Romantic Longing in the Art of Peter Callesen

By Camilla Jalving

Those visitors crossing the lawn behind Goldsmiths College in London in January 1999 would have seen the following: a king, dressed accordingly in a robe and wearing a crown, was building a castle out of cardboard held together with cello tape. The castle was several meters high with four soaring towers and placed majestically in the middle of the lawn. In the beginning of the building process the castle seemed solid. A true home for a nobleman of his rank. However, during the ten days of construction the castle was weakened by the rain, becoming all soggy and damp, not being able to sustain its own weight. Nonetheless the king heroically continued to repair and build on his impossible project, as if his whole kingdom was now only to be found in this gesture of building, of trying hard to erect his dream. In the dead of night, after the 10th day of building, the king surrendered to the forces of nature and removed his castle, as if to erase any trace of his failed attempt to build a sustainable home. It is thus plausible that those passing the lawn the following morning might have believed that what they had seen during the previous days had only been a mirage, a fantasy, an imaginary fairytale of a king and his castle.

The fairytale was a performance titled ‘Castle’ by the artist Peter Callesen, also starring in the role of the king. In this role he became, although more due to rain and unforeseen circumstances than plain intentions, the performer of failure rather than of success. If Callesen failed as entrepreneur, he did not fail as an artist. On the contrary, ‘Castle’ stands out as an imaginative work, which seen retrospectively, embodies several issues that have become central to the artist’s practice. In the course of the next few pages I will attempt to approach some of these issues, whilst trying to connect the extremely wide-ranging practice of Peter Callesen. A practice which includes not only performance, but also sculpture, paper cutouts and drawings, but which nonetheless seems to gather around some common concerns.

The dethroned artist
Firstly, return to the king and his castle. The performance surely entails more than mere entrepreneurship tinged with slap-stick comedy. 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. The photographic reproductions of the king standing next to his collapsing castle in the hazy mist, do not only tell the story of a performance, but also a story of loss of illusions and patriarchal power.

From a gender perspective, Peter Callesen hence puts on stake the supremacy of the male artist as it has been expressed in modernist art practices and discourses, often positioning the (male) artist as unfailing genius, exercising his creative power on the compliant material. This strategic undermining of the artist as heroic figure takes place in other performances by Callesen. In ‘The Dying Swan is Dying’, performed at Gallery Tommy Lund in Copenhagen in 2001, Callesen appeared dressed up as the Dying Swan, the artist’s alter ego, in a brown furry garb, complete with beak and swanfeet. As the swan entered the room, it started drawing an image of itself on the wall. Though, when comparing the image with its own body, it realized that the two did not fit. The image on the wall was too small. The swan therefore started drawing up its own outline, using its body as a direct template. However, after filling out the outline with a brown colour the swan still seemed unsatisfied with the result and started to cut off its own furry garb in order to place it within the outline of the drawing on the wall. The swan continued until its furry garb was almost completely destroyed, now hanging in rags and nailed to the wall, together with its cut-off beak and feet placed on the floor underneath the drawing, like old, worn-out shoes. The swan was now transformed into an image, an ideal representation, and the remainder, the now almost completely undressed artist, left the room.

Clearly, in both of these performances Peter Callesen puts on display the vulnerability of the male subject. He is more victim of a dream than master of the situation. In this way Callesen aligns himself historically with artists like Vito Acconci and in a Danish context, Peter Land. Especially Land has been puncturing the male artist’s ego, through self-compromising performances displaying, if anything, failure, hence destabilising, like Callesen, any fixed notion of patriarchal supremacy.

The romantic impetus
Even though this gender perspective is crucial when thinking of Callesen’s work, he still engages with issues too important to be reserved the discussion of just one gender. If anything, the art of Peter Callesen is fundamentally existential, as he not only engages with, but performs the conditions of human life and experience more generally. In this perspective one might conceive of ‘The Dying Swan is Dying’ as a performance that dramatises what Lacan described as the impossibility of the subject to see itself from the position of the Other. Or the ‘Castle’ as a performance that not just represents, but actually presents the daily struggle felt and encountered by most people.
Abstracting on these points, and without ignoring the specific gendered issues that Callesen’s performances touch on, one might talk about a certain romantic inclination running through the work of Peter Callesen as a common thread. I am thinking of ‘romanticism’ in line with the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who, during a series of talks at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1965, defined romanticism as
“the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, the mysterious, the supernatural, ruins, moonlight, enchanted castles, hunting horns, elves, giants, griffins, falling water, the old mill on the Floss, darkness and the powers of darkness, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable (…) It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy, solitude, the sufferings of exile, the sense of alienation, roaming in remote places, especially in the East, and in remote times, especially the Middle Ages.”

Berlin here points out a range of romantic motives: moonlight, castles, falling water etc., but he also delivers an abstract notion of romanticism, pertaining more to a certain state of mind than a historical period. Neither the motives, nor this abstract notion of romanticism are foreign to Callesen’s practice. It is full of enchanted castles, as well as being marked by a certain nostalgic longing, a certain heroic and idealistic striving towards a higher mode of being. The king performs it in ‘Castle’, in his cardboard realisation of a fairytale fantasy, in his insistent attempt to construct a palace all by himself. The swan performs it, when trying to capture the true representation of its own body, when trying to see itself from the position of the Other. This implicit romanticism stands out in most of Callesen’s performances, acted out by the artist himself. What needs to be examined is how this romanticism, this nostalgia, reverie and longing express itself in other parts of his practice, first of all, in his many paper cutouts.

