing international breakthrough at the end of the 1980s, after multitudinous initiatives in this direction, from the 1920s’ avant-gardists up through the 1960s’ environmental- and action-art. Among the artists who spectacularly advanced installation art’s potentials were the Franco-American Louise Bourgeois, the Russian-American Ilya Kabakov and the Frenchman Christian Boltanski. Each of these artists, in different ways, made use of the installation as a praxis for articulating matters of existential concern revolving, respectively, around childhood, body and femininity; around a life of anonymity led in the Soviet Union; and finally, in Boltanski’s case, around the Holocaust and death.
Installation art establishes and structures, as it were, spaces that are different than those to which we are accustomed, spaces that we know from our private and public surroundings. Here, inside the installation’s space, certain stories and certain moods are evoked, or varied traces and trails are highlighted, which the viewer can then follow and go about exploring. Installation art’s space is a place for the unfolding of wonder and imagination, a place where new languages are given a chance to find their life. Today there is a wide span of artistic possibilities when it comes to installation art, which, above and beyond encircling the viewer, consists of a hybrid of genres and materials. Everything and nothing can constitute the installation – ranging from the overcrowded to the totally vacant space. Within the installation as a special site, both the objects and the intermediate spaces between the objects and the viewers are of importance. Here, the possibilities for the artist are virtually endless and for the viewer, it can be like stepping into another world.
Kirstine Vaaben often works in an installational way, which means to say that when she is busy building up her exhibitions, she makes use of some of installation art’s structuring principles. From the time of her early works, her art spreads out as a large interlacing pattern to include much more than the sculptural manifestation. Already with the Untitled piece from 1997, she displays a predilection for the compounding of the two-and three-dimensional formats and we can spot her determined efforts to establish a dynamic tension between the controlled/orderly and the intuitive/processual. These principles are carried further in the more recent installational exhibitions, where Vaaben also incorporates the exhibition venue’s architecture itself as part and parcel of the artistic potential. This is precisely how things took course at her solo exhibition that was presented in 2000 in what was then the Danish Ministry of Culture’s exhibition building, Overgaden, where Vaaben’s show took up the entire second floor and where she exploited the incident light coming through the large windows, the rooms’ proportions and the former industrial architecture’s use of stout pillars and the more elegant slender columns. Again, the artist took a phenomenological approach, where she made allowances for a visual horizon as well as for the body’s movements and the concomitantly shifting distance between the viewers and the artworks.
At Overgaden, she generated an open space with a discreet labyrinthine structure, which is marked out by utterly lightweight and more closed wooden constructions, covered partially by transparent and translucent materials. Horizontals and verticals constitute the coordinates in this spatial image and what is certainly distinctive about Kirstine Vaaben’s approach is that she shores up the architecture – rather than working counter to it. Accordingly, she places her sculpture, Shelter, in the room with the pillars. Shelter is an open/closed constructivist form, which is interrupted by a hanging with porcelain ornaments like larger and smaller leaf forms in a loose formation and in dialogic contrast to the sculpture’s taut lines. The stylized leaf motif is recapitulated as part of an interplay with a cluster of other porcelain ornaments hung on one of the room’s pillars. And the organic leaf motif, in addition, undergoes a metamorphosis in the light of a flower-like interlacing pattern of wire, which lies – flat, and covering a great deal of area – on the floor … in the vicinity of Shelter. The leaf motive’s metamorphoses are, moreover, explored further in the adjoining room with the slender columns. Here, Vaaben created a large free-standing and transparent wooden structure of pinewood strip-moldings, combined with a profusion of rose petals suspended on steel wires, which were, optically speaking, descending from the ceiling. The artist calls this work Sommerophæng [Summer Hanging]. Both the excitement and the surprising aspect in her works are seated frequently in the contradictions between concrete construction and something organic that we think we recognize from nature.
