In my practice I often think with and through objects. I dig around for things and beings with exceptional qualities. They are things that exist in a sort of limbo between different states of belonging. The Grauballe Man is such a dubious thing-being. This coming academic year The Grauballeman is our Prism at the School of Sculpture. We shall see how a body was made into a thing by a museum. How gossip made a person out of that thing – so real, so ordinary. We shall see how science made him an artefact and how medical science reunited the corpse with its ancient soul.
It was the 26th of April 1952, and it was a Saturday morning. Tage Busk Sørensen, a peat-cutter, stood on his shovel. It wobbled as if it had hit a rubber ball. Tage went down on his knees to have a closer look. He had hit the shoulder of a human. The corpse was exceptionally well preserved, with clearly defined facial features, a smooth skin, a shock of red hair and even the stubble of a two-week old beard on his cheeks. Tage called for the local doctor.
It was a sensational find: the body of a man dating from the 3rd century BC. Religious rituals were sidelined, and the Grauballe Man was brought straight from the bog, a sort of Mausoleum of the iron ages, into the archeological museum. Unpreserved and still dripping, he was seen by 10s of thousands of visitors. This was the first time a human, non-mummified body had ever been exhibited by a scientific museum. Here the Grauballe Man underwent the first of many transformations. He became a thing or an artifact. To preserve his leather-like skin, restorator Lange-Korbak, a sculptor by trade looked to shoemakers for advice. He completed the tanning started by the bog and rubbed the skin with leather dressing. He treated the body like an old boot.
A few years later a local farmer’s wife, Jensine Jensen, saw a picture of the Grauballe Man in an article and she instantly recognized his face. A tabloid newspaper brought her to the museum for a face to face identification. She had no doubt. The man she saw was Kristian, or Red Kristian as he had been known, because of his red hair and beard. With 42, Kristian had one night, while drunk, taken a short-cut through the bogs on his way back home. After this he had never been seen again. Rumor about Red Kristian and the incompetence of science quickly began to spread, and the public became divided into two camps – one for and one against Red Kristian. There was need for a scientific date if Professor Glob and the other experts were to prove that what they had recovered, displayed and investigated was not simply the body of a recently deceased local peat cutter from the bog.
The Grauballe Man’s liver was removed and sent to the newly-founded radiocarbon-dating laboratory in Copenhagen. The lab ran into trouble however. At this time the atmosphere was so polluted by the atomic bomb testing’s conducted by the US and the Soviet Union, that the insufficiently sealed laboratory could not properly confirm the age of the body. The laboratory had to be rebuilt. Only years later, could it be verified that the Grauballe man was in fact from the Iron Ages.
In 2001 the Grauballeman was hospitalized and underwent check-ups. X-rays, CT scans, endoscopy, examinations of the gut as well as a dental check. He now resides in a mausoleum like room conceived by a local sculptor at the heart of the newly built Moesgaard Museum – a marathon distance away from the place of his death.
In my practice I deal with the relationship between the most fundamental sensate experiences and the increasing remove and autonomy of representational media. Of course, photographic images are no longer tied to representation. They have become embedded in everything we do, encounter, and consider. The Photographic has become an ecology or, rather, the very terms in which our environment reveals itself. This coming academic year The Harvard Murals is our Prism at the School of Sculpture. We shall see how The Harvard Murals have been exposed to photographic compensation images. We shall see how the Photographic can be a transitional force that mediates between past and present, greyscale and colour, raw material and ephemerality.
Comparison images for diets, acne medicine, and other cosmetic applications often will have the “before” shot in black and white and the “after” in colour. When we think about the past, we see the world in greyscale, we see it through photographic abstraction. In 1962, Mark Rothko painted his Harvard Murals for a penthouse dining room at the university. Contrary to the initial agreement, the curtains in the room did not remain drawn, so that over the years, these delicately hued expanses were continuously exposed to daylight. The murals withered until some areas turned pale white, while others dulled to a muddy black. The paintings were devolving; they became black and white versions of themselves.
