A PIECE OF CONVERSATION
- with Toke Lykkeberg about the new work of Mikkel Carl
Art professional: Last time you called upon me, you had written an essay – a bit too long and scholarly – which you wanted to popularize. So, what’s up now?
Toke Lykkeberg: Well, this time I don’t want to start off with some cumbersome text, so before such a thing ever sees the light of day, I would prefer that you simply interview me.
Excellent. What’s the topic?
I would like to discuss the new works by Danish artist Mikkel Carl. Normally, his work is rather discursive, literary or so-called conceptual, but this time it feels almost mute. In an open-ended way, though, or in an erotic way. And that’s not simply a metaphor, and I do not only say that to get your attention. His new work appeals to the senses almost too splendidly. I could of course invent a discourse around that, but I think simply writing a text, where I try to make his works talk will feel too much like a monologue. It would be my work, not his. However, a dialogue with someone as relentlessly inquisitive as you might be more appropriate.
Hmm, do we need to talk about this work at all? Shouldn’t one simply sense it rather than make sense of it?
Well, actually I think the artist wants to set up a dialogue concerning the appealing though particularly mute works that seem so abundant on the contemporary art scene these days. Just think about all the quasi-monochromes around, you know, all these works that consist mainly of some new material presented as a flat yet textural surface. I believe Mikkel Carl wants to initiate an earnest dialogue – intimate, direct and without distance – around exactly that, without, however, stating anything himself. And furthermore it seems he wants to be the object of that dialogue – or conversation, if you like, as it might involve more than two parties. Perhaps he has tried to create objects that he cannot or will not speak about himself – they are all emphatically untitled – in order to become those objects. There is no need to look for the artist behind those works, one might say. He’s outside of himself and inside them.
Oh, is that so… strange because I cannot see him there.
You might be joking, but you’re right. What I mean is that Mikkel Carl himself gets lost in these works. As an artist he directs the process of their making, but he’s not really making them himself. He rather makes the works make themselves.
You’re being mystical?
Never. Some of the historical works that his work resembles definitely flirt with the esoteric, but I simply refer to the anodizing process whereby Mikkel Carl’s new works are made. He takes a plate of titanium and dips it in a pool of acid wired to an electrical source. As it turns out, this meeting of materials produces layers of microscopic crystals on the titanium, and when the crystals refract light various colors appear. So, Mikkel Carl doesn’t add color to a surface like a “real” painter. He rather orchestrates its emergence.
So he simply dumps titanium into conductive acid? But is this really what you mean by “getting lost in the material”?
Getting lost on purpose, of course, as a tourist looking for adventure. It’s all about letting go and then catching up. That’s what a lot of contemporary artists do right now. This is art made in a network condition where agency is distributed among various players – “human and non-human”, as they say. Mikkel Carl doesn’t dictate the process, but he guides it. On the power supply he can change the voltage, which runs through the electrical circuit producing the crystalline structures. To some extent he can thereby control the resultant colors.
A tourist, you said?
Well, it was a metaphor, but his laboratory setup – with the inflatable swimming pool serving as a container for the acid – does remind me of vacation. Here’s a rather conceptual artist taking some time off as a painter, and yet he cannot help conceptualizing the whole thing. He’s getting into these material processes that could easily unfold without him, and yet he strives for brownish, bluish and yellowish colors that remind me of a sunny day at the beach. Mikkel Carl is at the beach, but he’s not building a sand castle or eating ice cream. He’s taking photos.
And that’s what you think contemporary art is about? Taking photos?
Mikkel Carl’s new works look very much like contemporary art right now, but it also makes me think of Sigmar Polke. He used all kinds of materials, more or less vibrant, from arsenic to moon dust to mucus extracted from snails. People therefore like to refer to Polke’s works and also work by other artists before him as alchemy. And once again this sounds mystical, but actually it’s not. In the 1970s, Polke turned to photography and – as this implies – chemistry. Which in turn brings us back to Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography. Two centuries ago he developed pictures by exposing a polished silver surface to fume from iodine crystals. It’s kind of complicated, but the resultant daguerreotype – as Daguerre dubbed it – had painter Paul Delaroche announce the death of painting…
…and I presume this leads us straight to Mikkel Carl’s latest show called “R.I.P. curl”?
Well, maybe. Daguerre was a painter himself and it was actually in his paintings that he started out experimenting with different materials. So, when you think about it, all this modernist talk of competition between two mutually exclusive media might be a bit off. Delaroche could easily have said to Daguerre: “My brother, I salute you, you have sent painting off in a new direction.” Actually painting and photography have always been enmeshed. Just think of all the historical painters who played around with the camera obscura. Maybe this is what the exhibition title hints at – some sort of entanglement. The “curl” modifies what R.I.P. normally connotes. Death is no longer the end of something but rather its transformation.
