Peter Callesen’s thrown down with Christianity

By Gerd Rathje
mag.art. in Art History from University of Copenhagen and UCLA,
Director of the Museum of Religious Art in Denmark

The fragmented mirror

Lights are pouring out of the open church door leading into Our Lady, the Copenhagen Cathedral. It is late night in the inner city of Copenhagen. The square in front of the ancient main building of the University is deserted. The city is remarkably peaceful; only the low hum from the distant traffic and the odd yelling from the bars around Larsbjørnsstræde blend into the stillness. Inside, music is heard. The austere, white, classical architecture of the church as well as Thorvaldsen’s monumental, yet delectable sculptures take the visitor back in time. Back to when the first idea of the creative artist’s genius is born, to when the work of art and the soul become two integral entities, and Romanticism materializes as an artistic movement in its own right.

In 2006 artist Peter Callesen created an altar installation for this church (fig. 16).

This work of art is only open to the public during late night services. It is an inter-active altar, which means that we as viewers are free to participate in the construction of the work. Each of the visitors is provided with a piece of broken mirror glass, on which one can write a message, a wish (a prayer) or a name, subsequently to be fixed on to the altar, where it blends with the numerous con- tributions from previous churchgoers. In front of the mirror wall, but with its back to the viewer’s field of vision, is seen a picture of Christ, and between wall and picture a real candle is burning. When the visitor sits down on a low kneeling stool in front of the altar, the mirror surfaces reflect fragments of Christ’s face. Man is born in the image of God, but who is this God who looks back at us from the fragmented mirror? The portrait of Christ is a reproduction of a Russian icon. These religious images belong in the orthodox church. Icons are not solely regarded as pictures or illustrations. According to orthodox tradition they are direct manifestations of the Holy. The choice of this kind of Christ portrait suggests themes such as “the inherent power of the image” or “the metaphysics of the image”. Thus the work poses a number of questions that are relevant to our reflections on faith today: How can images of God be created today? What is religious belief to modern man? The work was designed as a reference to a text from St. Paul’s first letter to the

Corinthians (ch. 13, v. 12), in which he speaks of love: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully”. The mirror altar makes the viewer recall that man does not have direct access to fully understand God and the mystery of life, but can only realize this fragmentarily. Thus the work deals with the way in which God and the existence which life embodies is understood only by glimpses. At the same time the work holds the idea that there is a God who observes the fragmented character of human life benevolently. Peter Callesen depicts a God who knows each individual and acknowledges him or her, in spite of the schism and human fallibility. It is through God seeing and knowing us that we achieve the wholeness and perfection that Paul speaks about. A contemporary work of art rarely holds a correct answer or a narrowly defined statement. The work is often pieced together from elements, a collage which can generate fresh meanings continuously. The thoughts we as viewers bring to the work will influence the meaning we find in the work. At the same time, the work may be instrumental in influencing us and our self-images as we move on in the world. According to this way of thinking the identity of the work and our own identity are in continuous interaction and transformation. The work helps to suggest what role Christianity can play for a human being, whose identity is shaped in a process of interchange and a mirroring process among human beings.

Where does the work belong?

