The tripartite capital - The genetically altered Mermaid - The pregnant man
Crist and Maria Magdalena - Adam and Eve - Number magic - Print

Bjørn Nørgaard interviewed by Karsten Ohrt about the artist’s Paradise Genetically Altered.

Bjørn Nørgaard interviewed by Karsten Ohrt about the artist’s Paradise Genetically Altered.

KO: What was the first image that came to your mind in connection with the sculpture in Hannover?

BN: Well, I guess that would be the arch and the Madonna, with the guy that’s lying down. That’s probably the first one. You know, you’re busy drawing. Suddenly, she’s just there. Then I shape her and model her up in plaster. Then the arch comes, and I begin to find out who she is. I’ve never made her before. She’s a Loch Ness monster, a medusa. How will this work, spatially? I’d be sad to leave her alone. The others furnish her with a space, within which she can play her part.
The point of departure for the sculpture is the debate that’s been going on since the 1960s about what can be done, and I mean – in any connection, with a work of art. There’s been a wide opinion held in academic circles that the great narratives are done and over. The utopias have gone the same way, and the picture cannot express anything whatsoever, least of all itself. The issues of the sixties and of, for example, the Fluxus movement, were that the art institution should be opened up and that art had to go out into society and no longer be socked away in some closed up room. And what is such a paradox is that ever since the sixties, art has become more and more closed and self-referential, in my opinion. And in this connection, it has become important for me to be carrying on the discussion about whether it is possible, on the one hand, to have an art which is in possession of a distinctly research character, which means to say, an art that scrutinizes art’s internal structure and possibilities and, on the other hand, whether it is possible to have an art that moves out into a public space and meets the society, taking upon itself a direct interplay with the society’s
ongoing debate.
Against the backdrop of this debate, I’ve been trying for a number of years to work with the human-like figure, because the figure is traditionally that which bears the meaning in the form of an allegory, body language or attribute. This is the tradition I’ve been struggling with ever since we, way back in the seventies, in the Arms and Legs – artists’ collective group, started working with what we called “populist classicism” or “recycled classicism”. We believed that visual art, much like an alphabet, carries certain archetypes or certain fundamental picture principles or statements, which will never lose their value – and A is, after all, still an A – and that’s the way it was, also, a thousand years ago. Along the same lines, we maintained that sculpture has its very own ABC’s. What seems to be important, then, is whether it is capable, through the artistic inquiry, of getting the sculptor’s ABC’s to enter into a context with the new societal discussion and with the values that society is discussing today. It is in this light that the figures in Paradise Genetically Altered have to be regarded. I mean to say that every single figure here is discussing whether or not it is possible at all to create a sculpture today – that’s not immediately obvious, not even to me. But it’s not immediately obvious, either, on the contrary, that you can not do so. Art does not embody definitive conclusions, but rather accommodates open possibilities for discussing art’s function in the context of a modern society.
What I’ve taken here for my mark is whether it is at all possible, at this kind of world exhibition, for a pure visual artistic expression to carry a meaning that extends beyond the momentary situation. You could say that, for many generations, the sculptor has been practicing genetic alteration. I mean to say, the sculptor has been gathering up elements from the most impossible places and piecing them together to form completely new pictures.

: In this case it’s maybe more a matter of a breeding than of a genetic alteration?

BN: That’s right. It does have something to do with breeding, because we’re not dealing with anything definitive, with something that is irreversible. We’re dealing with something that constitutes a link in a very long discussion. But the form of genetic alteration that we are confronted with is possibly a way of being toward existence that will radically change all the ways we perceive ourselves as people. And the strange rudimentary human figures that have come into being here constitute a way of discussing what kind of an entity the human being actually is, what it looks like – and what it will look like in 100 or 200 years. And the “Genetically Altered Female Figure, or Madonna”
on top of the Triumphal Arch is a completely wildly growing manifestation of what might conceivably happen if we just let the forces loose without anybody bothering to consider what the consequences might be.

KO: In recent years, your figures have acquired a somewhat more simplified character – and in the sculpture here, you seem to feel that you’re moving even further into the simplification.