A4 fragility
Take a piece of A4 paper, just a normal ordinary blank one as it comes out of the copy machine tray. You can write on it, draw on it, but also cut into it. Peter Callesen does so. Since 2004 parallel to his performance practice, he has been transforming two dimensional surfaces into three dimensional sculptures by the means of a paper cutter. From the white surface of ordinary A4 paper, a narrative arises. Or rather, lots of them. Stories, dramas, film clips. In ‘Snowballs’ a small house is erected from the paper. In the background, up the hill, two balls of snow have been set into motion. It is only a matter of time before the house will be smashed to the ground by the force of the rolling balls. At least, this is what I imagine, as the small sheet-like paper sculpture only shows the seconds before the disaster. As a still image, a frozen moment in time full of classic suspense, it shows how a possible catastrophe will take place on the A4 paper, elegantly created by a few cuts and slices.

Other paper cutouts are more intricate, revealing a painstaking craftsmanship. With great care and immense patience, Callesen creates a white, hyper-aesthetic universe of puns-in-paper, often making use of a tragic-comic slap-stick humour with a melancholic tinge. Creating the paper cutouts is basic magic in a way. In stead of drawing, Callesen cuts, folds and suddenly a world appears. 2D becomes 3D, which is quite a heroic gesture in and by itself. A gesture of basic transformation you might call it, initiated by the artist/creator. However, and this is an important point to bear in mind, if the gesture is heroic, the outcome is equally fragile.
Much can be said about fragility as a formal strategy in artistic practices. In an art historical context, it can be seen as a counter-aesthetical move against traditional modernist sculptural practice, most often based, as it is, on volume, monumentality, the trace of manual force or industrial heaviness. Callesen’s sculptures are neither heavy, nor monumental. Rather, through their delicate materiality, their flagrant fragility evokes an ‘aesthetic of possible failure’, as if they are always on the verge of collapsing, of falling apart or being flattened by an awkward hand. In this way Callesen reformulates sculptural practise, querying as well as queering in a way, the monumentality of the medium.

In ‘Impenetrable Castle’ the castle reappears. Typical of Callesen’s paper cutouts, it is attached to its own negative, the paper from which it is cut. When cutting, Callesen never isolates the figure from the ground, but merely transforms ground into figure. Hence the castle remains a sculptural loop, a self-sufficient construction that cannot be entered as it closes itself off from the outside. As such it can be regarded as an emblem of both longing and enclosure, of “bitter melancholy, solitude, the sufferings of exile, the sense of alienation” to quote Berlin one more time. A closed-off world of fairytales and childhood dreams.
This connectedness of figure and ground can be seen as a merely formal matter: as the artist’s way to stage a battle between the flatness of the paper and the volume of the figure, hence creating a certain formal tension between the flat sheet and the elevated sculptural form. Perceived more symbolically, the connectedness of figure and ground seems to propose the inevitability of origin, meaning the impossibility of ever freeing oneself from the past. Like the figure, we are always bound to our grounding, literally speaking the A4 paper, metaphorically the place we come from. For even though the figure rises from the paper, it is equally restricted by the paper, defined as it is by what makes it possible. The paper cutout ‘Butterflies trying to escape their drawing’ makes this point very clearl: eight butterflies flapping their wings, albeit aimlessly, as they are tied to the material that brings them into being.

Heavenly aspirations
This impossible and romantic longing reappears in Callesen’s full-scale paper ladder from 2003. Ladders in general elevate the human body. They make it possible for us to reach further than if we were just standing on the ground. Used in daily life they are practical. Used in art they might become symbolic- at least if one is to consider this ladder. Although made out of paper, it almost looks like a real ladder considering the meticulous detailing. However, if one ever wanted to step on it, it would no doubt collapse. The material thus clashes with the object to the degree that it becomes an impossible object, destined to realise its own breakdown.

In the Old Testament, the patriarch Jacob dreams of a ladder that reaches right to the sky and takes him to Paradise. In Christian iconography the ladder has thus become a symbol of the striving of humans towards Heaven and God. If this is the road Callesen indicates with his paper ladder, the road is clearly paved with obstacles. Seen as such, the ladder not only functions as a symbol, but manifests the impossibility in ever reaching what one endeavours. Hereby it presents the imbedded logic of romanticism: longing is everything but reaching one’s goal.
Symbolic meaning and romanticism aside, Callesen’s paper ladder also comments on art’s relation to reality by mimicking the real in a way that one can hardly see the difference. Callesen fully employed this strategy of imitating in ‘Mirage’, an installation in the Berlin-gallery Koch und Kesslau in 2004. Here he made an extremely realistic paper replica of the staircase within the gallery, thus mirroring in an uncanny way the real space. Uncanny, as it was difficult to decide what was real and what was represented.

The generous gesture
Now where do these examples take us? What can be generalised from these excursions into the artist’s practice? A range of keywords springs to mind, some of which have already been mentioned: Tragedy, comedy, heroism, transformation, fairytales, escapism, longing, dreaming and desire. Some of them can be found in Isaiah Berlin’s characterisation of romanticism. Others grow out of my encounter with Peter Callesen’s practice. A crucial point has been the element of failure implicit in every act of longing and desiring as well as in the work of Callesen. Do we ever reach what we endeavour? Callesen poses the question, but gives of course no final answer. Instead he offers the viewer not only objects to consider, but dreams to pursue. In 2003 he generously placed another star in the sky in the performance ‘Infinity+1’. In front of the Charlottenborg exhibition space in Copenhagen, he folded a star in paper, which he attached with a string to a balloon filled with helium. The balloon and the star went up into the sky, where it soon disappeared in the clouds. It is not known whether the star is still up there, but the possibility thereof exists.

Camilla Jalving is a Danish art critic, Ph.d in art history and lecturer at University of Copenhagen