On Kathrine Ærtebjerg's practice

Beth Greenacre

In recent years Kathrine Ærtebjerg’s practice has questioned our identity as gendered, sexual and biological entities within an environment that invites us to understand, and define ourselves in relation to an age-old societal system which determines the roles we ascribe ourselves and which we are consigned throughout our daily lives. Ærtebjerg offers an alternative understanding. 

For many years the artist’s paintings and drawings have presented a stateless world of in-betweens, an indecipherable land located between reality and fiction, animal and human, and in earlier instances, between puberty and adulthood. A new reality where nothing is static and nothing is certain is offered in these works where ambiguous motifs collide in enigmatic scenes that question the restraints of our everyday reality. Hinting at the seemingly illogical world of fairy tales, ambiguity reigns and any number of readings are possible.  

It is in these earlier works that the artist hints at a space beyond the prescriptive; a non-static, non-definable world characterized by uncertainty, where, for example, there are no opposites, no man woman or nature culture divides. Rather Ærtebjerg pictorially acknowledges the unknown or Other as something that is not wholly understandable. 

The concept that the self requires the Other to define itself is, of course, not new and has historically been expressed by many writers and explored by many artists. The German philosopher Hegel was among the first to introduce the idea of the Other as an important component in self-consciousness, when writing about pre-selfconscious Man he stated that "Each consciousness pursues the death of the other". In suggesting worlds inhabited by the Other Ærtebjerg offers an opportunity to understand our own identity and how it is formulated. In the painting from 2004, She Was Never Alone a young female character of indecipherable age sits upright in bed.  On either side are characters with animals masks; one engages with a spider, the second converses with two monkeys.  Sprouting from the bed are organic forms; the girl looks contentedly at the viewer and onto another world, aware of the alien creatures beside her. 

In older work by the artist a female protagonist of sorts was, more often than not, located within fantastical landscapes, which through her elaborate titles suggests a series of events; Someone had left her a present, She was Old, She was Lost. She or Her acknowledges the subject as the artist’s construct though Ærtebjerg is careful not to suggest any defining narrative, and as such her work gave the impression of being assembled in the imagination. However, in the immediate past something has changed; the titles to Ærtebjerg’s most recent paintings intimate something more definite and not only that, they are more expressive in their brush marks, and the content and subject matter darker. In the recent The Flowers were Growing a menacing character with a stubby body is lost amongst a mass of unknown and sinister foliage which appears to be growing out of nowhere, peculiar flowers grow upwards about to engulf the character who looks dwarfed by the alien forms.

Other new elements to the paintings ensue, the most notable being the frequent references to pregnancy and motherhood. In the painting Apemother would give birth a pregnant being with ape-like features and webbed feet lies on the ground, her head supported by a young girl who caresses her face. The landscape is equally mysterious: A yellow world where mounds echo the protagonists bulging stomach and large red flowers with overtly sexual overtones float to the painting’s upper limits. Though the subject of this painting is ambiguous, it is definitely a future mother soon to give birth, as the artist was when she painted it. In Outside, Inside two opposites are suggested in the title; opposites that previously have not been discussed in the paintings. The canvas is almost divided in two by a form of sweeping foliage, at the crest of which a figure resides. Look closely and she appears to be clutching her stomach as in traditional depictions of pregnant women through the ages. Above her a moon shape mirroring her body suggests an empty void or unknown hole. The most recent paintings were produced whilst the artist was pregnant with her first child, a time of contradicting emotions and experiences; both exciting and horrifying, fantastical and commonplace.  At this instant did the artist feel the presence of the Other as something ever more immediate?  

It may at this point be useful to acknowledge Julia Kristeva’s thoughts on the maternal body, which she described as operating between nature and culture. In so doing Kristeva tries to counteract stereotypes that reduce maternity to nature. Even if the mother is not the subject or agent of her pregnancy and birth, she never ceases to be primarily a speaking subject. In fact, Kristeva uses the maternal body with its two-in-one, or other within, as a model for all subjective relations. Like the maternal body, each one of us is what she calls a subject-in-process. As subjects-in-process we are always negotiating the other within. Like the maternal body, we are never completely the subjects of our own experience. And such fluidity may be a useful in understanding Ærtebjerg’s paintings both past and present.

Interestingly there are a number of recent paintings by Ærtebjerg that reference death: In the recent The Purple Sky, a body is carried on the back of a figure with a skull, a recent exhibition of new paintings took its title from a painting called Amongst the Living, The Dead and the Unborn, and in a smaller canvas a certain Mrs Dead Came to Visit.  According to Kristeva in the Powers of Horror, the abject refers to the human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. And the primary example for what causes such a reaction is according to Kristeva, the corpse. The corpse traumatically reminds us of our own materiality, but surely we too can read the experience of pregnancy as highlighting the inability to escape from the cycle of motherhood and as such ones own mortality.  

On the level of our individual psychosexual development, for Kristeva the abject marks the moment when we separated ourselves from the mother, when we began to recognize a boundary between "me" and other, between "me" and "(m)other." For Kristeva the abject has to do with what disturbs identity, system, order, that which is at the centre of Ærtebjerg’s previous investigations and which represents itself in the recent works filtered through her recent experiences. Kristeva is very careful to differentiate knowledge of death or the meaning of death from the traumatic experience of actually being confronted with the sort of materiality that traumatically shows you your own death. She cites the abject as being closely tied both to religion and to art, which she sees as ways of filtering the abject. According to Kristeva, the best modern literature explores the place of the abject, a place where boundaries begin to break down, where we are confronted with an archaic space before such linguistic binaries as self/other or subject/object. Or, a place among the living, the dead and the unborn.

Beth Greenacre, October 2007