Rothko’s ephemeral alchemy (animal glue-based crimson, whole-egg bindingmedium,manual mixes of lithol red and ultramarine blue into warm animal glue) made these artworks difficult to repair. After decades in storage, the works got a second life when a team of conservators and scientists developed a novel alternative to conventional restoration. Using a digital beamer, they projected light onto the murals to compensate for the lost colour on a pixel-by-pixel basis. To identify the original colours, a set of contemporaneous Kodak Ektachrome documentation slides were digitally restored and compared to an undamaged painting from the series, as well as to unfaded segments present on the canvases themselves. The values were then correlated with the surfaces of the murals, yielding a “compensation image”, which is now projected onto the paintings and ceremoniously turned off before the closing of the Harvard Art Museum every day. The canvases are now both paintings and screens. Unlike the faux inscriptions of analogue photography so prevalent in contemporary photographic image-making (social media’s positioning of the present as a potential future past through the simulation of fading, film grain, and scratches), the compensation image rectifies the degradation of the object. It allows us the brief sensation of viewing the past in the present, the possibility to see these paintings returned to their former chromatic glory. Here the Photographic is a difference, a threshold between real, historical, degraded materiality, and the idealised and timeless picture. We are familiar with black-and-white re- productions of colourful paintings, but what we have here is the paradoxical reproduction of a black-and-white work in colour. The Photographic is not a tool of truth- telling, but a site of discrepancy and mediation. Isolated, the projection is a figure of transition – a bridge to both an imagined past and a digital future. Rothko’s paintings are celebrated for emitting their own “inner light”, but here external light both wrecks and rejuvenates it, not unlike face apps that use algorithms to calculate our old or young selves. Something happens in this translation of analogue and digital, this conflation of additive (the red, green, and blue of projected light) and subtractive colour (the cyan, magenta, and yellow of print, painting, and photography). In images produced by digital projectors, fine black lines surround every pixel. This is known as the screen door effect because the lines resemble the gridded mesh we use to protect our homes from insects. While the Photographic gives the world a subtle blur, the sharp edge is the hallmark of the digital. The coded image projected onto Rothko’s hazy fields of paint was born through computational research and calculation. To rid this image of the unwelcome digital markers, the team at Harvard called upon the fuzzy logic of the Photographic. The compensation image is projected out of focus.
Nation-building relies on the grooming of collective identity. It depends on the creation of myth and the successful mooring of that myth to geographic place. Often objects are used to anchor these narratives, to lend them plausibility, make them real, give them a body.
The instrumentalization of things and the pursuit of objects, beings or expressions that lend themselves particularly well to this and similar exercises of willful semi-conscientious interpretation is central to my practice. This coming academic year The Golden Horns of Gallehus is our Prism at the School of Sculpture. We shall see how when a thing vanishes, when a history loses its forensic evidence, its account can thenmutate and take on a large variety of appearances.
One, or rather two artefacts, now considered National Treasures, were discovered around 300 years ago at Gallehus, in Southern Denmark: they were gold horns embossed with depictions of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and hybrid creatures and a runic inscription possibly meaning “may I, the potion of this horn, bring help to the clan”. Truth be told no one knows if these horns were drinking or blowing horns or whether or not the translation of the ancient ciphers is even remotely accurate. The quest to find out, has been additionally complicated by the fact that the horns no longer exist.
The first horn was discovered in 1639 by a peasant girl named Kirsten Svendsdatter. It was given to Prince Christian who added a golden pommel that could be screwed on at the narrow end to close it up so that it could be used as a drinking cup. The second horn was found about 100 years later and was also, shortly, in royal possession. In 1802, using forged keys to break in, both horns were stolen by goldsmith Niels Heidenreich. Heidenreich, already a suspected coin counterfeiter, melted them down to recycle the gold. At this point the only set of plaster casts of the horns, made for a cardinal in Rome in the late 18th century, had already been lost in a shipwreck off the Corsican coast. The Golden Horns were no more and could also never again be reproduced.
