Text by Michael Hübl from the catalogue published in relation to Marianne Hesselbjergs exhibition Skulptur på Thorvaldsens Museum in 2002


Michael Hübl

With flowing tresses she stands before us, completely naked, the claims of modesty satisfied by the leaves of an apple-tree. It is the tree of knowledge. In line with the Biblical account in the Book of Genesis, Albrecht Dürer painted Eve entirely unclad (1). Every detail of her body is rendered with the most faithful accuracy. Including her navel. But how accurate is accuracy in this case? The Kabbalists insisted that Eve could not have had a navel. After all, she was not born of woman. The apparency of the apparent can be deceptive. Sometimes the facts are there for all to see. And yet they do not fit the facts.

In her installation “The Navel of the World” (Verdens Navle) Marianne Hesselbjerg juxtaposes two sets of objects. One set is made up of square black steel rods, wood, and glass surfaces lined with white paper. They are identifiable as articles of furniture. The others are bronze and look like small hilltops or erratic blocks. The two sets are clearly distinct in a number of ways. The simple artefacts are obviously designed for use as tables, chairs, shelves. The bronze objects, all very much the same shape (though never identical) and differing mainly in size, do not have any immediately apparent function. Accordingly, we might be tempted to divide the components of the installation up into two categories: useful objects in the one case, additions, incidentals, supererogatories in the other, possibly even instances of superfluity, of things that defy definition in terms of what they are “good for”. Or we take the whole thing a stage further and say: these objects serve a purpose, those are just art. But pressing the dichotomy like that brings us to a point where categorisation breaks down. Marianne Hesselbjerg’s installation refuses to be split up into essentials and subsidiaries, art and non-art.

The chair is no plinth, the shelf is no pedestal. But neither are they mere pieces of furniture. The combination with the indeterminate contours of the bronze objects gives them an additional dimension. It makes them into auxiliaries of the patina-ed bronze objects Marianne Hesselbjerg has placed on them. They are invested with a new and more extensive significance. The unthinking familiarity with which we perceive these objects is set in abeyance, precisely because the repeated presence of the very similar, rounded, sculptured motifs makes them look like signs or markings, as if the black-and-white structures had suddenly been invested with a crucial new quality that makes them more than just a chair, a table or a showcase. In her installation “The Navel of the World”, Marianne Hesselbjerg creates a context in which meanings shift and clear-cut categorisations or classifications start to blur. For the bronze objects alone are not what makes the whole thing “art”. True, they are quite clearly devoid of any conceivable kind of “use” and as such fulfil one central criterion of a widespread (modernist) definition of what makes an artwork a work of art. But the sculptures, though necessary, are not sufficient in themselves to constitute the work. The mundane, utilitarian objects table, chair, shelf are an indispensable part of it.

Fudging dividing lines and blurring definitions is one of the fundamentals of Marianne Hesselbjerg’s work. Her “Rain Fragment” (Fragment af Regn), now a component of her installation “Rainy Weather and Heavy Cloud” (Regnvejr og Tunge Skyer), is a physically impenetrable wall of thin steel rods. But walked around and viewed from different vantages it does indeed create the impression of a heavy shower. This is heightened by the stroboscope effect that sets in when the beholder walks past it. The things seen through the 650 irregularly arranged rods are dissected into staccato movements, as in a film running too slowly. Everything is in motion and yet the demarcations are precise. The knurl screws enable the artist to adjust and alter the angle of the thin rods. The impression of pouring rain derives from the construction of a random pattern.

On one occasion, Marianne Hesselbjerg incorporated rain into one of her works directly, without any kind of artistic abstraction or transformation. In terms of method it was a throwback to the techniques of Land Art. A piece of turf was cut out, a sign inscribed on the face of nature. It was an instance of nature changed by art, and the modification remained identifiable even after nature had eradicated the intervention of the artist. On the spot where Hesselbjerg cut out a rhombus-shaped piece of turf eight metres long in 1992, wild flowers and grass later sprouted. They were the biological continuation of an aesthetic conception that the vegetation perpetuated in its own way, by proliferating within a framework defined by the artist. The boundaries had however already been blurred. Heavy rain had fudged the clean outlines of the geometric form. Similarly, Hesselbjerg’s “A Lake” (En Sø) continues to some extent in the vein of Dennis Oppenheim’s huge “X” grown in a Dutch cornfield in 1969 (2) or Bernhard Härtter’s contribution to the long-term German “art in public places” scheme. In 1996 he planted imported prairie grass in the neighbourhood of a hi-tech research unit of the University of Ulm. As the plant is botanically alien to the region, the artist’s intervention may possibly still be identifiable as such when the technology the research unit is working on has been rendered obsolete by centuries of ongoing scientific progress. The only proviso, of course, is that no one decides to build on the spot where Härtter planted his grass.