In the course of the 20th and 21st centuries the trend of art has been characterized by the desire to break down the old framework and create a new. Traditional painting has been challenged.. There are many ways in which a work can capture a room and relate to its viewers. For example, Peter Callesen’s works are often inter-active. Another characteristic of contemporary art is that the work is often “space specific”. Somehow the work of art relates to the space in which it is placed. The work is no longer a finished entity, but is to be experienced in a constant interchange with its surroundings. The altar installation in Our Lady is a case in point. It was constructed in such a way that it would not make the same sense if exhibited in an ordinary art gallery. Callesen’s work Big Paper Castle (fig. 14), exhibited at Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, 2004, is a perfect example of a work in which the space specific element relates to the architecture and proportions of a room. This work focuses on what the scale means to the bodily experience of the work. Works can be surprisingly large or extremely small as seen against the conventional use of the material, the paper. Such scales immediately trigger our senses and feelings. In Big PaperCastle a large expanse of white paper covers most of the floor in the room. Towering from this is a three-dimensional palace, which is large but not large enough for visitors to walk inside and far from full-scale. Here the artist challenges the viewer to a minor power struggle. In order to continue the show the visitor has to pass through this room, but the white, clean paper blocks the way, and we are reminded of the inviolability of the “clean” work in the modernistic appreciation of art as seen in the 20th century. At the same time this struggle is in accord with the idea of a palace, the symbol of power, sturdiness and potency, which is in blatant contrast to the “feminine” frailty of the paper. For the contemporary artist the rooms of church and museum will offer different challenges as the work in question serves different functions in these rooms. In an art museum the work is primarily to be Art with a capital A. A number of traditions, restrictions and criteria serve to define whether the work fulfils its function as a work of art. Sometimes these are in contrast to the requirements posed by the church room and the religious context.I Way back to the beginning of the Modern Age around 1300 when artists like Giotto and Cimabue emerge from the namelessness of the Middle Ages, there have been two ways of regarding art in churches. Art historians regarded the works in one way, asking questions as to what their stylistic, biographical and culture historical positions might be. On the other hand the believer and the theologian saw the works as means to praise God or gain an insight into the nature of the Divine.II Even today these two approaches are important for the challenges facing an artist when he moves in the junction between art and faith.

Ban on Images vs. Representations of Christ

In his earlier works Peter Callesen has time and again dealt with existential or religious themes. In the present exhibition, Out of Nothing, he plunges into an interpretation of Christian images. In early Christianity there was a taboo on representing God. Christ’s first followers came from the Hebrew tradition according to which God’s name was so sacred that it was not to be pronounced. In the Hebrew Bible analogies were used to avoid mentioning God by name.III Peter Callesen’s work The Curtain (fig. 17) can be seen as an example of a work of art which also uses the analogy instead of representing the Holy. According to the Gospels the curtain of the temple in Jerusalem was miraculously torn in two when Christ died. Callesen’s works often make use of suggestions, which means that he moves from what is illustrative to a more ambivalent and open expression. The work Out of Nothing (fig. 18) is another case in point. Instead of showing us the body of Christ risen from the dead, we are presented with the void that is left after the linen sheet has split. Another reason why Christ could not be represented was the Second Commandment, which forbids the creation and worship of idols, the so-called ban on images. In today’s Catholic and Lutheran churches this ban is understood as a warning not to worship other gods. Representations of God are permitted as long as they are accompanied by sincerity and the wish to serve the “true” God.IV Consequently, Christian artists are faced with this set of problems: How to represent Christ’s double nature as all-human as well as all-divine?V Peter Callesen’s works deal with this double nature to a great extent: The suffering and the despair which make Christ human and ideal. The impossible sacrifice and the Resurrection, elevating him above what we can grasp with our intellect. In the work My God, My God (fig. 19) it is precisely the human Christ who emerges. Here, making use of the physical void and the absence of Christ, Peter Callesen creates the feeling of being deserted. The figurative aspect of the work is minimalist, to put it mildly. In the left-hand corner of an A4 sheet Christ’s head is to be seen in profile, to be recognized because of the crown of thorns. His face seeks for the large, empty surface of the paper as if he was looking up towards the infinite universe. The cutoffs have landed at random in the corner of the picture frame, a tiny remnant of crumpled-up piece of paper, emphasizing the triviality of the absence and the feeling of insignificance generated by the large, empty universe. On the other Side (fig. 20) is a work which to a much higher extent emphasizes Christ’s double nature as God and man. Here the silhouette of Christ crucified is at the centre of the A4 sheet. Peter Callesen has chosen to represent a somewhat nondescript or neutral Christ figure. It is neither the facial expression, specific characteristics, nor is it human suffering, which are at the centre of this representation. The tone as well as the purpose of the work is struck in the contrast between the white paper and its red backside where the cutoffs have become streams of blood running from the nail marks down toward the bottom part of the work where they are transformed into blood-red poppies. The transformation from blood to flower suggests the symbolic references of the poppy.

