“We Are All Workers” is a slogan from the latest campaign by Levi’s. It is also the title of Danish artist Mikkel Carl’s solo exhibition at Kunsthal NORD, housed in Aalborg’s former power plant Nordkraft. Bluntly appropriated, this essentially enigmatic statement is spelled out in capital letters 40 feet above the ground centre-stage in the gigantic, old kettle hall – preparing the audience for a meticulously planned meeting of art and architecture.
In general, Mikkel Carl abides by what he has previously termed as ‘site-sensitivity’: a fundamental preoccupation with the interplay of the art object and the context within which it is staged. At Kunsthal NORD, Carl elegantly introduces this dialectical and non-dogmatic notion full-scale: well-rehearsed strategies and well-known everyday objects are re-actualized within a unique conceptual setting, sensitive precisely to the specifics of space and place. Within a post-industrial facility, two minimalist towel racks called Shortcuts (2015) remind us that since Duchamp, ordinary things have become the focus of high-end design.
Such luxury goods are widely distributed across the globe using the standardized Euro-pallet—and thus, when it suddenly appears all twisted, it does pose the question: What’s Wrong With this Picture? (2015). Greeting Erwin Wurm’s crooked Renault 25, and the Photoshop transformation tool ‘skew’, this particular Euro-pallet has lost its function since it no longer adheres to the commercial standards dictating the shapes and size of just about everything within the EU, ranging from the allowed crookedness of cucumbers to, well, Euro-pallets. In the kinetic/surrealistic work Made in China (2009-2015) an equally useless “no-name” power drill spins round and round, going nowhere except in the direction of the cut-throat competition of industrial production, wherein actual fabrication is on a perpetual hunt for lower wages and bigger tax cuts. Soon China will probably be too expensive, and on the back of Apple products, it has long since said: Designed in California.
Mikkel Carl’s engagement in a series of installational maneuvers enables the activation of a wide range of architectural features characteristic of Nordkraft, and the usage of these historical features in the reconception of older works—and of new ones, in the case of the exhibition’s titular work We Are All Workers (2015). This, in particular, draws our attention to the fact that the former power plant was once the pride of industrial Aalborg, occupying a large number of people in a city with the longest running social democratic governance in Denmark. Today Nordkraft has been transformed into a production facility of art and culture, yet seeking to maintain the genius logi – the spirit of fossil fuels – rawness has been preserved, and monumentality still prevails.
Within an international art context, this type of architectural appropriation or recontextualization is well known from the example set by London’s Tate Modern that is also a former power plant. Today, these plants no longer supply us with electricity and heat, but rather with a different type of energy, mental, bodily and intellectual energy; an institutional self-understanding that make them refer to themselves as “mental gyms” or “docking stations” where body and mind can be recharged. Producers of culture, knowledge, and events have long since supplanted most of the industrial workers of the past century, as the municipality of Aalborg over the past decades has been working with a development-strategy focusing primarily on the so-called “experience economy”. Hence, Carl’s paraphrase of American minimalist and land artist Walter de Maria’s two early text works Rome Eats Shit and New York Eats Shit may, in this case, be representing or (self-ironically) be making fun of provincial pride: Copenhagen Eats Shit (2014).
Using appropriation and assisted readymade as his overall strategy, Mikkel Carl navigates the terrain of pop, minimalism, and conceptual art, drawing lines of flight from the early avant-garde movements, and post-war neo-avant-garde to the performative and relational strategies of recent decades. His works contain a complex set of references, wherein the title and even the list of materials are significant means of artistic production. Take for instance Factory Windows Are Always Broken (2015), in which the usage of transparent stickers has created the illusion of broken windows. The title is borrowed from a poem by singing American poet Vachel Lindsay, reminding us that the industrial plants were long the locus of class struggle as well as personal crisis. In one spot, a “bullet hole” also alludes to the dangerous and very real experiments of previous movements e.g. Chris Burden’s performance Shoot from 1971.