Still, a centrally placed grand vitrine in the National Museum in Copenhagen, is devoted to them. Here, two similar but not identical sets of reconstructions are showcased alongside a drawn depiction of one of the original horns and a set of gold earrings. The horns on display here rely entirely on 17th and 18th-century drawings and are accordingly fraught with uncertainty. One reconstructed set made in 1859 are thought to betoo large, but presumably have the correct shape, while the twisted set from the 1970s have the right size, but the wrong bend. When Heidenreich was caught the police seized a sizeable amount of the gold from the horns. This gold was unceremoniously fed into state coin production. In other words, the golden horns were reduced to mere material, entropically disseminated and went on to play an unnoticed yet central role in the capital exchanges of the burgeoning empire. The police also found a set of earrings in the goldsmith’s workshop. These earrings, some scholars believe could have been made out of the gold from the gold horns. In other words, this is a vitrine of approximations. Not unlike a papier-maché figure molded on inflated balloons, time has passed and the core, The Golden Horns of Gallehus, is almost entirely gone.
Like the planarian flatworm – the tiny invertebrate capable of reforming its entire physique from slivers of its original body, a creature that keeps all of its old memories when re-growing its head after decapitation – it seems as if photography has regenerated into myriad intelligent forms. In other words, today, we can hardly speak of photography, yet everything seems to have become photographic. The simple alteration of the word’s suffix shifting the noun to an adjective, also transforms photographic discourse from a historically bound technology to an attribute, a quality, that can be applied to all manner of phenomena. Maybe analog photography’s brief existence was a Jesus moment of sorts. An event that not only changed what has come after, but also our understanding of everything that was before. In the fable Kafka and His Precursors, Jorge Luis Borges describes how Kafka seems to have influenced writers who long preceded him, how work from the distant past seems Kafkaesque to us. Similarly, we now look at everything through or with photography. When we see a polished piece of black marble for example, we notice its glossiness; it is so photographic. We look at its white veins, the snail shells, the mussels. This slab of crystalline metamorphic limestone resembles a print made from a damaged negative.
This coming academic year Niels Nielsen’s Bricklayer is our Prism at the School of Sculpture. The 29 cm tall porcelain collectible, made in 1912 as part of a commissioned series of sculptural depictions of traditional vocations for the porcelain manufacturer Bing & Grøndahl, is not only significantly larger but also decidedly more expressive, than its fellow figurine workers. It is the odd one out; an anomality. It depicts a pale, plumb, middle-aged man dressed in a cotton white hat, monochrome white shirt and trousers, grey clogs, hints of dirt on his belly and knees, standing hands on hips, chin on chest, belly shooting forward and with a sway lower back, on a blob which is surely just “ground”, but looks like grey goo. Knowing that porcelain was thought of as the most delicate and worthy of ceramic materials and that the popularity of the figurine collectible coincided with the industrial revolution and the rise of the bourgeoisie, it is safe to assume that this figure served as a reminder of the owner’s upward social mobility. This bricklayer is drunk. He is the one who lays the foundation of modern life, but takes no part in it; A ridiculous character.
While the rest of Bing & Grøndahl’s catalogue of vocational sculptures from this period function merely as an August Sander-like taxonomy of professions, Niels Nielsen’s bricklayer is of an entirely different animate nature. The near monochrome, delicate off-white, grey and pink hues, and the creases in his uniform make the surface appear extraordinarily shiny. Because of the glossy, non-porous translucent opacity of the porcelain and the limited facial detail the figurine appear almost wet. Being accustomed to the shapeshifting qualities, the fluid virtuality of photographic images now, we look at this petite sculpture and can imagine it sway and sing and drool. We can imagine it melting into the grey pool of goo at its feet. Really more than anything this shiny fluidity, this milky opacity, is reminiscent of a CGI rendering of a 3-dimensional object. Niels Nielsen’s Bricklayer is a photographic object; a frame, or a still from an animation rendered in porcelain.
Of course, this subordination of the undeniable crafty qualities of the porcelain sculpture, to the machine logics of the photographic realm might be blatantly shortsighted. Afterall ceramics, as our sunday museum visits tell us, is what survives from a civilization.