by Brian Dillon. Editor of Cabinet Magazine, UK.
‘This is the opposite of the “romantic ruin” because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.’
Robert Smithson, ‘The Monuments of Passaic’.
A ruin, wrote the sociologist Georg Simmel in 1911, is a sort of ‘collaboration’ between humanity and nature – a perilous, toppling accommodation of upward ambition and gravitational slump. Even as it channels these airy and earthbound forces, however, the ruin nonetheless seems sui generis, involuted, austere: ‘destruction here is not something senselessly coming from the outside but rather the realization of a tendency inherent in the deepest layer of existence of the destroyed.’ At first glance, Mie Olise Kjaergaard’s is an art of ruins thus conceived: structures and spaces abandoned to their own desolate interior logic, left to sink into themselves in classically melancholic style. But in truth the spaces she discovers in her paintings, videos and constructions are not so isolate or introverted: they are literally eccentric, in the sense of orbiting away from the centre of their own meaning, becoming other (even more) than themselves at the moment they threaten to vanish once and for all.
Consider, for instance, the artist’s continued interest in Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet mining facility on the Svalbard archipelago, Norway. Before it was vacated in 1991, the settlement supported a population of a thousand workers. Today, its homes and machinery, presided over by the mountain that gives the place its name, compose what seems a classic instance of the post-industrial sublime: a monument to environmental depredation and totalitarian hubris. And yet, the ruin revealed in the video that Kjaergaard made at Pyramiden is not a self-enclosed monolith at all – it is rather a labyrinth of apertures, conduits and passageways. The artist trains her camera on numerous circular holes: images of the porousness of the site, its eccentric connections to earth, air and sea. Pyramiden starts to look less like a place than a process, a series of unpredictable openings onto the outside world from which it seems so aloof.
It is precisely this notion of the ruin as ramshackle nexus or junction that Kjaergaard explores with such rigour in her paintings. Few of them are inspired by actual, existing structures, and even when they are based on real ruins she has added so much in the way of ancillary space and substance, and subtracted so much in terms of context, that they seem distinctly implausible. If Simmel’s ruin is a structure that collapses in on itself, that becomes somehow more itself the less that is left of it, here we are faced instead with a ruin that ramifies, that extends itself in novel and unlikely ways. Ruination seems in these paintings not so much a diminution than a kind of growth, as if architecture, instead of being usurped by nature, had itself become weirdly vegetal and started to run wild.
A case in point: her rendering of what appears to be a waterfront building, supported (as so many of Kjaergaard’s imaginary structures are) by a rickety wooden framework. The building is made up of four, perhaps five, discrete segments, each apparently an annex or afterthought to its immediate neighbour. This is an accretive architecture, composed of strange, haphazard protrusions, blank towers that escape the upper edge of the canvas and, as here, flimsy little balustrades and ladders that look like the last ingenious efforts to eke out a habitable space. The same might be said of the curious pointed dwellings, with beards of straw dangling from their tiny floors, that hang over a smudged landscape like thin, admonishing apparitions. Above them, two small triangular hints of pink suggest that they are in fact suspended from balloons, that the whole arrangement is a slowly drifting community of the air.
In their precarious and provisional relation to each other, not to mention to the unsettlingly blank backgrounds above which they hover, Kjaergaard’s notional dwellings propose a key distinction in any fancied typology of half-ruined structures. They are, that is, sheds rather than huts. The hut is the epitome of the picturesque or Romantic ruin: the hermit’s abode, the ‘centre of concentrated space’ according to Gaston Bachelard in his Poetics of Space. Indeed, there is something inherently metaphysical (but also literally grounded) about a hut: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger famously retreated to their respective philosophical lairs in Norway and the Black Forest. A shed, on the other hand, is something altogether less compact and self-sufficient: a space subject to constant redesign and rearrangement, potential extension and partial demolition, second thoughts and running repairs. A hut is a refuge; a shed is a work in progress.
Kjaergaard’s sheds are like shanty towns, outlaws’ hideaways or barricades hastily erected by revolutionaries. They exist, that is to say, in the same relation to an achieved architectural vision as does her use of paint to a seamless representation of a space that makes sense. The surface of her paintings is similarly multiple and variegated; even as everything tends towards the uniform brown of decay, the friable, desiccate substance produces fragments or flakes of colour: a pair of fat pink buoys, a burst of fresh foliage, a fragile pink pavilion erected atop a hulking grey mine tipple. The surface of this last painting is also laced with threads of white acrylic: drips and splashes that run off the canvas. Like the towering structure itself, with its pipes and gantries that extend out of the frame at energetic angles, the painted surface of the ruin remains unconstrained.
In one of these paintings – it depicts the stranded hulk of a boat, leaning to the right and braced to the edge of the canvas by ladders and ropes – an odd, tapering, stepped or spiral object obtrudes at the top left. It suggests nothing so much as a crude sketch of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919-25). There is in fact something Utopian (and with it something of the ruins of Utopian dreams) in Kjaergaard’s own complex wooden constructions. Her architectural training is certainly in evidence here, in the disorienting manipulation of space and the way these ad hoc interiors intersect with the buildings around them. But more than this, the structures are cobbled into being with the same additive or supplemental logic as the surfaces and subjects of her paintings. They seem to have been modelled by a daring architectural imagination, and at the same time flung together, in response to pressing circumstance, by a community of scared (and possibly incompetent) survivalists.
We might say, then, of Mie Olise Kjaergaard’s art as a tesselated whole, that she conceives of space as something like a tottering pile of books: ordered and disordered at the same time, the entire edifice vulnerable to the careless placing of the next volume. (In several of her paintings, she says, the narrow stacks of horizontal brush-strokes that support the structures are, precisely, piles of books.) Animal form and colour, too, are subject to the same extreme irregularity and temporary patterning: the face of a fox is a patchwork of browns; the flank of a polar bear becomes a landscape made of countless tiny, parti-coloured plots. The bear’s fur, of course, is not actually white anyway, but transparent; each filament, like each gesture of the brush or each extension to the spatial whole in Kjaergaard’s art, is itself and not itself, and the overall effect, if we look closely enough, is one of endless, unresolvable eccentricity.