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For Time and Eternity: Transformational Art in Junget

by Maria Fabricius Hansen. Associate Professor, Copenhagen University.

Change is a natural condition for us as human beings, both in our private lives and in society as a whole. Oddly enough however, it continually surprises us. Most of us believe that what we call the real and quotidian will continue to be so. We have a tendency to experience change with a certain amount of heartache, a certain yearning after how things used to be, a longing that perhaps, in reality, is a longing after our youth, our friends, our life-changing events intertwined with our memories of the past.

But change also includes all the best aspects of our lives. It can represent new interests that we discover and develop over the years, it can be encounters with people we did not know before and which bring us happiness, it can be children, marvellous and surprising, unique individuals who did not exist before, and who grow up amongst us, entirely themselves from the very beginning and yet, at the same time, constantly evolving and in a state of transformation. In this sense, change is the only true consolation against melancholy thoughts of impermanence, as change is always about the potential life of things in the future, not precisely as we recognise them, but nonetheless unmistakeably as a continuation of the existing.

Foto: Kurt Nielsen

Changes in our society and our personal circumstances can appear dramatic to our understanding of them, in part due to their acceleration in recent decades. This can be directly substantiated in the depopulation of country towns and villages around the country. Centuries of agrarian culture have shifted towards methods of industrialisation while urban lifestyles continually attract more and more people. The empty houses dotted about the countryside are a physical testimonial to something that once existed and yet is difficult to imagine returning. There appears to be no easy or palpable way of dealing with this. It is impossible to maintain village culture as if it were a museum, and yet at the same time it is not only in the individuals’ interest, but also society as a whole, that people thrive in their distinct lives irrespective of an urban or rural setting.

Throughout this difficult process of transformation, art has proven adept in renewing meaningfulness for people in varied societal contexts; also on a modestly defined, local, quotidian plane. One can almost, in amazement, observe that art in this configuration, as a form of applied art, can in fact play an important part in our lives, nor merely in Denmark, but the world over.

For instance, this may be in the form of projects devised in collaborations between artists and architects, facilitating transformations of urban space on a larger or smaller scale and enabling new forms for cohabitation.

In this context, the work of a visual artist is not something that is tacked on to a particular place as a form of aesthetic decoration. When successful, it is something that integrates into the existing space, in order that something new, that was not there before, can emerge. The melancholy of loss is countered by the new that is created.

In Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen’s project in Junget, it is the actual physical remains of demolished village houses that are transformed into fixtures in a novel, communal urban space. Moreover, it perhaps surprises us that these elderly bricks actually contain an exquisiteness that a modern industrial brick in its uniformity and predictable monotony lacks. It is precisely this indication of time in the worn materials that renders the new village fixtures so appealing, in that the old bricks are incorporated into contemporary forms. The intrinsic element of time contained in the materials and the composition of old and new, side by side, suggests continuation and change simultaneously. The care that has been put into the actual execution, both back when the bricks were originally produced, and in the bricklayers’ current, professional precision in building the fixtures, is itself an expression of a materialisation of time.

Foto: Kurt Nielsen

We live in a prolongation of the epoch of industrialisation and modernity, where constant development of the materials and technical conditions of the past, and the striving towards constant growth, has been regarded as an unequivocal ideal. But in the industrialised part of the world, it appears increasingly obvious that it is necessary to cultivate other values rather than, on the one hand, endlessly producing and building new structures, and on the other, the continual, reckless removal of the old. Even a cursory examination of our built surrounding will increasingly compel us to recognise that we must, to a much great degree, learn to reuse and transform the already existing fabric. There is simply not enough space to continue expanding our cities, nor is there space left over for all that becomes redundant, if we only demand the new.

Our current societal upheavals may bear, in a larger architectural-historical perspective, comparison to some centuries during the Middle Ages, where people reused and transformed buildings rather than constructing new from scratch. Visiting Rome or many of those other cities in southern Europe that were once part of the Roman Empire, one understands that much of the admirably solid buildings of classical antiquity remain. However, on closer examination, you will also notice how much of subsequent medieval construction consists of ancient bricks, columns, ashlar blocks, marble tiles and other reused building materials.

As the Roman Empire gradually declined from AD 300 onwards, and the population decreased drastically, a large number of monumental buildings remained, which people had little use for or energy to maintain. Occasionally, however, the need for buildings with a new purpose arose; for example, churches, which had not existed before the recognition of Christianity in the beginning of the fourth century. And so they repurposed an existing building, altered it or simply took building materials from older buildings that were no longer in use, and reused them. Only those buildings that could be repurposed or whose materials could be used in entirely new constructions survived in to the present. Temples that could be consecrated as churches were maintained. Otherwise, they were left to decay. Structures that could be occupied were reused, and if not, they too decayed or were gradually demolished over time as their materials were used in other buildings. This all combines to give Rome its unique atmosphere of transience and timelessness. The course of history is readily apparent, so to speak, as one wanders the streets. What might strike one in passing as sad, that the Rome of Antiquity could not survive, paradoxically becomes a thing of beauty and value in the present. Even those reconstructions over time that characterise the city, indicative of something that has been lost , comprise at the same time a powerful life-affirming delight in change. In this way, transformational building can both remind us of the past and point to the future in an acceptance of the present. It can simultaneously contain both conservation and renewal, so that change in itself is not simply melancholic but also adds something that we did not know or were aware we would be grateful for in the future.

Foto: Per Andersen