Simon Dybbroe Møller: The Game of Rules
Dorothée Brill investigates a contradictory practice of rules and rebellion
Once upon a time, time was not a rationalised affair of steady passing. Nor was its shifting speed considered the subjective experience of an individual’s changing mood. Approaching the zenith, the sun itself decelerated its pace, coming close to a momentary halt (the inherent paradox of the ‘long moment’ that still survived in the German notion of Langeweile). The demon of noontide emerged from this stagnation and started its pilgrimage through the intellectual history of Western culture: a journey of internalisation, slowly transforming from a state of universal momentary paralysis, to the existentialist inevitability of ennui at the heart of the modern conditio humana, and to boredom as the languid counterpart of a sophisticated cultivation of spare time.
The Demon of Noontide is the title of Simon Dybbroe Møller’s recent solo exhibition mounted at Harris Lieberman, New York, earlier this year. Upon entering the space, the visitor sees piles of books scattered on top and around a grand piano: ‘Melody Malady’, 2010. A man sits at the instrument, his side facing the opened keyboard. He wears a white shirt and suit but has doffed his jacket, his tie and glasses. The left hand rests on the keys, the right hand holds an open book, taken at random from one of the stacks. While reading, he plinks some notes with as little haste as passion. What might appear as a half-conscious activity performed in a state of boredom, is actually directly related to the act of reading. Whenever the reader-musician comes across a letter representing a note, this note is played. Thus words are transformed into music and content into melody. Questions immediately arise about the layers of representation occurring here, both in terms of the transparency and encryption of information, and also the ‘audibility’ of difference in the styles of narration and subject matter. The latter is, in fact, not as fully random as it initially seems. As Møller explains, the gathered volumes reach out for something ‘larger than life’, something to project the desire for substantiality. This might be art, music, astronomy, spirituality or cultures and countries at the back of beyond. Watching the artist’s scenario of cultivated pastime—with the consummation of art being amongst its most refined manifestations—the distinction between leisure and boredom is a fine one. ‘Here, leisure activities are undertaken to fill out the void of boredom.’ But whose boredom are we dealing with?
In the 1960s, we were confronted with the anti-spectacular sight of people reading for hours on stage. Emmett Williams’ 1963 performance ‘White for Governor Wallace’ only ended once all three performers had come across the word ‘white’, upon which they left without pronouncing the word. ‘Empty temporality for hours’, as one contemporary critic complained. Here, the experience of boredom was unmistakably that of the recipient, with the fluxus artists seeking to facilitate the transcendence of this experience, making a distinction between ‘good and boring’ and ‘bad and boring’. Møller might well agree with such distinction but his approach is different. His interest does not lie with the recipient’s state of mind, nor with this state’s transformation. Of equal irrelevance is the performer and his or her potential boredom in the act of performing. Møller’s engagement with boredom is not even fully directed at himself and we would be wrong—or only half right—if we considered his artistic productivity as spawned by the existential or accidental experience of having nothing better to do. What he strategically explores are modalities of artistic production and—we might add—their demystification. Maybe, as the artist suggests, it is much rather the demon of an inert noontide, than the muse of a moment of cultivated leisure, that breeds inspiration.
This search for both the locus and modalities of artistic production is continued in Møller’s installation ‘Brain I’, 2009. The first of a maze of ‘brains’ to be shown at the University of Michigan Museum of Art this Autumn, ‘Brain I’ consists of a spatial structure of glass walls that forms a series of intersecting corridors. A small number of objects are attached to the transparent sculpture. The criteria for their selection are not apparent. Among them is a scribbled page from the artist’s notebook, the photograph of a female head seen from the back, a jumper dangling from a nail, and a mysteriously lit photograph of a stack of glass panes upon a dark backdrop. These panes can be revealed as the elements that made up the model for the actual work and thus stand for a process in its development. In the averted portrait—a pseudo-muse of some sort—we recognise a much earlier work of the artist, and the layout of the corridors is a reference to a flat he inhabited some years ago. With ‘Brain I’, Møller thus embarks on a personal experiment on the possibility and benefit of making artistic production transparent. It allows a peek into the artist’s brain, a search for the refuge of inspiration, or perhaps an inherited compendium of references and recipes. Of course it comes as no surprise that the ‘see-thru’ artist turns out to be a site of obfuscation. He knew all along that neither the prospect for an authentic peer into the inside, nor the expectation of an uncontrolled eruption of inner elements can hold true, but this knowledge gives him the liberty to savour the planned failure. All elements are allowed to emerge in a non-hieratic manner; they appear of equal value with no chronological, conceptual or thematic structure and with no urge or ability for explanation. Everything is visible at once and ‘authorised’ through the context. It is a platform from which Møller engages in his quest for the necessity of rules and principles to concurrently generate and channel artistic productivity.
