Michael Kvium, Freestyle Tales, Interview with Inge Dybbro
Your paintings have been presented at a great many exhibitions, both here in Denmark and abroad. However, you've only shown your works on paper very few times. Now you're about to open an exhibition with completely new works - watercolors, gouaches and pastels. And you've chosen to call the exhibition "Freestyle Tales". The title indicates that what we have here is a more immediate and spontaneous approach to the work, a shorter rote from conception and thought to finished piece. What is it, in your opnion, that the watercolor can accomplish, as compared to the painting?
Well, the arc of paper is a little less ceremonious, a bit less formal and pretentious. You could say that the painting is a work made for the public space while the work on paper is much more close and intimate. Basically, working on paper has naturally always been a part of my project. When I start to think, I usually start working on a piece of paper, scetching my way forward, and half of the process actually consists of the messages I get from whatever finds its way onto the paper in some kind of scetch form or other. While an oil painting can take months, the paper is more immedeate: you can present certain things to yourself more quicly on paper. But it can also be the case that I work for a longer time on a piece if it happens to be a large and complicated watercolor. This has something to do with the material and it is a very good idea, as an artist, to change material every now an d then so you don't stagnate. It's pretty much the case that I've been generating an output of works on paper through the years alongside the other things I've been working on, in other forms of expression. But in the past years, I've pretty much only been making sketches, that is to say, I havn't been making any finsishe´d works on paper. But then, suddenly, I got a feeling that I wanted to do just that.
In the past few years, you've been painting nature - bare birch trees and ominous-looking black birds - where you've removed the human figure for purposes of warding off a situation, as you once explained in an interviaew, where we see this human figure instead of seeing ourselves. In the new watercolors, however, you've taken up your focus again on the human being as physical body. Is this because you believe you can more effectively communicate the absurdities in our reality when we, as viewers, have this figurative expression to relate ourselves to?
Well, you see, I have several codes. Generally I tighten thematically into a period. And in the period you're referring to, I was trying quite programmatically to remove the human figure, with the result that I was standing by myself before nature, laid bare. When I started to work on the present exhibition, though, I felt a strong urge to gather uo the grotesque, all the things we do not see. The whole thing actually started out two years ago with the Short Stories. They are totally immediate and direct. Because these kinds of piueces are done in a rather small format, I don't have to worry about whether the watarcolor is going to turn out well or badly. I can simply discard it and then pursue some kind of randomness or accidental path - whatever I start to think about. Then there are moments when the paper gives me the next messages. If it goes well, one watercolor often carries two or three spontaneous watercolors and insights along. For an interim, I thought that it might very well be that I should simply continue this line of activity. As things came to pass, the exhibition consists of exclusively of Short Stories. For the more you make, the more it eventually comes to be a baring and disclosure of ourselves, of our entire culture, without there being any need for me to go about purging, because in this case they are so very simple that, taken together, they eventually create a horizon that reminds us of our own.
The "Short Stories" series comprises approximately a hundred watercolors. Fundamentally speaking, it's our existence and the conditions of our lives that you are exploring here. Often, you show a person situated on a stage, tied up, vulnerable and solitary, where blindness and death are recurrent themes. You have also been showing us not only the exterior but also the interior aspect of human beingness: the body with which we are all encumbered, for better or worse - flesh, entraisl and bowels, conjoined together in a kind of pattern. For example, there are the large pastels you are presenting at this exhibtion: cords or intestines of a kind, with bulges, connected in arythmic sequence. can you offer a word on what you've been thinking about there? And why you've chosen the pastel as your vehicle of expression?