BN: On one plane, the figures build upon an utterly simplified and primitive symbolic effect. They are a little rough-grained, like medieval woodcut figures. Their immediate reading is somewhat square. This is certainly something that they in the trend-setting circles are not so enthusiastic about – that the art can be so undisguised and possess such a precise intention. But what we are forgetting is that much of what we do and much of what we look at today, and call great art, is indeed created with a very precise intention. This intention has now largely been forgotten, and thus you can contemplate the figure freed from its original conception; it is something different now. I don’t know whether this has been successful. But if only a few of these figures also succeed as sculptures, then you’ll also be able to look at them in 50 or 100 years time, and you’ll be able to relate to them. I am of the opinion that the form must also possess a topical function. I’m also making things that don’t have this. But in this connection, it does have a function.

KO: There is a centrifugal and dynamic force around Madonna; she’s spreading out her arms and her breasts and strewing them all around in a whirling movement, which almost seems to be striking sparks around her.

BN: Well, that’s exactly how she’s been conceived, and the sunken triumphal arch that she’s standing upon, which possesses something of a classical or Romanesque character, indeed constitutes an image of that modernism upon which we have been building our culture up till now. And above this, then, the genetically altered Madonna triumphs – as an image of the new conception of the human, which is the logical consequence of the technological development that we have undergone in our society.
The overall concept in the figure group is that the genetically altered Madonna is the central figure, which has given birth to all the others. And what’s funny about this is that in the confirmation of the order from the casting foundary, it is written, without my even having said anything to them down there: “Madonna” and “Madonna’s Children”.

The tripartite capital
Down at the end of the arch, there is a tripartite capital: The man in the top hat, cigar in his mouth and the three penises. The figure is discussing the situation that the capital ought to have more faces than just this one, in order to make money. You might say that the capital has to have a social context within which to operate, and also that it must have a milieu-context and finally, that it must have a cultural context toward which it can address itself (the three sources). If the capital does not have any space or any rights, globally, toward which it can address itself, then things might get even more out of hand than we’ve actually imagined they might!
Certainly, a World Exposition cannot avoid addressing itself to the issue of globalization. The communistic utopia died out with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Wall, and what has been left behind for us now is a space of meaning which is at a loss for resistance or defense. This means to say that right now, global capitalism and the free-market can just bulldoze its way over anything and everything, because capitalism – in a militaristic and power-political manner – has assumed control of the establishment of meanings in the world. Therefore, it is crucial that we make an attempt to set up some other kinds of meanings, quite simply in order to get a discussion going and to obtain some critique, before the whole thing just goes up in smoke because of this. The reason that we have to do this is that it is imperative that a complex plurality, which is as great as possible, be constructed and set into place: A social, economic and cultural multiplicity. Because if this is not done, what we will get is a homogenization of the world, which will not be all that different from what we saw in the Soviet Union. Well, you could concede that it will be a little friendlier, inasmuch as people won’t be thrown directly in jail, but the reality and the enforced orthodoxy will be the same, by and large.
This is connected somehow with the discussions that Henning Christiansen and I have been carrying on in our projects World Peace Economy, which was presented most recently in New York City in May of this year, where Henning puts it in this way: “Unity through diversity. One religion is not enough”. It is entirely crucial that there be different social, economic and cultural spaces. The efforts made up until now have been centered on creating one identical economy in the world. I believe that we ought to be able to get different economies to function together. The international organizations ought to – instead of requiring that everybody have the same form of free-market economy – they would do much better to be operating as translation bureaus, of a kind, where they would be translating economies and transposing them into one another. Partly in order to provide people in different parts of the world with the time needed for creating their own development, on their own terms, and partly in order to ensure that different cultural expressions and ways of life can actually continue to develop on their own terms.

KO: Is there any paradox here constituted by your support of the proposal that Denmark will participate in a common currency with the rest of Europe, and that with respect to the referendum coming up in the autumn of 2000, your position is that the Danes ought to say “yes” to the Euro?

