What condition is Europe in today? Historically, Europe is one of the most successful societies of the post World War era, but its structure is revealing ever deeper and more severe crevices. Is Europe falling apart, or do these crevices signify that Europe is sloughing to reinvent itself? In her latest exhibition, entitled Cracks & Crevices, Pernille Egeskov (b. 1970) introduces a new, wide-reaching theme, connecting her interest in timeless human conditions with European cultural history and the political moment which we are a part of right now. If you read my blog you’ll know that I usually reflect on digital cultural heritage-related topics. However, next to my job as SMK’s curator of digital museum practice, and chair of the Europeana Network, I have the privilege from time to time to work with contemporary artists on exhibition projects. Pernille Egeskov is one of the artists I have followed closely through the years. Her art has always taken as its starting point found objects and materials that carry within them intimate stories about human beings and being human — a sort of cultural histories or anonymous tales of fate told through the fabrics of everyday life.
MS: The very first thing that caught my eye as I entered your exhibition hall in Cracks & Crevices was the word EUROPA. That word really reverberates with me. Previously, when we have talked about your art, focus has been on the intimate stories of family life, gender, the private sphere, the home — basically the close relations of human existence. So it was kind of mindblowing for me to realize how all of a sudden you’re unfolding this new topic.
PE: It’s true that I have scaled up my perspective. It’s been a conscious choice with this exhibition that I wanted all the pieces to be seen both from an intimate and a more outward-facing perspective. They can be seen as existential outputs, but can also be viewed as impressions of what it means to be a subject in Europe. Or rather, a contemporary subject facing a European cultural heritage. And what is Europe?
The artwork Europa consists of 28 thin layers of semitransparent sketching paper of varying lengths, held together between wooden clamps. On each piece of paper the word EUROPA is written, but between the many layers the word gets skewed, washed out, so to speak. We can read that it says Europa but at the same time, the word dissolves into a pattern — a new image. Due to the many layers the word appears diffuse, while simultaneously it’s somehow emphasised. It exudes a very different quality than had it been written only once.
In this day and age, it’s becoming ever more clear that we have to relate to being Europeans. Things are pushed to extremes, both by external forces and by elements that are slipping within the European collaboration. For various reasons we are shaken, and this forces us to adopt new attitudes to where Europe stands, and where we stand as Europeans.
MS: So we can’t evade that we are tied together, while at the same time we see many tendencies to secede?
PE: Yes. That whole shiver is what has preoccupied my mind in preparing this exhibition — which is why I ended up calling it Cracks & Crevices. When something has been built up, it can reach a point where the surface starts to crackle, and crevices begin to appear. This is an opening into something new, but we don’t know what…
MS: I can’t help seeing a reference in this work to the motto of the European Union: Unity in Diversity. If the word EUROPA had been stated just once, it would feel as if a unity was being imposed. But because it’s written in many layers it turns into a surging pattern where not all are the same, yet they blend together — or are mixed together — depending on how one perceives it.
PE: The wooden clamps keeping the piece together are also ambiguous. They are a kind of cramps, however they are delicately processed and lined with felt as one would line a piano key. So some form of care has been invested in the cramps.
MS: You could also point out that if these fragile pieces of paper weren’t forced together by clamps, they would be blown away by the wind. In that way, there are many meanings ingrained in the materials you work with.
PE: It was my hope — or intention — that this piece would pollinate the other works in the exhibition.
MS: This piece resonated deeply with me because it unfolds this European perspective, while at the same time cultural heritage is omnipresent in the exhibition. The materials you use consist to a high degree of cultural heritage — stuff that people have used, formed, worn, or worn out — and which you process and remix. Can you tell me about the material and cultural heritage you relate to in your artistic practice?
PE: I’m fundamentally interested in telling contemporary stories but I like to do it using old materials carrying inherent meanings. In this exhibition too I have found and used old heritage materials and instilled new and different qualities in them, lifted them into contemporaneity, so to speak. Let me provide an example: In the piece Moth, I used money bags from the Danish bank Landmandsbanken that collapsed in 1922, a vest from the most refined masculine attire, the white tie suit, a piece of beautiful fabric so aged that it’s falling apart, and finally a curtain. Self-evidently this artwork comments on what was going on back then, in the years following the First World War — and leading up to the Second World War. But it is just as much a comment on things that are happening in the world right now. The work points backwards in time, at the present, and to the future, all at once.
MS: The greater history is always hidden in the intimate, existential investigation, as we all share fundamental conditions of human existence. But in this exhibition, I feel that you are addressing the socio-cultural structures of Western history more directly — structures that are simultaneously tied to human nature. Like the destructive tendency you address in Moth… And for some reason, we keep repeating history over and over again, don’t we!?
