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"Architecture is always dream and function, expression of a utopia and instrument of a convenience" - Roland Barthes (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies)
A Village Story
Skivevej 13 could really be in any random village in Denmark. Nonetheless, this work has been created, site-specifically, for Selde in Jutland, by artist Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen (b. 1975). In the wake of a television documentary about deteriorating conditions in rural Denmark, the inhabitants of Selde were incensed by, the in their mind undeserved, depiction of their village as illustrative of how bleak things had become in the provinces. As they wanted to lend nuance to this representation of a “peripheral and marginalised Denmark”, they subsequently secured an art project for their village. Its significance does not limit itself to this one specific reason, because Selde resembles so many other villages. As does its story.
It reminds me precisely of my own childhood town; a small village in South Zealand called Bårse that consists of a country road, a local shop, a baker, a church, a village school, a small football stadium and a community hall, and about 500 inhabitants. It may sound like the most forlorn place on the planet, but this is what constitutes much of Denmark. Like tiny islands of locally lived life, village gossip and unanimity. Like small reservoirs of lived-out dreams, which in some cases had become a brutal social-realism, but for the vast majority are still small communities where people simply want the local shop to stay in business, the school not to close, the bus to continue running and the depiction of their place in the world to be presented in a little less negative light.
I can easily conjure up in my mind several possible places on that short route through my childhood village where Skivevej 13 could be. In the old butchers, for example or the house on the corner across the road, that for as long as I can remember has resembled something ready to be torn down. Even so, Bårse was named Village of the Year in 2012 and our baker is still renowned across South Zealand.
In that sense, Skivevej 13 is, undeniably created specifically for Selde, taking the former business and house at that address as its point of departure. Yet this project is almost universal, pointing to some of the recurring problems Denmark has experienced in recent years, where villages suffer when the local school, the shop and the community hall close. The spaces where friendship and community belong. Instead, the village is reduced to a mere row of houses, where the inhabitants have no shared space, no beating heart where they can meet and that can send life out to the rest of the small society.
At the same time, we now see a counter-reaction to the depopulation of rural areas in recent decades. That the young migrate to the cities is nothing new. However, we are increasingly seeing a desire to move back to the provinces. The New Dream is not necessarily to live centrally, cramped and expensively, in the city any more, but to have both peace and quiet, and plenty of space to unfold one’s life aspirations. And who knows what the old villages will look like in twenty years’ time? If the dream again becomes greater familiarity amongst fewer people? There are signs that this might be the case.
Skivevej 13 and negative space
It is an extraordinarily prosaic title for a work, Skivevej 13. There used to be a shop once, in the house at the address Skivevej 13. It was called Tatol, and here the ladies of the town could purchase nylon stockings and nail varnish.
The house is gone now and a work constructed in its place, a sculpture, reminiscent of a plinth or a white stage. When you see pictures of it on your screen, it most closely resembles a photo-shopped architectonic model, a digital sketch in the middle of reality. As real as the surroundings unfold, as unreal appears the sharp-edged, white and sketch-like work. Like an almost non- monument to what once was, and a space for reflection over the dreams that will shape the future of the town.
In 1990, Rachel Whiteread (b.1963) created the Turner Prize nominated work Ghost. This piece consisted of a plaster cast of the interior of a Victorian parlour from an abandoned house in London. She described her method, and the title, as a way of “mummifying the air in the room”, by fashioning the empty space into a solid. Whiteread works in this way with negative space, all of what is between us, which does not exist in solidity but which nonetheless must be termed “a space”. In 1993 Whiteread created House, for which she finally received the Turner Prize (becoming the first female artist to do so). House was a concrete cast of the interior of a whole house on the periphery of London. The house, and the entire interior of “empty” rooms that the concrete cast was moulded around, was already slated for demolition. The concrete cast included all three floors of the building, from cellar to attic. House was exhibited in situ, where the original house had been. And was then torn down the day Whiteread received the Turner Prize for her project.
Similarly, Skivevej 13 consists not merely of the plinth that is standing there now. It also includes the history of the space, its former function as a business, one at the heart of the village, and the history of its decline. All of which can now only be found in memories and reminiscences of village life as it once was. Like Whiteread, Kristensen is working within a form of negative space.
In Skivevej 13, the white painted foundations and front steps up to the house have been preserved and former rooms can be detected by the varying levels in the floor surface corresponding to the original spaces. For example, the original doorways have been marked out so you can sense the flow of movement through the rooms of the house. This creates a framework, a silhouette, of something that is no longer there. The void becomes a meaningful form in itself and even though it cannot be touched, it can be glimpsed and sensed with both the eye and the mind.
Through this, the negative aspects that the house represented, the history of decline, a symbol of the more general lack of maintenance and care of houses, the ghost houses of the provinces, now becomes a void, in a sculptural sense. But it also becomes a memorial, and a platform for new dreams. What has gone to ground has created the soil for new forms of contact, conversation and visions for the future. Skivevej 13 has become a contemporary animation of something long abandoned and forgotten.
Anarchy, architecture and continuing dreams
An art historical precursor in relation to working with neglected spaces in the urban environment, in-between plots and abandoned houses is the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978).
He coined the term anarchitecture - a combination of anarchy and architecture. In the early 1970’s he purchased, for a tiny, symbolic amount a number of overlooked spaces and micro-plots of land through the project Fake Estates, which he then photographed and used in various projects to highlight and increase their visibility. In 1974, he performed his first “deconstruction” by cutting away the facade of a house. (Bingo). For the Biennale de Paris in 1975 he cut a large hole in the facade of an old house beside Les Halles, where the Centre Pompidou was to be constructed. Most famous are his Splittings – buildings that he sliced through as if they were cake (Splitting, 1974), and which one could then walk through. A little like Mattis’s Castle in Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter that was split in half during a storm when she was born. Matta-Clark created an intervention in the abandoned houses that unexpectedly transformed them into a kind of sculpture in the urban space. They were no longer useful as houses – as a framework for the dreams that had once created them – but were forgotten zones in the city that Matta-Clarke through his holes and incisions transformed into something new.
Skivevej 13 is, correspondingly, both a continuation of some of the most radical and interesting approaches to engaging with old, forgotten houses – Whiteread’s negative space and Matta-Clarks’s anarchitectonic interventions - and a site-specific sculpture created for Selde. In Selde, the project points to the past, but opens up to the future. As a monument to the future.