BN: This has to be examined in a global perspective. The way we have been discussing these issues up until now has been inside the context of a national state, also because the trend-setting discussion was happening in Western Europe. That’s why it was right there that the discussion was taking shape. Now the trend-setting discussion is not taking place exclusively in Europe. There are power centers in Asia, South America, Africa, and so on. If you want to attempt to formulate any other values than that of the free-market, it is crucial to assert that the democratic tradition in Europe manifests itself in a different way. For the Americans, democracy is synonymous with the free market, and vice versa. For the Europeans, democracy is not necessarily a free market. The democratic principles in Europe build upon the democratic institutions – and what constitutes the task of the democratic institution is to safeguard the common interest. This situation implies that each person must have something to play his or her individuality up against. Here, what arises is an interplay between the individual notions and needs, on the one side, and the institution’s attention to and attitude toward the common ideas and principles, on the other. And it is crucial that this conception is situated in opposition to the American conception about the free market. Of course, as we follow the logical course of the discussion, the discussion about hormone-injected beef and genetically manipulating technologies also subsumes the question about different markets. But it is also a different kind of notion about how such different technologies will be implemented in the world that we do share. The Americans’ conception is that the free market will take care of all this – if people are willing to purchase a commodity and if the corporations can hammer a sense of need into the consumer, then that’s just the way it is. Thus will it be done. And this is conceived as being entirely democratic. What the Europeans want is that there be a discussion of values and a democratic debate in which the citizen will participate in helping to decide as to whether this or that kind of thing is to be introduced. And the citizen has the right to be informed with respect to the consequences of what has been resolved. There has to be a matter of some real choice for the consumer. This is a democratic tradition that lies along the lines of the Enlightenment. Denmark cannot, all by itself, hammer this tradition in the mind of the whole world, but a Europe working together might be economically strong enough to get the Americans or any other powers that be to stop and maybe even to bother listening to us. And we Europeans comprise a market that remains sufficiently interesting that the powerbrokers might also be ready to respond, at least, to the European way of conceiving the market. This is why I believe that the European space is a historical necessity.
The alternative would be for Denmark to say: “We want to withdraw from all of this. We want to create a completely extraordinary example”. This would require that we give up driving around in the European, economic vehicle. But then we would have to accept the consequences and convert totally to ecology, stop driving around in cars, ride to work on bicycles, go down 40-50 % in pay, cut down on our pensions – in other words, we would have to create a low-growth society, where we would be placing our hopes on entirely different values, instead of the everlasting economic ones. I don’t think that we can continue our economic growth while standing outside of the European Union, if that’s what we want. I really don’t think that people today will give up their economic well being, and that’s why the European coherence is the place where one can influence the development in a reasonable direction.
One reason I’m speaking at such length about the European situation and why I believe it is important here, is because, this sculpture will be placed right in the center of Europe, in Hannover, at a world exhibition that will be visited by some 40 million people. Right now, people are busy with the usual trench warfare in the area of bio-technology, where it’s all a matter of representing the opponent as being completely foolish. Nobody will budge, and no genuine debate seems to be coming forth. And in this context, maybe the picture can accomplish something else, also because some of the figures are a little funny. And the sculpture is not saying that the development is only bad. But it is saying that there is something going on which must be handled with a far greater cautiousness than the free market is displaying right now. One must be far more critical than he or she is normally inclined to be.

The genetically altered Mermaid
KO: The recycled classicism of which you have previously made a lot of use seems to be less pronounced in the sculpture group here, but the recumbent, tripartite capital certainly evokes associations with reclining figures inside Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo in Florence, which you have been absorbed with before, and the elaboration of the triumphal arch in sandstone could also evoke associations with Giuliano Romano’s architecture.

BN: It’s right that there are a number of classic sculptural images behind the tripartite capital, and to a great extent, it has been built up as a plastic sculpture. By laying it right there, it plays a role in shifting the whole balance in the group. Another figure with clear references is certainly The Little Mermaid, which in Denmark is widely known in Edvard Eriksen’s version in the water just off the shoreline of the Langelinie promenade in Copenhagen, executed in 1913 after being commissioned by the founder of the New Carlsberg Foundation, Carl Jacobsen. This is indeed a figure that is known the world over. I can remember that I was once living at a hotel someplace in Korea, way out in the sticks. There, the local sculptor in cement had managed to paste The Little Mermaid together, because he had apparently received a postcard with this image on the front. And then it’s interesting to watch Walt Disney’s rendition of the tale, because there’s a happy ending. She gets married with the prince, and they live happily ever after, and all that stuff. But if you actually read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the story turns out very badly. And maybe this is even another interesting example of how the Europeans and the Americans perceive genetic manipulation in different ways. Because the Europeans know all too well that transgressing certain boundaries can result in frightfully tragic effects. The Little Mermaid is indeed a genetic modification, because she avails herself of sorcery. She knows all too well that it might turn out badly, but the love makes her blind. She is however, split in the legs. She’s also the only figure in bronze; this is especially because I wanted her to refer in a material sense to Eriksen’s sculpture.

