By Pontus Kyander

A star falls from my winter’s sky, brim full and bristling. Headlong, and then – gone. There is a silent wish granted, and I wish there was someone to put that star in place again.

All narratives unfold in a space. Normally, both the unfolding aspect and the spatial are to be taken metaphorically: the space indicated is a mental one, one that has to be imagined, and the unfolding is a way of describing how the writer arranges the storyline to evolve in all those twists and turns we know from literature. The story has to be interpreted and re-narrated by the reader, in his mind. Sometimes, and sometimes not, the miracle of reading brings us to unforgettable moments, full of images brought out from our own mind and memories.

The space in visual narratives is mental as well as physical. Again, there is a story to be reconstructed, but the images are there instead of letters. It is an easy way to evade the cumbersome act of description (an image is not a description, it is a reality in itself), but places the viewer in the position to have to re-enact the narrative. Visual narratives are somewhat more open-ended than the stories told in books, in particular if we talk of singular images and singular objects.

Peter Callesen’s paper works are literally results of folding – and cutting. On top of a story that include various symbols that we recognise from fairy tales and other archetypical storytelling, and thus integrating all those narratives that we know from reading books and watching films about castles and princesses and monsters and darkness and a lot of other things, he also brings in the story of the work itself. This is not just a castle, it is a castle that tells you how it was made. All laid bare, the start, the process, and the final result. In that sense, the work is narrative, but also performative. Object and action at the same time. The act of viewing is a re-enactment, and an act of unfolding the folded, uncutting the cut.

—Tell me a story, said the piglet to the pig, or was it the puppy to the dog, or the kitten to the cat, or just my kid or your kid to me or you the other day. Let me tell you a dark, dark story, stark dark like tar on the wall inside a closed closet. Once upon a time there were these birds, they had feathers, beaks, wings, whatever you need to be a bird. But they were stuck. Have you ever seen, little piglet, or puppy, or kitten, or kid, have you ever seen a flock of birds on a pond surprised by the frost, with their feet frozen to the ice? Probably not – who has? – but can you imagine? Anyhow, these birds were stuck, they couldn’t get anywhere except for the occasional wrenching and wriggling to get loose from the ground. But then, it wasn’t the ground. It was just a big white sheet of paper, they were birds trying to escape their drawings. Can you imagine anything worse? They were just like us, tied to their shadows, turning and tumbling to get loose.

OK, we could go on talking about fairytales and such things, but if we do, we have to remind ourselves of the sadness embedded in many of those tales, at least some of the best ones. The prince is not getting the princess, the tin soldier melts from his burning passion, the mermaid is caught between her craving for love and her need to survive. And then you have the young swan watching the egg, wondering where on earth that came from.

There are a lot of solitary cygnets, ugly ducklings, steadfast tin soldiers and other losers and loners in the gallery of characters of Peter Callesen. Hard facts of life are counteracted by sheer optimism and denial up to the bitter moment of defeat and destruction. Just like the heroic characters of slapstick, there is under all of this an existential drive. In the Greek tragedy, you talk about peripeteia, the turning point when the shocking facts begin to reveal themselves, when the consequences of all the previous acts have to be paid and from which no regrets are any more allowed. Peter Callesen’s works, regardless whether we talk about his drawing, his paper works or his performances, usually place their focus on those situations, but without allowing the characters to reach the moment of insight and clarity. They are stuck in the moments of firm belief. It is only us, viewers and bystanders, who may draw any conclusions.

Or are we just jumping to conclusions? Is the moment of defeat really more real than the dream of success and fair rewards? We can actually choose to believe in the moment of belief, and instead of waiting for a wishing star to fall, send one of our own up in the sky.

There was this white paper in a shop window – isn’t a gallery ultimately a shop? – against a backdrop painted all pink. You could see the silhouette of a branch and leaves and petals of a cherry tree. But only in the negative, as an absence cut out from the paper. The white flowers had all fallen to the ground, floating like water lilies in this pond of pink. This was in the week of the Cherry Blossom Festival, a national holiday in Korea, and simply a response to the situation. In his own way, Peter Callesen incorporated a painterly tradition (shared in particular with the Japanese, whose cruel colonisation of Korea left this poetic imprint behind) and of course the super-commercial noise of tingle-tangle and bric-a-brac going on around the city of Seoul. But this window was silent, the only sound imaginable was that of falling flowers that just had dropped to the ground. And the image itself was in ways a visual conundrum, a riddle and its paradoxical reply welded into one. You have the blossoms on the branch, but absent; the flowers on the floor are in return like shadows of the petals fallen from the tree, painted in reverse: white-on-pink responding to pink-on-white. Question and response, and the response echoing the question. Which is most real, the branch painted in pink, or the flowers cut out of white? The solid flowers are obviously or at least seemingly cut out of the paper, in fact both are part of the same white void. Finally there is neither nor.

A spider spins his web, just to find himself stuck in it, The Dying Swan stumbles, falls, slips and even gets rolled in tar and feathers. The sailor folds his own boat out of cardboard, launches it in the pond or canal or at sea – just to find it sinking under him. A king builds his castle out of wood and cardboard, on the lawn by the art school or on a tiny custom-built island in the harbour. Great dreams are enacted by the simplest means and by somewhat faltering skill.

I used to think his performances were about failure, ineptness, lack of touch with reality. Probably I got it all wrong. Far from being a fact, failure should rather be described as a state of mind. If you are not willing to admit failure, though your achievements neither get any acclaim by the world around you, nor do they actually carry you anywhere further, still in your mind you can hold on to your visions and aspirations, however incomprehensible, unrealistic or false they might seem to anyone else.

“Life is a dream” is the conclusion of the hero of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s play with the same name. Life is all a dream, and even dreams remain but dreams. Dream and wake mix and reverse in the play, like the presence and absence, figure and ground in Peter Callesen’s paper works. But also his performances evolve in an opposition of realities, incongruous to each other but still just as much part of each other. Is this reality, is this a king, is this a brave sailor or just a fool? The contradictions of these different systems of belief create the tension that actually supports it all. So if it is a dream, let it be a dream. So is reality.

Peter Callesen’s various personæ all seem to share something invincible. They are kings of their own castles, heroes of their own worlds. What seems tragic could as well be regarded as absurd, at the most, or just uncompromising. They set their own rules, and stick to them. You see the cardboard boat sink, the castle collapse from rain and wind. But the heroes don’t give in. Courage and hard-headed stubbornness are kissing cousins. Instead of admitting defeat, they seem to have a more cheerful attitude: come on Sisyphus, there is still a stone to roll tomorrow!

There was this troll called Shame, and there was his mirror. He made it such that everything true and beautiful turned out ugly and distorted. He had a great laugh at all this. Then all bad and ugly looked just proper and great! Everyone around admitted, that now you could really see the true face of reality! But then someone dropped the mirror. It was smashed into a million pieces, pieces so small that they spread with the wind and got stuck in the eyes of people. Some even got a splinter in their heart, making it cold as ice. This was the birth of realism, of the proper way to understand the world. And in the middle of this sea of ice, you had the cold and beautiful Snow Queen making everyone play The Game of Common Sense. That is the framework of H C Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, and that is another story unfolding in the background while the snowflakes tumble bigger and bigger outside my window.

Pontus Kyander is a Swedish art historian, critic and freelance curator as well as the former editor of the weekly TV program on contemporary art, FORMAT on Swedish national television