Jetlag is the Devil’s work!
Or is it a First World problem?
First World problems are the Devil’s work and jetlag is the hands-on reminder that in this day and age it is never really enough, if at all possible, to be in one place at a time, when you can be all over the place.
A yuletide melt-down with your sister will tie you down claustrophobically to the here-and-now, where this house (or indeed country) is not big enough for the two of you, and have you gasping for a breath of fresh air. Luckily, on this crisp boxing-day morning, your muddy Heimat was transformed to a magical winter-wonderland, located somewhere between a secular Caspar David Friedrich and a Thomas Kinkade you can believe in. You are here now. On a cross-country train-trip with the seats across the aisle from yours occupied by a middle-aged couple with Down’s syndrome. She is wearing a sequined sweatshirt with leopard motif very similar to something you recently saw in Kenzo’s fall collection online, and he is the voice of reason as he is giving commentary on the trip:
It is really cold, it is freezing –it is below freezing. Look at the trees outside, aren’t they pretty? Look how it is hanging from the trees. It was a good enough Christmas, good food. It was lovely, but now I am tired. You must be tired too, you should rest; we had an early start and we will be there soon enough. Just rest now. Isn’t it nice?
With this buildup, Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (in Humlebæk just north of Copenhagen) cannot but disappoint –and yet it does. Traversing through the entire south wing of the museum, Eliasson walks 10.000 men, women and children all the way to the top of the hill and all the way down again. And when they were up they were up, and when they were down they were down, and when they were halfway up they were neither up nor down.
In real time, this hotly anticipated merger of nature as culture and culture as nature, of museum mystique and Iceland experience (or vice versa) is like Kate Moss up close: sexy and photogenic, but ultimately too thin and too shallow and too readily commercialized –the perfect extension or backdrop to the vastly expansive collection of sleek Scandinavian design objects in the museum shop. Nordic Light as commodity.
In another part of the exhibition we are given the illusion of a behind-the scenes look. Here, Atelier Eliasson’s geometrical models are laid out in tasteful abundance; hexagons and dodecahedrons, spheres and pyramids in various stages and finishes are bathed in amber light, to theatrical effect. As we admire the display, my long time friend Lars (the sweet Swede) conspiratorially whispers in my ear an anecdote of how Eliasson politely declined the proposed budget for a project for AROS (Museum of Contemporary Art in Aarhus); this super model does not get out of bed for 2 million kroner!
Eliasson instead suggested they called him back when they got together the funds for a rainbow panorama on the roof…which they did and the results were truly double-rainbow-all-the-way-across-the-sky motherflippin’ awesome – and this off course both is and isn’t why we are here today—we want more!
Still it is smugly satisfactory to see how Eliasson is cut down to size in the museum’s Kids Corner. Here glue guns, paper cones, and wooden sticks are lined up for one and all to create their own Eliasson for the Christmas tree, like the workshop of a scientifically ambitious Santa.
In summary, the exhibition does exactly what it says on the box; yes, it radically alters your experience of the museum’s architecture and yes, it ambitiously challenges the museum as site and brings it back to its original narrative as a walk in the park. But paradoxically, there is nothing you can learn here you couldn’t have learned from the privacy of your own home, experiencing the work second- or third-hand. There is no song of your self to be sung on this stage –only Eliasson’s boastful, tinny earworm of the artist as brand.
How different and deep in contrast it is to leave the Riverbed and delve into the nether regions of the museum; a subterranean catacomb, which—for a moment that lets forever be—is transformed into a life-affirming mausoleum containing the oeuvre of Paula Modersohn-Becker.
Everything is right here; from early academic studies—some a little heavy-handed or earnestly clumsy, others almost a caricature –to the self-assured work of a grown woman who has found her place in the world. These were unfortunately to be her last, as she died from an embolism at the tender age of 31, less than 3 weeks after having given birth to her first child, a daughter. A tragedy, and all the more so as this was a life event she had both anticipated and preemptively celebrated in her body of work. But let us not skip to the end quite yet.
At 16, she writes to her parents from England, about the St. John’s Wood Art School: “I shall have lessons there every day from ten until four. At first, I shall be only drawing, beginning with very simple arabesques and other designs. If I progress, then I shall make charcoal sketches after Greek plaster casts […] If I advance further, I shall begin drawing and painting from live models.”
With this simple program she sets herself a task, which she follows trough with devotion and bravura. Modersohn-Becker’s lifework, as a fully equal member of the artist’s colony in Worpswede, is remarkable in more ways than one. Her traveling to Paris on the New Years night between 1899 and 1900, her pioneer work as the first female artist to paint the female nude (including several nude self portraits), and her untimely death, is the stuff of myths.
But more impressive is the work itself. Not for its monumental scale or dazzling visual effects: the formats she administers are modest and never larger than life. Her palette is muddy as the northern European landscape from which most of them hail, and her brushstroke fat and fuzzy as if she is almost sculpting her paintings rather than painting them – or perhaps just pulling them out of the clay and pushing them back in – in one simple, matter-of-fact, gesture.
The self-portraits –though both peculiar and provocative in their time—are showing her neither as whore, nor holy. She is simply there, present, with her mental and bodily functions intact and fully alive. An important source of inspiration is Egyptian mummy portraits, which she studied in the Louvre and whose oblong format and frontal view she often employs—as if to remind us that in the midst of death we are alive. A longish amber necklace with large oval beads is a recurring motif that she paints in the same impasto ochre as the flat circular disk of her own iris, because they are both part of the same eternity. In painting after painting, her fat, terse, brushstrokes drag and push our own eyeballs around, as we follow their trail across the barren canvas and her own gaze as she travels across Europe.
She paints women and children first, not unsentimentally –because what would be the point of that? — But with no false modesty either: unflinchingly and always at eye level. Suckling babies find the teat with the unwavering conviction of instinct and all is in the world.
With her willing- and able- bodied being in and of this worldly world –a worldliness that combines the two meanings of the word and is both cosmopolitan and sophisticated as well as concerned with the earthly, terrestrial and mundane repetitiveness of this mortal coil— Paula Modersohn-Becher’s life work is not only the perfect antidote to the spectacle of Eliasson’s five-minutes-in-Iceland, but also to our jet-lagged existence. It is a poignant reminder that wherever you go there you are and you take yourself with you. Nowhere else but right here and right now could you get over yourself and make right by your sister, or could you be eye to eye with an amber oval that is both a smear of ochre paint and at gateway to your soul.
This review was originally published on Bad at Sports on January 12th 2015