First of all, it's a question of painting an abstract picture of an alternative life form or an alternative way of looking at a body. When I look at a human body, especially when I'm painting a person, I try to render it in such a way that we will be lucid about what we ordinarily forget. Generally, I remove the hair or the clothing and we're well aware that two centimeters inside the body, behind the stomach, we're filled with excrement. But we don't want to have anything to do with that! When you are working exsistencially, as I do, it's very important, all the while, to try to include the whole person, and the whole person is, of course, also the feeling of being human, from when one is very young until old age - the feeling of beeing vulnerable, the feeling of frailness. But here, I'm working much more abstractly seeing that ordinarily, people react very violently. They think it's horrifying. They actually think our entrails are ghastly. But we cannot run away from them. For me, it's almost like an abstract way of thinking, and when I choose to work in pastel, it's because, among other things, the pastel is an amazingly delicate and complicated medium: pastel is pure pigment, the pure color that is simply applied, generally speaking, as powder. And precisely because I am working with these kinds of motives, I feel it's more rewarding and more fun for me to use such a delicate medium to create these kinds of wonderful abstract patterns of life-systems - or alternative insights.
In your pictures, the human figure typically casts a shadow - and the shadow here becomes an active player in the picture, both as a symbol and as a form. It can be closely connected to the figure itself or it might be detached and disclose a completely different motif. In any case, it always underscores the content. Can you say something about how you are working with the shadow?
In a strictly metaphorical sense, you could say that it might always be in the shadow so that we see a truer image. Here I can tell the story that lies right under the surface precisely because I'm working with such an ideom. And actually, I can proceed far along this path - by bringing forth a greater human spaciousness in a drawing, which is a much more expanded story: precisely because the vast majority of my pictures also contain a thinly veiled critique of ourselves as human beings - of ourselves right now and right here, of our absolute brlindness, of the mental cataracts that prevent us from seeing what we are doing. All of us certainly know about both what's happening here in the Western world and what it means that we, quite suddenly, have become a belligerent nation. But we would rather not see anything other than what is agreeable. For this reason, I have chosen to adopt the position, throughout virtually all my artistic activity, that I have no problem with everything that is agreeable, with everything that is "nice". But all of the unpleasant and the distasteful - that's where I have to go into action and get started competing with all the disagreeable things in the modern Western world and with everything that is so exquisitely being abused. This penetrates its way far into the art, also, and finally you can wind up asking yourself: do I want to participate in covering up the world or do I want to participate in unveiling the world? And there, I choose to unveil the world. I can't stand the thought of covering up any more than is already the case.
If we can zoom in on the difference between painting and watercolor, where the painting is more planned out, with all the various preparatory sketches, are you working with the shadow in a different manner in the watercolors or is it also being done more spontaniously than in the paintings?
It depends a little on where I am in my painting. But on plenty occasions, especially in connection with Short Stories, I was playing with the notion that I could work in a correspondingly spontaneous manner with Short Stories in my paintings and accordingly achieve something similar there. But at the same time that I am exploring my own mind and our own society, I am also investigating the possibilities of the material: I'm examining art. It is seldom the case that a number of older artists do not also turn up on the scene and start discussing with me - you see., there's a colossal interior dialogue going on. I've just been busy working on a painting that I started working on three years ago. It's clear that an entirely different spatiality is entering in, a spatiality that is called time. Theoretically speaking, the same kind of tendency could also arise in a watercolor, but it manifests itself more quickly, and the Short Stories were deliberately made in a form of the very straightforward language because, in a peculuar way, they were supposed to comment on each other with he consequence that tehy would gradually establish a rhythm and this pattern would hopefully resemble the rhythm we recognize in our everyday lives. If I went about trying to accomplish the same thing with photography. I'm not sure we could see this. I am working with certain anomalies, certain grotesques, and certain grotesque choices that constantly jostle our perception with the result that this becomes visible - even for just a moment, I hope. And if nothing else, it certainly becomes visible to me.
Your Figures are often naked. And you devote a lot of your energy to painting the skin: in many different nuances - and viewed in a completely isolated way, very beautifully, as far as the purely painterly aspect is concerned. For this reason, I am a bit surprised than in a previously published interview, you've stated that when a person's skin is contemplated at very close range, it's really very ugly - full of vermin, cavities and hair. Can you comment on this?
