An Alien in a Glass Case

The Ovartaci exhibition at Charlottenborg is a welcome presentation of a vast, beautiful and peculiar body of work. It also highlights how contemporary art has lost all spirituality.

Ovartaci, Ovartaci & The Art of Madness, 2017. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Kunsthal Charlottenborg is currently showing Ovartaci & The Art of Madness – an exhibition based on works by the artist Ovartaci. Curator Mathias Kryger clearly set out to make Ovartaci (1894–1985, born Louis Marcussen) feel relevant to present-day audiences, which is why he offsets Ovartaci’s art by works created by younger contemporary artists.

The Ovartaci exhibition is a very welcome show of a vast, beautiful, poetic, spiritual and peculiar body of work by someone whom I consider to be one of our greatest artists, erroneously branded as an “outsider artist” or as “mad”. The exhibition can also be regarded as continuing a trend that peaked with documenta 13 in 2012 and the Venice Biennale 2013, which also focused on the spiritual aspects of art, re-launching artists such as Hilma af Klint, Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário and Carl Gustav Jung’s The Red Book to mention just a few important examples.

In order to understand this trend I believe that one also needs to understand that contemporary art and contemporary culture has suffered considerable losses as far as the spiritual is concerned. Whereas early modernism threw open every doorway imaginable, including those pertaining to spiritual matters, more recent contemporary art has, up through the twentieth century, been largely synonymous with ideas of “the new”, of breaking away from established genres, preferably falling within neat categories that we may describe as political art, conceptual art, pop art or cultural appropriation onwards to formal experiments such as expanded painting or relational aesthetics – all of them categories that have shaped the Western artistic self-image and ideas about constant conquests of new territories of understanding.

New Age cats and hieroglyphic paintings

Ovartaci, Ovartaci & The Art of Madness, 2017. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Viewing Ovartaci’s works is like stepping into a childlike universe pregnant with promise: Cats and birdlike aliens perambulate among forests, Babel towers and Egyptian backdrops. The imagery is painstakingly ornamental and boasts such intensity of colour that we clearly sense that these are not mere children’s book illustrations, but an imaginative symbolic tour de force. Time has been suspended or extended in all directions. Light shines down from the sun and the upper spheres. It is all very gripping, but also strange, alien and in that sense a little disturbing.

Ovartaci’s universe can be compared to that of some of his contemporaries: Hans Scherfig’s jungle paintings and J.F. Willumsen’s wild, brightly colourful paintings of naked children running towards the water. But Ovartaci takes things in a more mythical, mystical, New Age-y and trippy direction. He is obviously influenced by Egyptian hieroglyphics, by Chinese calligraphy and by time spent in different kinds of landscapes, presumably drawing on his long stay in South America or his many astral journeys.

Many of Ovartaci’s figures look like aliens, but should probably be regarded as spirits of a kind, perhaps even as (shamanistic) messengers. And when you hear him speak about his paintings you realise that even though things are trippy, they are also quite concrete, based on personal, inner experience. One example is provided when he speaks about his art in the videos presented at Charlottenborg. “Oh, yes, that was back when I was a bird,” he says about a painting of a bird, continuing heedlessly from there, progressing though countless times and places in the guise of various bids, flies and mistresses.

Ovartaci’s visions and figures fall outside of the scope of normality in many ways, but they were neither mad nor psychotic the way that the exhibition title (erroneously) asserts as a matter of course. They are bright, clear, frenetic and visionary, but also perfectly ordinary – at least to Ovartaci himself.

Ovartaci, Ovartaci & The Art of Madness, 2017. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

One important part of the story of Ovartaci is that he did not embark on his artistic work until he was admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Risskov in 1929; he continued to work there until his death in 1985. This is to say that his life and work extends across the bloodiest and most experimental era of Danish psychiatry (as described in e.g. Jesper Vaczy Kragh’s book Det hvide snit. Psykokirurgi og dansk psykiatri 1922-1983, 2010). Yet even though Ovartaci lived at a time when he had to undergo countless experimental treatments, his own world remains surprisingly clear-cut and wondrously bright.

