TO DIE OR TO FLY
By Elisabeth Delin Hansen
Peter Callesen enters the room wearing a homemade duckling costume. He turns on his ghettoblaster, and to the sounds of Saint-Saëns’ mournful The Swan he tries to perform one of the iconic pieces of ballet history, The Dying Swan. Of course he fails. Even though he both cuts off pieces of his large duckling’s feet and tries to cover the grey-brown feathers with white paint he neither succeeds in getting on his toes nor on his wings. The cygnet died, but not as a swan.
With Peter Callesen’s performance of The Dying Swan, made in 1998 while he was still a student at Goldsmiths College in London, the artist first introduced his central character, the Swan Duckling. Next came other performances in the series: The Dying Swan is Back, The Dying Swan is Dying, The Flying Swan and others; and The Dying Swan alias the swan duckling also began appearing in a group of drawings and monoprints.
This DVD presents documentations of the series of performances of The Dying Swan, along with a selection of drawings and monoprints. It is published in connection with the exhibition Skin of Paper at Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, in which The Dying Swan complex enters into a dialogue with the artist’s later work. The exhibition has been structured around two large installations and a group of paper sculptures. One, White Window, is a site specific sculpture, an approximately eight metres high paper window, echoing the large eastern window in Nikolaj’s former church space. As a repetition of the leaded panes, the artist has established a grid of drawings and sketches, thematizing, just like The Dying Swan, existential problems. The other installation, My Castle, is a large cardboard castle, containing the artist’s entire video production, both art and documentation videos, in which a number of recurring themes can be seen in a dialogue with The Dying Swan. The final section of the exhibition is a group of the artist’s fantastic paper sculptures, cut from A4 sheets, and like the drawings and performances focussing on experiences of the complexity and perishableness of life common to all humankind.
But let us return to the first Dying Swan performance. The ballet with which Peter Callesen has his cygnet try its luck was made in 1907 for one of the then greatest ballerinas, Anna Pavlova. The expressive piece has subsequently gained a mythical status, both for later dancers and for people poking fun at classical ballet. Peter Callesen can be found somewhere between these two positions. While clearly taking ballet serious as an art form, he has nevertheless created a performance which is heart-rendingly funny.
The swan is a bird which in the course of time has represented a rich symbolic potential, from the symbol of potency in Antiquity in the subject of Leda and the Swan to the pure, noble Knights of the Swan of the Middle Ages and later Richard Wagner. Both aspects are embedded as potential and unfulfilled dream in Callesen’s anti-hero, combined with the particular reading which we, here in Hans Christian Andersen’s native country, almost by reflex are likely to make: the anticipation of the duckling transformed into a swan. This does not happen. Instead, in the drawings we can follow the troubled cygnet - the artist’s alter ego - on still new adventures.
to Fly or to die? it says on one of the monoprints. To the swan, flying marks the realization of its nature. But this does not come easy for the cygnet. In Callesen’s 2001 performance The Flying Swan, the bird only flies with the aid of cords, and it is the audience deciding where it flies. And in the drawings of The Dying Swan, more instances can be found of weight than flight. Several times the cygnet can be seen hanging from a branch with an endangered egg underneath it, or only kept up with the help of an egg-shell parachute. In one place it sends its head up in the air like a balloon; clearly, it is harder for the body to follow. But in one drawing, however, we do see a somewhat surprised and happily triumphant cygnet flying in fine, horizontal style. The Dying Swan is on its wings.
Let us return a final time to the original Dying Swan performance. The essence of classical ballet is the attempt to conquer the gravity of matter, to create the illusion of floating, a desire shared also by our cygnet. Around 2003, Peter Callesen turns to a new medium: paper. In a number of site specific works he creates repetitions of spatial architectural elements - but made in paper, so that the shapes remain identical, only without the weight. The large window made by Peter Callesen for Skin of Paper is a further development of these architectural echoes. Shortly afterwards, the artist starts creating a large number of paper sculptures, using both A4 sheets and larger formats. With this technique, Callesen has entered on a significant new path. One work at the exhibition provides a characteristic example: Butterflies Trying to Escape Their Shadow. Butterflies have been partly cut free from the sheet of paper and are about to fly, in a movement from two to three dimensions. The material in these paper cuttings is the smallest conceivable: a sheet which nearly only extends in two dimensions, but which is cut and folded to a spatial drawing, with a technical perfection matching that of the ballerina. In both cases the intention is to ideally do away with matter. In many of Callesen’s works, his efforts and his labour figure prominently, e.g. in his performances in which there are great physical difficulties to be overcome. The paperworks as well clearly represent major technical challenges, but here it looks more effortless. Gravity has been conquered. The transition from one medium to another enabled the swan to get on its wings.