Reciprocal Action

Janus Høm sat down with Magni Borgehed for a conversation about his current show at Henningsen Gallery. The two are catching up and furthering their latest discussions on display-methods, the objecthood of painting, ‘växelverkan’(reciprocal action) and ‘adjacencies’.

AF Janus Høm


Magni, how was the opening the other night?

It was good, even though we had hard competition from both the art and football community.


Your show being called Reciprocal action, I thought it’d be appropriate to return to our conversation from where we left off 8 months ago. At the last show you did in Copenhagen - out of many paintings - you had two that casually swayed between a sculptural and painterly existence.
Yes, there was one painting with a small metal object balancing on it, and another which was kept up on the wall by having a stick lean onto it.  

That’s right. With these two 'left-handed' display-gestures, you very easily but effectively made one have to always-already negotiate painting's objecthood. Treading this territory was nothing new to your practice. When we talked last time, we discussed this old, recurrent formal problem. And we also discussed how some of these casual display gestures that deals with this particular formal problem, have become a fully flexed international installation style. But today at Henningsen we see something quite different. A painting show proper. Although the given space is odd, the installation is quite straight, isn’t it?
The space is a quite tricky, and I couldn’t present the larger works as I planned. I had to change my approach a bit, and I did some changes in the last minutes.

What was the problem?
All the walls at Henningsen are different from each other: in height, structure, and lightning. And the pillars and floors are left unrenovated; there are so many sculptural qualities in the features of the room itself. They look a bit like my paintings, you know. So, installing something on the floor - or with help from the pillars, as I considered at first - turned out not to be an option anyway. I also had to bring in some smaller works. Generally, dealing with a space often takes days for me, and I wasn’t able to nail it until the very end.

And how do you feel about the final outcome then?
Finally, I’m very happy how it turned out. Choosing to display the paintings as series’ in the same format and distributing them evenly throughout the space, could, arguably, negate the interaction with the space; and to an extend the relation between the paintings. Anyway, I couldn't really do that, especially with the big ones, because of the space’s ‘unusual’ qualities.

On the other hand, to play with the works as objects and use the sculptural space didn’t make sense as mentioned earlier; and that could either make a funky and crazy impression or merely a formal play, anyway. Basically, either way you can fall into being hip, commercial, conservative, boring, romantic, and so on. I hope I avoided it all and did it all at the same time. It´s about finding a way of being aware without making statements.

Right, what looks casual might be the opposite. And vice versa. More often than not, this so-called ‘international display style’s’ casualness is a hyper-conscious, super-planned carelessness which in truth has nothing to do with being chilled. This faux casualness is probably rather the straight, well-mannered, conservative attitude.
In the end it’s always the small things that makes you finish. Not on one or the other side of the line... but both! It might be possible to be hyper-conscious and chilled at the same time, or the attempt is the interesting failure.     

What you describe as a particular installation style, is often based on wanting to present ‘critical’ awareness; like the problems of painting, for example - and then basically anything goes. But I think that that awareness should just be the beginning, and not a point to be made.

When you speak of ‘the small things’, you have said that attention to these details is how the works are created in your studio too. You have described your process as that of a ‘växelverkan’ or ‘reciprocal action’. Would you explain this?
This might sound a bit abstract, but hang on: the use of different materials and techniques combined with history, "knowledge" and theory serve as a beginning for my process. It’s a process where everything is moved through a idiosyncratic body with its own history and psyche. I believe that to be able to “capture” all that without relying on pure luck, you need to channel all of it into a framework. A framework that at one and the same time denies you fully repeating a mannerism, but still making something recognizable (/understandable).   

And you need to master a craftsmanship - what ever that might be - to be able to do anything at all outside cerebral constructions. The moment when a painting develops into an image reminds me equally of a lot of things that I can put into words and other stuff that I can’t; things that I recognize as both new and familiar at the same time. This is when a painting becomes interesting and alive for me. I use certain methods to be able to create images without really painting them. To sort of develop them… and not really paint them is what the framework provide, I guess.