Indeed, where the muse of leisure is reborn as the demon of stagnation, the genius behind artistic production finds reinterpretation as the creator of a playing field, the giver of laws, which are only binding for the one who made them. It is the simultaneous creating and fulfilling of problems that exist for the sole purpose of their postulation. ‘The 13 Problems’, 2008, is a series of abstract fragile-looking sculptures made of metal in moderate size. They look vaguely familiar—halfway between surrealism and minimalism—but cannot be placed exactly. We are dealing with meticulous reconstructions of support structures for artefacts not known to us. The artist had seen these structures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the moment when they were empty. Reconstructed, they assume the role of sculptures—one for which they were never intended. Where does the problem start? The artist’s interest, I believe, does not lie with perverting strategies of the ready-made. This is a side effect. Instead, his proceeding is part of the same search for demystified modes of artistic productivity, here playing off the concept of the genius against that of the ‘artist as authority’—the creation of sculptures through an intuitive engagement with matter and space against the authoritarian attitude of ‘art by the artist’s definition’. Møller’s critique of these concepts is not universal but personal. Whether or not they prove valid for others, for him, they are of little use.
When Møller gracefully subverts the nimbus of abstract painting as an unbiased expression to the artist’s ego, as performed in a recent series of abstract works, he does so out of individual necessity rather than categorical critique. The paintings of various size carry representative titles such as ‘Emperor’, ‘Princess’, ‘Grand Eagle’, or ‘Antiquarian’. Loosely painted with a faintly coloured varnish, they are spread unevenly along a rectangular grid. But appearances are deceptive. We are not looking at a textile surface, nor at gestural strokes of paint. Instead, Møller printed a sequence of A4 ink jet images—photographs that depict an empty canvas
—and fixed them to that very canvas with wallpaper paste. It is quite simply the moisture of the glue that patchily dilutes the three colours composing the printer’s ink (cyan, magenta and yellow). Each title corresponds with the size of the respective work, as they are names of traditional British paper formats, no longer in use today. By setting himself a framework of parameters, Møller creates a situation that allows him to seemingly perform artistic acts—that of abstract expressionist painting as representational portraiture—he otherwise couldn’t, an inability, not so much due to a lack of the respective skill and exercise but to an incongruity in attitude.
Møller’s versatile exploration of the models and modalities of artistic production is not performed as an omnipotent flexing of muscles, but as a challenge and expansion of his own playing field, and an exploration of the degree to which its parameters are supple. His abundant rule-bending consequently presents itself as a double act of liberation. ‘This is to formally end whatever agreement we have had’, reads the decree the artist nailed to the glass door of Galerie Kamm in Berlin this summer. As much as the resolute and powerful act of nailing freely reveals itself as cumbersome a procedure as gluing and drilling, the artist strips bare his power play by performing an act of rebellious liberation with yet another agreement. Typed on an ordinary sheet of paper and signed and dated by the artist, there is no other signatory. The declaration is simply addressed ‘To whom it may concern’, 2010. This proclaimed act of liberation might be the artist talking to himself. He names the driving force, halfmuse, half-demon, behind his work, now setting out to change the rules of the game so that he continues the game of rules—an act of liberty and independence.
Dr Dorothée Brill is associate curator at the Nationalgalerie, Berlin and a writer