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On Exploiting Chaos – The Sculptor Veo Friis Jespersen

The starting point may be only an illusion, a fancy or an apparent nightmare.

When Veo Friis Jespersen begins a sculpture, everything around her is in a state of disintegration

That is the world, as she sees it. A chaotic, fragmented place split into countless possibilities and materials, unconnected bits and pieces. She knows the strategy: to rid herself of this feeling, she has to create just one fixed point entirely on her own terms. The struggle to get that far can be fraught with doubt and crises, but the work that is ultimately born of this doubt and these crises will represent a new reality, a distinct addition to the state in which the artist finds herself. Only by answering the demands of the world around her can she find solid ground in this split universe, if only the small part of the universe contained in a sculpture by virtue of the decisions she has made.

Creating a sculpture is always about making certain decisions. Not all options are available. For one, Veo Friis Jespersen cannot simply imitate a human figure in front of her. The sculptors of antiquity did that, and they were able to do so because they were not colliding with tradition or the spirit of their times. A zeitgeist does not only exist outside the artist, as a demand. It is also inscribed in the artist’s consciousness, as a condition. Demands and conditions influence the forms, formats and materials an artist chooses at any time and in any period.

Certain forms and materials connote modernity; they would be unthinkable outside the age that invented and used them. Modern sculpture is also a question of exploiting the possibilities of modernity. This includes the use of materials that once had no place in the history of sculpture and so did not belong to tradition. For her graduation project at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1994, Friis Jespersen combined classic plaster with such uncommon materials as string and helium-filled balloons. She feels a certain affinity with Arte Povera, the group of Italian artists who insisted on the exclusive use of the ephemera and detritus of modern surplus society. In terms of materials, there are no limits other than the ones the artist herself sets down. It is only a question of whether the artist dares transgress these limits once she has put them in place.

This choice is not simply a question of will. It takes more to create an artist than the mere will to be one. Accordingly, Veo Friis Jespersen’s project cannot simply be put down to her lifelong desire to express herself. Even so, it is worth mentioning that she was once a singer and a poet. One should see her art education and career as the results of a series of choices conditioned by desire, faith, commitment and will. Her choices were never arbitrary. Only the artist herself could have made them. What counts is holding fast to the consequences of those choices. It is Veo Friis Jespersen’s consistency, as much as anything, that has made her one of the most outstanding sculptors of her generation.

Preparing for the Royal Academy, Veo Friis Jespersen spent a few years at the Billedskolen art school in Copenhagen. Among her instructors was the sculptor Erik Lynge. Very few Danes today remember Lynge’s constructively elaborate paper sculptures that utilized the transparency of folded paper in exact, spatial geometric forms. Lynge’s integrity and the strict demands he made of himself and his students made him highly respected by those in the know. It was Erik Lynge’s misfortune to he was offered a professorship at the Royal Academy’s School of Wall and Space that, by intervention of then minister of culture Niels Matthiasen, ended up going to the better-known sculptor Robert Jacobsen. This political interference in the academy’s hiring practices caused an uproar in 1976, but the outcome was that Lynge had to give up his fellowship at the Royal Academy. He continued as an instructor at Billedskolen where Veo Friis Jespersen became his student. Erik Lynge’s influence on Friis Jespersen was at least as profound as the lessons she picked up later from teachers at the Royal Academy. Among them, Bjørn Nørgaard was particularly important because of his dynamic and prodigious output and the resistance he offered his students when he disagreed with them. Another asset was that Bjørn Nørgaard never expected his students to work in his idiom. On the contrary, he was always more than happy to impart a desire for independence and autonomy in everything they did.

Erik Lynge, for his part, made Veo Friis Jespersen see that sculptural form did not necessarily have to be materially heavy and massive – cast in bronze or carved out of stone – to be significant and commanding. A form built from light, porous materials, such as paper or wood, can have just as much presence in a room. Moreover, a sense of light through the material can add a new dimension to a sculpture. In the right hands, even a purely negative space, a vacuous void, can be transformed and elevated into a sculptural statement. Veo Friis Jespersen has such hands. She makes sculptural forms out of thin string and rods or, very simply, raising sections of a plane out and into the room or, again, by having the material loop around and cross its own path in bows and other circular motions. It sometimes takes very little for a line or a plane to become a volume that demands attention.

