A conversation between Cathrine Raben Davidsen (CRD) and Anna Kærsgaard Gregersen (AKG)
AKG: Let’s talk about your current exhibition ORACLE at the Rudolph Tegner’s Museum, which the Danish sculptor Rudolph Tegner (1873 – 1950) built for his own works. I know that Tegner is a rather ambivalent figure for you as an artist and as a woman, and I imagine that could have influenced your thinking about what kind of exhibition you should and could create in his space.
CRD: Tegner’s works are so monumental, dramatic and on such a grand scale, but behind them lies precisely the fundamental story about human beings that appeals to me. Perhaps Tegner and I have kind of reacted in the same way to influences from the surrounding world, but each in our own direction. Tegner has gone up in scale, and I have gone down. His art requires its space, mine requires attention and presence.
AKG: As an artist Tegner was eclectic. He moved across a wide range of styles and artistic periods; from the soul-rending themes of French Symbolism to Classicism’s cultivation of the myths and formal idioms of antiquity. He took an interest in existential themes such as life and death, human existence, the body, and the relations between the sexes. Grand conceptions were given free rein in dramatic sculptures which at first drew admiration from prominent figures including the author and politician Georg Brandes and the patron of the arts and founder of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the brewer Carl Jacobsen. But as Tegner’s sculptures became more stylised and theatrical, the Danish art world began to turn against him. And the more the cultural taste elite was put off by Tegner’s works, the bigger and wilder his sculptures seemed to become, until they reached an almost hysterical level of monumentality. And it is here, Cathrine, that your intimate but insistent new drawings and branching mind maps (mobiles), occupy a quite special space at the museum. Amidst all that violence and overdimensioning you insist on a different mode of expression that truly requires something from us: our time, our dedication, and our presence. Your works do not force themselves upon us. They do not shout at us, nor are they overbearing, as Tegner’s bombastic and heroic figures are. On the contrary they encourage slow appreciation and intimacy: a gaze that comes in close and explores the riches that are concealed in the charcoal and crayon alone. Will you say something about your thoughts when you were invited to exhibit in his space? A new feature is that you are exhibiting no oil paintings at all?
CRD: First and foremost, the museum is quite unique and stands as a monument to Tegner’s works staged by himself. Since I visited the museum for the first time as a child it has fascinated me a great deal because it is strikingly different from any other museum I have seen. Frankly I have a little difficulty with some of his sculptures because they shout at us and are so masculine; but at the same time, we have the same interest in telling stories, in myths, human beings and relationships, and then like myself he was also preoccupied with ancient Greek art. Prior to this exhibition my thoughts revolved around how I should tackle this. My approach has been to speak on the basis of individual sculptures where the titles in particular have struck me: Earthbound, Consolation, Parting and Kinship. On this basis it is important for me to create works to which one literally has to get close in order to experience them. The drawing is often a more intimate phenomenon than the painting. And that was where I wanted to start.
AKG: I would like to dwell a little on the drawing. A drawing is both delicate and light-sensitive, and if it is stored in the wrong conditions, it will be degraded in the course of time. To me it seems almost like a provocation, a kind of demonstration of power, that you turn to the drawing’s frail materiality and intimate scale among Tegner’s voluminous originals in plaster and his octagonal museum building in concrete. What role do the drawing and the sketch play for you in your praxis?
CRD: Painting with brush and oils is a different process from drawing. One isn’t quite as close to the painting as one is to the drawing, in the purely physical sense. For me drawing is almost a kind of mediative process, and it’s just as important as my paintings. In this exhibition I would like to make room for the drawing and make it the central figure, and it’s the first time I am exhibiting my drawings alone. There are 11 metres to the ceiling, and the great majority of my works are the size of a sheet of A4 paper. It’s important to me that they are in fact so small, to create a contrast with both Tegner’s works and the exhibition spaces. In addition, the drawings are incredibly saturated. I have used various techniques and media such as charcoal, chalk, pastel, oil, ink, and gesso. That helps to give them a lot of layers that you can’t directly see at a distance. In the work Consolation, 2023 (CRD2087) the paper has almost dissolved, and the edges are all frayed. So extra layers of frailty are woven into the actual drawing.
