By Rikke Hansen

In 1869, Georg Brandes criticised Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale ‘The Ugly Duckling’ for its ending, which, according to the later eminent, Danish critic, reduced its protagonist to a domesticated animal. Had the duckling-turned-swan met his death on the lake or had he flown away, Brandes argued, this would have made a less disappointing conclusion than the animal’s contentment (Tilfredshed) at being accepted by others.

The Ugly Duckling is also a recurring motif in the work of contemporary Danish artist Peter Callesen. Here, elements are lifted from a seemingly banal fairytale world into the realm of adulthood for scrutiny (nærmere undersøgelse). But where Brandes’ argument was political, exposing the ideological fabric(struktur) that hides behind children’s stories, Callesen’s practice is concerned with an investigation of the creative process itself. An example of this is The Dying Swan Is Dying, 2001, in which the artist, dressed as his avian(fugle) alter ego, attempted to make a self-portrait, cutting his costume into pieces and pasting it onto paper in a forlorn (håbløs) effort to match referent and representation.

Andersen’s tale is itself a story of mistaken identity, the story of a cygnet emerging out of what is perceived to be a duck’s egg. The narrative thus moves from misrecognition to recognition: the cygnet was destined to become swan from the outset; he just needed the world to recognise him. In Callesen’s work such subject positions are unstable. Palace of Dreams, 2003, does not reference ‘The Ugly Duckling’ directly; instead fairytales and folklores are appropriated in intertwined (forbundet) ways. The work, a styrofoam castle for one, was originally shown floating on the Baltic Sea inside Helsinki harbour. During a five-day performance the artist took people out in his boat and left each there for half an hour. It is tempting to re-inscribe this piece within the legacy of Andersen’s fable, making a connection to the final scene where the bird bends his head down in anticipation (forventning) of his death, only to see his own reflection in the water and realise that he is king of the lake. However, a more suitable analogy is Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, in which the prince’s rightful sovereignty as ‘king of Denmark’ is usurped by his uncle. Hamlet’s unsuccessful, momentary claim to rule is echoed in Palace of Dreams, where the audience is allowed a fleeting thirty minutes of power in a lonely, imaginary kingdom. Callesen folds this notion of an ‘impossible demand’ into a general concern for artistic practice. In Castle, 1999, he played the role of king himself, erecting outdoors a royal residency made from cardboard, maintaining and repairing the building for ten days until rain caused the construction to disintegrate.

Recently the artist has turned to 3-D paper cuttings. Removing himself from the presentation of the work has made his practice no less performative and the skilled cuttings testify to invested time. Some are life-sized and blend with the architecture of the exhibition space; others are made from simple A4 copy paper. Wedding Dress without Bride, 2005, is a tiny model of a white dress rising from the paper; the female subject is missing, but the cut-outs from which the dress was made are still visible as absences in the sheet. A4 paper may be the simplest of objects, but, latent (indeholdende men skjult) with possibility, it is what we write and print our stories on, and the turn to the medium presents a development of Callesen’s previous concerns. Tales emerging from paper, they remind us that literature exists on the page in ways different from ink and paper itself.

One of his most recent works, Hanging Skin, 2007, a medium-scale paper cutting, cites an iconic image: Valverde’s anatomical drawing from his Anatomia del corpo humano, 1560. The starting point is a self-portrait. Here, echoing the story of Saint Bartholomew, who was flayed alive; the outline of Callesen’s skin is cut from paper and left hanging by one of his hands. Valverde ‘stole’ his composition and subject matter from Michelangelo, who in turn borrowed from religion in his depiction of the event in the Sistine Chapel. The space of the image is further contested as Michelangelo supposedly inserted his own portrait as the face on Bartholomew’s flayed skin. Callesen’s re-appropriation of the story thus questions the position of the artistic subject and of the work itself.

Rikke Hansen is an art critic and a lecturer in art practice at Goldsmiths, University of London.