Augusta Atla’s Newsletter
Augusta Atla’s Newsletter


Pilestræde podcast, Berlingske (DK)

Pilestræde podcast, Berlingske (DK)

Den 4 september 2023. Language: Danish

I sin kunst bruger Augusta Atla ofte kristne genstande. Et omvendt krucifiks, udrevne sider fra Biblen for eksempel. Altså noget af det regeringen vil gøre ulovligt med forbuddet mod »utilbørlig behandling af genstande med væsentlig religiøs betydning for et trossamfund.« 

»Man kan ikke være kunstner og samtidig gå ind for den lov,« mener Atla. 

I dagens afsnit af Pilestræde laver hun - måske for sidste gang - det forberedende arbejde til værket »Min afdøde mors bibel.«

Gæst: Augusta Atla, billedkunstner. 

Vært: Kaare Svejstrup. 

ENGLISH transcript:

KS: I asked you to take a Bible with you because I thought the two of us could do in this episode of Pilestræde what will soon be forbidden: taking a Bible, tearing it to pieces and making art out of it.

And then you somehow choose to trump me and take your late mother's Bible with you, and now I'm standing here feeling like this… I'm not sure I can bring myself to do that.

AA: But, but that's exactly what art can do. It can, it can do things in all the painful nooks and crannies of our hearts and our thoughts and sort of illuminate what you sometimes can't talk about.

KS: Augusta Atla, welcome to Pilestræde. ... The government wants to stop Rasmus Paludan's Koran burnings, and they are making, have made a bill. The title of the bill is "Prohibition against inappropriate treatment of objects with significant religious significance for a religious community."

AA: Yes.

KS: What do you think of the bill?

AA: That, it's so... it's like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. It's absolutely insane. In other words, if I have to start thinking rationally and analytically about what this law actually does, it starts an avalanche that I have great difficulty keeping track of. So mentally it will be very, very difficult to keep track of this.

KS: Augusta, before we go further down the rabbit hole you're talking about here, I'd like to talk about your art. You use the Bible in a number of your works. Among other things, you have torn the Bible to pieces and made collages out of it. You also have some works where you dissolve Bibles in water. Why? What, what is… what to say…? I know it's always weird to ask artists why they make their art. But if... Now I try anyway. Why? What's the point?

AA: So now my works are about many other things, and I have also torn 1000 other things to pieces, so now it sounds as if I am only a Christian critic of the system. I am not. But the material of Christianity is as much a part of my subject area that I revolve around, as anything else. It can be... so it can be Vogue magazines or old photos from the 40s from the streets of Rome or... it doesn't really matter. My practice, firstly, is about a wide range of material that is our cultural heritage, of which the Bible is just a small part of it. And then you ask me: "Why then is the Bible part of it anyway?" This is because I have now grown up in a Christian culture, and I, for example, went to school and lived for a few years when I was little in Venice, so I also learned Catholicism indirectly there.

KS: Is that… are you a Christian?

AA: I don't know what I am. I think I am everything and nothing. I don't know what that word is - a sort of extended atheist, an open atheist.

KS: Hmm. But at least Christianity is…

AA: But, but Christianity is my upbringing, especially because my mother was an art historian, so I saw St. Peter's Church in Rome when I was 3, and was sort of indoctrinated by the language that the church has made in art . And it's both fantastic... its problem has just been that affirmation of gender, Adam and Eve, and that exclusion of bisexuality and hermaphrodite. There were hermaphroditic sculptures, and lots of bisexual imagery, for example, in Greek antiquity. Although there was oppression of women, there were strong images of the female body. There is Nike, the winged goddess that stands in the Louvre, it is not exactly a picture of female oppression. What happens around 300 AD, and Constantine makes the Roman Empire Christian, we see a violent tsunami of images that are no longer reproduced. And it is, for example, the woman who is a warrior like Athena – the goddess was a warrior – Artemis was a hunter. That is we get a new repertoire of female figures, which are mainly the Madonna, i.e. the Virgin Mary or the image of a mother. And it's almost a kind of cleansing if you look purely pictorially, and I have a problem with that. So that, it's a rather unfortunate figurative censorship that Christianity comes in and does, and that we actually only soften up... - so now the world is also male chauvinist on top of that, so it's a double potency - it's only about women's suffrage, and it is modern art that we are really starting to get some new images again - of women.

