Ever Growing Distances, Far From Far Removed
- On Jesper Dalgaard’s Art
Every journey has a starting point, a point of departure. But if we travel for long enough, and far enough, we forget about it. Instead of heading away from somewhere or towards somewhere, we simply travel tout court. With no beginning, and no end. The vast sweep between the starting point and the destination dissolves as the distance increases, a progress that, by the nature of things, feels like stasis. Stationary between them, we grow oblivious of departures and arrivals. This realm is one we inhabit more or less as ourselves. Here self-sufficiency is virtually total, we float untethered in a void of distance that knows no bounds and whose reach is endless. We may actually have forgotten why we’re here. We repeat the same actions ad infinitum, sinking into the soft belly of habit, the womb of routine, while ceasing to register the speed that keeps us cruising ineluctably forward. We find ourselves, then, celestially suspended: dangling, while surrounded by a thin protective shield of oxygen, from an umbilical cord of life-giving nourishment.
Midway into the journey, Jesper Dalgaard’s main preoccupation is with giving it fuller rein and scope. His sculptures are spherical, atmospheric, planet-like capsules, supportive of life. Since his graduation from the Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2001, Dalgaard has gained recognition as a witty and original sculptor, who with his quirky, off-kilter idiom has enriched the medium. While it’s possible to see contemporary sculptural strategies and formal gestures in Dalgaard’s pieces, their imaginative, autopoietic form sets them apart. Although continuous in some respects with minimalism’s focus on the object itself, on modularity and seriality, they so capture the imagination and so manifestly enjoy their own vivid narrativity as almost to resist being spoken of in the same breath as minimalist objects, with their cool, buttoned-up demeanour. Before we even begin to get to grips with the formal aspects of Dalgaard’s pieces, we find ourselves ineluctably sucked into their imaginative and fantastical world. For the most part, the sculptures have the look of scaled-down models, replete with recognizable figurative elements, and yet still remain distinctly exotic and futuristic. The effect is one of diminutive sci-fi universes or planets, each teeming with engrossing detail and micro-events. They vividly combine the qualities of the meticulously glued together scenics and structures of sophisticated model railway layouts or architects’ maquettes with a sculptural interest in open, free-floating forms, yielding what look like figments of the imagination (understood in a positive sense) – artefacts conjured up by a singularly visionary mind. We could perhaps call the work sci-fi arte povera – a rather splendid grand vision executed using simple, everyday materials. As the art historian Peter Brix Søndergaard aptly puts it in his 2001 article, Dalgaard resolutely deploys a combination of “high-tech and woodwork” in his sculptures to create a third realm, crackling with humour and irony. Painstaking care over the smallest details goes hand in hand with a dizzying, phantasmagoric monumentality to produce fleeting but connected glimpses of a vast continent of ideas, evoking the flats or side scenes used in the futuristic films of long ago, or three-dimensional concept sketches and designs for far-out fantasy computer games.
But what’s most striking about Dalgaard’s sculptures is their sustained conjuring of a wholly autonomous and seemingly coherent universe. The pieces read as monadic structures, as models constituting their own world, applying their own logic and dispensing an array of formal echoes among themselves with one form generating the next, all interlinked by the bonds of kinship. The notion of self-sufficiency is, in this sense, both metaphorically and literally pivotal since the distinctive individuality of Dalgaard’s pieces near brackets them off from all other art, even as it effects the serial gemmation and ramifications that result in a fecund fauna of new works. The sculptures contrive their own lives, spawning ever more sculptures in a reproductive process that appears to follow its own rules. But this metaphorical self-sufficiency and self-fertilization finds its non-metaphorical counterpart in the fact that the sculptures address the very condition from which they themselves emerge: self-sufficiency, sequestration, self-sustainability, isolation. We encounter in these sculptures an ingeniously developed but at the same time fragmented and freewheeling futuristic scenario that accommodates intergalactic missions in which manned and self-sufficient craft migrate in ceaseless transit between remote departure and arrival points. Nor are they spacecraft in any conventional sense, but entire communities, large clusters of individuals, dispatched on journeys into regions in which autonomous, entropic universes supportive of life – biotopes in perfect equilibrium – are synthetically created. This scenario – at once both dystopian and utopian – involving isolated and self-sufficient, transgenerational nomadic communities, is a recurring element in Dalgaard’s work. The overarching premise for the narrative from which his pieces spring appears to be the posit of a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the exploitation of the earth’s resources has resulted in its complete despoliation, necessitating the construction of self-sufficient modules, so-called oxygen capsules, if future survival is to be secured. The earth as we know it, in other words, belongs, in Dalgaard’s narrative, to another era, and reminiscences of life there are consigned to synthetically constructed systems which, biologically controlled, are capable of maintaining a sustainable ecological balance. But even if Dalgaard’s pieces thus conjure forth a terra incognita governed by laws unknown to us, they feature elements that anchor them firmly in our world, thereby allowing us to see them as visionary models that children might have thought up – thought concretized, ideas materialized.
