To see something in nothing
By Erik Steffensen – author, visual artist, curator & former professor at Royal Academy of Fine Art, Denmark.
BALDER OLRIK DARES TO ASK BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT EXISTENCE. HE IS ANALYTICAL BY NATURE. THERE WERE PERHAPS NOT MANY WHO SAW THAT WHEN HE WAS ADMITTED AT THE AGE OF 16 TO THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS IN COPENHAGEN.
For he could paint – so well that there was fertile soil for massive success from the beginning, coupled with one of the rarer talents – the ability to reach out beyond the narrow environment of the Academy. He left the course early and had what looked like – and was – a meteoric career. He did not follow the standard line, he was like no one else, and yet there was something at work that was typical of the time from the mid 1980s to the 1990s. His pictures were sombre, melancholy and had the Weltschmerz one could recognize in films from the breakthrough years of Lars von Trier. The undercurrent was the same. There was something poetic, symbol-laden, naked and sober in Balder Olrik’s captivating images, but there was no logical affinity between the fast, wild, ironic painters of the period and Balder Olrik. It did not look as if he met people among the artists who formed institutional social platforms. The pictures were representations of bleak concentration camps, morbid statements, deep, dark voices from bygone epochs, theatrical portraits and historical investigations. He did his work, crafted them meticulously, found books, postcards, made photos, blew them up in large formats, painted his pictures, exhibited them and followed the paths they staked out.
Perhaps the artist did not analyse the pictures he found. They only had the power of fascination. He analysed their effect. What set-up was necessary to get there or there, and how was one to carry on – what was the possible way out? The next move? Balder Olrik is a chess player. He sees combinations. He pays attention to the starting conditions. The significance of the first moves for the development of the game. For a period he posted some of his early works on Facebook. He offered comments on their genesis. He got feedback. Something happened, he took a step further. The treasure house had been opened. He talked about the influence of the computer. He had Photoshop installed in 1992. That opened up new avenues. But the pictures remained typically craftsmanlike. A picture from 1994 full of pathos, showing a stranded aircraft from World War II, was made up of 60,000 flies. Reflections on the logistical achievement of finding the flies, which were bought from an insect breeder in Nørrebro, and killing them, perhaps weighed heavier than the actual content of the picture – the perspectival image of the aircraft, the abandoned wreck. The canvas measures 152 x 305 cm. The interest is in the pictorial mechanisms. An investigation that is important is in progress: the sight of and the consciousness of the life and death of the flies. The flies loom larger than whatever may have happened during this or that war in this or that picture. Balder Olrik has used photographs as models in his paintings. Photographs taken from somewhere, like the flies, which are laboriously glued to the canvas one by one. You think of other things than dead flies with that gesture. Of killing. The work of the hand as executioner, or the action as a pilgrimage of penance. The motif says less about death as content than about the method. As the photograph is detached from the process of its production. We see something, the wreck of an aircraft, but on closer scrutiny it is something quite different we see close up. Balder Olrik’s new works function in the same way. They have a quick side and a slow side. A subject and a ‘something’ that disturbs the thinking process like dead flies. Something that short circuits thought and makes us temporarily blind. The artist’s work is about processes of coming to awareness. And for this to happen it is good to have a starting point, a subject and a language that can carry the experience out to the viewer. The artist has these. He can take the things apart and put the subject together like a poet or a composer.
Media interest, curiosity and interest in the philosophical game that creates the next work led to a radical artistic decision after the emergence of the Internet, where the artist found a resemblance between the medium and his own method. One New Year’s Eve 1998 he made a resolution. The next year he would try to create pictures related to the Internet. This was unknown territory, like the bombed.out landscapes on which he had focused hitherto. What comes after a breakdown? A destruction? An absolute loss? Balder Olrik went all the way into the medium’s shining archetypal landscape. He spent time in front of the computer. Not just to learn a new language, but to create it. He was in a no man’s land. He shifted the focus from painting and participated in the start-up of new enterprises that worked with the new behaviour that was associated with the Internet’s global potential and dissemination, and was quickly changing society. He changed track. From one medium to another. For once it worked as if visual art lagged behind the new medium. The viral connections are fast, art is slow. In 1985 Balder Olrik had painted a picture of the poet of slowness par excellence, Rainer Maria Rilke. A poet who could spend hours, days and weeks in front of the same picture by Paul Cézanne, to write out what he saw. He immersed himself. There was an affinity here.