The pregnant man
KO: And the pregnant man couples himself, as a form of genetic alteration, I suppose, with the Mermaid, so that they also become a couple?

BN: Yes, exactly. Like she does, the man is fighting against the order of nature. It certainly seems possible that we, as men, will be able to give birth to children in the future. But in any event, the man cannot do so right now. And maybe that’s the gist of the whole thing with genetic manipulation, that it articulates man’s ultimate desire to be able to create life; there seems to be an indomitable urge to surmount the biological fact that it is the woman who gives birth to children. There is clearly an overwhelmingly male tradition in science. You know, when you mate industrialism with science, what you get is a very heavy-handed exploitation of science. What’s quite interesting is that the Chinese discovered gunpowder, but they only used it for making fireworks. It was the Arabs who discovered alcohol, but they only used it for medicinal purposes, for exterior application. It’s the Europeans who make gunpowder and bullets and who drink themselves into a stupor. We have an ill-starred impulse that demands that it all has to be used for something, which unfortunately has some air of inherent destruction about it.

KO: The giant step for science is, I venture to say, that it is moving from breeding to genetic manipulation. Through breeding, grafting and other techniques, however, species have been altered for centuries now.

BN: Genetic manipulation is an escalating conception, for sure, but it definitely does constitute a radically new departure. It’s a little bit analogous to claiming that the atomic bomb is merely a continuance of TNT and dynamite. Why should the one form of explosive energy discharge be so qualitatively different from the other? Why can’t atomic energy be utilized just like everything else? There is, then, an overwhelmingly crucial leap from dynamite to the atomic bomb, and similarly there is an overwhelmingly crucial difference between selective breeding and genetic manipulation. Because the consequences of using the atomic bomb are so long-range and so incalculable – we certainly do see a quantum leap here. Breeding transpires much more slowly, and you can limit it. A selective breeding would never propagate itself in an unimpeded and uncontrollable course of events. And then, you can only breed selectively within certain kinds of species – you’re restricted to building on the species’ already existing characteristics. There’s a colossal jump from here to the situation where you can implant into a tomato a gene from a deep-water fish taken from the Arctic Ocean and abacadabra, you get a tomato that can withstand freezing temperatures. The difference between selective breeding and genetic manipulation corresponds to the degree of disparity between dynamite and an atomic bomb. The consequences are essentially and definitively different. And you can’t talk your way around that.

KO: Now they’re working on being able to clone not only sheep but also people, with the desired result that it will be possible to artificially produce human organs. The argument that maintains that it’s all right to do this claims that this kind of procedure can help medical science. We can heal people in this way.