Thus nature ingests art and keeps it alive in its own way. This applies equally to Hesselbjerg’s rhombus. But her work is not limited to demonstrating the two-way relationship between art and nature or the reversibility of anthropogenic changes to the landscape. In the shallow pit Hesselbjerg dug out and filled with clay, rainwater subsequently gathered and formed a mirror that, as it were, brought the clouds and the blue of the sky (which is itself only a mirror of the oceans) down to earth. The rhombus-shaped puddle established contact with the universe. In this it is similar to “Before/After”, a 53-centimetre-high enclosure of polished stainless steel strips that reflect the sun’s rays in such a way that a double (internal and external) halo is formed, made up of light and shade. It moves across the temporal adverbs “before” and “after”, highlighting them and darkening them alternately. The words themselves are formed out of smooth, shining steel letters positioned by Hesselbjerg at points where one might have expected locatives: “inside” not “before”, “outside” not ”after”. Here space and time are collated on the cosmic plane. The rainwater-filled rhombus, by contrast, triggers associations reminiscent of the cosmological mythologies that explain the creation of the world as the product of a union between the heavens and the earth, with light also playing a major role in the process. In East Asian and African mythologies we encounter the notion that as long as heaven and earth were undivided there was no “place” for the light to spread into (3). And in Egyptian mythology the break of day symbolises the embrace between Geb, the male earth, and Nut, the female heavens. In ancient Greek culture things are slightly more complicated. From Hesiod, at the latest, Gaia, the personification of the earth, is seen as a primal force that first gives birth to Uranos (the heavens), Pontos (the sea) and the mountains, and later unites with Uranos to conceive and give birth to the Titans and other giants.

Sky and earth are things that Marianne Hesselbjerg repeatedly relates to in her work – to the extent, at least, that we see in the latter the autochthonous primality of undivided matter and in the former the limitless, universal, spiritually immeasurable. And the pieces of furniture and the bronze objects juxtaposed by Hesselbjerg to create the “Navel of the World” also have their place in this system of coordinates. The title tells us as much. In ancient Greek thought, the centre (“navel”) of the earth (Gr. omphalos) lay in Delphi, that cultic site whose oracle represented the ultimate source of wisdom on political and moral issues and on “right living” for a whole variety of peoples, tribes and dynasties. In Homer’s day Delphi was consecrated to Apollo, the god of salvation and atonement, the force bestowing order on religious life, guarding over observance of the laws and ethical standards, serving the arts and sciences as a shining exemplar and a guiding figure. Before Apollo, other gods had been worshipped here: Poseidon, Themis (possibly) and Gaia (certainly). It is to the cult of Gaia that the idea of omphalos probably dates back. A storage vessel from Kerch (the former Greek colony Pantikapaion) portrays it as an altar stone for sacrifices to the ur-goddess.

The primeval stone thought to be the “navel of the world” resembled nothing so much as a beehive. The bronzes Marianne Hesselbjerg has placed on her spartan utility surfaces approximate this form without actually imitating it. But even if they were replicas, there would be no indication aside from the title that they are meant as a reference to that primal object of veneration and worship. In the first instance, they are nothing but metal forms without any apparent purpose. The combination with the articles of furniture clearly stemming from modern mass industrial production makes them doubly alien. But by the very fact of their refusal to be readily deciphered or semantically pigeon-holed they hark back to the significance of the ancient sacral objects and translate some of that significance into the present. By defying automatic and total explanation, the clumps of bronze convey something of the inscrutability of the numinous – in general terms, not just with reference to omphalos. At the same time the objects touch on a problem involved in all our dealings with the traces left by history. How are these legacies from the past to be interpreted? What can we read out of archaeological finds if we only have a vague idea of the cultural background they belong to, be it due to the intervening space of time or to the absence of sources? And finally, to what extent is our perception of what has come down to us coloured by our own patterns of thought and response?

At a venue like the Thorvaldsen Museum these questions take on a heightened relevance for Marianne Hesselbjerg’s work. Thorvaldsen’s engagement with classical antiquity was not merely artistic. In line with contemporary ideals and the customs of the educated classes of his day, he collected relics of early cultures. Alongside various Egyptian items (mostly grave goods) Thorvaldsen owned a number of Etruscan bronze mirrors and pieces of jewellery fashioned using the elaborate granulation method. His private collection of relics, amassed mostly during his period in Rome, encompassed gems and coins, Greek vases, drinking bowls, pitchers and a fragment of a large, richly decorated amphora. Roman portraits in silver and marble were among the artist’s possessions, as was a small bronze statuette from the 2nd century AD. It represents the Greek goddess of beauty and stands in the same relation to Thorvaldsen’s art as omphalos to Hesselbjerg’s bronze objects. “Venus with the Apple”, modelled in Italy between 1813 and 1816 (as a classicist Eve?) and then cast in dazzling white marble, though drawing on the past, does not actually come from the past. It is a reflection of it, an interpretation and an adaptation to notions fuelled partly by the knowledge of we have of ancient texts and objects and partly by our interpretative appropriation of them.

