“For me the theme of transformation is something that affects everyone. In one way or another, human beings are constantly in a process of transformation. Events that impact on our lives, the transition from child to adult, the relationship with our parents and children and with the world, all colour us and change us and make us into the people we are”. (Cathrine Raben Davidsen in an interview with Director at Brandts, Mads Damsbo).
Cathrine Raben Davidsen is concerned with human destinies, with transformations and transitions, and with the journey from one place to another or from one state to another. Her works show objects and people caught in a snapshot-like image or in the midst of a transformation process: balls suspended in the air and faces that appear partly obliterated. In the drawings the fine contour lines intersect with the outlines of other figures, while the thinly applied paint reveals older layers and overpainted motifs. Her figures and people are composite in more than one sense: the usual parameters of identity such as gender and age are not immediately evident; rather, we often seem to see androgynous or animal-like beings outside time and space. The faces have an enigmatic, even mask-like character that gives the impression of concealing a different face or perhaps even more masks or layers that can be peeled off ad infinitum. The nature of the mask seems to be precisely that it questions identity, or to put it differently, wearing a mask means no longer being oneself. (Papet, Éduard, “Et blik på masken” in Masken fra Carpeaux til Picasso, ed. Papet, Éduard, p. 10, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and Musée d’Orsay, 1994)
The triumph of the mask
Originally the mask was a ritual object used specifically to mark transformations or transitions in the seasons and in life. But with the breakthrough of modernism and the avantgarde, the mask became more a sign of a grotesque and distorted reality. At the same time it became an image of the modern, complex individual whose identity becomes increasingly difficult to define. The new interest in ‘primitive cultures’ and in the mask as representation that arose in the post-war years is explained by the art theorist Walter Sorell as follows: “The mask returned, reflecting and revealing the savage instinct of man let loose again, the old demonic spirits in new clothing, the spirits man feared and tried to escape while falling prey to them. The mask triumphed in leading man back to its cruel sources, and projecting its influence with a sophisticated gesture, often hiding as a mask behind non-mask-like masks”.(Sorell, Walter, 1973, The Other Face, Indianapolis, quoted in Tams, Klaus, “Maskens genfødsel i det moderne teater”, Masken som repræsentation, p. 67, l. 7, Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 1994). Raben Davidsen’s works use the mask as a marker of an existence in eternal transformation, but also as the sign of a self that can never be captured or defined.
The mask and the myth
In House of the Ax the mask motif is quite specific in the work Ariadne’s Thread; a group of finely worked, hand-embroidered masks in dyed mink fur and cowhide, theatrically lit and exhibited in open display cases. The title comes from the myth of the labyrinth of King Minos at Knossos, whose passages were the haunt of the chimeric Minotaur. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, gives the Greek hero-king Theseus a sword and a ball of yarn so he can conquer the beast and use the thread to find his way out of the labyrinth again. After killing the Minotaur, Theseus takes Ariadne away with him, but later abandons her on the island of Naxos. Ariadne is beside herself with grief and anger when she sees Theseus’ ship sail away from the island and thus discovers that she has been deserted. Like the duality of the Minotaur, who is at once bull and human being, there is a fascinating duality in the fur masks, which appear animal-like by virtue of the chosen material, but at the same time mime the human face. Raben Davidsen has used mythological material throughout her artistic practice, and the mask motif seems to be a natural extension of the mythical, since the mask, like the myth, expresses universal human emotions, instincts, longings and even repressions. It shows us our ancestors and gives form to ‘the beyond’, and for millennia it has found a use as an object with which we tie past and present together and create a sense of historical continuity.
In the same way past and present are linked in House of the Ax, where memory fragments and old photographs feature on an equal footing with mythical material and fables. Raben Davidsen alternately conceals and reveals, and not only with the aid of the mask: sometimes the silhouettes are so unidentifiable and the dissolution so total that you get a sense of seeing the subject in strong backlight or of standing before something that has faded and been eaten up by time. There is an almost archaeological interest in what was, in layering – quite concretely in the painting as process, but also in human identity and the multiplicity of stories with which we narrate and explain ourselves.
Like the mask, thread is a recurring motif for Raben Davidsen. Thread is used in works and titles as a metaphor of narrative and of women’s right to express themselves, but also as an image of feminine resourcefulness and persistence. This is the case in the myth of Ariadne, but also in Ovid’s tale of Philomela – an earlier subject for Raben Davidsen – who gets her voice back when she weaves into a tapestry the tale of a terrible crime committed against her by her brother-in-law King Tereus. In House of the Ax the thread, or the act of sewing, is used as an element in the audio part of the exhibition, which consists of among other things of the mechanical whirring of her father’s sewing machine. The sound recalls the artist’s childhood and her father’s work as a fashion designer and is mixed with echoing, cave-like sounds and a confusion of street noises. Again different temporal dimensions meet, the past is interwoven with modern life and the gaze looks both inward and backwards towards childhood but is at the same time turned outward to the chaotic flicker of the world and human history.
Intertextuality and paraphrase
The use of intertextuality is a general device in Raben Davidsen’s work, which to a great extent draws on associations with mythology, literature and the history of art. Her works have the character of samplings pieced together from oral narrative tradition, folklore, tragedy, mythology, art-historical quotations and personal recollection. At the same time the works move between the poles of the unconscious and the conscious, between dream and reality. By drawing on a wide frame of reference Raben Davidsen breaks with the idea of the grand narrative or truth and instead presents a number of interpretations and readings of human existence, which can in principle be endlessly retold and re-interpreted. However, certain elements taken from among other sources myth and tragedy involve universal, fundamentally human emotions like passion, doubt, powerlessness, the sense of loss, desire, instinct, jealousy and love. In this Raben Davidsen constantly balances the great universal narrative of mankind against the small narrative of the individual lived life.
Raben Davidsen produces wondrous images of people and identities in eternal motion. In her works she gives us a modern, diverse world where the great truths are absent and where identity or reality cannot possibly be pinned down. This modern existential issue is expressed in the questions “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”, and is clearly manifested by the use of the mask as an image of the ultimate game of identities.
By Sara Hatla Krogsgaard, curator at Gl Holtegaard, Denmark