Perhaps it was there, at Billedskolen, that Veo Friis Jespersen learned to ask herself the questions that would take her further. When an artist wants to make something concrete, even it is only a sign in the chaos that surrounds her, as she sees it, she first has to explore her own possibilities. There is nothing else she can do. She must start with herself and, according to her own convictions, ask the questions that stimulate the artistic process. What is important for me as a sculptor if I also want to express myself as a person? How do I get to what I want to say by using pure shapes? And, above all, how do I always go further?

Veo Friis Jespersen emphasizes that, to excel as an artist, you have to have something to say, something you want to show that was never shown before in quite the same form. She is familiar with nagging doubt as well as ironclad certainty. One moment she feels stuck in a rut and comes close to calling it quits, the next moment she is on top of the world. She then sets to work, knowing exactly what she wants to do. Her motivation can change, too. Sometimes she works because she cannot help herself and there is something she wants to put out there in the world. Other times, the motivation comes from outside as a temptation or a mild imperative, an invitation from a good gallery, a major artist’s group or Charlottenborg, Copenhagen’s central exhibition space – or maybe a commission for a public sculpture, like the one she made in 2005 for Ågården in Vejleåparken, Ishøj.

Chronologically connected works may show a certain kinship, but Veo Friis Jespersen has always stayed clear of obvious repetition, abstaining from easy works that practically make themselves, with the artist on cruise control. Like other artists of her generation, Friis Jespersen is convinced that an artist should be a researcher, not a manufacturer. An artist should always critically examine her results, so she can break down the limitations presented by any acquired routine.

Such limitations can involve space, the studio she is in and the materials at her disposal there. They can involve the space where the pieces will be shown or the time available to complete a commission. Certain framework conditions always affect the process and help to shape what comes out of it. A sculpture does not exist outside its context. It will either be located in a room with walls of a certain color and a ceiling of a certain height, or it will sit on a lawn or in a square paved with certain stones. An artist should consider both the place where a sculpture is made and the place where it will continue its life. Aesthetics is about responding to the world.

It is crucial to always locate the objective beyond all the things that feel like limitations. Limitations on an artist can involve her specific background, the exhibitions she has seen or the artists that have interested her. Apart from Arte Povera, Veo Friis Jespersen has been following a number of British sculptors, notably Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg and Richard Wentworth, whose materials are consumer objects and industrial goods from everyday life. Friis Jespersen has learned from them all. Echoing Richard Wentworth, she seems to be saying, "I live in a readymade landscape I would like to use."

In the broad sense, all of Veo Friis Jespersen’s sculptures are site-specific. Her sculptures often have to play off a particular architecture or measure up to the body of a particular building. Whenever possible, she makes a model of the space where the work will be exhibited to test if a charged, hence meaningful, dialogue between the surroundings and her work can be created. These surroundings also include the viewer. She likes to deal with the sculpture’s bodiliness on the backdrop of this confrontation; the viewer is not the only one to have a so-called body. When in the same space, the sculpture’s body and the viewer’s body will always interact, even, in a sense, co-conspire.

Veo Friis Jespersen incorporates and combines a diversity of materials. Some she gets from contemporary housing design, which often displays the organic and the non-organic side by side. At various times, and in various combinations, she has used concrete, fiber-reinforced concrete, iron, zinc, aluminum, wood, plaster, bronze, acrylic plastic, polyethylene and Forex. The use of non-organic and synthetic materials can be considered a contemporary supplement to the materials available to sculptors since the dawn of time. Unlike their classical counterparts (plaster, bronze, granite, marble, etc.), certain synthetics are flexible and transparent. Some absorb the light striking their surfaces and retain it as a luminous quality. To Friis Jespersen, the ability of a certain material or structure to hold or reflect light is a significant quality in a sculpture. Because she is interested in light, she is also interested in shade, light’s opposite and invariable companion.

The weighty prehistory of bronze was not what caused Veo Friis Jespersen to have hesitations about using the material in the mid-1990s. A couple of her bronze sculptures were included in "Født af ilden" (Born of Fire), an exhibition at Copenhagen’s Glyptotek in 2000. The pieces heralded a new practice in her work and, unlike most of her other sculptures, they displayed clear physical evidence of the artist herself, her hands working the material. The latter could be considered a concession to the bodily dimension she likes to get out in her work. However, she saw a paradox in clay’s softness and pliability before casting and its hardness and impermeability after the piece has been cast and all forms have been definitively encapsulated in the new material. Casting fixes a substance, making it unchangeable and imperishable. You can patinate the surface, polish and scratch it a little here and there, but no fundamental changes can be made. Inherently, there is no undo option.