Balder Olrik is able to keep the mental energy available to him focused on a theme. The flies are a good example of this ‘patience work’. And if anything the computer must be the tool it takes most patience to work with, for the Net offers constant potential for digression. It seems to have been created to grab your attention and lure you and your thoughts astray. Companies offer their staff courses in mindfulness and fitness so they can stay the course in front of the screen. Most office landscapes are without artistic decoration – you can’t have your staff losing themselves in other worlds than the production.promoting ones. Mankind is equipped with a limited reservoir of will and discipline. If you want to change something it is wisest to do it a little at a time and at fixed intervals so that new habits are established. Balder Olrik did the opposite. He wrenched himself right away from art and into an information.packed medium alien to art. It takes courage to saw off the branch you are sitting on. He was willing to suffer loss. The loss that all his pictures are actually about. Loss of time, information, meaning. Perhaps he was able to take this radical leap precisely because he was preoccupied with the character and the rules of the game that could be tested. He became no less of an artist in the reshuffle, but he stopped producing paintings. He challenged himself. Asked yet another big question of existence. His everyday life became different. The meetings took on a different character. The studio became an office, the canvas became a screen and he put his art on standby.
Balder Olrik has demonstrated his abilities as a particularly manoeuvrable artist. He can follow his intuition – also when it emerges as strategic thinking. This gives the picture an inner strength. In his latest work he is back, not where he left off his painting almost twenty years ago, but in the field to which his work has brought him. He combines his photographic and computer.related interest with the superstructure that studies of human behaviour and perception have contributed. He is particularly interested in the theories of the Nobel.winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, whose work relates to the economic choices we humans make and the reasons why our powers of judgement are often set aside. why we fall time and time again for a tempting offer, but should know better. how our quick brain convinces us and functions without consulting the reflective part. This fits well with Balder Olrik’s process. And as in a game of chess, we enter a new phase of the oeuvre where a crucial shift has taken place. Balder Olrik’s new pictures do not resemble the early excesses and successes. The clearest feature of the renewal is the presence of reality. There seems to be no filter. Balder Olrik still operates in a painterly place with delicate, soft colours in a well.composed space, but the enchantment and the pictorial borrowing of the past have gone. The history book is closed. We have landed in the midst of real life. Things are concrete and tangible. It almost hurts to feel that the escape routes of perdition in the filmic version are absent. There is apparently no fiction. No poetry. Only hard sharp photographs from a world we seem to know. A world so close that the quick brain has already bought the house on the fantastic Monopoly board of recognition. So far, so good! But the atmosphere is unheimlich.
The artist has been on a visit out in reality with his camera. He has moved from station to station. From studio to office to reality and back to the space that must now be said to be a both/and. The pictures contain time. Encapsulate long moments, but not in a nostalgic sense. They are a cool round of pigment imprinted on paper. They are framed and thus enter into the slow category where we must concede that the flickering light from the computer screen was a temporary halt on the journey. A medium, not a terminus. The pictures have been given a finishing treatment with surgical precision. If you look closely – and you do, because the pictures are so saturated with colour that you get the urge to look closely – the eye discovers that it has been led astray. That the jigsaw puzzle has some pieces missing. That the picture does not match the reality you just recognized. There are dead, monochrome rectangles on the surface. Violet, greenish, pink, dusty blue. Areas of colour where the information level is low, as if a curtain has been drawn in a hotel in the Eastern Bloc before the Fall of the Wall. Maybe the area conceals something. Maybe not. Maybe there is a person behind the layer of paint. A sign of life behind the grey.mixed pastel colours. The motifs are not encouraging. Balder Olrik’s pictures are no longer dark and alluring. We have entered the overcast weather of middle age, as if the journey of life also has its stations that correspond to those of the picture. There is no bravura. No symphonic atmosphere of ruination. The tone is more or less neutral. The thoughts are invited in. The pictures are a meditation and the motifs are played down. The manipulated photographic works show, for example, a Copenhagen street crossing with residential houses and a street sign, the back of an amusement park with a roller coaster that rises to the sky. A petrol station in the evening, where the thoughts are directed towards mankind’s mental tanking.up, but also towards solitude.
Sadness, poetry, light, that light. The components of the artwork will not be denied in Balder Olrik’s universe. Hardcore pictures which in every way have an emotional effect. It is impossible to continue with the galloping associations, the distracting options of the Internet. There is a full stop here. Nothing is running, the car stands still, the roller.coaster is only a dinosaur imprisoned in a park, the aircraft is not in the air, the roadway has been cleared, the shop is closed if not actually closed down. But we are still out driving as viewers. Experiencing, scanning, searching. The gaze is at work. Balder Olrik invites us on his road trip. And the goal is to find a way into the picture’s labyrinth empty of humanity. How will the public react? Are these pictures of the male or the female gaze? Once the artist used melted wax crayons to achieve an impressionistic, Strindbergian, alchemistic effect in his painting. The golden light. The gentle light. The divine? It is still there. The new works are also about the drama of transformation. About seeing something where there is nothing. Down on the ground.
— Erik Steffensen (1961) is an author, visual artist and exhibition organizer. Professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts 1998.2007. Publications include Strindbergs Metode (1993), ValbyEnglish (2003), High Five (2010). Photographic works represented at among other museums Louisiana, Aros and Statens Museum for Kunst. Lives and works in Denmark.