Well, I'm always doing whatever I can, of course - notwithstanding my choice of motives - to render all my subjecs beautifully, even though the work might lend itself to being read, at first glance, as beeing ugly. I am trying to paint a skin that is present, a theme that is present. Seeing that we, in former times, actually called the art academy th "Academy for the Fine Arts", it owuld be naive to assume that it was in line with the conception people typically had that this "fine" aspect has to do with what is "beautiful" in the advertising world's way of thinking. No, the beautiful can only be - if we move past everything that's called fashion - then it can only be a purity or an honesty that stands for what is pure. And this exactly what I aiming at: an honesty and precision, a concentration. For this reason, I', also trying to arrange all the diffrent elements in the pictures. However, I do believe that there are a number5 of internal choices over which I feel, Quite simply, I have no control. I can spend a great deal of time, as a matter of fact, painting a certain expanse of skin, a shoulder or an amrm, but I don't do this in relation to reality: I do this out of consideration as to how I think the drawing or the picture has to evolve, based on considerations as to how I recognize it. So what enters in is a sensation of presence, a feeling of being skin and I think that it's an aspect of the language to try to make something that we recognize from some place other than what we are constantly being presented with. Right here, I'm obviously the first onlooker who happens to be looking at it and when the arc of paper that I'm busy working on fails to give me any sense of presence os generate any interest, then there's something wrong with it and it just gets tossed aside. The things that inspere my interest, those are the ones I am compelled to pursue and sometimes they surprise me, while other times, they do not. It's a perpetual process. And I do this, typically in different periods, precisely for the purpose of maintaining my own presence.
At the "Silent Eye" exhibition at Ordrupgaard in 2007, you showed a number of paintings where the viewer saw, on one half of the surface, a birch tree, while the other half was filled with maggots. At this new exhibition, the maggots almost appear to have invaded mankind. For example, there is the shouting - or screaming - man with a cowl of maggots pulled down around his head. And the figure with a bathing suit of maggots. Or the two pictures of boys whose black dress hats are embellished with hat bands of maggots. I t appears that the maggots are getting close - and we can easily connect them with decay and death - or are there other thoughts that lies behind this?
Well, it's altogether obvious. Of course, I didn't invent maggots. No, it was they who found us, many years ago, and when I started working with them for the exhibition at Ordrupgaard, it struck me as nothing short of unbelievable that I hadn't noticed the pattern before. For one thing, it's incredibly beautiful as a painterly pattern but it's also just as symbolic, precisely like painting a lemon or a skull. Once again, it's simply something we don't want to have anything to do with. Surely, all of us know what maggots represent. And this might very well be the closest we will ever come to ternal life(laughter), with direct contact to eternal life. - I'm trying to lay bare some things that hopefully could cast off some kind of blindness or other. I don't believe that one necessarily gets more anxious about living in the midst of this existence by looking closely at what has otherwise been repressed. However, in this connection, I think that it is essential that there is, after all, a concept in most cultures that is called art. This is the only place where we can formulate ourselves. That's also why the powers that might not necessarily be radiantly jubilant about the artists. And this applies broadly to everyone from writers and poets to visual artists, seeing as, in the very best instances, we are simply laying ourselves bare and describing what it means to be us. It's the inception of insight and understanding but it's also the outset of revolt - leading to where you say that what's going on here is a situation inside which I simply don't want to be caught. I don't want to behave in such a way. I don't want my culture to behave in such a way. I don't want to take part in this society that is distorting our life's conditions to such an alarming degree. The vast majority of cultures are constantly doing a whole lot to enfeeble our senses, to weaken our resistance to doing what we are being told to do. We become blinded. We are getting bombarded from all sides with anesthetics. For this very reason, I also advocate that art has to be offensive; art has to be honest; art must not be turned into a gallery so that it can be sold. Art must be created for purposes of communicating; this is the choice you have to make as an artist and then you have to pay the price that it costs.
But there are also completely new motives. In several of your pictures, we can see Catholic priests with little boys. In some of the pictures, the priests appear to be placing their arms protectively, albeit even more noticeably possesively, around a little boys' shoulders, while gazing out from the picture with a shifty glance. What is the most disquieting aspect to me, in any event, is the boys' wondering and thoroughly apathetic expression. It appears as though they, in a certain way, are accepting they are being used. Here, you are moving directly into a politically inflamed issue. What can you tell us about this?