If early 20th century avant-garde artists were expressing themselves mostly through articulate resistance leaning heavily on “the heat of the moment”, the neo-avant-garde applied more subtle (spatial) displacements to launch its critique of the power structures in place. The complex work A Thing Is a Hole In the Thing It Is Not (2015/2012) derives its title from Carl Andre, who has described his works not as sculptures, but rather as carvings of the space surrounding them. Along this line of thought, Mikkel Carl builds partition walls where former use and/or recent renovation and subsequent repurposing have left large door openings in the bearing walls. Afterwards he smashed holes in designated areas of some of these new partition walls, thereby simulating closedness, even secretiveness, or perhaps rather, appropriating the openness that the architectural setting already possessed. “Pushing at an open door”, he describes it, partially throwing irony at the idea of institutional and/or commercial “break through”—or, as highlighted by the radiant presence of Halo (2015/2012) in the vast cathedral-like central space of Kunsthal NORD, the revelation of hidden truths.
Drawing on the inspiration from Michael Asher, who in 1974 tore down the wall separating the office and storage facilities from the actual exhibition space at Claire Copley gallery in Los Angeles, Mikkel Carl has moved part of the Kunsthal NORD administration, including its storage/work shop, into two rooms normally part of the exhibition area. This means that the director and his personal assistant are now constantly on display, sitting in front of a larger hole in the wall “double jobbing” (as it was called when work was still separable from leisure time). They perform everyday work routines like writing emails, having meetings, etc., while actually doing their job writing emails, having meetings, etc.
In the canonical text Inside the White Cube from 1976 Brian O’Doherty wrote about a “surprise attack on the white cube”, wherein spatial displacements might expose otherwise invisible power structures inherent in the art scene. Inside Kunsthal NORD, Mikkel Carl has staged his displacements to such a degree that the question of “whose hands are dirty” becomes obsolete. Rather, using a performative, theatrical and humoristic approach, he points to the fact that whatever critical potential such radical gestures once had, they have now become pure institutional affirmation. Or is this, rather, what he leads us to believe?
One thing is certain: Mikkel Carl is not critical in a traditional (that is to say oppositional) sense of the word. Naming this position “affirmative negation”, he tags along to be able to go against. A paradoxically guarded rendition of Andy Warhol’s strategic motto “If you enter it totally you might expose it.” This much is apparent in Carl’s series of “paintings” called Impression. Referencing both (historical) conceptual painting and the marked-savvy neo-formalism debated in recent years, the artist has stretched various moving blankets over a canvas-like structure. Despite the minimal painterly output, he effectively circumvents the desired absence of referentiality traditionally associated with formalism as he frames the material and its context as a significant layer of meaning. Grabbed from storage in various art institutions, commercial galleries and artist run spaces – all of which the artist have had dealings with in recent years – these blankets are like body bags of once auratic art works. Quite appropriately, their colour and texture immediately recall Beuys’ lifelong application of felt, yet when viewed up closer, they more acutely remind one of the gestures of abstract expressionism as well as the flickering beauty of impressionism.
Throughout the exhibition, Mikkel Carl grabbles with some of the important theoretical and conceptual questions once posed by the avant-garde, focusing on the ontology of the artwork/art object. We see this most radically in his work The Sea Is not Cruel, the Clouds Do not Choke the Sky, Information Does not Want to Be Free (2015) where a galvanized pipeline – located on an outdoor overpass it convincingly mimics the ventilation system running throughout Nordkraft – occasionally emits a rather large quantum of smoke. The work alludes to the preoccupation of the avant-garde with “the moment” rather than with fixed and stable objects. It also recalls art practices of recent years more geared towards phenomenological aspects, in which the artwork becomes dependent on the bodily sensation and spatial reorientation of the audience. In a way, Carl’s works mainly consist of relations, referentiality in its many guises—but that is also precisely why they can never be limited to such a straightforward relation between viewer and a ’je ne sais quoi’.