Now patently, we’re a long way from any conventional futuristic vision that articulates a totalizing scenario for what lies ahead. On the contrary, it is as though the very limits of our imagination are given material form in these pieces, in that they offer us only the merest inkling of what the future has in store, and do so through means that are thoroughly contemporary and unremarkable. The sculptures offer us fragments of narratives at whose full trajectories we can only guess. They are constructed from materials that are utterly quotidian and commonplace, but which are reworked – scrupulously, patiently and painstakingly – to morph out into new forms. Each of the six sides of a hanging cubic sculpture from 2010, for example, consists of four rings covered in fibre grass. And while the rings permit peeks through the sculpture, this doesn’t prevent their being sufficiently compactly interconnected to demarcate interfaces or walls. The use of simple geometric forms in modular series is arguably redolent of minimalism’s preoccupation with primary structures and repeated patterns. But once we take a closer look at Dalgaard’s pieces, which have a figurative content to boot, such formal analogies get no grip. Placed on the sides of the rings, inner as well as outer, and above as well as below, are miniature, identical, rounded wooden sticks, neatly stacked, with stakes acting as stabilizers. Both in formal and figurative terms, there is a paradox in play here: the cube is made up of rings, its walls feature voids, and what look like realistic piles of logs defy an elemental and implacable physical barrier in the form of gravity. The sculpture is quite simply devoid of any ‘up’ or ‘down’, even though – in our world – it appears fixed and stable. Most strikingly, then, we are invited to envisage the sculpture in a weightless universe, where the logic of the vertical axis – indeed, of any type of conventional coordinate – is dispensed with in favour of a free-floatingness, where all the sides simultaneously constitute an undifferentiated ‘up’, and where the circles’ pairwise connections yield, in an ironic twist, the infinity sign (∝). So on the one hand, we are presented with eminently recognizable elements, suggestive of a rough, bucolic, terrestrial idyll – piled-up, moss-covered timber logs and green swards – while on the other, this subject matter is organized in a space quite unlike anything we know, unbound by the laws of nature that are determinants of how, as embodied agents, we get our bearings.
The title of the work neither directly clarifies nor explains its subject matter but merely casts a further suggestive veil over its meaning: Energy supply module – It might sound like an outdated concept. But time and again, it turns out that demand just keeps on rising. And the explanation is surely that we are perennially drawn to the primordial past. The title’s extended, almost narrative, form is characteristic of Dalgaard, whose work titles come off as textual fragments hailing from the same imaginary futuristic universe as the sculptures. The title informs us of the sculpture’s content, the meticulously arranged logs, even as it indicates how, in the projected future, this archaic material remains an important and coveted element – albeit now for nostalgic reasons, the yearning for a sense of the primordial life and of connections with an era long since past, rather than for its role as an energy source. Here multiple ironies are in play, not least in the guise of the temporal displacements and overlappings which cast our present age as a sepia-tinted past in a projected future. Far from planet earth and long after the passing of our historical era, this cubic structure floats aimlessly in space, catering to a future population’s nostalgia for obsolete energy sources. In standard sci-fi rhetoric, an energy supply module would surely imply cutting-edge fuel cells using hydrogen or some other futuristic material. Instead, Dalgaard adumbrates futuristic retro tendencies and a fascination with the past, which, curiously enough, coincides with our contemporary present. The title’s mildly chatty, matter-of-fact reporting style is, moreover, signature Dalgaard, whose pieces tend, in virtue of their titles, to be set in a diegetic space, which, while allowing connections to be made, also mediates distances and sunderings. A feature common to the sculptures is their remoteness from our current time, an aspect that the titles both affirm and cement while yet refusing to cohere themselves into a cogent narrative universe. As a result, we find ourselves looking at the depiction of a future universe as a realm of shivered and scattered meanings whose elements we, qua futuristic archaeologists, are tempted to combine into a meaningful whole, albeit with little likelihood of ever fully pulling it off. For a governing premise is that we should be denied the comprehensive overview, and granted only fleeting glimpses of the enigmatic future that Dalgaard conjures up.