Many years ago, in the eighties, I was busy taking up patently topical thems. It was a sudden discovery, on my part, that there was a whole lot of stuff in the daily newspapers that was worthy of generating a motif - precisely because we never actually saw it all. We saw it merely as news reports or as scandalizing "drugs". But I regard it, in reality, as being much larger, for it also becomes symbolic, maybe in relation to certain vast problems we have in our lives; for example, when you have a relationship of trust to somebody who is busy raping you to such a distressing degree - a relationship of trust to something we cannot see. It need not necessarily be rightious indignation over the priests' behaviour, over the church and over the churc's manner of dealing with the cases, and so on and so forth. This is a matter in which, I'm afraid to say, I'm basically uninterested. That stance of outrage will have to play itself out on some other scene. What I'm touching on here, though, is an enormous collapse of trust, a subsidence in our values - that we are getting to see these things at all is either because it's all inevitably becoming visible or, maybe also, because the entire culture is slowly opening its eyes. When you stop and think about it, things in the past were probably just as bad as they are now. There's much to support this premise. Just think for a moment about the trust we are placing in the hands of our banks, in our nation, in our elected officials, and then take a good look at what's happening in Egypt right now. There is, in any event, a cataclysm going on in people's consciousness about how much we are willing to put up with, about how far we will let ourselves go in allowing ourselves to be raped. And this applies all the way down to the individual person's choice. It happens every time you watch a movie: every five minutes, you're simply violated by an advertisement. And the question that arises here, in my mind is: do I want to be raped, and constantly, or would I rather not be violated? This is the question that fascinates me. I'm not insisting here that it coins itself in a moral sense. I'm only posing questions about what it is we are beiung exposed to - the identity, which we exclusively and constantly use to define ourselves and others. Ergo, we refrain from carrying on any discussion about identity whatsoever. We're so busy being concerned about how they do things verywhere else and this focus moves from one church to another, from one religion to another, from one family to another; it's a tribal characteristic from time immemorial we're shackled with that renders us totally blind to who we ourselves are as identities, totally blind to how are own country, our own family and our own life is being run. This is what we cannot see. We can only see it in relation to an identty attached to certain other folks: the evil that is the others and the good that is ourselves.Ergo, we cannot see anything at all. These are considerations I've been nuturing and working with for many years. I have to figure out how we are doing, here and now - and, preferably. by moving all the way into my own soul. It is our cultural offering. This is what we are communicating and if it happens to take form as an ugly picture, there's very likely a good reason for this.
There are also people who are standing with revolvers in their hands, even if they do not appear to be firing their guns. Basically, they look rather perplexed - as if they were asking: what's really going on here?
Fundamentally speaking, all of us are more or less perplexed in every situation because we don't understand anything in advance. But for me, these are picturesof a tendency depicting that the more complicated our lives become, the more we feel we have to protect ourselves. The pistol is a symbol of distancing oneself, of holding the stranger at bay - it's related to the dread of looking yourself right in the eye, the dread of asking yourself whether there is any likelihood that there is somebody approaching and whether this person might be intending to do harm to me. And as you know, we actually have a political party in denmark that has been carrying this political stance to the limits. There's nothing more suited to getting a group of folks to go along and agree than appealing to their sense of fear and there's nothing more dangerous than suddenly having a population cease being afraid. When taht happens, it's the very few, the rulers, who are suddenly forced to become anxious.
And then there's the picture of the young woman who is standing in front of an oval mirror - with a bouquet of daffodils on side side and the contours of death's shadow on the other. When i saw this work, I came to think of Chrisoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg's celebrated painting of the young woman standing in front of a mirror and setting her hair. Are you adressing yourself here to this aspect of art history? Or is this even a thought you might have entertained at som point?