KS: So when you use the Bible, that is, when you tear the Bible to pieces and use it to make collages with...

AA: Then I say to them, to the church – not to Jesus, because what do I know about everything he has said – but then I say to the institution the church: "It's just not good enough."

KS: Augusta, some of the listeners, when they hear you here, they will think: "Okay, fine enough that she wants to do something critical of religion, but couldn't she do it in another way than destroying Bibles?"

AA: Yes, that is, yesterday, when I had to try to find a Bible, because I had actually kind of forgotten, I had this, mother's book, at home, so I panicked a little and thought: "Well, I really have to go and buy one book, an old Bible, because what if it's lost, this family Bible? So I actually managed to be so pessimistic and think that it had disappeared. So I drove to a shop on Amagerbrogade and asked if I ... found a very beautiful one - it was a small, fine New Testament in black leather, and I was like "No!" because it is actually rare to find. And then it cost 40 kroner, and I was so happy, said: "No, it will be good for collage." And obviously I should never have said that, and I was not aware that I lived in such a country.

KS: How did they react in the bookstore when you said you wanted to buy a New Testament?

AA: In Greece, I knew I shouldn't have said such a thing, but I just don't think that about Denmark.

KS: What happened in the bookstore?

AA: Well, but he froze in his body, and then he said: "You mustn't do that." You must not buy it.”

KS: He didn't want that?

AA: No, I simply couldn't buy it, and then... the others in the shop started laughing and could hardly see what kind of situation... Then I said: "Are you a Christian?" and then he said: "No, but I don't like you destroying the books."

KS: And I laughed too when you told me the story now, but somewhere I can also put myself in his shoes. I can understand people who feel like this: “You know what? Books like that, you shouldn't destroy them."

AA: Hmm. But there are plenty of them. I think the Bible must be one of the best selling copies in the world.

KS: But Augusta, many people in Denmark, regardless of the fact that we have, many of us, a Protestant background and know well, or perhaps collectively know that objects are not sacred. We feel special about books anyway, maybe even extra special about religious books... Mette Frederiksen says it very clearly, and I think she speaks with the voice of a majority of Danes: "We don't care about it." Religious books are not something to be destroyed.

AA: So for me, for me it's a book just as much... so for me Hamlet is more important. Yes, I could understand that if it was a Bible that Christian IV had signed, I probably wouldn't tear it to pieces. But then, there is no one in particular who has owned it here. I also did not want to tear Søren Kirkegaard's personal, which had been lying on his bed when he died - I did not want to tear it to pieces, because it is cultural heritage compared to a museum. But everything that is available second-hand in shops and for sale, it is on the same level, on the same level as an old version of The Fall of the King or Hamlet by Shakespeare, and I would also use them in a collage, so I can't see the difference, because I "raise" it to a beautiful work of art.

KS: But I don't think the prime minister is talking about the difference between who owned the Bible. I think the prime minister is thinking: "Religious books, regardless of who owned them, it's just not something you should destroy."

AA: But then she claims... if she really means it, we don't know with 100% certainty - if she really means it, then she says that the text of the Bible as an object is worth more than the work of art. That, well, it's not in my eyes.

KS: For you it's just a book.

AA: For me, it is cultural heritage on an equal footing with Shakespeare. Period.

( Soundtrack: "To be or not to be, that is the question". )

KS: Another one who uses religious books in his works is the Danish-Iranian artist Firoozeh Bazrafkan. Among other things, she has torn the Koran on a grater while standing in front of the Iranian embassy, and she has said herself: "This is a protest against the oppression of women by the Iranian regime." And this is an example that I have talked about a lot in this podcast, because she is one of those whom this legislation also affects beyond what is the goal of the government, they say that clearly: Rasmus Paludans Koran burnings. And Minister of Justice Peter Hummelgaard, he has been asked how the bill, which has now been presented, how it will affect Bazrafkan, and let's hear what he answers:

- "I want to encourage her and other artists to create something, write something, paint something, carve something in stone, make some music - what do I know? – instead of destroying things.” (Peter Hummelgaard, 2023)

KS: What do you say to that?

