Defying eternity

By Trond Borgen

History is a nightmare from which man is trying to awake, says James Joyce in his novel Ulysses(1) . It is a trap in which the nightmare is not the primary concern, says Norwegian artist Allan Christensen in his sculptures. For the nightmare is temporary; but manīs trap is eternity. And from this there is no awakening.

There is no awakening unless, of course, the creative act of the artist is of cosmic dimensions. Unless the artist is willing to grapple with God, in order to spite God and to defy the eternity he feels chained to. This will turn the artist into a kind of Lucifer, revolting against Godīs omnipotence, in an act of attempted liberation. Christensen is willing to do this: he has no fear of being cast from Heaven - as this has happened already.

To put it in other words: Allan Christensen places the individual in a metaphysical context. In the spring of 2000 he literally destroyed one of his works of art: he set fire to the big, heavy sculpture Angelīs Burden in the courtyard of Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, where he was participating in a group show. It was a ritual burning; and the charred remains were placed in a sarcophagus of glass and steel. In a heavy steel frame, solidly bolted, and inside thick glass, as if to control an enormous force. Had he finally killed off original sin?

Symbolically, he had indeed. Christensen considers Angelīs Burden an expression - and a materialization - of original sin, which has become manīs - and all mankindīs - burden through Godīs willing agent, the angel. An unbroken curse, from Adam and Eve, all the way through history, to us today. A nightmare from which we are trying to awake, a trap from which only the ultimate violation of the order of things could release man. Christensen does it by burning original sin and by burying it in a sarcophagus and keeping it there as pure energy, now restrained and broken. He has stashed away the ashes in a safe place, as a symbolic act, deeply personal, but also performed on behalf of oppressed people everywhere. It is as though Christensen has rid himself, and man, of original sin itself - art is thus turned into a liberation project of almost unfathomable consequences. Freedom shatters confines.

The peculiar thing is, however, that the angel in Christensenīs title is an ambiguous figure, or concept: not only is he Godīs willing agent, the one who complies and dutifully carries out his commands; he is at the same time the rebellious angel, Lucifer, who takes upon himself the task of protesting and revolting against God. So the burden in the title is also Luciferīs eternal burden of defeat, and punishment - his expulsion and utter abandonment - as he has lost his battle against the Almighty.

Why should man still suffer from this double punishment, for what happened in the Garden of Eden and in Heaven so long ago that all that remains are a couple of myths, anyway? This question is implied in Christensenīs ritual burning and in his charred sculpture in the sarcophagus. And his answer lies partly in the feeling of guilt, a personal element that goes back to his upbringing, and partly in the guilt that stems from the burden of original sin; but it also lies in the nature of making art, a generic process of liberation that always has to be performed, again and again, by anyone involved in the creative process.

What he ends up with, then - metaphysically speaking - is a metamorphosis, not unlike the ones found in Ovidīs book, which deals with the same form of mythical transformation as the one found in Christensenīs sculpture. When Ovid starts his poem by saying that "My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind,"(2) he is talking of religious imagery and mythical acts on a scale inimitable to man, as their dimension is cosmic. Allan Christensen places himself within this tradition with his own metamorphosis of similar material.

And like Ovid, who makes these metamorphoses visible, in his poetry, Christensen makes his transformation of the symbol of original sin visible, inside the glass case of the sarcophagus. Not only visible, though - also controllable: he has performed an act that can best be described in Joyceīs very precise words: "Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes."(3) These words are precise in our context, as they contain a description of the artist at work in a way that finds a parallel in Christensenīs case: with the ambiguity implicit in the word modality the description denotes both the faculty of sensation that is expanded on in the rest of the quote - that of seeing, of artistically observing, and the ability to ascertain something logically, as modality also points to the logical position that involves an affirmation of the possibility, the impossibility, or the necessity of the content of what is being contemplated. In our case it is original sin; and by symbolically placing its charred remains inside a sarcophagus that we can look into, Christensen enables us to control it through our vision - "thought through my eyes." We look into the sarcophagus behind the thick glass; but what is it that we really see? At the same time as Christensen gives us a chance to use our controlling, taming gaze, our faculty of seeing, he also discusses the existence or non-existence of original sin, the object of our gaze. Ineluctable modality of the visible.

When he exhibited Angelīs Burden in the exhibition Utopia in Stavanger, autumn 2000(4) , it was surrounded by three sculptures called Guardians. Three sizes of the same shape, these works look a bit like human beings spreading their legs, but also like threatening beasts. In one sense they are the new guardian angels, full of aggression towards the remains of original sin, which they now seem to watch over and control. In another sense they are crippled versions of the human body, symbolically mutilated, mentally manipulated - a travesty of ourselves. Is this the price we have to pay, if we want to rid ourselves of original sin? Or are these figures just the result of the continued existence of this sin, thus showing us the necessity of getting rid of original sin, once and for all? There is, here, an implied urgency; and that urgency lies in our perception of these sculptures and in the possible conclusions drawn from it - the way we think through our eyes. It is the ineluctable modality of the visible.