Any description of things historical is bound to be an approximation. Even if someone today were to do everything in their power to live like the people in antiquity, this attempt would still be governed by the conditions prevailing in our technological civilisation. While they scraped the wool off their sheep with primitive utensils and crushed rye and spelt between rough-hewn stones, the satellites of the telecommunication companies would be orbiting overhead and the wind wafting the emissions from power plants, motorways and factories their way. In her installation “Navel of the World” Marianne Hesselbjerg hints at such a synchronic overlapping of different time planes. In “Searching Nowhere”, designed specially for the entrance hall of the Thorvaldsen Museum, she extends the theme into the future. Hesselbjerg covers different sized areas of the floor of the museum with expensive, upmarket maple floorboards of the kind used for the interiors of houses. At various points, the boldly coloured geometric patterning of the floor-tiles is visible between the boards. The whole design is immediately and intentionally reminiscent of an archaeological excavation site. The observer is reminded of the planks crisscrossing the exposed terrain of a “dig”. And suddenly the museum floor, hitherto of minor importance in comparison to the exhibits all around, is elevated to the rank of an object of research interest for art historians and experts on classical antiquity. Although in banal, everyday use, although a practical ingredient of the present, it is transformed into a relic of the past – as if scholars of future generations had set out to examine and survey the cultural heritage of their ancestors from the 21st century.

Here Hesselbjerg is enacting a metaphor that stands for the reconstruction and construction of history. In so doing, she actually heightens the complex constellation of isolated historical moments and events assembled in the entrance hall of the museum. Here, thanks to Thorvaldsen’s art, a 17th century German elector, Maximilian I of Bavaria, stands cheek by jowl with the Polish national hero and supporter of Napoleon Józef Poniatowski, marshal of France. In the same hall the Church rubs shoulders with the heretical natural sciences: on the one side Nicholas Copernicus, whose treatise “De revolutionibus orbium cœlestium libri VI” (1543) was put on the Index in 1616 because it propagated a heliocentric view of the world, on the other Pope Pius VII, who reluctantly celebrated the coronation of the self-styled French Emperor and started on his project to the re-Catholicize Europe even before the Congress of Vienna. With her allusion to archaeological excavations, Marianne Hesselbjerg disrupts the spurious unity prevailing between these congealed moments in history and recalls en passant the circumstances in which Thorvaldsen assembled his collection. When he was living in Rome, interest in classical antiquity was at its height and the budding sculptor was frequently able to acquire archaeological finds more or less straight from the site.

One characteristic of Marianne Hesselbjerg’s work is the way she refuses to confine the semantic radius of her objects and installations. Hints at concrete givens (rain, the oracle at Delphi) are cast in frequently minimalist mould that reminds us that the outward aspect is not coterminous with the heart of the matter, the nature of things and the potential impact they have. This is not to say that Hesselbjerg is a latter-day Platonist. Her artistic statements take the form of “cases” from an overall context that reckons with the unimaginable and takes account of the unknown as a potential force. “He was burning and shining light,” (4) the New Testament says of John the Baptist, the subject of one of Marianne Hesselbjerg’s works (5). His severed head lies like a white clump of matter on a heavy circular steel plate. Cut into the smooth, light-reflecting surface is a spiral. This ancient form encountered in the earliest human civilizations whirls its way from the center of the plate, out over the edge, and expands into the surrounding space like a vortex. A symbol of eternity. A guide-line. A sign in which an essential element of Marianne Hesselbjerg’s entire work is epitomized: a mixture of concentration and openness that unites light and dark, good and evil, determinate and indeterminate, and reaches out to that point in the universe where spiral and spirituality are one and the same.

Michael Hübl

(1) Dürer portrayed the first human couple twice, first as an engraving in 1504, later (1507) on two panels now hanging in the Prado museum (Madrid). (2) Cf. Patrick Werner, Land Art USA, Munich 1992, p. 55. (3) Cf. Eva Becker, “Schöpfung”, in: H. Cancik, B. Gladigow, K-H. Kohl (eds), Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, Stuttgart 2001, p. 43. (4) Gospel According To St. John, 5:35. (5) “Head of John the Baptist” (Johannes Dobernes Hoved), 1988.