In 1988 the concept of relational aesthetics was introduced by the French art theorician Nicolas Bourriaud, who believed that art of the time ought to be characterized by its socio-political engagement, acting as it did as a mediator of social encounters, creating direct relations with and within the audience. Rather than wanting to straightforwardly expand upon such notions, Mikkel Carl bank upon our historical appreciation of them. On the one hand, he deliberately stages our interaction with his works through an elaborate scenography, while insisting on the importance of the concrete object, as if their specific materiality is really the key to that expanded field – and vice versa. Coming upon the huge mirror wall Lacan is “not” (2015/2013) we simply cannot escape a heightened awareness regarding both our bodily presence and social interaction within that space, and yet it’s also very much an encounter with a sculptural arrangement commemorating the serial repetition of minimalism (“One thing after another,” as Donald Judd would put it). The huge grid of square IKEA mirrors add up to an endgame of structure and displacement, sign and action, where repetition is both possible and impossible, duplication and actual change.
To Mikkel Carl, artistic renewal is not, or at least is not evidently connected to the subversive and revolutionary critique of consumer society and the art institution launched by the avant-garde. Given art’s dependence on the institution, and furthermore, their common relation to the surrounding society, he pushes instead to refocus the discussion on the fundamentals necessary to the production of new meaning. If Duchamp, at the beginning of the 20th century, clearly demonstrated how objects would transform upon entering the art institutions sanctioned by society, artists like Joseph Beuys wished to plead a possible transformation of society itself. Through the practice he termed “social sculpture” the goal was to turn society at large into a space for art: one big aesthetic institution where all citizens would act as artists on the stage of everyday life.
By calling us all “workers”, Mikkel Carl claims that we have reached that final point. In industrial society, the division of labour and leisure was crystal clear, whereas these categories today have radically merged and been blurred. It might appear that we are just playing around with our new iPhone, but actually, we are at work, 24/7. The historical battle of workers’ unions demanding “8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, and 8 hours of free time” seems more and more like a pyrrhic victory. Speed is picking up as the Internet and various social media have become a site where personal life, creativity and clever career moves are often intertwined. But does his mean that we have all become artists? On account of the digital revolution, it could be argued that we have been handed the tools necessary to live out this fantasy of Joseph Beuys. And possibly, the transformation of Nordkraft from a power plant fuelled with fossils to a cultural production facility can be seen as an incarnation of his thoughts, and many of the artistic ideas of the past century. And yet, does the reconfiguration of social and aesthetic institutionalization actually realize the utopian vision and the revolutionary potential Beuys and many of his peers of the 20th century were projecting? Mikkel Carl seems to believe that the answer to this question is: fully, and not even close.
The artist’s faith seems stronger when it comes to the virtues of the readymade and appropriation as forms of artistic production still relevant to society. In his book Theory of the Avant-Garde from 1974, Peter Bürger criticised the Neo-avant-garde for institutionalizing the avant-garde by simply making it into ‘art’; a far cry from its original avantgardistic intention of revolutionizing social relations, including those surrounding the art institution. Hal Foster has later argued that it was not until the neo-avant-garde in the ‘60s and ‘70s that the art institution as such became comprehensible and that the project of the avant-garde could be appreciated accordingly. Here, Hal Foster draws on Freud’s notion of ‘Nachträglichkeit’, which he translates into his concept of ‘deferred action’, meaning that you may only understand an occurrence as you later in life experience something somewhat similar that will enable you to decode the previous event. Hence, Foster criticises Burger for telling his tale of the avant-garde from a strictly linear perspective not taking into account how things in the present may shape those of the past in a cyclic process of return and re-actualisation. With Carl, an equally non-essentialist concept of art is at work. To him the relevance of the readymade strategy lies in its constructivist and performative ability to encompass paradigmatic differences, similarities and various ways of reception in a pretty straightforward way. Borrowing from Schwartz and Davis’ text on American artist Elaine Sturtevant, one may say that Mikkel Carl, through his highly personal unification of appropriation and site-sensitivity, manages to create works that might not be new-to-see, but more importantly are new-to-think, new-to-feel.
by Marie Nipper, director of Copenhagen Contemporary
The text was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Mikkel Carl's solo exhibition at Kunsthal NORD, Aalborg.