Looking more closely at these strange figures, it seems as if they are worn-out human beings - they are made by skillfully joining wood, leather and metal, bringing out their tactile qualities - and as if they have been raped, in their vulnerable condition. But this rape seems to be a mental one: where the head-rest ought to be, someone has performed a cut: rest is not possible. Injustice has been done; and the only way to deal with it is through the protest as a liberation force.

This kind of protest runs through all of Christensenīs work. He had his break-through as an artist with a series of Copulation Benches made in 1995 - 1996. These objects show us the night aspect of existence and the dark and sinister side of ecstasy - compulsion, obsession, and suffering. These benches become metaphors for the unattainability of ecstasy as an experience outside the Self. Made of leather and wood they look well-used and worn. Inspired by descriptions of the breeding of slaves in the American South two centuries ago, Christensen turns his Copulation Benches into instruments of torture and fetishes of perversion.

We see lust as barren and cold action; we see innocence perverted - the benches can easily be associated with the seesaws of our childhood playgrounds - and we see sex turned into a mechanical ritual without any human emotions involved. These sculptures are Christensenīs protest, both against the nightmare from which we are trying to awake: history (the treatment of the slaves) - and against the present (todayīs societyīs shallow focus on mechanical sexuality). It is a scream, of course, full of sound and fury, culminating in his big sculpture On the Eighth Day (1997) - its shape a kind of giant molar, but also a birth chair and a guillotine, all in one. So this sculpture is a complete metaphor for the life of a human being, from birth to death, as concentrated and condensed as Samuel Beckettīs short play Breath. Christensen sums up life and death in a way far removed from conventional beauty, rather like the way André Breton uses the term beauté convulsive, the shocking beauty, or the beauty that will cause convulsions: "Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all."(5)

Christensenīs sculptures contain such a convulsive beauty - convulsions become a central part both of this art and of our experience of it. His benches embody a compulsive repetition and a fetishizing of the body: dead objects become the goal and direction of lust; and lust changes into ecstasy through the visualization of pain and suffering. The fetishistic element is present because the sexuality implied is not natural, but fabricated, and because the sculptures embody a materialization of lust and desire. On the Eighth Day is not only an attempt to rewrite the story of creation; it is also an allegory, a narrative of the impossible condition of manīs life: sexuality contains death at the very moment it reaches ecstasy. Not only in the French sense of "the little death," as they call the orgasm; but also as a pessimistic summing-up of manīs existence. Life is a trap. The mechanical, passionless operation of the guillotine is here tied to the very spark of passion - desperately, painfully. Inevitably.

The title of this sculpture suggests that God, after having rested on the seventh day, just left the human beings to themselves, utterly abandoned. Perhaps we are all Lucifers, then? This metaphysical aspect ties On the Eighth Day to Angelīs Burden; and we see the Utopian aspects of Allan Christensenīs art. His project - that of getting rid of original sin and of rewriting the mythical story of creation - is a quest for Utopia; and it is bound to fail, of course. Christensen knows that; and by still pursuing this quest, he gives us the enormous potential and scale of artistic creation. For Utopia cannot be located; it is a non-existent place which lies beyond the horizon. It cannot be grasped; it remains a paradox: the word itself denies its existence, it denies the place it names: the no-place. It is a "space between," as Louis Marin sees it:

This is the merging place of Utopia: a neutral place, an island in between two kingdoms, two States, the two halves of the world, the interval of frontiers and limits by way of a horizon that closes a site and opens up a space; the island Utopia merging into the "indefinite."(6)

Christensen opens up such a space, for us to glimpse not only the metaphysical questions of eternity, creation, and original sin, but also his equation of manīs Utopian longing with the creative act of the artist: the transgressive power of the imagination. Even if he cannot rid himself of original sin, he can still reach for eternity in a way that is liberated from such constraints: for Utopia is the moment where man and eternity meet - the point at which man seizes an opportunity only to see it vanish in the same instant. For eternity is a trap from which there is no awakening. You can still defy it, however; and this, Christensen seems to tell us, is the artistīs Utopian enterprise: even if he can never achieve his goal, he has to continue his quest. He cannot reach what he strives for - getting close to his goal, he sees it disappear. Allan Christensen shows us in practical and artistic terms what Adorno has given us the theoretical foundation for:

Art must and wants to be Utopia... yet at the same time art may not be Utopia in order not to betray it by providing semblance and consolation. If the Utopia of art were fulfilled, it would be artīs temporal end.(7)



James Joyce, Ulysses (1922) (Aylesbury: Penguin, 1972), p. 40.     (tilbake)
Ovid, Metamorphoses
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1971), p. 29     (tilbake)
Joyce, Ulysses, p. 42    (tilbake)
Trond Borgen and Einar Børresen, Utopia. Catalouge (Stavanger: Rogaland Kunstmuseum, 2000)    (tilbake)
André Breton, Nadja (Paris: NRF, 1928)     (tilbake)
Louis Marin, "The Frontiers of Utopia" i Utopias and the Millennium, red. Krishnan Kumar og Stephen Bann (London: Reaktion Books, 1993),
p. 10     (tilbake)
Theodor W. Adorno, Aethetic Theory (1970). trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press), p.32      (tilbake)

Trond Borgen (b. 1950) has an MA degree from the University of Bergen. He is a Norwegian art critic, curator, and lecturer. He has written several art books.

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