It's such a patently classic motif that it might just as well have been related to any other of the Golden Age painters. It is, of course, a vanitas motif, with the mirror and the woman, vanity and death. The concept of vanitas signals both nvanity and mortality; it embodies a classical wisdom that only the very few possess but it is really a veritable stroke of genious. If we reghard this in a time perspective, it's certainly also a commentary on our reality in relation to Eckersberg's day, when we were still nurturing a naive faith in ourselves, a naive faith in the church, a naive faith in the nation - and, on top of this, people were also busy at that time building up a new lie about the small and new nation that was the remnants of what was the great nation of denmark: Høyen's whole dream, which they, broadly speaking, were illustrating in the art of the Danish Golden Age. However, another commentary on the Golden Age, of which we are so proud of here in denmark, is that it occured relatively late with respect to developments elsewhere: the Golden Age painters were making those oh so vey nice and lovely picures which, in reality, comprise one single long and spurious summer day. For, at the very same time, Goya was actually living in Spain and making some of the most hardcore art that, we can still claim, was ever created on this earth, and over in England, Turner was busy brewing up the start of what eventually became the whole Impressionist way of thinking. I think this tells us a little bit about Danish art and about our limitations here. We are an awfully small peasant country with a sham and hollow approach to beautification. While I agree that there are many of the Golden Age painters who were skillful and who managed to paint their fair share of fantastically beautiful pictures, ther's not much explosive potential in the art. There was just Dankvart Dreyer, who was really the only one that painted a Dansih sky as it looks most of the time: gray and nauseating and windblown. But he also got to the bottom of it all. He wasn't awraded any medals; he didn't get anything at all. It's really anoying to me that nobody really pays much attention to what Dreyer contributed, for he really did make some fabulously elegant pictures.
When you've been talking about the titles of your own new pictures, it's often been with a wry smile or with a special humorous twinkle in your eye. Like, for example, when you call some of your watercolors "Half dead danes" and another "Palle Dane". It this, then, a bantering little "wink" to us danes - or is there more in it than that?
The thing about titles, you know, is that they can always underscore or offer one more angle. The danger is in coming up with a title that closes the motive; it should preferably be like a flap for opening things up from a different angle. I struggle a lot with titles. Sometimes it works best in Danish. Sometimes it's best in English. Not all titles can betranslated because they might contain, in either of these languages, a certain ambiguety and, to be sure, the title is often conceived as an extra gamesome accoutrement. However, there canalso be a matter of suggesting an extra dimension. What's important to me is that the titles point in the right direction and that there a few questions seated in the title. Sometimes I deliberately misspell or play with the words' possibilities and somewhere or other there also has to be a musicality that canplay in ensemble with the picture. When I cannot come up with anything at all , I've called the pictures "Titlelless". I am well aware that you cannot do this. But I can! One example of all this is the title of the reasonably current picture, "Wastelanded", on display at this exhibition. There are not many who will have any doubt about what I'm referring to with the respect to the invalid with both arms and legs blown off who is seated in the center of the oicture, but at the same time, it's important to me that it doesn't need to be bound up with any specific era. Rest assured, we have always been "wastelanded" and you can certainly also ruminate on this in the figurative sense - that's what I'm doing myself, in any event.
You show us the world as it is, realisticly and explicitly, almost alarmingly realisticly. - This is what you've always been doing. it seems to me, nonetheless, that some of your pictures made in the recent years have taken on a different tone. It's as if, in many instances, one has to dig several layers deeper down before the ferocity and the absurdities come to light. For example, there is the little boy sitting on the wall and gazing out toward us dejectedly. Is this something you've been thinking about or does this observation sound completely off base to you?
But yes, it's correct to say that I had an exhibition where all the figures were unusually inactive. Then again, I have actually been harboring these thoughts, precisely related to the boys who are sitting high up on a wall, you know, there's not much else you can do - if you spring down from the height, it can have catastrophic consequenses. But the borders are much more fluid now; this is the result of all this in sufferable freedom, where you've really got to watch your step in order to figure out who you are in the first place. We're getting bombarded. We're gliding around inside a mire of culture.
You've painted many watercolors but this is the first time that you're doing so on a very large scale. How have you mangade to handle the large form ats, on the purely technical level?
