24.February 2012 - 02.September 2012
Per Kirkeby and Greenland: The Secret reservoir
Greenland and the Northern Arctic regions have had the artist Per Kirkeby's attention for more than 50 years. This artistically fruitful encounter between the artist and the Arctic regions has left its mark on his artistic work, but has not – besides Aron/Kirkeby: Images from Greenland at Aarhus Kunstmuseum in 1993 – been examined as a separate theme for an exhibition. Perhaps it is because Kirkeby has cherished his relation to Greenland, the place he considers as a sort of ‘secret reservoir’ for his art. The Island is in many ways the artist’s sanctuary. After several large-scale Kirkeby exhibitions in Denmark and abroad, Ordrupgaard now wishes to illustrate how one of the most desolate places on earth constitutes a vital source of inspiration for his prolific oeuvre.
Per Kirkeby’s Greenland
The exhibition takes its point of departure in Kirkeby’s formative years marked by his many journeys to Greenland. As a geology student at Copenhagen University and budding artist, he began at the age of 20 his journeys to Greenland. At the outset in Narssaq in the South of the Island and then yearly journeys up along the west coast. At the age of 24, he participated in the second Peary Land expedition in 1963 led by polar explorer Eigil Knuth. On this journey, Kirkeby made a series of etchings, which would become seminal for his body of work. The exhibition will show how these works on paper contain, in embryonic form, the seeds of what the artist unfolds in his later work, right up to this day.
Per Kirkeby’s Greenland is inextricably linked to geology. In 1964, Kirkeby completes his degree, specializing in arctic quaternary geology. The summer of that year he takes part in an expedition to Melville Bay, from where a large meteorite is brought to Copenhagen. It can now be seen at the entrance to the city’s Geological Museum. Next to this, Kirkeby has made an impressive ornamentation in the form of a mural painting which unfolds itself over the museum's walls and dome. In this work, stones, motives and landscape form a complete worldview. Here, the artist’s intension of narrating with brush strokes – as people have done for 30,000 years all the way back to the cave paintings – seems to fuse with the Greenlandic Archaean rock, dating 3.8 billion years back. Confronted with this work, it becomes obvious that the vast forces of nature render human skills comparable to these of a newborn. However, a pencil on a piece of paper or a brush stroke all of a sudden seems to make sense in Kirkeby’s work. Indeed, science can measure the world, but it is art which is able to bring meaning and significance to its landscape.
A field worker and a nomad
In continuation of the Geological Museum's ornamentation, the exhibit demonstrates how Kirkeby’s characteristic lines and personal ‘handwriting’ take form in the encounter with the Greenlandic countryside. In fact, his way of working as an artist has become one with that of the geologist; Kirkeby has become a field worker and a nomad. This particular way of working is especially visible in the seminal series of etchings from 1963 as well as in his watercolors of recent date. In this body of work on paper, Kirkeby records his surroundings, he measures the world by simple means, but his mind is also put to work. For Kirkeby, it takes an emotional involvement to get on in a world that has no direct focal point - Peary Land is like a never ending desert. One of Kirkeby's traveling companions, geology professor Minik Rosing, writes about human beings at work in the arctic wilderness:
"Field work often takes place far from civilization in a quiet, deserted countryside. Life in the field is dominated by the absolute tranquility in the endless expanses of magnificent beauty. The field is the epitome of carefree enjoyment of life, and yet there is always a faint undercurrent of dread and looming catastrophe. You become vividly aware of your own insignificance when you walk through mountains having existed for the last quarter of the entire history of the Universe, and therefore cannot be impressed by something that a man may invent during his brief glimpse of life on earth."
Through a wide range of material consisting of sketches, etchings, watercolors, paintings and sculptures, and with geology and its field expeditions as its underlying themes, the exhibition shows how the artist Per Kirkeby has spent his short glimpse on earth to integrate the beauty that he has sensed and observed through his artistic process. It will illustrate how Kirkeby's work is profoundly influenced by the experience related to the landscape and the understanding of the perspective of time. Each pencil sketch as well as large oil painting constitute a bite of the same eternity.
The exhibition Per Kirkeby and Greenland: The Secret Reservoir is curated by the Kirkeby expert Erik Steffensen in collaboration with Ordrupgaard, and is part of the museum's series of exhibitions focusing on contemporary art.