Forvandlingsrum – om Kathrine Ærtebjergs billeder

Rune Gade

Kathrine Ærtebjerg creates images, which combine different and contradictory expressions:  the naive, the vulgar, the expressive, the cloying. The apparently childish universe that is thus conjured up in clear and radiant colours is however in no respect innocent, just as nature is never entirely pure or good in contrast to culture. Nature in Ærtebjerg's pictures takes the form of amorphous projections of bodily experiences, emotions and perceptions – a phantasmatic vegetation which is presented in a strongly stylised form, rather than as any kind of 'naturalism'. Nature here is the culture of the body, and its landscapes are inner bewitched growths, sprouting tentacles, spongy penises, bubbling grottos. These are playful, almost cartoon-like meditations on the nature of the body, gender and the erotic.

 But although this may at a superficial glance resemble the enchanted iconography of the children's fairytale, a warning should be inserted that this material is for adults, even though the borderland between these two states, that of the child and the adult, is in a sense a fundamental theme for Ærtebjerg. In a significant work like I am here, where are you ? (The flying carpet) (1999), the naive and preternatural notions of the abolition of the laws of gravity are combined with a graphic, almost obscene representation of adult sexuality, perhaps precisely because the erotic arena offers a space in which the body can continually reconquer its naivety, its innocence. The childishly stylised gender symbols, the hole and the pole, dominate the motif's pan-eroticised world, in which the figure, the protagonist, is characteristically reduced to an anonymous, mask-like creature, an 'anyone', who, just like the gender symbols, is ambivalent in meaning, connotationally open, a visual 'shifter' like the linguistic pronouns ('I', 'you', 'she') which allows several different personages to occupy the specific position. She could be anyone.  Nonetheless, we feel that we know her, or know her experiences, sensations and feelings. 

It seems that Ærtebjerg has set herself the task of painting the lived experience of sexuality as seen through a dream prism; one which refracts reality in a phantasmatic manner and allows us to view it in surprising but recognisable ways that cause it to look entirely magical. Scarily magical: full of possibilities, full of surprises, full of traps  – like a game which imperceptibly alters as it is played, changing from light-hearted romp to serious fight, vicious bites and nails boring deep into the flesh. Or vice versa: like a game that gradually falls apart, rebelliously shaking off its own rules, to end in exaltation and unrestrained anarchy. Ærtebjerg's pictures are a kind of clarity enveloped in mist, obscure worlds revealed by sudden illumination, lightning-clear explanations which immediately close off, hermetically sealed and inscrutable, like a dream from which you awaken. Or like the insight of euphoria, the holistic visions of intoxication and ecstasy, which evaporate when normality returns. From the fairytale, the pictures borrow the ability to encompass impossible contradictions and create spaces for transformations which can seem unreal, dreamlike, the stuff of distant times and distant places, but nonetheless familiar and intimately embedded within our bodies. They encompass both the fabulous and the copulative, fabula (lat. story, cf. fabulor, to speak) and copula (lat. bond, connection), in equal measure. The pictures speak to us, but they say little; they are linked, but without presupposing each other. The works typically bear titles, which do not explain or anchor the motifs, but rather complement and diffract the visual content. On the other hand, they sprout visual metaphors, figurative speech, both in writing and pictorially, in an endless stream of motif developments, which with slight displacements link the works across chronological boundaries to create a coherent universe, a complete world of motifs. This universe is replete with colourful flower petals and tumescent buds poking lustfully up towards the sky, juice-distended fruit bodies and crooked tree trunks, gaudy suns and magic grasses, amorphous bodies and strange animals, animal humans and human animals, amoebae and shadow creatures. Everything copulates, woven together in a violent embrace, in a world of explosive vitality where the possibilities for transformation, commingling and metamorphosis seem inexhaustible. Such as the pink, fleshy clouds of budding organs that hang suspended in the sky like helium-filled balloons in Surrender, devotion (2004); strange flower flesh with a widely-branching root network that hangs threadlike from the floating floral organs, creating a delirious mixture of the realms of flora and fauna. The weightless megalomania of the dream establishes the dreamer, who is simultaneously the dreamed, as an all-powerful, but shattered, dismembered and hybridised body, which even in its powerlessness and fragmentation seems intoxicated by the sweet exaltation of victory. The integrity of the body is constantly being assaulted; it is penetrated and perforated by something from outside itself, or else it is stretched and bulging with something from within. Its boundaries are rewritten and reshaped in a pulsating and often unwilling process, with rhythmic contractions and expansions, spastic convulsions, strange outpouchings and leaks. Sometimes joyful, at other times fearful.  Often playful, magical. In She leaked (2006) we see lactation, milk running unimpeded from the female figure's white-glowing breasts, drawing into doubt the status of the skin as a boundary marker. In She dissolved (2005), the boundary between figure and ground also undergoes disintegration, while the entire picture surface, in varying shades of green, moves in the direction of abstraction. In She is a mouse, she wants cheese (2003), stylised cartoon ears grow from the head of the girl figure, while the hybridisation of human and animal seems complete in a work like She had often been told that she was a flower. She did not feel like one (2003), in which the figure's skin has been transformed into bristly fur. Everything, in other words, seems capable of transformation, changing its skin, becoming something else.  