And how would that work?
For example, when it came to the silk paintings, the thin, transparent silk worked very well in emphasizing both the objecthood and the 2-dimensional space of painting. But, further, the silk always-already evokes so many more things: whatever you do on silk looks beautiful. Or like old-ladies-art, Chinese silk paintings. Or makes you think of Sigmar Polke’s transparent paintings. Or yet again it might look like actual silk screens for printing. It’s not about referentiality, it’s about evocations. And this whole unruly mish-mash of evocations is not a problem. It’s not just a possibility either. It’s neither good or bad. It’s all the stuff that can be used as materials for constructing new pictures.    

These materially anchored evocations are used as a point of departure to start a process where your body memory (or whatever you call it) is allowed to be part of your toolbox. Your intellect and knowledge is still very much there. But it is in your bones as well! There’s no way you don’t know what you’ve already learned. The trick is to find a way how to use it. Even when ‘letting go’ you can’t be dumber than how smart you are. What you know and have learned is yours.   

Working this way is when things develop in front of your eyes and actually makes you surprised. It’s a constant ‘växelverkan’ (reciprocal action) between being super conscious (rational, conceptual, historical, etc.) and being ‘spontaneous’ (careless, intuitive, cheeky, playful, etc.).

What problems does this alleviate?
Ultimately, ‘växelverkan’ makes it possible for me to not freeze at a certain point but to move around and besides at the same time. Jan Verwoert talks about adjacencies: doing things next to each other, having things next to each other. It’s not dichotomic, it’s not quite rhizomatic - it’s parallel.

Let’s try to make it a bit more tangible for a moment. Would you try and explain one such process in concrete terms? For example when doing the beige painting with the white, red and blue gestures on it - how did that go about?
I think I first planned to cover the whole surface with gesso on this one. But then I wanted to try something out. And I started very nonchalantly by doing those blue test strokes. Then I filled the in between space with brush-like, orange strokes; directly on the primer-glue. It’s an exercise of repetition and ornamentation that is emptied out as such. And makes you bored at the bottom of the canvas, as you can tell. Like when you read out loud in primary school, and stress yourself in the end to get over with it. I didn’t plan to do these gestures. It’s an actual ‘test’ that just happened.  

 I didn’t know if, or how, I wanted to keep what I just did. So I covered it all with a thin layer of gesso that I later sanded, until parts of the canvas and the painted gestures showed more or less clearly, which created some kind of patina. On a distance it looks really sloppy, but on a close up, it has a refined surface. I like those kinds of contrasts. Applying hard pressure while sanding on a stretched canvas, can result in the inner edge of the stretcher getting more sanded. And it might show through as a frame, if you don’t watch out. So I did that intentionally. I have seen it been used as an ‘ironic’ gesture sometimes. And I wanted to use that and see it as a material element that helps to create an image. Still it holds the irony, and it holds that it’s a common mistake that not has to be seen as a mistake. Finally it also made the painting come together and makes it float between flatness and objecthood. I like when all those different directions starts to pop up and act on each other, without really competing. Thats when I stop. And when the painting doesn’t.

The need for these tricks to initiate a process, is perhaps also a problem of being someone who’s too knowledgeable? Being someone who couldn’t do anything anymore, because there was too much to consider? And so you needed some framework that would allow you to act, basically.
Well, it’s about finding yourself in a state where you will be able to poke a bit on things outside the world of ’Human, all too Human’. Knowledge, whatever that is, is never a problem. But limiting yourself to a cerebral, textual view and act would be. Both the institutional and the commercial art world is celebrating a simplified textual analysis; just because it’s easy to transform into curatorial punchlines or saleable packaging. That was a bit simplified, but you know what I mean!

What I hear you say, basically, implies that you can’t be an artist without a tremendous amount of knowledge. But not only that. You also need to be tremendously skilled to use it. Is this why we need the Art Academy?
I don't know if I would use the word tremendous. But, yes, you need knowledge! It’s the material you use and feed from; no matter what you say, if you not from Mars! But it’s not proper academic knowledge we need. If you're really interested, you'll embrace history and theory in your own way. We absolutely need the art academy, but it’s not like studying to become an engineer or philosopher! When it comes to craftsmanship, skills, practice and experience, then talent is also something that could be discussed. Something that sometimes is in the way and sometimes is something that is required. Anyway, I'm totally convinced of craftmanship’s importance and necessity; even for doing the silliest, little thing!

Talk soon!
Talk soon!