PE: Yes, that’s what’s so frightening about the whole situation! The intimate stories in my work have often circled around the fact that we have to let go. In a sense, this perspective is also there in the history of Europe which is very much about having to let go. The work Mum & Dad consists of two readymades, two enormous wooden structures — wooden cysts — that are gendered. Connected to them is a small figure, Transition, chopped from one piece of wood without finesse or detail, which has the shape of a little human being, but it’s far from being finished. For instance, it has no gender yet, but remains raw and undefined, almost primitive. Mum & Dad can be seen as the parents of this small gestalt. But it’s also an option to view them, in this context, as the origins of Europe.
MS: That urges me to mention the piece Untitled, which consists of a withered maple leaf in a state of total dissolution, and two old, found photographs. One could say that the origins of Europe, that’s also those people caught in the photos — the mothers and fathers and children who endured the history of Europe, so full of pain and loss, and in that sense both acting in and subject to the greater movements of history. These photographs, displayed together with the fragile leaf, forms a powerful vanitas! They carry in them the punctum effect that according to Roland Barthes is a signifying feature of photography: Looking at an old picture stirs an irrational sensation of being struck by distant, personal memories or experiences. Barthes might say that through these pictures we’re facing death. These humans, this leaf, were once alive, but they are no longer here. And these people have passed on the baton to us. In that way, human history in the general and individual sense are braided together.
PE: Precisely. It’s surprising how the intimate history of individuals run parallel with European history. And the times we live in clearly give rise to scaling up and exploring what’s really taking place.
MS: Speaking about the present, it is characterised by a noticeable contrast. On the one hand, we are very focused on understanding the wider global structures. On the other, we are living in an extremely egocentric culture, one in which individuals constantly stage themselves, optimise themselves and their own performance. The two seem to co-exist side by side, as two equally strong currents.
PE: Such currents might actually be at stake in the piece Promise. It’s a christening gown, displayed like a museum object as if it were fetched from the archives. The christening gown is a traditional symbol of going out into life. However, instead of following the prescription of embroidering the name and date of the christening on the gown, I have embroidered one word, Promise, multiple times, with different threads of human hair. So, every word is embroidered with hair from one individual.
MS: For several years, you have utilised this very special technique of embroidering delicate chain stitches with human hair. But in this exhibition, for the first time did it awake in me an association to the huge piles of human hair from victims of the concentration camps of the Second World War. Imagine, these people’s hair was collected and reused in textile production! I suddenly experienced that your hair embroideries acquired the same punctum effect as the photographies. They are the remains of real human beings, who contributed to shape our common history. And now, we are standing here and can shape reality. How will we act?
PE: You’re right, in this particular context, the hair — just like the photos — replace human beings. I have this sensation myself, that in this exhibition, the hair embroideries are almost like silent screams! It’s humans crying out. They are present on the stage, these people whose hair is represented. The two words you find embroidered in this exhibition are Promise and Forgive, implying both a vow and an appeal.
MS: My instinctive association when seeing the piece Forgive was a guillotine, a scaffold. I don’t know whether this has been a conscious idea in your composition of the work, but the title implies that something needs to be forgiven. A crime or a violation…?
PE: The work is built up of the word Forgive embroidered in hair, and a piece of delicate cloth from a bygone era. Furthermore, it contains some wooden elements that are clearly broken. Probably the guillotine association comes into play here. The work conveys a story of something that has slipped and broken to pieces, and someone is telling it now. Someone asking for forgiveness, or at least speaking about the crime. At the same time, when you stand in front of the work, it changes into a kind of appeal, as the word can be read as an imperative. Forgive.
MS: At the centre of the exhibition stands a tree upside-down. I might start by asking about the title — Growth — a word everybody’s talking about these days…
PE: We hear about it all the time, don’t we? Both in national, European, and global terms.
MS: Yes, it’s a dominant concept in society today. It’s not enough that ends meet, things have to constantly grow and increase. The fact that your tree is growing downwards and inwards can be read in several different ways. It makes me think of something turned upside-down, becoming the opposite of what it pretends to be, unnatural, you could say… Perhaps it’s also addressing an underlying reality which is invisible because the essence of the tree, its crown, is hidden under the surface. Also, I see a clear reference to the wooden cysts we talked about earlier, which also represent a form of growth turned bad. Basically, you’ve just selected some found objects and staged them, but together they acquire an incredible political edge!
PE: It really is very simple, yes, since what we see is a tree growing, however it’s turned upside-down so the root system is facing upwards and the crown downwards where we can’t see it. Where does the nourishment for growth come from? What is the source of nourishment? Where does the tree grow when it grows? And what’s the essential thing? Not necessarily what’s visible to us.
MS: This seems to point back at Moth where you used a curtain in the composition. Are you hinting to the things that are hidden from us, the citizens of society, which makes it hard to understand the mechanisms that drive us into economic collapses and world wars? We’re in a state of seemingly infinite weeping and grinding of teeth, and as an individual you sometimes feel quite helpless, confronted with these opaque, relentless forces.
PE: All we keep hearing is that it’s not enough to make ends meet, it has to grow! But out of what, and where will it take us?
MS: And what’s the point of this constant growth? And what’s going on behind the closed curtains? This is why I think this exhibition is so timely. We desperately need to reflect on these mechanisms. Is it a conscious reaction for you as an artist to add more of a political dimension to your work just now?