The motif of transformation has been one of Ærtebjerg's themes from the beginning. It finds emblematic expression in such works as At the bottom of the forest lies the phallic mother, a tree grows from her stomach (2002). Here we see the simple recasting of the body as an organic mass, an empty sign, the content of which is indicated by just a few contours and strokes which barely hold it together, but which on the other hand allow it to be transformed before our eyes, commingling with nature, stretching itself, growing. We see something that cannot be shown. There on the vaguely sketched biotope of the forest floor, with its sprouting green blades of grass and smooth dark thorns that sharply penetrate the soil surface, the body winds like a white river, flowing through the picture. It is nothing more than a blank white mass enclosed by black contours; a stylised suggestion of a lower body, a pair of legs, a genital slit. And from this body a solid trunk ascends, a radiant erection growing forth, tautening the body's skin from within and geometrically complementing its horizontal lines with a straight and unbending verticality. The body is cut off from the edge of the picture at both one side and the other, fragmented and colourless like a marble torso, but it nonetheless forms a strongly coherent, monumental figure. The sexual ambiguity is suggested, haiku-like, in just a few strokes which establish a synonym between the genital slit and the taut folds created by the power of the erection at its root, and which quite literally turn it into an extra limb, distinguished from the legs only by its towering erectness. Through the magic of the dream prism, the life-giving quality, the growth of the foetus in the womb, has become a phallic tree distending the skin of the stomach, pulling it upwards with the rigid erection that penetrates it from within. Within the woman there is an other.

 Like an inexorable force of nature, this other inhabits and alters this other woman's body from within, and the woman and the other grow together like branches of the same trunk. The female body here is the empty sign permeated by nature, indeed dropped, practically sprawling, into nature like a heap of refuse or a piece of flotsam on the oceanic carpet of waving green that threatens to cut through her, further fragmenting her already dismembered body, while all the while, the black profile of an unknown animal creature sits silently observing.

The transformation motif transforms itself. We see this in Dream/reality (2003), which repeats certain central motif components from At the bottom of the forest lies the phallic mother, a tree grows from her stomach, but adds new elements. The prone woman, lying with an almost barren, but inhabited and life-filled tree growing from her stomach, is now seen in full figure, wearing a dress. Characteristically, the tree is home to a number of creatures, the scale and level of detail of which are not internally consistent, and do not accord with any known system. The hare, the butterfly, the yoga figure and a number of black creature profiles co-exist in the branches of the same tree, but simultaneously enjoy an isolated existence, independent of each other, indeed even ignorant of each other's existence. That which grows from the midriff of the woman resembles an inverted genealogical tree of the future existences sired by the dreaming consciousness, the wild offspring of a feverish phantasmatic. The further development of this motif can be traced in The dreams (Saturday) (2005) and The surprise (2005), in the first of which sombre metastases blossom from the prone woman's stomach, while in the latter a thorny cloud of blood arises from her middle, equipped with a widely-branching network of threads, stalks and floating roots.  

One might be tempted to think that Ærtebjerg's pictures, with their recurrent themes of sexual impulses and the mutability of identity, deal with puberty, the conflict-ridden transition phase from child to adult. It is not, however, puberty as such that interests Ærtebjerg, but rather the inner experience of the movements, displacements and schisms that puberty involves, and which could be seen as a fundamental existential condition, a common human experience. As Michel Houellebecq remarks, "puberty is not only an important time in life, but it is the only time at which we can speak of life at all in its fullest sense."

 For the rest of our lives, we live in the shadow of this violently dramatic transition, but never with the same intensity; we live as "weakened teenagers". Ærtebjerg's pictures constantly seek out the unweakened life, this puberty in which the body becomes the object of a drama, a living-through of physical changes, which quite literally take place, shaking the body without really originating anywhere in particular. The body is its own object, in thrall to its own inexorable logic; a comprehensive process of growth that stretches the limbs and causes hormones to seethe within. This is when you become a "sexual being", as it is called. Gender seizes us and subjects us to its plans, against which we protest in vain. While we are unfinished and under construction, we are also set aside in the midst of the "process of identity formation" which art historian Hanne Kolind Poulsen identifies as a central aspect of Ærtebjerg's motif world.