As a red thread running through Kirstine Vaaben’s art, there is her return to certain imagery like the previously mentioned grid and also to the fragment and to a nature form – or a down-to-earth form – that can be observed continuously. It was the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel who, during the nineteenth century’s Romantic period, expatiated on the fragment as a literary form equivalent to his day’s experience of loss and quest for new horizons. In the literature of the Romantic era, the fragment has parallels to Schlegel’s time’s passion for the ruin, the moldering edifice as testimony to the grandeur of bygone times, now forever lost, which was being expounded as the meeting between culture and nature, where nature gains ground in relation to the architecture. Later on, the fragment comes to be the entire 20th Century’s symbol for an experience of loss, which especially the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin formulated during the interwar period’s Europe with his large and incomplete project, Passagenwerk [Arcades Project]. Whether the fragment is regarded as being detached from a larger whole or as something that is left over, it can be interpreted negatively as something incomplete. However, the fragment also contains the springboard for a reverie about a potential future.
For an artist of our day like Kirstine Vaaben, the fragment is no longer encumbered by experiences of loss but has become a matter-of-course mode of observing the world, not as a whole but precisely in the manner of fragmented fragments. And as a symbol of the capriciously unruly, the changeable and the varying. But like the Romantics, Vaaben also turns her gaze toward nature, toward the cultivated nature in the woods and the parks or the allotment gardens and toward the Botanical Garden’s more exotic plant forms. It is often the motifs from these sources that figure – microscopically and in an almost intuitive way –into her drawings.
The Other Space
In 2011, Kirstine Vaaben unfurled an examination of micro-worlds, materialities and relations in space and between spaces in her exhibition, Det andet Rum [The Other Space], which was presented in Clausens Kunsthandel’s charming and low-ceilinged exhibition space in Copenhagen. In a sophisticated and consistent interplay between the artworks and the rooms, “the other space” was established as a synthesis. Vaaben employs a wide fan of expressive forms: ranging from drawing and collage to different graphic techniques and ceramic objects. Her predilection for the fragile and her insistence on getting close to the things’, nature’s and the materials’ own world is in the center.
In the drawings’ transformation from being sectional views or focusing on a single leaf, the motive changes character as a metamorphosis from nature to structures and trails on the surface where it’s all happening. Compositional elements are constituted by the surface and the fragment, which makes its appearance as a simplification of the forms in which she has taken her mark. And these forms are often supplemented by a network of spots and lines that apparently begin and end arbitrarily and spontaneously. Sometimes they fashion fractal-like patterns, when they do not otherwise have horizontal, vertical or diagonal directions as dynamic traces of the graphite’s and the crayon’s movement over the surface.
At the present exhibition, Kirstine Vaaben is experimenting, among other ways, by alternately using graphite and stitches as her drawing implements. And she attains a different kind of textural sensuousness by stretching out a colored film in front of a frieze of drawings and photographs. There’s a change of color transpiring across the pictorial frieze, once again a kind of grid that holds the individual underlying pictures together. Hanging inside the exhibition's smallest room is a series of photogravures with motives of commonplace objects taken from everyday life: a pearl necklace, a flowerpot with a cactus, a wall socket for electrical cords and so on and so forth. Even the most banal objects garner attention. In his book, Looking at the Overlooked (1990), Norman Bryson asserts that motives from everyday life – the still life and interiors – render visible life's continuity, that which constitutes our everyday life, as opposed to the grandiose events in our private and our public lives. Everyday life and its banal repetitions are, to put it precisely, that which give life meaning, observes the English art historian. The immediate surroundings, the everyday-like, that which Bryson calls “the overlooked”, binds life’s recurring routines and rituals together.
Kirstine Vaaben’s consciously mellowed and processual art is distended between that which we think we recognize – and to which we can thus ascribe a content – and that which we alone can see and feel through our senses. The more ambiguous and open the works appear to be, the more the viewer is forced to rely on her/his own feelings, on her/his own sense faculties, which are being challenged and strengthened in the meeting.