Bo Bjerggaard

Erik Steffensen

06 - 22 Jun 2013

© Erik Steffensen
Haufniensis, 2013
Metallic paper / Diasec
120 cm x 120 cm
Persona (project)
6 - 22 June 2013

In 2003 I interviewed Erik Steffensen about his relationship to his studio. It was
my hypothesis that a studio leaves its mark on an artist's work, so I wanted
to interview a number of artists about their relationship to space, art and work.
At the time, Steffensen had an enormous studio. Entering the vast warehouse
in a northern Zealand industrial area felt as if one were entering a

In Steffensen's studio we sat in a rather cozy little living-room-like area amidst
the larger space as Steffensen talked about H.C. Andersen's Picturebook
Without Pictures, which is about what the moon had to say as it slipped past
the artist's garret in Copenhagen's Vingårdsstræde. In the context of talking
about the moon going to the man and perhaps vice-versa, I used the ethnographic
example of shamans who go to the moon and back. We talked about
that it is often nomadic peoples who know about this kind of travel. Not a
word was mentioned about Søren Kierkegaard on the occasion, but then he
was no nomad.
A short time later, Steffensen gave up the lease on his American studio. He
has since adamantly claimed it was the shaman talk that day that gave him
the idea for a new form of practice, the nomadic. He realised how many trips
to China, for example, one could take for the price of a month's rent or two.
So while I wanted to hear about the space as a precondition of artistic practice,
the artist abandoned his space. Typical for an academic to miss the boat,
and typical for an artist to be ambiguous: with clear artistic perfidy, he looks
like another homebody still in his darkroom, that trickster.

The darkroom prevents Steffensen from becoming entirely nomadic; neither
has he become entirely virtual. The works are old-time photographs, taken on
rolls of film, developed by use of developing fluid; it is not digital information,
but light and shadow that Steffensen works with. Nevertheless, the photographs
do undergo (here's that perfidy again!) a virtual treatment. They are
scanned and edited in Photoshop, where he also - especially in the Persona
series - lays several pictures over one another, so that they take on a double-
exposure look. Finally, with Lambda print the pictures are printed directly
onto Plexiglas. The photographs become objects, as the motifs are frozen
behind Plexiglas and frames. Taken on cameras from around 1935-1955, the
photographs point to past places and antiquated methods, yet they are updated
with a blank, defamiliarising, sci-fi Lambda finish. Most of the Persona
series are in human scale, a bit smaller than the average person, thus becoming
large, nearly furniture-like reflective surfaces.
Steffensen makes use of a kind of double concept in his pictures. As photographs,
they can remind one of monochromatic or dichromatic paintings, and
understanding them as simulated paintings makes them even more photographic.
In the Persona series, Steffensen exploits displacements between
painting aesthetics and photographic techniques, but also between the different
layers found in the individual photographs' spaces. When Steffensen
puts layer upon layer it means, for example, that the old Elephant House in
the Copenhagen Zoo and The Art Association Gl Strand's premises find
themselves within the same frame in the work Quidam, creating an "almost
place", something that is almost recognisable, but not really, just as the person
in the room is also incognito and even disguised in a top hat that is even
older than the old cameras.
This time shift brought about by the use of old and new techniques and
staging of scenes with elements from various eras strengthens the sense of
dislocation conjured by the multiple layers of space. Through these shifting
movements Steffensen's photographs also accentuate the sense of defamiliarisation
that is part of photography's being by virtue of its temporal and
spatial displacements. In the midst of this, photography's representation of
a person in a space manifests the absence by its implicit indication that the
photographed subject will never be repeatable. The photos' distancing effect
is established through the eerie distance between the photographed then
and the evoked, framed now.

The movement between proximity and distance establishes a kind of restlessness.
The moment was found, but it is no longer to be found. The past
haunts the present; art haunts the picture's surface and Steffensen haunts
his pictures.
Søren Kierkegaard, on the other hand, is no ghost. Indeed, one could imagine
that he is one of the philosophers who would be most opposed to this
kind of unreliability. Nonetheless, there are spooks in his writing, namely in
the pseudonyms, and it is they who are rummaging around in the titles of
Steffensen's works, including those in the Persona exhibit. A certain homelessness
comes into play in the pseudonyms' not being a real name of a
real person - their not being identical with the author. They are false constructions,
openly referring without any referents, a cover, a veil that slips
in between reader and author. Steffensen injects yet another obfuscating
layer of non-identity. From these names - all men's names from Kierkegaard - he has only taken the gender-neutral part: Quidam, Haufniensis, Eremita, A - Det unge Menneske, Constantius, Anti and Silentio.

The pseudonymes' falsity and the postmodern aestheticising play of shift-
ing meanings between the positions have become recognised elements of
Kierkegaard reading, which have, of course, evoked a more essentialising
reading of texts containing actuality and stable realisation. This play between
pseudonyms and identity is also at work in Steffensen's Persona exhibition,
while the pictures as a rule depict space, they are works orientated to places,
but only those undergoing change, and they are photographs that are
the size of giant wall mirrors.

There is a lot of space in Steffensen's picture series, perhaps even to a higher
degree than various personae in the spaces and pseudonyms. Steffensen's
space is oddly empty and often undergoing renovation. It is space that
as mentioned often appears via double-imaging or monochromatic cloaking.
Sometimes people appear in the spaces in an unmotivated way. Many of the
spaces Steffensen photographs are in transit, under transformation, changing,
under renovation or rebuilding and are spaces no one enters, precisely
because they are undergoing change. The depicted space acts as a type of
intermediate stop between the stationary and the nomadic.
Søren Kierkegaard's great existential oeuvre, his aesthetic play with pseudonyms
and his notorious irony have been researched and understood in
ever-new ways over time, but his Regine, his 50 pairs of matching cups in
the cupboard at home, the many places he lived in Copenhagen - in perpetual
transit yet stationary - and his early death, when the inheritance was
gone, are all together concrete anecdotes about the private person that fascinate
us and Kierkegaard scholars, who otherwise concern themselves with
the less vulgar, more abstract aspects of the man's writing. Perhaps it is the
idea of all such private details that is included in Steffensen's photographs of
concrete space-in-space. Steffensen captures another place than the usual.
Although the texts may also be juicy and concretely biographical, they go to
our head, while Steffensen's pictures hit us in the stomach.

The stationary places have a built-in constitutional impermanence that gives
a kind of permanence to photography's otherwise ephemeral nature. This
dizzying play between the nomadic and the stable gives a strong sense of
spiritual punch to the picture.
In any case, from Steffensen's own private space an echo is felt that is also
related to the large spaces he has abandoned after having dismantled the
stationary studios of his private business and gone into transit. The characters
are not in the pseudonyms; the place is not in the picture; the artist is
not in his workshop; the art is not the work; but both the artist and art haunt
Steffensen's pictures.

Kirsten Marie Raahauge, Anthropologist
Translated by Wordmaster

*I AM REAL REAL GONE NOW is the title of one of Erik Steffensen's early works, which although not part of this exhibit nonetheless speaks with prophetic power of what the exhibit represents. The print was shown in its six editions at the exhibit "Lang Lørdag" at Den Frie Udstillingsbygning in 1991.

Tags: Erik Steffensen