Another floating sculpture from 2010 takes the form of a framework of wooden scaffolding in which horizontal and vertical patterns are connected and stabilized by cross-structures. This fragile-looking, floating construction resembles a curiously overgrown, almost edifice-like raft that offers no indication of its purpose. Its scanty context and delicate stability seem to draw on an intuitive engineering sense that harks back to the architecture of an autochthonous population rather than gesturing to future hi-tech projects. Here too, rather than mitigating the bafflement the viewer might experience, the title only adds riddling new layers: It was a long, backbreaking process. The entire crew was working flat out, but we got there in the end – or so we thought, at least. For then new commands were issued from on high. Both physically and verbally, the sculpture speaks of infinite processes that simultaneously harvest and disperse energy, condense and crystallize, implode and explode. The floating scaffolding construction may well have its limits and tend towards a closed form, but there’s nothing to prevent its potential extension and expansion – the further proliferation of floors, walls, ceilings and levels. Like human labour in its most generalized form, the edificial structure is infinite: a project that by its very nature resists completion, even if it can be put into abeyance; a process that’s unstoppable, even if temporarily put on hold. For there will always be fresh commands from on high, petty diktats enjoining the execution of particular activities and enterprises, and informed by their own hierarchical logic, be it social or religious in nature.
Dalgaard’s sculptural practice offers a concrete, materialized virtuality: a complex system of signs that conjures models of an as yet not fully specified future. While the sculptures consistently merely hint at a larger scheme of things, Dalgaard’s reliefs, drawings, watercolours and animations are more generous when it comes to providing a coherent narrative. Notably, the sculptures wear on their sleeve the fact that while evolving from patterns of human action, they also serve as instruments of human agency. In other words, they depict the instrumentalization of ideas even as they serve as instruments themselves, but without ever directly incorporating the relevant human agents. The case is quite other with, for instance, the watercolours and reliefs, where human beings figure as schematic prototypes in the form of identical stick figures. They engage in archetypal activities such as work or play, but almost never appear as feeling, reasoning individuals. They evince, rather, a rudimentary human form so generalized and stylized as to suggest automatous behaviour. The ant-like design of the stick figures reinforces this sense of unreflective robotic activity, implying the following of set programs rather than the performance of acts of individual volition. The only break with this zombified human type is found in the depiction of emotional extremes such as love and war, which recur in various guises in the pieces. And even these high-octane emotional situations are played out in a relatively dispassionate and anonymized manner in Dalgaard’s pieces, as were they ritual practices devoid of meaningful content. There may be a convergence of form and content here, with Dalgaard’s preoccupation with the monumentalization of futuristic visions transmuting into a comment on his own artistic practice here and now, a self-reflexive gesture.
A large-scale relief from 2010 of repeated diagonal patterns in yellow, green and grey reads at first glance as a piece of abstract ornamentation. A closer look, however, reveals that these shapes are in fact triangular fields filled in with a stonework depiction of stylized human figures. The title speaks of cultic acts whose sole apparent purpose is to erect a memorial to a particular ethnic group or ‘race’: Reconnaissance – The rites took longer and became increasingly costly for the little community. More and more granite was required, and it was hauled to the square from ever further afield. The point of it all was to satisfy the ‘obscurantists’, who were set on securing their posthumous reputation by creating a monument larger and more spectacular than any seen before. We understand that the relief depicts a territory cartographically defined, that we’re looking at a kind of map, showing the topography of a landscape, and photographed from a huge distance perhaps. This landscape has been reconfigured and worked into a pattern that, as a unified whole, constitutes a monumental structure at whose centre the human figure – albeit childishly stylized – is located. The significance of this monument, which is intended to be observed from a bird’s if not a God’s-eye view, is a matter for conjecture. But the title provides an inkling into both the imperatives informing its construction, and the vanity and lassitude informing its unbounded pretentiousness. As is so often the case with Dalgaard’s works, we find ourselves cast as futurist archaeologists who, with merely obscure clues to go by, are constrained to try to piece it all together and decipher a meaning. The alternative is to stay with our present era and read the pieces as ironic comments on the status of contemporary art: an intractably alien futuristic monster, a carrier that refuses to land. But one that cannot quite take off either.