The Danish artist Per Kirkeby is a polymath. A painter, poet, sculptor and film-maker, he began his career training as a geologist in the late Fifties. Having worked with the Fluxus group in the following decade, the Copenhagen-based artist’s reputation grew steadily in Scandinavia and Germany; but he only made broader waves in Britain after the New Spirit in Painting show at the Royal Academy in 1980, followed by a Whitechapel exhibition organised by Nick Serota in 1985. Twelve years later, the same artist-curator combination is in operation at the Tate Gallery where Kirkeby has filled the Duveen Galleries with bronze sculptures, monumental paintings and a huge brick structure. Kirkeby’s paintings are also included in “Visions du Nord”, an exhibition exploring aspects of twentieth-century Scandinavian art currently on show in Paris (see article this page).
The piece, “Brick Work”, that you’ve built at the Tate was made specifically for the Duveen Galleries. Did you want to subvert or attack that space in any way?
No but when I first considered the galleries I thought “these are very big spaces”. I’d seen Luciano Fabro’s exhibition there last year which was very discreet and elegant and I decided not to be discreet. When I began to talk to Nick [Serota] about it, he said he wanted me to do some brick work and I said no way—I didn’t do indoor brick pieces any more, I’d gone beyond that point. I make large-scale works and I also build houses with windows and doors and toilets and I feel lost working inside.
Then I developed the idea of combining bronze sculptures and paintings in the show and suddenly I had the need for something wider in that space because if you just hung six paintings there they would look lost. The brick wall has somehow created a space for each painting and I also made an interesting structure so I gained many things.
But it’s more than just a simple framing device?
Certainly. It is extremely simple in some respects, like all my brick sculptures, but somehow when you walk along it or even see it from a distance it looks like a real volume yet all the time it is just a wall. When you pass through, it is a complex experience. I think in doing things like that art can alter spatial awareness. It is one of the ways that art can actually change something. It upsets and disturbs your perception.
How do you find the British press’s obsession with bricks and the Tate Gallery, ever since Carl Andre’s bricks caused such a furore? Was this “is it art?” argument something you were aware of?
No, I was a little surprised. I think it’s better in a way to have this kind of rubbish in the press than nothing at all. But I don’t think that would happen in Denmark, even the most dumb newspaper wouldn’t come up with this kind of argument. You know, the “he-didn’t-make-it-so-it-can’t-be-art” line, that it is only a work of art if it is made by the artist’s own hand.
My response is “come on!”. Think back to the classical sculptors. They were not the only ones hacking away at their marble. They had a lot of craftsmen to help them. Think of Henry Moore and those big bronzes. He made the small maquettes and then went to see how the assistants were doing and then the professionals from Berlin came and cast the bronzes.
Are your poetry, painting, sculpture and more architectural works all wrestling with similar issues or do you differentiate strongly between them?
I think they are very connected and come out of a need to grasp something very difficult to define. Some people prefer the brick sculptures because they are very conceptual, more intellectual in a way and closer to minimal art and so they don’t look at the paintings. Then there are people who look at the paintings and think they are very beautiful and sensual and find the bricks too cold. But I see them as all mixed up together. Structure, space, tactile qualities, the way light is handled by the surface—both media are about these kind of things.
I’ve read though that you still see yourself as a painter at heart. Is that true?
Yes it is, in spite of what I’ve just said or maybe because of it. I am a painter, that’s how I think. But my work as a whole sometimes confuses a lot of people because they are not used to looking at paintings any more. They look at something that is made with oils on canvas but which is mostly a concept, a way of illustrating ideas.
Mine are real paintings in the sense that they go far beyond a single concept. I really want to paint pouring all my emotions into it, using all kinds of materials and elements. There is a kitsch aspect to my paintings—there is a lot of sentimentality and I want them to have that. It’s very easy to purify these paintings and make them very arty and tasteful but this is not risky enough nor is it anything to do with real life. Life is damn kitschy.
A good deal is made of the fact that you trained as a geologist. Is this over-stressed or is it still important?
In one sense it is completely over-stressed. I have often made geological metaphors, but they are all very banal. I talk about painting in terms of layers upon layers but every painting is made like that. It is a normal procedure, but somehow people grasp on to this kind of thing. It is true that I spent nearly ten years going to Greenland working as a field geologist. I supported myself this way because I wanted to become an artist. When I was at university in the Fifties I was very poor, there were few artists in Denmark and even fewer who could live from their trade. I needed something to fall back on. I enjoyed it, although working as a field geologist is very tough work. I’m sure it has influenced me but it’s rather like being Danish or Scandinavian. It’s a given part of me rather than something I can take and use consciously. I am Danish and a geologist but I can’t make an artistic programme out of that.
But are you trying to get into that subconscious part of yourself that might involve your experiences in Greenland or even your experiences of childhood. Is painting still a valid vehicle for exploring the subconscious?
Sure it is. I had a strange experience a couple of years ago where I had one of those heavy mid-life things—private life collapsed and everything else seemed to collapse around me. It was terrifying and then I started to get into things again. I started reading books I never thought I would come to read—books about psychology, particularly Jung.
Anyway, Jung had this idea that in your mid-life you have to confront your shadow. In a strange way that is what happened to me when I was painting. I thought “that is my shadow” when I looked at a work but I saw that it does not always have to be black. In fact, my shadows were always red and at that point a lot of red started coming into my paintings.
That’s really how it happened. It was not an intellectual process but it did come from reading books like Jung. I always thought he would be very dangerous for an artist because he would supply you with vocabulary that would be translated into the painting and you would forget about the painting per se and just be left with a nice neat piece of intellectualism. But you have to surpass that as an artist. You don’t have to be dumb. You can read but you don’t have to take it and translate it directly into your painting.
So you never saw any Jungian archetypes in your work after your shadow experiences?
No. Jung is very bad at handling art. He is too simplistic. Images coming out of art are more complicated than that.
Which artists strike the strongest chord in relation to what you’re trying to achieve?
Turner gets me every time. He has been my hero since I was very young. Every time I see his work I think “this is new, this is fresh.” It’s not like Monet, who has been so exploited that you can’t look at the paintings any more. Turner has been exploited but somehow his work survives. Behind it there is always a feeling that you have to rely on your powers of observation. No matter how constructed the painting seems, it invariably relies on intense observation.
You once said that landscapes are about beauty and death. What did you mean by that?
I think that statement applies to art in general because it should make you reflect on the essential things in life. It’s not that all art is derived from its immediate social context but rather that each of us is an individual who has to think about why we love someone and why we don’t; how long we live and how long we don’t, and so forth.
Critics often see art only in terms of its historical relevance but that’s not the only thing in the world. All of us are forced to think about life and death and my paintings are about that. It’s not that I point my finger and say “look at that cross there—that is probably about death”. But, in a complicated way, it is.
Per Kirkeby at the Tate Gallery, London until 26 May; “Visions du Nord” is at the Musée d’Art moderne de la ville de Paris, until 17 May.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The red and the black'