Another condition applies that is basic to Veo Friis Jespersen’s artistic "credo" as a sculptor. An artist with strong principles about making art, she is convinced that sculpture fundamentally must never be made to do anything that goes against its material, against what you might call the natural potential of the material. Were she to bronze a plaster form or paint a wood sculpture silver, for instance, she would be tricking the viewer into thinking that the piece was made from an entirely different material than it actually was. That is something she would never think of doing. She is a purist, not an illusionist.

As Veo Friis Jespersen sees it, the tension in a sculpture should be actual tension. When a classically trained sculptor models an arm drawing a bow or hurling a javelin, it is pure illusion. The figure’s arm contains no element of force; it merely illustrates it. Friis Jespersen demands of her sculptures that what appears tense actually be tense. The same goes for forms that look limp or relaxed. There must be a formal correspondence between what you see and what you know. Perhaps, it is basically all about honesty. In any event, she is unwilling to believe in the pliability or elasticity of a form made from granite. The element of energy in a work should not merely be superficial, forced upon the material against its nature, as was the case with the colored sculpture. The tension must be contained in the materials themselves, in their joints and contrasts. For that reason, too, she never conceals how her materials are joined.

The joints in her sculptures are almost always out where you can see them. It would not occur to her to use glue. Unlike nuts and bolts, glue hides the whole intention, which is to join two things that would otherwise come apart. Sculptors who use glue reveal something else, as well: that there is something they want to hide, put out of sight, play down – in this case the incompatibility of two materials. Instead, Veo Friis Jespersen bolts elements together to the point where the shiny nuts and bolts almost seem to attract all the attention. In fact, the bolts are always mentioned in catalogue texts inventorying the elements of her sculptures. All materials, including nuts and bolts, indicate certain choices that have been made. In this case, however, the choices can always be undone. The process is reversible. Unscrew the bolts and the sculpture will eventually fall apart. Unlike the casting process, her actions here are never so definitive that they could not be done differently.

At times, Veo Friis Jespersen starts with a vision of a sculptural form she wants to make, approaching the vision by trying out its form in different materials. At other times, she reverses the process, letting the choice of material define the process or combining several materials, such as birch plywood, zinc, iron and polyethylene or ash, iron, concrete and aluminum. A work in Forex, a synthetic material, may prove to hold fresh potential in zinc. However, she never tries to hide the nature of the material she is using and she was never tempted by the possibilities of colored sculpture. She gladly admits to browning an iron sculpture and fire-blacking another, but she never painted a sculpture a foreign color. In her view, the color must be part of the sculpture’s own physiognomy. It must be a condition given by the material. It must not lie on top, as a fancy, an aesthetic afterthought or a cosmetic rationalization. Again, it is a question of facing the consequences of the honesty that preconditions her project. To her, color is not so much a way of exposing an object as a way of hiding the object’s body. She thinks of color more as an unavoidable characteristic of the material she has decided to use. In turn, she also distinguishes between colored and polychrome sculptures. Several of her pieces are naturally polychrome, because they are composed of materials of different colors. Still, however different the materials may be, they always come together in loops or arcs. There is always a will to create the necessary constructive cohesion between things that otherwise would be split apart.

Veo Friis Jespersen is no stranger to the similarities between music and sculpture. To her, making sculptures is a lot like making music. Both are statements capable of filling a space, although they do so in widely differently ways. Another similarity is their use of the pause. A brief pause, even one lasting only a few seconds, can reactivate the listener’s attention. An awareness of silence also alerts you to absence and, in turn, that which is absent, namely music. Likewise, in sculpture, a break or a negative space can set up a clear contrast to the sculpture’s structure, opening up new spaces of recognition. Like music, sculpture is not only about composing, but also about combining, merging, joining, uniting. Such uniting also applies to the not immediately uniteable. Materials can behave like tones coming together in a room. Some resonate far more deeply and beautifully when combined and united.

There are no guidelines saying what a modern sculptor can or cannot do. The important thing is that the artist never settles for showing what she already knows how to do, but continues to push her demands on herself beyond the limits of the familiar. Art is a never-ending project of recognition, and a major sculpture is always based on experimentation with the conditions of sculpture in the widest possible sense.

Hence, a feeling of chaos is by no means the worst place for a sculptor to start. Just look at Veo Friis Jespersen.

Peter Michael Hornung

Editor and art critic, Politiken