AA: It is difficult to debate at that level. That is, because he lowers ... he lowers his own ... Let's say he is wearing a uniform as a politician, so he simply takes it off right there. Because he forgets that he is a politician for, for a democratic culture which is not afraid of conflict, debate, i.e. where it is not dangerous to disagree. And then he lowers it down to a simple ... to one pragmatic example that she can use another way of making art, but, but then ... ... then he doesn't see the big picture, because being an artist is not making a particular object necessarily, as she does, to piss someone off. And I have full respect for her doing that, because she has plenty of reason to do that, but art is even higher than that. The art object since 1790 (*Immanuel Kant) is essentially without function. This is what makes art beautiful, and it means that you don't just make a work so that you have a great time and go home and be de-stressed, and the politicians use it on prescription. It's not just art. It is for me a smaller, you could say, version of art, but it is not what is the high art and the free thought and the analytical way in which we have built our society, which is an analytical, logical , free society, which has broken with all these dogmas since – well, what do I know? – since Nietzsche, since Descartes, since Kant.

KS: What if it costs us terror, murder and all kinds of violence? After all, this is what the government is afraid of.

AA: Yes, but if we are not allowed to show our positions, if we sort of silence positions, then we are showing that we are in some way legalizing the fact that you can get extra angry when someone does that.

KS: But Augusta, I completely sympathize with your defense of art. Maybe I think so too, I know that - I don't know Peter Hummelgaard personally - but I wonder if somewhere in his brain he does that too? I just think his argument, the government's rationale, is: "Yes, art is extremely important, but right now we're just in a situation where Denmark's security is threatened, dammit. We risk terrorist attacks, we risk everything else if we don't take a step back now. That's what the government is doing with this.

AA: Well then, I wish Denmark the best of luck. Then you just get fewer works, and then you just get some museum directors who have to sort and censor, and then you can sit in the culture that gets a problem. So I wish you good luck. I can exhibit my things elsewhere in the world. So Denmark is not the navle of the world, so it will be Denmark that gets the problem.

KS: Not so long ago there was an artist called Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld who pushed a bust of Frederik V into the water. She was expelled from the Academy of Fine Arts, and then the artists took to the streets. Over 1000 artists signed a declaration of solidarity. But apart from you and maybe a few others in the public that I haven't noticed, I haven't seen anything from the artists that is - pardon the expression - raucous silence right now. Why do you think?

AA: Well, I was happy that Poul Erik Tøjner wrote that article, because there wasn't really anyone else who wrote from our art point of view, so it was a bit like a protector of the arts came on board.

KS: And Poul Erik Tøjner is Louisiana's director for those who don't know. What did he write that you think was good?

AA: He wrote bli-bla-bli-bla-bli-bla-bli and that it... of course it's bad, and of course he doesn't sympathize with Rasmus Paludan, of course you shouldn't do things just to exercise hatred, all that to start with, and then he wrote: "But it is really a problem that the legislation does not take into account. Namely, what is text, what is image and what is action.” Because what if I sit down and write the whole Bible by hand on a piece of paper, on many pieces of paper as a performance and then put it in water? So we get ... it gets really comical, some of this stuff. In other words, it has been forgotten that the artists also handle and act and perform. So it's not just paintings of a Bible, so you can make 1000 things. So the legislation shows that they have not understood how the artists work, i.e. that they simply handle free material and not just make pictures.

KS: Okay. Then Poul Erik Tøjner from Louisiana, he writes something in Weekendavisen. You stand here in the studio and speak out against this bill. But sorry, but I do not experience an overwhelming protest action from Danish artists on this proposal, as we saw, for example, when Dirckinck-Holmfeld threw the bust of Frederik V into the water. Why don't we see a similarly large solidarity action with Firoozeh Bazrafkan, who is now being hindered from being able to make her art, as she saw - purpose or not, but at least makes - which is critical of the Iranian clerical rule. Shouldn't Danish artists support this to the same extent as they supported the bust rematerialization?

AA: I don't know if all artists are just completely low-practical atheists and therefore completely indifferent to the Bible, that they can't use it, so they forget to think that it's not about being able to use the Bible or not. It's about freedom. The censorship part, it gets comical for artists in all sorts of different contexts.