AKG: From Renaissance masters like Sandro Botticelli through innumerable figures from the 19th century such as Odilon Redon, Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch to contemporary artists like Marlene Dumas and Michael Armitage, your art-historical cabinet of inspirations goes deep and is widely ramified. Not only in your studio’s many photo reproductions, clips, and artist books but also inherently in your works, more or less directly, quoted. I don’t mention this to make your works seem less original. On the contrary I stress your use of references to point to the ease with which you balance on the shoulders of an art-historical heritage that may be canonical and sometimes even clichéd, but which you are still able to render current through your own transhistorical visual world. I can’t help thinking of a quote attributed to the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” Taking on this task, ‘preserving the fire’, and openly standing by the tradition you come from, I think, says a lot about the position you are adopting as an artist. Here we are very far from the idea of the male artist genius who hides in the studio and with his prophetic gift waits to be granted his artistic inspiration. Here I see you, Cathrine, operating quite differently – both by virtue of your inquiring nature when you determinedly research subjects like mythology, alchemy, philosophy, eco-criticism and posthumanism, but also by virtue of your extreme methodological self-discipline.
CRD: I like what you say about ‘preserving the fire’. One characteristic of my praxis is that I do permit myself to draw inspiration from our whole art-historical heritage. I can get quite excited when I see contemporary artists ‘quoting’ the works of other artists. The Kenyan-British painter Michael Armitage, who is one of my great inspirations, also draws inspiration from for example Goya and Gauguin, and he is not afraid to show it. Nor have I been. For we all come from somewhere, and the world in which we find ourselves is influenced by the worlds of earlier times. I am therefore really interested in what kind of world we breathe and live in right now, and I get inspiration from living philosophers like Rosi Braidotti, Timothy Morton and Francesca Ferrando. For we live in a new kind of age where mankind is no longer at the centre. In a way the digital life is more at the centre than anything else. Robot technology and reproduction technologies are today part of our lives, and with this a new type of hybrid arises, not just between human and nature, but just as much between human and robot. And this is exactly where ideas of the so-called ‘posthuman’ come in. For what kind of world are we going into now, what does it mean to be ‘human’ and what does ‘human nature’ actually mean? The posthuman world is a world post humankind. Or at least it is a world where humankind is no longer at the centre, but only part of a greater totality. And I am interested in exactly that – being human and being connected at so many levels – and in future ways that we can only begin to imagine.
AKG: As an artist you also work with connections not only to philosophy and theory but also to particular environments and people. How would you describe your process up to the creation of a work? For example, it is extremely useful for you to participate in intensive workshops with a large group of international artists headed by your teachers all the way back to your student years in Florence – that is, Rose Shakinovsky and Claire Gavronsky.
CRD: My relationship with Rose and Claire is special, as they were the ones who taught me how I can keep developing myself. I met them when I was a very young student at a small academy of art in Florence. They played a truly major role in my ending up being an artist and having such an extensive practice today. I suppose I am quite nerdy, and I like to get into everything before I start working in the studio. And I like to learn and to link all my knowledge and experience to my praxis. Drawing lines far back into history and situating myself and the material in the contemporary times is very typical of my method. That is something I learned from Rose and Claire, as they are very preoccupied with the times we live in now, and at the same time their historical knowledge is huge. In our workshop group, which Rose and Claire facilitate, we are all clapping our hands at the way the established art world is now at last taking an interest in this starting point where the transhistorical angle and the idea of the future meet in contemporary art. For example, in 2022 the big international art event the Venice Biennale had three thematic focuses that we in our group have already been preoccupied with for many years. The first was con¬cerned with the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses. The second was the relationship between individuals and technology, and the third explored the links between the body and the earth. It gives me comfort to know that the most pace-setting artists today are working with the explo¬ration of connections among all of us who inhabit the world – not least the hybrid, diverse beings with whom I have also worked for many years now.
AKG: I cannot help seeing your way of positioning yourself as an artist in the light of feminism. Without necessarily reading your praxis as feminist, I still think that a feminist project is inherent in your method and your works. That is, working from a position where one sees oneself as part of a greater totality – a kind of collective being-in-the world contrasting with isolated individual artistic energy, where no one creates alone, and everyone is indebted to someone or something.
