Michael Kvium, born in 1955, is one of the mose renowned, high-profile artists in Denmark. His unsual oeuvre includes oil paintings, drawings and sculptures, as well as the numerous performances and films which he designed and produced in the mid-1980s in cooperation with Christian Lemmerz and the Performance Group "Værst" (Worst).
His unmistakeable repertoire, often involving large format paintings, reveals a unique form of presentation and a sense of composition in painting that has made Michael Kvium's art familiar far beyond the confines of his own country and indeed beyond the bounds of Europe. In this part of the world, his work has been represented in a large number of collections and exhibitions, not least at ARoS, the prestigious art museum in Aarhus, Denmark, which in 2006 dedicated a solo exhibiton to Michael Kvium comprising 110 works.
Michael Kvium's paintings lead us behind the outer veil of our consciousness. They are fascinating, repulsive, scurrilous and grotesque. Although one can find echoes of the old masters - one thinks Caravaggio, Velazquez, Goya or Rembrandt - Kvium has managed in his paintings to evoke and express his own extraordinary universe of human existence. In sombre and sometimes absurdly humorous illustrations, he draws into his compositions the cultural, social and political conditions of the present time. As if on a stage, he arranges tableaux of human life constructed from the growing trend towards moral and emotional insensitivity . Presenting the monstrous, grotesque and sometimes obscene physiognomy of the human body, Michael Kvium parades before us in his paintings a complex of problems that we have learned to suppress or which we no longer can or will tolerate.
How he works
Michael Kvium adopts a cyclic approach. He constantly focuses on current issues of social and political life, explored especially in the cycles of paintings entitled "Tragedy", "Pathological Change" and "Penetration".
He usually starts his paintings by sketching the idea of a composition. This draft, however, represents only the beginning of a process of transferring ideas to canvas while constantly changing the basic idea of the motifs or the colour schemes.
The early paintings depict landscapes, the sky or marshlands, to which the human subject appears to have been exiled, helpless and disoriented. Faced with these works, the viewer is left to his own devices and the play of associations.
Works from his period are often large format and require the entire wall surface of a gallery showroom. Their format triggers in the viewer a sense of grandeur, stimulating and emotional involvement in the individual work. They are mostly pictures in which Nature, the sky and the birch forests dominate, confronting the viewer with a quietness of Nature that is audible, an echo perhaps of something long forgotten.
Michael Kvium's characteristic figures are also found here: naked, deformed, and only minimally endowed with physical attributes, if at all. Some are half-submerged in swamp-like waterlands, others show up in profile or as seated figures turned away from the viewer. In addition, there are some works that depict only certain body parts, such as heads, legs and feet. These are shown either full face, partially or as Chimaeras. In addition to individual works, Michael Kvium, has created several series reminiscent of medieval altarpieces, the paintings drawn together as polyptychs in an interplay between figurative and abstract images. Always, though, the overall composition binds concrete and abstract together. Despite, or perhaps because of, the sparsity of elements in the individual pictures, these works create a strangely oppressive atmosphere, further underlined by the ambivalent symbolism of the elements in each picture.
"The Uncanny" in the paintings of Michael Kvium
Thus, the birch tree, the goat's hoof and the jackdaws shown as predatory birds are symbols attested in archaic traditions and myths as well as in Christian imagery. Their ambigous meanings, in conjunction with the compositional technique used, help create an eerie feeling of grandeur. In particular, the frequent lack of spatial orientation, the use of paradoxes and the deformed bodies of fragments of bodies manifested as empty shells give the work of Michael Kvium this curiously oppressive, eerie atmosphere. A key element in the resulting sense of "The Uncanny" is the sight of bodies reduced to empty hulks, their faces perceived as a violation of the integrity of the human form, corresponding to the notion of a wounded psyche, a damaged Self. "The ego", wrote Sigmund Freud in 1923, "is primarily a physical thing, not just a superficial phenomenon, but the projection of a real surface". According to Freud, the formation of the "I" is completed first and foremost as a projection of the visual perception of the surface of the body. Because of this, it is possible that the sight of a deformed body, of an isolated body part, or a physical organ, brings the viewer face to face with the ever-vulnerable boundaries of his own Self.
Sigmund Freud connected a return to the idea of the relationship between the body and its self as a feeling of repressed anxiety with the concept of "The Uncanny". Freud also drew on the historical, linguistic origins of the term: in Freud's view this concept ('unheimlich' in German) had developed as an antithesis to the German word 'Heim', which can mean 'home', 'place of residence' and 'homeland'. In addition, according to Freud, apart from these connotations related to the sense of belonging and security connected with being 'at home', the original meaning of the word 'heimlich' ('secretly') was that of withdrawing into one's house, and was connected with the existence of a 'secret' ('Geheimnis').
The feeling of "The Uncanny"
For Freud, the concept of 'The Uncanny' points to intimate secrets that have remained in the Unconscious as repressed elements, and which return in an alienated form in eerie experiences and ideas. The fear related to 'The Uncanny' can thus be traced back to the fact that repression has changed feelings related to emotions into fear. The prefix "un" is thus the semantic indication of this repression.
In current research into emotions, Freud's thesis that 'The Uncanny', is linked to the return of a repressed secret has not lost its validity. As part of the repressed unconscious, 'The Uncanny' is a special aspect of our emotional structure: it is that part of the aesthetic function that preserves and embraces the world as a whole in the face of rationality. It is the area in which feelings, passions and emotions are rooted and thus constitutes a substantial part of social life. If this part if repressed, it is only logical that such an emotional deficit allows repressed feelings to emerge in a more and more uncontrolled manner.
Bizarre actions, absurd processes or hardly imaginable violence are thus the manifestations of a society that denies the emotions, allowing 'The Uncanny', seen as the return of a repressed secret, to conquer increasingly large sections of everyday life.
In their peculiar grandeur - the familiar and mysterious set against each other - Michael Kvium's image spaces metamorphosise into terrifying images of human exsitence. They are nightmarish visions of individuals gradually losing the accurate perception of their environment and whose communicative interaction is severely limited. They are the narratives of human creatures whose awareness of their own history and its values has been cuf off. In such a state of consciousness, man becomes alienated; his societal and social integration falls apart. Finally, man looses his relationship both to external nature and the nature of his own inner life, his own individuality.
A visible sign of this is the transformation of the body into a bare shell, in which the Self becomes more and more impossible to find. The effect of this alienation may be seen directly in the way Michael Kvium represents Nature, which consists solely of uncultivated land or a swamp. Such natural surroundings can no longer offer man the compensation of any kind of refuge, or home. They are hostile, frightening, eerie.
Nature, once so close to man, is now foreign to him, something which now instils fear. In it, man finds only a shadow of himself, and has no alternative but to place the mask of death on his face. In a world so constructed, only one (open) question remains:
Where the hell is God?
Emsdetten, 13 March 2011