Cathrine Raben Davidsen’s exhibition Blækhuset (The Inkwell) at Trapholt Museum for Contemporary Art and Design uses the historic aura of ink to conjure up a world in black and white. Certainly, there are colours in the exhibition too. But the use of ink in both title and material tells us something about the direction in which Raben Davidsen wants us to turn our gaze. The Inkwell as the work Memory Palace suggests, is a place of memory; a world where narratives are confronted with fragments, where personal sources alternate with historical sources, and where the visual imagery is related to a hidden written language.
But the work Memory Palace is no ordinary palace of memory. On the contrary it is a glimpse – a momentary look, a source of memory. The moment is the ephemeral dwelling. And whoever dares to take this momentary look is answered with the same demanding courage.
Memory is expressed as relations among a number of the various conditions with which humanity is presented. In the same way, the relations reveal their presence to the visitor. This represents a relationship. The Inkwell is in other words a presentation.
Human beings live or dwell somewhere, but the actual dwelling is conditioned by the poetic, by the narrative. It obliges us to stick to the storyline. Facing the inside of the inkwell, blindfolded by ink, we try to look out into the world and wipe the windowpanes clean until the contours of the new world become visible. But the interrelationships of the ink and the house are far from the only thing that points to the embedding of language in the dwelling. As the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) writes, a place only becomes a true dwelling through the addition of a poetic element. Hölderlin writes for example:
“Poetically man dwells.” In lieblicher Bläue (In Lovely Blueness, Hölderlin, 1823)
The Danish word bo (live, dwell) is cognate with the Old High German (and Old English) word buan, which originally meant to dwell or to settle somewhere. The word is related to the German bin, as in Ich bin (I am) and the English word be. In other words, ‘be’ is related to ‘live’. The Danish word blæk (ink) comes from Old English and originally meant ‘black’. Ink became the material of the written language, and black was the colour of writing. The colour on the wall. Through an ingenious chemical process it became possible to use the world’s most solid material, iron, to commit thoughts to paper. Thought was thus perpetuated in a material. This is the historic aura of ink.
We live in the landscape of antiquity, surrounded by meadows with grasses. Here, amidst the mist, stands a tree. Its growth is a freak growth. The fruits of the tree hang heavy. The people become souls and emerge slowly. Now a bird settles and occupies a branch. Its mask is black.
Without you I am Blind
Do you know that the gaze is staring at you and no one else? What do you think the others will say when they find out? Why am I the only one who can see it?
A Flowering Tree
In Raben Davidsen’s inkwell several of the subjects are associated with written fables, stories and myths. The fable A Flowering Tree is a folk tale which at some point was written down and fixed. The point in time when a ferrous ink embodies the fable by laying the preserving hands of the written language over it is crucial. This is where the consistency of the fable changes while it preserves its substance. Today we view the fable with new eyes. We are indebted to the written transmission that has ensured the presence of the fable, and we redeem the debt by trying to understand.
How do we experience the fable in our present? How do we view the fortunes and misfortunes of the tale? First and foremost, the defiance of death inherent in the ink is answered by death itself. Hanging from the tree that has through the ages been the mother of all primal myths. Here we are hung out to dry as victims of ourselves with the rope around our neck in a life-giving growth that seems to have lost its spirit. Its flowers have been torn off and its sex has been mutilated. Parrots have found a perch on unsuspecting branches, ready to abandon them again. They preen their traditional costumes with their beaks and let humanity dangle from its own branch.
We call people fabulists. Being a fabulist is shooting off your mouth, letting a non-presence occupy your language. The language of presence is ordered, and relates to its surroundings. The language of non-presence is independent. The fable is independent of time because it has transcended its surroundings and become eternal. Like climbing up a ladder and then kicking it away behind you, the fable has the effect of irrevocable wisdom. The fable does not manifest itself as presence, but as existence, and is thus placeless.
“A Flowering Tree” is a tale originally told in the ancient language Kannada, which was spoken in southern India. We ask: In what language should we understand the work A Flowering Tree? We answer: Only after we have shoved the ladder away under us will the tree begin to flower.
In Norse mythology the mother-tree is called Yggdrasil. From the Bible we know it as the Tree of Knowledge. The wisdom of the tree is as silent as the painting. But when the fruit of the tree is mankind itself, it begins to speak.
The most natural guest of the tree is the bird. This carefree wanderer shaking the water off so lightheartedly. Here it sits in Raben Davidsen’s grey plumage. Parakeet, parrot, Papageno, young cuckoo. Never united, always apart. The bird that is always ready to fly and the tree bound by its roots.
In the series of monoprints Tiny Death, death is present as a latent figure. Like the faces of the figures, death is insistent and absent at one and the same time. A keen-sighted spirit that persists in emerging from the underworld and spreading its melancholy. A silence behind the sound that fills the world with images and colours. A Punctum.
From the back branch of the tree mankind dangles. In all its powerlessness, the proof of the supremacy of nature and the limitations of culture. The body is on show in a tale, while its ancestors reappear as fragments. The ghost is the form the past prefers to occupy. The narrative of the moment is possible when the past walks abroad. The grief and the pain are passed on in contours that change form. The forms given in Raben Davidsen’s representations of death become our exclusive encounter with mankind’s fundamental condition.
We conclude by sitting in a chair in the work Zebra. This comfortable construction with beautiful people fused into its form. Immersed in the universe. The look the close-cropped fellow sends her. The striped title he bears. The endless contrasts presented by the moment of the relationship. Raben Davidsen has fixed them forever in the way their eyes meet. Nothing is more eternal than now. Yet a fabulous animal peeps out just behind the couple who are reaching for each other’s hand behind the agitation. This is how we meet our destiny in stolen moments that are captured for always. In ink.
By Christoffer Emil Bruun, a columnist and editorial writer at the Danish newspaper Politiken.