PE: I’m old-fashioned that way; I believe that you make the art you do because in a sense you’re an impression of the times you live in. When no one is asking you to make what you do, and you create it because you want to and can’t let it go, you become a sort of litmus paper of life. And life is full of cracks and crevices!
MS: This takes us on to the work Conflict; an incredibly delicate piece of needlecraft from a bygone era. A finely embroidered silk organza leaf, dipped halfway in rotten mud water which has seeped down, leaving a dark trail on the wall. The leaf is nailed directly onto the wall through the fine fabric. Why must something so exquisite and well-preserved be defiled like that? What does that say about our cultural heritage, which in my eyes is represented in this leaf?
PE: That will always be up to the individual viewer. But granted, there is an evident conflict at play between the materials here. Again, I’m thinking of the large vs the small history. A woman has been at work embroidering a leaf in completely life-like dimensions, so beautifully crafted you wouldn’t believe it, but it is and remains an artificial leaf — (wo)man-made — and then it has been sullied by a substance which represents a wholly natural process. Water, soil, and plant debris ferment and turn into a stinking mass.
MS: Right opposite this cultivated piece of nature hangs the opposite — an original piece of nature transformed into an artwork.
PE: That’s right, a leaf of roughly the same proportions is exhibited in a frame, however this leaf is real. It’s displayed like a small trophy, but it’s in a state of absolute dissolution and decay. In the process, it has changed into something that looks like lace. It exists, but simultaneously it’s far into a process of seizing to exist.
MS: Just like the photographs which are part of the same artwork…
PE: Exactly, the women in the photo next to the leaf are both present and absent at the same time, in their double exposure. The same goes for the little girl carrying a light in the dark wood. This relates also to Promise: A life still innocent, untouched by the world. And also to the cyclical; once it was here, then it’s gone, and now it’s here again…
MS: The nail going through the leaf is a strong symbol too. A true archetype in Western culture, it seems to represent a crucifixion of something fine and pure, which starts to bleed rotten mud water! This leads me to Utopia which in a similar way displays something exquisite and delicate that has been brutally put to a halt.
PE: It’s a stunningly beautiful piece of needlecraft, a magnificent tablecloth four-fifths into completion — and then it has been abandoned. What is more, the work has been abandoned precisely in the centre of the composition. The needle is still sitting there, rusted into the fabric. Next to the needlework hangs a quantity of sewing thread which is needed to finish the work, and in front of it lies a pile of spools in various sizes, some realistic, some unrealistic, that are empty and used up. Below lies a pile of unspun fibre which must be spun before it can be used to continue the needlework. Finally there is a stair tread on which a pair of sophisticated women’s gloves are placed. As opposed to Moth, Utopia conveys the story of a traditionally feminine heritage. The work is entitled Utopia because it deals with the dream of creating something grandiose. However, it’s not certain that the result will be precisely similar to the original idea. There’s also a hint of Sisyphos in it…
MS: May I return to the concept of Europe? Utopia is the title of a famous book in European history, written by the politician Thomas More and published in 1516. The book describes an ideal society, an island called Utopia, and this name means a ”non-place”; that is to say, a place that doesn’t exist. I find this interesting in connection with the title Europa which we talked about earlier. Does Europe exist? What’s the substance of Europe? We draw some borders, but how stable are they? Borders are products of decisions that can be renegotiated, just as well as our common conventions can be breached, and nations can decide to withdraw from the Union…
PE: Exactly. One might ask whether Europe is a magnificent embroidery just waiting to be finished? Is it possible for us to unite into one pattern, or is that a utopian project? In that sense, this work is also bigger than the story of a specifically feminine traditional craft.
MS: At the same time — and this in a way sums up how elegantly the entire exhibition fluctuates the intimate story with the greater European one — it’s also women like those captured in the photograph who historically have been preoccupied with such crafts…
PE: Yes, and who have taken part in building the Europe in which we live. We are standing on the shoulders of all who came before us, for better or worse.
MS: Speaking of women, I’m reminded of what they said in the 1960’s and 70’s: ”The personal is political”, which became a watchword for the feminist movement. Suddenly it strikes me that in your artistic practice, you have always sought to surface the untold stories inherent in discarded, unheeded materials. Tales of people’s relations to each other, of life stories woven into the fabrics people have used and used up. Stories that have in particular circled around women’s lives.
PE: I see the connection, but it’s really only now I notice it. The discourse around political art has felt so trite, often with a tendency to close in on itself, and I never wanted to see myself as part of that. I never wanted to use my voice to tell people right from wrong. I prefer to simply shed light on human conditions. Try as you might to impose a certain world view on others, it’s only when you step back and invite people to reflect on their own terms that change can begin to happen.
Cracks & Crevices was exhibited at Gammelgaard 13 January — 4 March 2018. It was a group show in three individual parts, featuring the artists Pernille Egeskov, Anne Damgaard and Anne Sofie Fenneberg.
All installation photos by Isak Hoffmeyer.