I have always thought about the watercolor as a small and intimate travel medium. It has almost always been paper things that I made while I've been traveling or when I've been sitting around somewhere and felt like I wanted to re-direct my thinking. The very thought of enlarging the watercolor up into a whole different dimension had never struck me before. I actually didn't think it could be done because when you want to move up into such large formats, you either have to crawl on the floor or have the works put up on the wall. And so the whole idea started, you might say, to drift away. But soon I discovered that this was not the case: one could easily work on a vertical wall without encountering major problems and then this opened up, naturally, to certain amusing possibilities, quite precisely in connection with this exhibition. - But watercolor is an un commonly exquisite medium in itself: there's somethinh awfully prudish and girlish and fastidious about the watercolor and it's virtually impossible to come across a suburban husewife who is not sitting and playing with the watercolor medium in her spare time. And exactly because the watercolor is so immediately attractive, it is, in reality, a very difficult medium to render interesting; the same can also be said about pastel. But then the gouache also entered into the process. I've never worked very much with this medium but gouache is also uncommonly beautiful. It's much more raw than watercolor. It's completely dry. And it proved to be wonderful to work with in large formats. It was really liberating to move up into sizes where the psysics entered the play.
Now, what we have before us is a new exhibition with a number of new motives and groups of subjects. What experience do you want the viewing audience to go home with after having seen the exhibition?
It is always my dream to communicate a few existential questions. I am communicating a sense of recognition, I hope, right there where we are all alike. And I love it when I manage to make things that have no age, either as artwork or in relation to the viewing audience - something or other that we all recognize but have a very difficult time explaining. Art must also be able - no matter how commonplace the motive might be and no matter how simple or complicated the picture might be - to communicate something that neither I nor the member of the viewing audience can put into words.
But at the same time, it is also important for me as an artist to communicate so openly that it's not I who decides. In the moment that the picture is presented to an audience, it indeed becomes the audience's experience in which I must not interfere! I have done what I could to say something very precisely and as cleanly as possible. After that, it's up to each person's way of thinking, each person's insights, according to their respective lives, which are being interpolated into tge experience right there. But then again, I've always felt as though I'm creating a scene where we, from all angles, can go in and think. That's how I would like all art to be. That's how I make use of other artist's works: as a platform, if it functions. It is the artist's task to create the platform. That's how it is in all art. Something you can feel very distinctly when you go to the theater is that sometimes the platform works and sometimes it doesn't. This applies to music; it applies to visual art and it applies to any kind of art whatsoever. But the more precise and concentrated the platform is - no matter what kind of language we are dealing with - it ought to provide an extra space for thinking, that is to say, it ought to be shaking things up inside our minds, it ought to be clearing a gap where we can cross-fertilize our experiences and feelings in a new way or see at all, for one time's sake, a bit more clearly. This is the dream. And I am constantly brandishing the hope that I can make a platform that will lead me further, inspiring me to spot certain things or to see certain older things in new ways. But not necessarily understand them in the way that you could say that this picture here means this or that - no, I'm speaking about a totally different kind of realization; it's a totally diffrent understanding. It's a totally different kind of spatial entity.
This is precisely why we can never talk about what quality art has - art's genuine quality is not visible until it is taken away from us. In that instant, mankind becomes so poor. Who, then, is going to define all the things? For how many of us have not, whether we like it or not, become steered along the right path by the broad concept that is called art, so many times in life? A philosopher, for example, can speak about how we behave. That's not the same as what we make. An anthropologist can sit and discuss the same subject. A psycologist might say how we operate or do not operate, as human beings. But there is nobody who defines what the feeling of existing is, who defines what the sensation of human being is, who defines what the feeling of being in connection with other people is. This is seated inherently as a singular dimension in art. Young people, I imagine, can best understand this through the music. There, they take it for granted that they will be moved, that they will be led somewhere, that they will recognize their own experience with falling in love for the forst time, that tehy will be reminded of the first time she ran off, and of course, it all spreads out from there and continues into all the other realizations in life. There is nobody else but the artist who is ready to rise to the task of defining.
Translated by Dan A. Marmorstein