CRD: Many people stick to feminism’s original meaning – insisting on equality between man and woman. We are still engaged in that struggle, but feminism today is also about all the other things that are not: white, western and male. And I want to make room for all these ‘other things’ in my work.
ANG: Like a kind of network or web free-floating between your works and Tegner’s sculp-tures, for the exhibition you have installed a range of mobiles consisting of both your own drawings and clips of ancient and alchemistic motifs. What kinds of networks are your so-called mind maps? How do you and Tegner connect across more than a century?
CRD: In the exhibition I wanted to work towards a different goal than with the oil paintings, given that my drawings are so small compared with the space. I have worked with mind maps ever since I began to make art. Both in the form of notes closely written with a fountain pen, but also as pure images. In my two most recent exhibitions, GRAFIK (2022) and HYBRID (2023), I split up my mind maps and exhibited them. But this time it feels meaningful to make my mind maps float as mobiles among Tegner’s gigantic sculptures, and I could realise that by unfolding them as three-dimensional sculptures. I think it is a generous approach to show one’s inspirations, and I love it myself at exhibitions when I get insight into an artist’s archive. Both Mamma Andersson and Marlene Dumas, who are great sources of inspiration for me, use the same approach in their artistic praxis.
The three mind maps in the exhibition have the title Hybrid Web, which recalls spider webs with their interwoven network of images spread out in the space. Although they are just as tall as Tegner’s sculptures, they are made of paper cuttings, which is such a fragile material compared with Tegner’s sculptures of bronze, marble, and plaster. But together they tell stories about hybrid relationships and connections and are interwoven. One literally sees the whole exhibition through them. The motifs are a kind of network of my sources of inspiration and reflections. They are a view of my thinking, and they connect and ramify knowledge across time and space. Perhaps they can open the way for us to begin to think about the endlessly complex network that helps us to structure our existence.
AKG: In 1921 Tegner contributes an article to Verden og Vi, in which he writes “The delight in beauty is lost to modern mankind, as a good sewer now plays a greater role than the statues from an ancient Greek city.” This perhaps slightly ironic sentence nevertheless seems to speak of a decidedly romantic temperament. The ideals of antiquity held a deep fascination for Tegner throughout his career. Amidst a burgeoning modernity and in the wake of the modern breakthrough’s culture-political social engagement, Tegner stubbornly insisted on an art that sought a more universal and spiritual aesthetic space. Perhaps for that reason he has also been called ‘anti-modern’ – a reading which at first glance could perhaps also be applied to your extensive use of the philosophy and myths of antiquity. But in your works, it is as if this strong cultural heritage undergoes a kind of ‘metamorphosis’; becomes a quite different material by adopting a new age. For example, you have a number of new works entitled Our Time consisting of both drawings and monotypes with collage. Here we meet among others the serpent Hydra, Marie Antoinette between birth and the guillotine, a pair of male legs trimmed like those of a Greek athlete and an amoeba-like figure free-floating in a black void with the arm and head from a female robot protagonist. What is ‘our time’ for you?
CRD: Each time has its focus. For Tegner industrialisation and the practical technology of sewer sys-tems and what have you were all new. In our time the focus on hybrids between humans and machines is central, and this raises several questions. What is ethical? What is human? But who are we to ask?
In the ancient world various cities or regions had their own oracles to whom people could go and ask questions. There they sought guidance from the wisdom of the gods. In our time search engines have become a kind of oracles. It is said that knowledge is power, but to convert knowledge into action also requires a human wisdom that can be a difficult entity. Artificial intelligence attempts to make us wiser and make us learn from one another’s life experiences. But wisdom differs quite fundamentally from knowledge. It is a more abstract and difficult thing to acquire. In the works Our Time I have linked Renaissance humanity with cyberhumanity at several levels. In one of the works a bionic arm grows out of something that could be a branch. This is a way of linking our time with the past and future and con¬necting humanity, the machine and nature.
ANG: That makes me think of a word that I know is important to you, and which I also read out of your mind maps: that is connectedness.
