Eternity and a Painter’s House
Published in Magasinet Kunst. 15 August 2022. By Augusta Atla
“Out of the sea, as if Homer himself had arranged it for me, the islands bobbed up, lonely, deserted, mysterious in the fading light. I couldn’t ask for more, nor did I want anything more. I had everything a man could desire, and I knew it. I knew too that I might never have it again.”
The quote, from Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, is a more than apt description, not only of Miller’s personal encounter with Greece just before World War II, but also of my own encounter with the island of Læsø and Læsø Artist in Residence, AiR. I found the book in Per Kirkeby’s bookcase in what was once his home and studio on the Danish island of Læsø.
In 2019, Læsø Kunst og Kultur (Læsø Art and Culture) purchased Per Kirkeby’s property and set up ‘Læsø Artist in Residence, AiR’, a project that finally took off this year – 2022. AiR provides Danish and foreign artists with a residency in Kirkeby’s studio and home. My 5-week stay inspired me, and I gained far more insight into the life, mentality and art of Per Kirkeby than I had anticipated.
The journey to Læsø is so long and arduous that, once you spot the island approaching from the wind-blown, crooked deck, you actually believe you have arrived at your very own fantasy island. In fact, reality did not really return until I was back in Copenhagen five weeks later.
On several levels, Læsø is rather like Peter Pan’s Neverland. Geologically speaking, it is one of Denmark’s youngest islands – one of the only ones, if not the only one, that is unfinished and continues to expand. Its location in the middle of the sea in the north and half way between Denmark and Sweden, its isolation, its unspoiled landscape – like a small, bashful, Scandinavian nature park – and its pristine, incomplete geology invest it with a fairy-tale appeal even before you go ashore.
It was not until I accepted the residency that I realised how far away Læsø is. I also realised the significance of the distance and the memory of distance – for both Per Kirkeby and myself. Per Kirkeby bought the house in 1979 (the year of my birth) but was mainly based in Copenhagen and since he did not have a driver’s license himself, he must have made this challenging journey thousands of times. For my part, my residency led to an understanding of Læsø as Per Kirkeby’s way of striving for peace of mind and a way to gather material for his works.
Once I had arrived, I quickly realised that not only would I be living in Per Kirkeby’s house and working in his studio; I would also be in the midst of all his belongings. Objects and furniture were more or less exactly where they had been during his lifetime.
You enter into this artist’s home and wonder: “Who is this person that left things this way? Who lived here? How did he use the surrounding area? What walks did he go on? Where did he used to cycle to?” It’s like being plunged into a living theatre set or a performance.
In my art, I always ask: How and when does an image of life emerge, and how do we depict memory’s constant reconstruction of images? With Per Kirkeby absent and his life as an artist now over, his house became my small, methodical kaleidoscope of existential, emotional and philosophical questions. This dual experience – on one hand, staying on a remote island surrounded by pristine nature; on the other, living in constant dialogue with Per Kirkeby’s story, absence and legacy – was like being torn between reality and an intense awareness of what a legend is.
Day by day, the residency became increasingly reminiscent of pages from a book by the blind author Jorge Luis Borges, revealing one by one the angles Kirkeby could not see in his final year after his fateful fall down a flight of stairs. I had never been a fan of Per Kirkeby and his art, but in his house on Læsø I became one.
The residency kindled a discussion about art, about being an artist and about all the different ways in which artists create. Per Kirkeby took to the great outdoors in search of structures, and allowed nature to paint itself. I, on the other hand, create images, which, like perfume, evoke memories, which do not necessarily feature precise details – images of an image that no longer exists, or an image that is still evolving in your memory.
Instead of Per Kirkeby’s large, highly colourful, monumental paintings, the studio was full of my own materials – everything from old photos of classic motifs and rolls of film found on the street in the light of the overhead projector to photos from the darkroom, and an abundance of both delicate and expressionist lines on endless sheets of paper and canvases. For five weeks, the space, which otherwise exudes a feeling of virility and the patriarchal art world of Denmark, was transformed into something feminine and dreamlike. In fact, not only as an artist, but also as an art historian, I found it a relief to realise that finally we can maybe transform history and move forward – even here in Denmark – towards a more multifaceted, diverse image than that of the ancient archetype of the painter as exclusively male.
My view of Kirkeby will never be the same again and, when I look at his works, Læsø will be all-pervading. So, my time there was quite pivotal. It brought him to life, and I have a totally different affection for him now. He’s become my friend. He has even become one of my artistic tools – one I can deploy in my studio in Copenhagen. Thank you, Per.
INFORMATION: Augusta Atla was artist-in-residence at Læsø Artist in Residence between 2 June – 9 July 2022 together with the US artist Rosy Keyser. Rosy Keyser was born in 1974 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, and is especially known for her large-scale, abstract paintings. In the Danish context, Keyser is represented in the collection at Louisiana and has exhibited at Louisiana and Kunsten Museum of Art Aalborg. Read more about Rosy Keyser’s work at:
To find out more about Læsø Artist in Residence, visit: www.laesoekunst.dk