It’s kind of relativistic what you’re saying: You cannot tell one from the other and it’s all just the same.
No, what I’m saying is that the idea of competing media also stems from mental, social and institutional structures, which are all very real. Would you for instance say that a chair and a table compete?
Okay, so painting and photography are different, but they somehow match – like the chair and the table. And still, they’re not the same and I think the artist is playing around with that difference. Why not? We can draw a line from Daguerre to the so-called alchemist artists to Polke to contemporary art and finally to Mikkel Carl. This line is not simply about art – unless of course, you accept Steve Jobs’ talk about himself and his employees as artists. And let’s try and do that. Then Mikkel Carl’s work doesn’t simply recall that of some of his peers, but also the aesthetics formatted by programs such as Paint Shop. And if we take into account that Apple is also famous for anodizing their titanium and aluminum products, Mikkel Carl’s work becomes a strange fusion of offscreen and onscreen, of hardware and software. It’s as if an image would suddenly show on the back of your MacBook screen.
That’s all very, very interesting, I must admit. So, Mikkel Carl’s work relates to painting and photography?
Oh yes, that was what I was getting at. I think Mikkel Carl simultaneously wants to capture and create. He longs for these titanium works to register contemporary art and culture and yet simply be contemporary art and culture – at a time when we believe we can no longer separate creation from its mediation.
How deep – and yet so ridiculously banal. You could say that about almost any work of art nowadays – to say the least…?
…hmmm, that may even strengthen my point. And how did I get there, my friend?
By starting out talking about Mikkel Carl’s new work.
No, by listening to the sound of his silence.
Now you’re being mystical again?
No, it’s the first time and it’s only because I’ve reached my limit. As I already said, right from the beginning of this, I had a feeling that I could all too easily end up being the co-creator of the work simply by talking about it. But then again, co-creation is what these works seem to be about.
That’s beautiful, all good and true. But basically these paintings just look great in a corny way. When you say “co-creation”, you might be thinking of network theory, new materialist and realist philosophy, and what do I know? Well, what I do know is that co-creation actually designates the business strategy of adapting to a new market where customers and consumers want to be active rather than passive. So, honestly, aren’t these works just made to sell?
Oh, my dear, if I’m being mystical, you’re all too mundane; a schism with which we’re constantly confronted. That’s why I was almost certain that you would bring this up. But yes, selling is what I would call yet another layer. Any reflective and glittery surface somehow plays the game of having viewers gaze at their own reflection – just like varnish did earlier on in the history of painting. It’s a flattering surface: “Look at me. I’m a portrait of you. And you should own me as you should own your own self-portrait.” And yes, I really hope this will work out too, and that Mikkel Carl’s new works will sell really well. At least this means that they will have an afterlife – some meaning after the show is over. Early installation art was thought of as resisting market forces because it could not circulate and would thus be discarded right after it had been shown. This, however, made art ephemeral – as if art, too, was subject to the upending market forces, which it sought to resist. A paradox resulting from the fact that you can’t really reflect on what you outright reject.
You sincerely believe Mikkel Carl reflects on the market.
Oh, yes, he also reflects on it. And I think his works reflect it. I think Mikkel Carl refers to his new work as painting because paintings in particular are made for this network we call the art market, which you’re talking about as if it were some singular entity. Historically, paintings can be seen as autonomous, but that’s precisely why its collectors might be regarded as installation artists. They’re active consumers who will provide the work with a context and perhaps some function by making it cover up a hole in the woodwork of their comfy country house. Thus it will make their guests talk about what is rather than what is not. But collectors also respect the work’s autonomy and try to preserve it and look after it as they look after their property in general. Then, of course, as they succeed in preserving it, it will be interesting to see whether it’s possible to preserve at all – or whether Mikkel Carl’s paintings are in fact photos that keep developing. But I’m not a chemist.
That’s yet another limit to your knowledge and insight, but by now I know that this concession is a rhetorical figure concocted to make what you know seem rock solid. And that’s why I agree when you say that this dialogue rather ought to be a conversation.
Well, I’m baffled by how you got there, but I do agree with this conclusion of yours. If Mikkel Carl strives to make conversation pieces, this is only a piece of conversation. And that’s why we conclude this dialogue about his new work without concluding anything.
Text by Toke Lykkeberg, director of Tranen, freelance curator and art critic.
The text was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Mikkel Carl's soloshow R.I.P. Curl at Last Resort (then Henningsen Gallery), Copenhagen.