CRD: Connectedness, coexistence, other kinds of relationships – all images of our time, where we humans have had to ‘bow out’, so to speak. For what is in focus right now is precisely all the ‘non-humans’ such as animals, plants bacteria, machines, and objects. Many people say the world today is without hierarchy or a dominant species – humanity is no longer at the top of the pyramid but is instead connected with everything around it. The pandemic reminded us that as mortal bodies we are neither insuperable nor self-sufficient, but rather a part of a symbiotic network of interdependences that link us to one another, to other species and to the planet as a whole.
AKG: A sculpture that I know has inspired several of your new works, is Tegner’s bronze work Earthbound (1897-98). It stands out in the museum’s beautiful sculpture park: a heath with sandy soil, juniper and small windswept bushes and trees. In Earthbound we see a young couple. A seated woman clings to an erect, muscular man who clutches his head – upward-striving and absent. Although both are naked, it is the woman who is the erotic figure and her corporeality inhibits the man’s spiritual striving – an image not entirely unknown to western philosophy’s binary thinking, which has often defined woman in terms of all that the male is not: he is reason, culture and spirit, and woman must therefore be irrational, nature and body.
In some new works, you use the title Earthbound as a reference to Tegner’s sculpture, but unlike that submissive story I more sense a homage both to woman and to the capacity of the earth to heal and make things grow. A homage to Gaia, goddess of the earth. One of these new works is a monotype with charcoal and crayon where you have drawn a reclining head. The fine features of the face create a sense that this is a woman, and out of her mouth grows a plant that attracts what looks like insects, flowers, eyes and small, indefinable microorganisms like those you would normally see in a microscope. What has Tegner’s sculpture Earthbound meant to you? What kind of affinity exists between it and your own works?
CRD: Tegner’s sculpture Earthbound in fact repels me. For in it the woman clings to the man/the divinity. So, it is more the title than his sculpture that has inspired me. I have given the same title to several of my works in the exhibition, because quite fundamentally I think the title Earthbound is captivating. What does it mean, how does it connect the human to nature? Pure nature, basically. I am interested in exploring our dependence and our interrelations.
AKG: Let us finally turn to a motif which like a spectre continues to haunt your works across your career: that is, the owl. In Greek mythology it is the attribute of Athene, goddess of war, crafts, and art. The owl usually stands as this stoic symbol of learning, but it is also a predator that hunts when night falls. The bird species that in Danish is called the ‘church owl’, is in Latin called ‘Athene noctua’, Athene in fact, and I have heard that this very owl likes to sit out where it can both be seen and heard. At Tegner’s Museum an owl sits freely visible, up on one of the museum’s outer walls. Otherwise, there are not many ornamental features on the Brutalist concrete building, but Tegner’s sculpture of an owl has been given a place. When Tegner lived in Paris, it seems he shared his workshop with an owl, which at night became restless in its cage and was therefore let out and allowed to fly around freely among the sculptures. The owl and man “always kept an eye on each other”, as Tegner writes in his memoirs Toward the Light. With its large eyes the owl is this mysterious being that sees every¬thing and possibly even knows everything? “The owls are not what they seem”, as it is put in the cult series Twin Peaks. Among your new works owls are also hidden and they have been given the same very apt title as your exhibition at Tegner’s Museum: that is, Oracle. What kind of source of wisdom is the owl for you?
CRD: Owls are thought to be mysterious, perhaps because they live in the dark. Among the Kikuyu in Kenya owls are thought to be omens of death. In the West we often associate owls with wisdom and insight. I have worked with the owl as a motif since 2005. The first time I came across it was in connection with a succession of works I created that were inspired by The Odyssey, where the goddess Athene appears in the form of an owl and speaks the truth to Odysseus in the shape of an owl. The image of Athene as an owl was one of the most important religious symbols in ancient Greece. Animals have for a very long time evoked symbolic associations for humans. The 12 Olympian gods each had an animal that represented something sacred to them.
My practice over the years has focused on transformation and metamorphosis with questions about what is crucial to being human, and how the definition of the human has changed. Whether they are rooted in tradition or are more forward-looking, metamorphoses of humans, animals or plants can give us new insights into the natural world. Especially in the present-day technological society, which is defined by digital culture and thus our indirect and virtual experience of reality. And although oracles are best known from the civilisations and religions of antiquity, we can still gain knowledge from the myths today. Art has survived all civilisations and has continued to speak to us. I think that is magical.