 Here you are trapped in your own body; you are your own gaoler and gaol, you sense how you are becoming that which cannot be avoided, inwardly and outwardly. But puberty is of course not the only phase in life when the body subjects us to its will. In the final analysis, our whole lives are marked by the ineluctable process of ageing, the body's gradual preparation for death. But certain palpable and gender-specific exceptions to the daily and discreet advances of death upon our bodies have Ærtebjerg's special attention. The female cycle which precisely attunes a woman's body to the privilege of fertility and life, as well as its temporary interruption due to that self-same fertility, is a continuous theme in Ærtebjerg's work, as the recurrent motif of the phallic mother already suggests. The benign but relentless and invasive process of foetal and cellular growth is for example portrayed in The silent war (2006), in which a giant, engorged insect pokes its blood-sucking proboscis into a female figure enveloped in a pupa, which floats apathetically about like a paralysed mummy in a vague sea of mist. This is no idyllic romance of motherhood, but rather a threatening and oppressive feeling of losing control over one's own body, of being emptied of vitality and energy by a parasitic being, of being subjected to a black sun. This, we should note, is not merely portrayed in Ærtebjerg’s motif content, but is also in intimate harmony with the picture's internal structure, which by blurring the boundaries between separate picture components and utilising marked elements of abstraction underlines the illustrated condition of borderlessness, dissolution and helpless drifting. Everything combines to produce the impression of an assault, the feeling of being abandoned to your fate, of being denied influence over events. The cool tone of the bluish sea of mist contrasts with the warm red of the blood-filled insect, emphasising the transaction that is taking place, the transfer of life, the biological process of coming into being, with all its emotional consequences. 

Transitional zones are thematised in the early series of drawings entitled I am a girl, I am a woman, I am a clown (1999-2000), the ten portraits of which schematically delineate significant elements of the repertoire that Ærtebjerg later develops and extends. The ten stylised, disembodied physiognomies all possess a mask-like character, which represents types rather than individuals. Facial characteristics are reduced to a minimum, and in certain places distorted beyond all recognition, becoming sinister black blots which conceal the faces. At the same time, the characteristics shown are ambivalent and bestial, with cat ears, pig snouts and monkey mouths. Finally, the faces are also closely integrated with handwriting, which also – partly – comprises the series' title. The words literally pour forth in an unbroken flow, reeling off, without spaces, from the lips of the faces, or actually forming part of the shape of the faces themselves. The faces are formed by the words as much as they form them – quite literally. Written characters and pictorial elements are interwoven, and the imaginary horizons of the words, their visual conceptions, are conjured forth, but are at the same time crystallised in their encounter with the manifest content of the pictures, which do not immediately 'make sense' in relation to the words. The secure identities defined by the sentences are nowhere to be seen; they exist only as performative utterances and rhetorical incantations which desperately attempt to categorise a number of unclear figures, empty masks, or indeed mere strokes and blots. Or perhaps these are merely another kind of pen stroke, which in random twists defines letters, words, sentences. As in all of Ærtebjerg's later works, it is the mysterious connection between language, imagination and image that is explored and linked to the question of identity. What you say is what you are. What you imagine is what you are. What you look like is what you are. Girl, woman, clown.  Questions of becoming, of coming to be, permeate all of Ærtebjerg's works. Behind them we can sense the child's simple but persistent questioning:  where do children come from? And we also sense the question mark behind the parent's emphatic statement: it's a girl! The deep, mysterious link between becoming and gender, the entire natural foundation of cultivation, is handled in a playful and explorative manner in Ærtebjerg's works, the canvases of which are populated with enigmatically eroticised landscapes; worlds suffused with the power of Eros.


i Anne Kielgast makes a convincing case for the relationship of Ærtebjerg's works to the genre of fantasy in the article " Of another world – An appraisal of selected motifs in the work of Kathrine Ærteberg, on the occasion of the exhibition 'See how big my flowers are, she answered',) in: Kathrine Ærtebjerg. Se hvor store mine blomster er, svarede hun, Copenhagen: Gl Strand, 2006, p. 60.

ii Cf. Julia Kristeva's famous observation in the article "Motherhood according to Giovanni Bellini" (in: James M Thompson (ed.): 20th Century Theories of Art, Carleton: Carleton University Press, 1995, pp. 441-466), which also discusses the concept of the 'phallic mother'. 

iii Michel Houellebecq: Extension du domaine de la lutte, Paris: Éditions J'ai lu, 2000, p. 92. Original French: "...l'adolescence n'est pas seulement une période importante de la vie, mais que c'est la seule période où l'on puisse parler de vie au plein sens du terme."

iv Hanne Kolind Poulsen: "Maleriet, virkeligheden og kunsthistorien. To positioner i dansk nutidsmaleri: Kathrine Ærtebjerg og Anette Harboe Flensburg", in: Periskop – forum for kunsthistorisk debat, no.  13, 2007, p. 25.