BN: That which primarily renders such an argument so very reprehensible is that medical research is already busy going about the business of genetic manipulation. And so far, to the best of my knowledge, none of the attempts has yielded the desired results. Shouldn’t we wait with taking the next step until we know whether it’s going to work at all? It is well known that children who are born prematurely run the risk of suffering a long line of illnesses and defects, and we don’t know what the risk will be with genetic manipulation. I’m not saying that there should be no research at all in these areas. What worries me is that it has been put into the hands of private enterprises, and such businesses are dependent upon whether some return can be gleaned from the research. And this means to say that there will be a very unfortunate merging between the research as pure research - and the appurtenant assessment of risks involved – and the urgent need to get some return from this, as soon as possible. And that means that things will be coming out that ought to have waited much, much longer. It’s no longer a matter of research which is being paid for by the society, so that the society can decide upon and assess the risks there are, before anyone begins to use the things in practice. Once again, then, there is also the free market in opposition to the institution and the community.
The great problem arises when you start to experiment out in nature. And the area where in the Soviet Union you had the greatest difficulties in monitoring this line of development was in agriculture. You can espouse all your principles, structures and ideas. But in the final analysis, the eco-system is so complex that you don’t know whether you are solving problems or just creating more of them. I can remember the agricultural interests in the beginning of the 50s, in Northern Sjaelland, where they just began to spray. At that time it was held up to debate, and the very thought that it could ever harm anybody, ever – well, nobody could even imagine that! Today, we’ve got all of this poison in our subsoil water. And at the time that atomic energy was being debated in Denmark, the people were told that if we didn’t implement nuclear energy, we would become an underdeveloped country, and we would inevitably go bankrupt. We
didn’t elect to put nuclear energy into effect here, and look, we haven’t gone bankrupt! And it even seems that nobody is building nuclear power plants any longer. And now, they come up with genetic manipulation, which is supposed to save humanity, and it’s all so profoundly disquieting to have to hear the same song all over again.
And there is, around these figures, another way of creating a picture, which hopefully might foster the effect that one could be discussing certain aesthetic and ethical problems surrounding what we are doing, in the first place.

Christ and Mary Magdalene
KO: Then there are other figures, with more religious associations: an Adam and Eve, and a Christ and Mary Magdalene.

BN: What we have here are two couples – an Old Testament couple and a New Testament couple. And subsumed under both of these couples is the fall of Man, or the sinner. In both instances, there is this peculiar disavowal of love. Adam and Eve are punished when they discover sin and physical love – here, there is a matter of original sin. Christ comes into the world and frees us from sin, but this entails that Mary Magdalene, who is a sinner, has to stop committing her sins. This is all so very complicated. These two couples, then, are facing the pregnant man.

KO: The Christ figure is standing with a very special stooping over posture. He has no arms, but his body leans forward. In what situation are you portraying the Christ figure?

BN: He’s standing there and looking out over the world in the midst of the situation where Satan is offering him all the world’s wealth if only he will renounce God. And it is the same thing with the genetic technology – which promises all the world’s gold and green forests if only we will renounce all ethical and aesthetic claims. He’s looking out over the cliff, and all the world’s luxuriant opulence and delights are right down there below. He’s also been endowed with a sort of inverted penis in order to display his moralistic stance.

KO: Mary Magdalene is delineated in an impetuous movement, with sweeping bodylines and large breasts.

: She’s running away from her previous life. She has seen HIM. Christ has never spurned physical love in any way. But what he wanted to show was a love which extended much further. And that’s what she sees in him. She’s been lying with all these sweaty and half-unshaven men for years now. And then she suddenly comes into contact with a guy who tells her that she’s beautiful and that love is something much greater than she had ever imagined. And her earlier life does not block her from coming into contact with the love. She’s a prostitute who through her degradation nonetheless possesses a value in relation to God, because God loves her. And that’s quite a beautiful manifesto: No human being is lost. And that’s probably the reason that Christianity acquired such clout in its day, and why it has been able to sustain this kind of impact for so long. Today, it is certainly difficult
to imagine, with social services and
unemployment insurance, what this knowledge might have meant for people in utterly impossible situations. The conception that they also had a worth – this is indeed a universal, democratic principle. And this is the principle that has to be discussed in connection with genetic alteration. We’ve had mankind, whom we’ve known for millennia – but what kind of person are we now creating?

Adam and Eve
KO: As compared to Mary Magdalene, the Eve figure is more statuesque and more static.