Due to the intoxicating effect of the poppy it has been associated with dreams as well as seduction. In the Middle Ages it was forbidden in certain parts of the world as its healing effect clashed with the suffering God had allotted a sinner through his being ill. In the medieval universe there was an indefinable distinction between the divine miracle and what was of the Devil. Due to the fierce effect of the opium the poppy has always had one root in Heaven and one in Hell. Due to its frailty the poppy has been associated with what is transitory and with the end of life, at the same time being the symbol of Resurrection. In the Lord’s Supper, the most important Christian act, we consume Christ’s blood in remembrance of Him, thus recalling how the blood was shed for the sake of the forgiveness of our sins. In Peter Callesen’s work the poppy becomes a distinct reference to the frailty of life and to the Resurrection. I cannot help thinking, though, that the work also contains a yearning for the more seductive elements in Christianity: the powers of the miracle, of love and of faith, which is often drowned in the struggle of modern man between reason and doubt.

From Failure to Fall

During the 1990’ies the concept of failure has played an important role for a number of Danish as well as international artists, notably Peter Callesen. In a series of performances Peter Callesen has used himself as a “figure” struggling with a task doomed to fail. In the work Castle (fig. 6) from 1999 Callesen anointed himself with a “toy crown”, capturing his kingdom, in which he built a castle from cardboard and gaffer tape. His performance lasted for ten days during which King Callesen struggled in vain with the forces of Nature, as wind and weather relentlessly made the castle collapse. According to the artist the work is primarily about challenging the impossible as well as the universally human fact that we are imperfect and that the world does not always connect logically. In his failure works the artist often struggles with structures and elements that seem meaningless in a rational world. One example: In the work Crossing (fig. 4) he built a big newspaper hat, which he then tried to sail in, dressed in a sailor suit, of course. In his article “Nostalgia, Reverie and Intoxicating Dreams Romantic Longing in the Art of Peter Callesen” Camilla Jalving observes that the work Castle is not to be seen as slap-stick humor only: ”On the contrary, these are serious matters. During the ten days of the performance, Callesen slowly, but effectively dethroned not only the king, but, equally interestingly, the masculine virtuosity traditionally attributed to the male artist”.VI The use of the failure concept is essential in contributing to emphasize the way in which contemporary art investigates the romantic notion of the artistic genius. The critical theories of the 1970’ies focused on this artistic myth. During this period and up till now numerous works of art have attempted to dissolve the power structures, which this notion happened to consolidate and naturalize in the world of art. Peter Callesen’s approach is more exploratory or even investigative rather than downright deconstructive. He explores the borderline between what is possible and what is not. In recent years Peter Callesen’s works have turned away from the failure concept as his own person and body have adopted a more indirect role in relationship to the work. In the works Three Dead Angels (fig. 13) and 3 Angels trying to Escape their drawing (fig. 22) he works with the question of freedom vs. captivity. In their capacity of winged beings existing in a paradise-like state of innocence or perhaps only in the imagination angels are both free and unfree. They have no access to the sorrows and pleasures of human life. Who is not familiar with stories about angels wishing to live out falling in love like human beings but having to pay the price of mortality for this? The Fall involves pain, but then the Fall is inevitable for the understanding of the ups and downs of life. The work The Tree (fig. 21) is a continuation of such reflections on the relationship between life, sin and after-life. In this work is seen the silhouette of a blossoming apple tree in which the cutoffs become a skeleton. The apple tree of course symbolizes sprouting and budding life, but it is also a reference to the Tree of Knowledge whose fruits were part of Man’s downfall. The skeleton is a symbol of death and mortality, which were the consequence of the Fall. The work as a whole, however, also reminds one of Nature and the traditional funeral reminder: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Like a true romantic artist Peter Callesen searches for the paradise-like state or for a crack into the Divine. In his works he has incorporated his awareness that this state is both unattainable and impossible, but that it also contains a form of substance or reality.

