BY SCRATCHING THE SURFACE, WE UNCOVER SOMETHING ELSE
BY MARIA KJÆR THEMSEN. SHE HOLDS A M.A. IN COMPARATIVE LITERATURE
“What is the body? That shadow of a shadow of your love, that somehow contains the entire universe.” Rumi
Scratch the skin and blood trickles out; scratch the surface and something else is revealed. This deceitful skin not only envelops us – our blood, our skeleton and our organs – but it constantly informs on us: our age, our race, our temperament, our lifestyle and our fragility.
The skin is the largest organ in the body. It is the architecture, which both encloses us and unfolds us, acting as both a barricade and an opening. But can the skin itself be classed a ‘content’ in its own right? In Tina Maria Nielsen’s exhibition Skin of Mine, the characteristic architecture and history of Odense’s Brandts Klædefabrik (Brandt’s Clothing Factory) – with its large windows and open spaces – provides the backdrop for the exhibition’s sculptural study of appearances and surfaces – a study which scratches the floor, gouges into the walls and scores the windows. The result is that the architecture and the skin become analogies for each other as both a framework for and an encapsulator of life.
The large windows form a particularly characteristic element of the exhibition space. A window – a piece of transparent glass – possesses precisely those skin-like properties that characterise the fundamental concept behind the exhibition: skin as a barrier between the outer and the inner, and as a material in its own right. We can look through a windowpane, but like an invisible protective film it protects us from the outside. The fragile panes of glass have been cut in concave and rounded dimensions that form a fragile sculpture connecting the stable elements of floor and walls.
The artwork entitled Unframed (2013) is a further development of earlier window-themed works produced by Nielsen. These earlier works include the large plexiglass artwork Front Matter (2012), which was exhibited at the Roundabout exhibition at Copenhagen’s Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, and Cut (2012), which comprised mirror foils with semi-transparent reflective patterns that created graphic shadow-patterns at the Diplopia exhibition held at Clausens Kunsthandel, Copenhagen. All of these works make use of the exhibition space’s own properties in order to create sculptural and formal compositions from transparent materials. Whereas Front Matter was an installation piece that brought the entire space into play, the Cut artworks formed a condensed story of layers – outer and inner. These layered glass surfaces were also analogous to the exhibition’s wax-dipped paper artwork. In a similar way, these wax-dipped paper artworks formed graphical elements of depth built up during the production process, with the creation itself taking on an image likeness.
On the only wall at Kunsthallen Brandts that is not part of the original factory construction (but which has been later added to the pre-existing architecture), Nielsen has created the work Matrice (2013). Into nine metre-wide plasterboard panels (which cover most of the wall), the artist has cut, gouged and scored a motif-like floor plan of her mother’s house in Odense – in a style similar to that of a classical archaeological excavation. By doing so, Nielsen has created a form of historical engraving in the panels by cutting and ripping of layer after layer of paper to reveal the underlying plaster. The multiple layers of paper on the plasterboard panels have been scraped away exposing the ‘insides’, making the plaster visible. In this way, a bodily connection to the architectural material has quite literally been scratched out – the scratching and gouging out of a motif in a surface which originates from one source: the mother. The discernible traces of the hand or the metal scraper have been dug under the ‘skin’ to expose the layers, the history and the place, forming a form of relief that marks the beginnings of a spatiality.
From an etymological standpoint, the work’s title –Matrice (which translates as a ‘stamping die’) – links several of the exhibition’s various elements together. The mother figure is also the core element of the exhibition’s second theme: material. Furthermore, the stamping die is defined as a form or mould which creates something else – a mould formed by means of negative indentation created by pressing, stamping or casting. In the word of mould casting, a stamping die is known as the ‘female’ die – the part that accommodates something else.
But not only have the walls been scratched and gouged into. The floor of the exhibition space has also been dug up as if a real architectural excavation searching for traces of the past had been taking place. The historic aspect and the site-specific placement regarding the spatial dimensions like the floor and the wall are turned into a work and object for examination in itself. The constituent elements of the space do not only block off the proper work, but also provide substance and meaning, like a constant, yet paradoxical, study of the dimensions of the contour, the membrane and the frame. Because when we dig for something, we always find something else. Digging into the ground can also be seen as a way of breaking out from the interior – even an attempt to break out of it or search for something else. The excavated hole could also refer to the tree made from precious metal that has been felled and which lies across the floor.
This tree, Line of Descent (2013), is a pruned and cut-back apple tree which has been cast in bronze – a single branch from trunk to twig with a single apple-blossom bud at the top. Nielsen has previously worked with the tree and its intrinsic symbolism, which unwaveringly is linked to this organic stem. Such an example can be seen in the work Before After (2008), where ‘the tree’ was more of a sculptural reference to a tree with thin branches and a trunk of reinforcing iron (a material often used in pre-stages of classical sculpture modelling), and where from one branch hangs a beautifully shiny apple core cast in pewter. The apple tree at Kunsthallen Brandts has itself been cast, and it stands not only as a sculptural symbol but also provides a context for the bronze framework from which the cast is made. The ‘skin’ of the tree and the scoring in its surface can be traced back to the casting die as traces of human intervention that have cut into and pruned the tree over time.
The wealth of intrinsic mythology within the apple tree has been processed in various ways in Nielsen’s work. In Before After, it is as if the beautiful and tempting apple has grown out of the branch as if already eaten – the innocent apple tree is the bearer of sinful fruit as if there is no longer anywhere free from shame and guilt. It was precisely this act of eating the forbidden fruit (the apple) that resulted in the exposing of the skin. Yet, the cast-bronze tree lying across the floor also acts as a reference to the exhibition’s archaeological dimensions. In the growth rings of the tree, we can read the climate conditions of the past. The tree is also the foundation for another readable cultural material: paper.
Paper is present in several places within the exhibition – either as a concrete material or as a latent material within the tree. Yet paper is also used specifically in the layered wax deposits in the work Body Matter (2013) that have formed skin-like films around the paper that hangs from the ceiling preventing our passage. Wax is a very rapid casting process, like the drip of a candle, and the repeated dipping in hot wax forms layer upon layer around the paper creating ‘landscapes’ and spatial images of shadow formations in the translucent material. The result is, again, a reference to the skin, which warmingly encapsulates its contents – and in which we can scratch and gouge. This is a way to work with the blank sheet of paper, thereby bringing it closer to its origin; in this process, some of the paper’s materiality is conjured forth and exposed.
A piece of a garment hangs inside-out as a relic on a wall. Under the Influence # 2 (2013) is a piece of the artist’s work clothing that has been dipped in wax reminds us that we are in a space that once was used to produce clothing. In this way, the various layers of the exhibition are tied together within this one piece of reticent clothing; the history of the space (the clothing factory) is linked with the study of material, the casting process and the private body – the inside-out surface that is in direct contact with the skin. This is an artistic intervention that contains a paradoxical examination of time: the archaeological traces in the excavation refer to the fact that something from the past is being searched for, something inner, something as yet unknown – and these are tied to the die-casting process, which is characterized by its immortalisation and its embedding. Consequently, in Tina Maria Nielsen’s work we find a continuously changing interplay between two spheres. The first is the organic and embedded material (the skin, paper, wood) that is ennobled, cast and sealed (in bronze, plaster or wax), thereby freezing it in time. But the time aspect of this process persistently returns to the actual bodily experience –surrounded by space – that Nielsen has tried to reveal, open and expose in the search for something original.