: Yes, here we’ve moved over,
perhaps, into the more traditional male/female roles. The man, Adam, is the extroverted figure; the man with the briefcase and the cleaved head, on his way somewhere or other. He probably doesn’t even know where that might be. Whereas she is the traditional woman, with the home and the equanimity. They represent the Old Testament, with the man as the driving force, and the woman as the keeper of the home. This is in order to counterpose her with Mary Magdalene, who maybe represents the modern woman.
The Adam figure holds the briefcase as his attribute. The tripartite capital has the hat and the cigar, and the stomach of the pregnant man is, in a way, also an attribute. Otherwise to a great extent, it is the postures of the figures that bear the meaning. For example, there is the posture of the mermaid, who sits with her head bowed over and her body’s expression of resignation, and then there is her tail, which has become split into two parts, since the tail is about to turn into two feet. She’s in the midst of a metamorphosis – from fish to human being.
But when all is said and done, it is the modelling itself which has been most important to me, the form, the rotation of the body, the expression. We have certainly spent a great deal of time in modeling and shaping these figures, because the form’s clarity supplies the assertion with its authority. The ambition is that through the material and the form one can come up with assertions that potentialize the situation wherein instead of thinking in terms of ‘for and against’, you are thinking in a third way. And hopefully, one should also be able to look at the sculptures without having to think at all.

The form and the material
: It seems that your sculptures have become simpler and more monochrome over the course of the years – if we look back to the time when you were gathering together many materials, as you did for Thor’s Tower, for example.

BN: The figures for Hannover have relinquished their direct references, which I was using at an earlier time, even though these are indirectly built into them. In a transitional period, I made a lot of use of ceramics, because it is an inviting material. People can look at a sculpture that they cannot understand in the slightest degree. But if it’s made of ceramics, they feel that it looks elegant. Certain materials are friendly. It’s like with the Gobelin tapestries at Christiansborg. The woven textile possesses an entirely elementary aura. By using certain selected materials in particular contexts, you can send out certain very clear signals. This is so because in our sensory apparatus there are certain receptors which are, clearly, non-linguistic. It is somehow pleasant to be together with certain materials. Others are more distasteful.

KO: But in your artistic idiom, it cannot be said that there is a steady development toward these more simple forms. Have you given up working with ceramics and glass?

: No, not at all. It always depends on the situation. At the moment, I’m firing a large ceramic fountain. It’s a septigonal and lopsided work, with reliefs from the Apocalypse, measuring three meters long and two meters high, and in one piece. And this certainly has the opposition built in within itself: It’s made in glazed and colored ceramics and is therefore pleasant to look at, but meanwhile, it deals with the Apocalypse, a theme which is most decidedly not all that congenial – Doomsday.
I spend a great deal of time re-working the figures in plaster, making corrections on them, re-forming them. Then we cast the main part of the figures in cast iron, which is indeed a very coarse material in contrast to the marble, which represents the classical. Cast iron is primordially an indigeneously industrial material, and it is so unrefined that, in reality, it is absolutely unsuitable for being used as sculpture. The mutual opposition that exists between the purely modelled plaster form and the industrial casting – that’s all a part of the artistic challenge.

KO: How does the casting in iron differentiate itself from, for example, bronze casting?

BN: With manipulation of the wax, the bronze can be rectified all the way through, right down to the end of the process. You can continue to follow its course, and whatever imprint you make in the rubber, or the wax, can be taken into the form, down to the smallest fingerprint. You can’t do this at all with cast iron. The process with cast iron reduces, whereas in a wax figure, you can just keep on inserting and adding, and you can even select the level that you want to include.

Number magic
KO: You always work deliberately with numeral and number in your sculptures. Through much of your work, The Last Supper, with the twelve plus one, has had a great deal of significance. In this group, there is also a particular number that becomes a party to the result.

BN: Here, we have the Madonna, plus the seven others. Accordingly, the holy seven plus one. There are twelve tribes and twelve apostles plus one, Jesus. Seven angels who watch over the throne plus one. I’m not religious in the traditional sense. But there is, and I mean socially and spiritually, something thrilling about these numbers. In the Eks-Skole, we were very absorbed in the group phenomenen, and many tendencies in the art of the last century have sprung from groups, which were easy to grasp hold of: Surrealism, Dadaism, COBRA, and so forth. There must be two to make a pair, but when we move from three to seven, groups are established without any rules, but still with an clear arrangement. If the group has twelve, it must be organized, but it remains dynamic and powerful. And from seven and on upwards, it can suddenly move very rapidly. The square of seven is 49, and the square of 49 is 2401, and so on. A small group of people suddenly becomes an incomprehensible multitude of people. However, you don’t need to be many for having the message that you are putting forth make a strong impact – an action taken by even a small group of people can surely sprout forth into a whole spiritual movement.