Miracles and the sublime

The word miracle comes from Latin mirari which means to wonder about something that has an inexplicable, often divine cause.VII The miracle transcends the laws of Nature. For example Thomas Aquinas describes the miracle as “what God has done beyond the order of created nature.”VIII However, the miracle also has another dimension which distinguishes it from other strange or incomprehensible occurrences, as this is a sign or indication from God, a way of passing a message on to mankind. In the present exhibition Out of Nothing Peter Callesen is concerned with the miracle and its relationship to the essence of art as well as to the representation of God. Peter Callesen’s works are often constructed in such a way that we as viewers find it difficult to realize how the artist passed on from A to B. The gigantic paper cuttings appear magic or miraculous because they seem to transcend the laws of Nature. Thus they also refer to the very essence of art, for even though today many connoisseurs would tend to say that the concept of art is something construed, yet a modern work of art still holds the notion that a picture becomes more than a mere illustration of real life. Behind lies something different and bigger. The work The Short distance between Image and Truth (fig. 23) is a perfect example of this, paraphrasing the legend about the woman Veronica who, while Christ was walking towards Calvary [Golgotha] carrying the cross, offered her head-scarf or her sweat-cloth to the exhausted Christ. After he had wiped his face, its imprint was left on the cloth. The name Veronica is derived from “vero” and “nika”, meaning truth and picture, hence “the true picture”. In this work Peter Callesen has chosen to produce the sweat-cloth from paper, which has assumed a very textural character. The work has been produced so that under proper circumstances an optical illusion makes the picture look as if it is floating in front of the cloth. Thus in this work Peter Callesen plays on the evident parallels between art and the religious element.

The sublime as represented in the philosophical discipline of aesthetics is another concept deserving attention when interpreting Callesen’s works. Romantic philosophers have in particular been preoccupied with the definition of the sublime. For the 18th century philosophers headed by Kant the sublime is associated with the relationship between the sensory and the extrasensory, when the grandeur of nature experience was so overwhelming that, giving up, the mind had to conclude that the experience was bound to refer to something supernatural. The artists of the Romantic Movement strove to capture “the sublime” in their works. Subsequently the notion of the sublime was taken up by Jean-François Lyotard, the French postmodern philosopher. Lyotard associates the sublime with nonfigurative art and “the representation of what cannot be represented”. Lyotard describes how Barnett Newman, the non-figurative artist, explores the boundaries of human experience. His art is described as “an expression of what cannot be expressed”.X For Lyotard the sublime is associated with the pain and the horror felt at the thought of the end and the absence of meaning. For the sublime feeling to appear it is important for the end and the absence to be held back or kept at a distance, be suspended. A joyous relief appears in the soul, which is called sublime – thus the sublime is a question of intensification, a reminder about life and the present. When artist Peter Callesen explores the concept of the sublime, unlike Lyotard he does not link on to a cogent philosophical interpretation. He is interested in exploring whether through his works he can create an experience of “something, which the mind cannot contain”, which at the same time engenders a feeling of horror as well as of delight in the viewer. In the Romantic Age the concept broke away from a religious or Christian setting of comprehension. Now it was associated with the endeavours of the autonomous work of art to transcend the boundaries of the human experience. In Peter Callesen’s works we once more find a romantic yearning for the impossible or the inexpressible. Peter Callesen often uses the absence or the void to engender feelings of something miraculous or sublime. Thus Peter Callesen brilliantly delves into the late-modern paradox concerning religious art. In his works we encounter a duality: On the one hand the romantic longing, which manifests itself through a search for the sublime, the divine and the miracle. On the other hand the works call attention to themselves as works of art, as cultural constructions, in eternal transformation and interchange with their surroundings and their viewers.


I Homan, Roger, the Art of the Sublime, principles of Christian Art and
Architecture, p. 2 Here the author leaves little if any room for the notion that the religious and the museum contexts may coincide
II Homan, Roger, the Art of the Sublime, principles of Christian Art and Architecture, p. 11
III Finaldi, Gabriele: The Image of Christ, National Gallery, 2000 p. 9
IV The book on Lucas Cranach…
V Finaldi, Gabriele: The Image of Christ, National Gallery, 2000 p. 45
VI Camilla Jalving…
VII Hvidt, Niels Christian : Mirakler (Miracles), Gyldendal, 2003, p. 12
VIII Hvidt, Niels Christian : Mirakler (Miracles), Gyldendal, 2003, p. 13
IX Hvidt, Niels Christian : Mirakler (Miracles), Gyldendal, 2003, p. 13
X Hagen, Jimmy Zander : Filosofisk æstetik (Philosophical aesthetics),Gyldendal, 2002, p.121