KS: But now you mentioned Poul Erik Tøjner before, and you say he starts by distancing himself from Rasmus Paludan and his Koran burnings.

AA: Yes. Sure.

KS: And then we have a dilemma. Because if we have to deal with it, we have to have some rules that limit it. So, otherwise, we just have to allow him to continue burning his Korans. Now they are making a move. You are critical of it because it also affects artistic expression in Denmark. But how in heaven's name are the politicians supposed to restrict Rasmus Paludan from standing in the open street and burning Korans, if at the same time they have to allow you - now I'm just using you as an example - to stand and tear Bibles to pieces and make collages? Do you see the problem? How to distinguish, how to, how to limit one without also limiting the other?

AA: Well, I'm not a politician, luckily, so I can only answer how to handle art. So you can do whatever you want, and you can make Denmark go back 300 years in time. So the politicians have to deal with that themselves. It doesn't make me any less free, it's just going to be a problem for the country. In other words, there will be censorship at the institutions, so my collages may not be shown... So there will be censorship, which is not smart.

KS: And that part of it, the problem, I understand it well. I would like to talk a little about the second problem. It is Rasmus Paludan's Koran burnings. Because if now Paludan, he starts making art, he says: "Now I'm an artist." He has the same Islam-critical message. He may even use the same tool, burning Korans, but now it is the artist Rasmus Paludan who does it. So will you support him?

AA: I don't know what to answer because I don't sympathize at all with his way of exercising anger. So the whole idea of art is to create more freedom. As I see what Rasmus Paludan is doing right now is that he is creating so much confusion. And so much unfreedom. So it is very difficult for me to say anything about it, other than that MY office in art, and what I know art for, is simply to create more freedom. And more awareness.

KS: But Rasmus Paludan, if I were to play him, he would say: "Well, I'm also fighting for more freedom. More freedom from Islam.”

AA: I simply don't know what to answer to that, Kaare. So I can only say that I would not have made a legal intervention if I were a politician. Then he has to stand and burn those Bibles or other religious writings, and then you have to deal with that conflict. It goes without saying that the conflict about ... - so it's okay to have that conflict, then we must have that conflict.

KS: And Augusta, I actually think it's completely okay that you can't answer that, but it actually also shows that it's extremely difficult to come up with something about this in our society. It is hard. It is a difficult situation for the politicians.

AA: Yes, I understand that. The problem is, they cut off their own arm when they think they cut off his arm.

KS: Let's get back to where we started. Your late mother's Bible. Won't you tell me a little about your mother?

AA: Yes, where do I start? She died when she was 64, unfortunately, from one almost moment to the next from an aggressive form of leukemia that caught up with us all.

KS: How old were you?

AA: 39. So It's been 4 years. Yes, so it was kind of violent, because she was... She was quite unique. So she was wild.

KS: So it's been a fairly short time since you lost her.

AA: Yes.

KS: What uh, how does that play into you standing with her Bible now?

AA: So for me. For me, this Holy Bible ends...then this Bible ends as a book of sorrow. Simply because I remember her last days. She saw a priest a few days before she died, and she wasn't really very religious. She couldn't speak very well at the end so only I could understand what she was saying so I was her translator. So when the priest came in and asked: "What do you believe in?", I had to put my ear to her mouth, and then she had to explain what she believed in. And then she could just say "The beer table", and I was the only one who could understand it.

KS: What does that mean?

AA: That's what the priest said too: "What does that mean?" And it obviously means, somewhat in the Valhalla way of thinking, that you come up to all those you have loved and honored at a long table, as if you were being honored. And then you sit forever drinking beer.

KS: What did … say?

AA: And she was looking forward to that. So there was simply an art collector called Ebbe - she had had a gallery when she was alive - whom she... she was looking forward to meeting him.

KS: Hmm. How would your mother think of you tearing up her Bible?

AA: She would, she would say: "What's good for you, Augusta, is good for me." She did not want to trump a dogma over play, love, freedom of expression and art. She simply didn't want that, so she wanted to say: "Go ahead, have fun, hils Kaare."

(Soundtrack: pages from a bible being torn out)

KS: Augusta Atla, thank you so much for wanting to come in here and tear up a Bible.

AA: My pleasure.

Augusta Atla’s Newsletter
Augusta Atla’s Newsletter