About living one’s practice or having it as one’s project

As you view the exhibition you are struck by the countless repetitions of the name “Ovartaci”, which is written on drawings and paintings as if it were a magic spell, alongside other strange designations such as “Pupparpasta”. There is a constant preoccupation with this name, with an alter ego, as if identifying with the name “Ovartaci” enables the artist to metamorphose, to take on a new identity. Ovartaci finds freedom outside the confines of the name he was given at birth (Louis Marcussen). He finds his voice in another version of himself. I believe that somewhere in the depths of his psychoses, a desire to escape lay embedded. An urge to escape his body and gender, his era, his identity. I also believe that his art did in fact offer him such an escape, enabling him to act as transgendered, in a transhistoric space, with a new identity.

Ovartaci, Ovartaci & The Art of Madness, 2017. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

It may be this particular field that curator Mathias Kryger occupied when he decided to surround Ovartaci’s works by different takes on themes that grapple with a trans-space. To my mind, the curated works in the rooms around Ovartaci stand in striking contrast to Ovartaci’s art. It is almost impossible to understand what actually connects the two worlds that this exhibition attempts to reconcile.

At the same time, the vast gap between these practices sheds light on the prevalent perception of art found today: Whereas Ovartaci’s work is the result of an (interior) dialogue with another world, the artists of our present day use art as a tool for examining the world and for outlining alternative ways of understanding the world. Whereas Ovartaci’s work is deeply integrated in his life, today’s artists regard art as a project that is aimed at the art world. Whereas Ovartaci can seem naïve, today’s artists are highly self-aware.

In this sense, the juxtaposition of the new practices (which those of us who view a lot of art already know almost too well) and Ovartaci works well and not at all. Well, because it makes you aware that entirely different concepts of art are at play here; and not at all because the attempt at inviting Ovartaci into a contemporary reality fails. For is part of the point of showing Ovartaci’s works not to challenge modern Western contemporary outlooks on art and life? To question the premises underpinning Western art aesthetics and our modern lifestyle? To question the concept of normality? To move away from the normative?

Ovartaci, Ovartaci & The Art of Madness, 2017. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

These questions are also addressed in the carefully finished, well thought-out, well curated and interesting works that surround Ovartaci. Works which seem as if they could have been made for this particular exhibition, but also for any other exhibition. They are works which fit into a modern art venue with much greater ease, and they are all beautifully installed. They are works which, each in their own way, examine aspects of those human minds that struggle in our present-day modernity. And in this regard I think – having spent a few days with the after-images of the exhibition running through my head – that the curatorial gaze appears, if not clear, then certainly sincere and important: it is the aberrant mind that the curator wishes us to consider and confront.

Angela Melitopoulos & Maurizio Lazzarato’s long, informative and interesting research-based video delves into Guattari’s anti-psychiatry in great detail. Similarly, the healing aspects of spiritism are explored in lingering detail in Kasper Akhøj and Tamar Guimaráes’s brilliantly titled video work “Studies for A Minor History of Trembling Matter”. The exhibition also has many modern, cool, fun and quite good works that grapple with tactile, sensuous, deviant, almost diagnostically clinical practices that seek to refill the empty space of which art has become part – in works by Lea Porsager, Maria Meinild and Sidsel Meineche Hansen – to put it as cryptically as the works themselves.

The spiritual as practice

The spiritual is rather an odd fish within modern art. The attempts at introducing the spiritual in contemporary art through the work of Hilma af Klint and many others have not been very compelling; more than anything such efforts have seemed to be mostly about searching for pastures new within Western art. Links to an actual spiritual practice have been conspicuously absent, leaving the art behind as empty posturing. And even though several artists engage in New Age beliefs and occultism as a kind of documentary practice, that interest seems to be more akin to experiments with drug use, psychedelics, or politically thematised psychiatry – not an interest in something that they actually believe exists.

Standing before Ovartaci’s work is to rock that boat. His art has long lived its own reclusive life at Museum Ovartaci, located in a psychiatric hospital in Risskov in Aarhus. Going to Risskov was like entering a secret realm that the world had forgotten, making you a member of a special club. But it was also a mental, sensuous, mystical and transcendent experience; qualities that I do not think have been successfully transplanted into the modern exhibition rooms at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Certainly, all traces of lived life and of Ovartaci’s close bonds with his works have disappeared entirely in this coolly detached installation of his art.

Ovartaci, Ovartaci & The Art of Madness, 2017. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

It is difficult to understand Ovartaci’s work without feeling the gentleness he felt for his works, the conversations he had with them. In this exhibition I cannot see and feel the practice that the artist actually lived, a practice that intervened in space and time, defying more rational and objective outlooks on the world. I would like to have seen his home-made tools, his small objects, pipe bowls, amulets, papier-mâché spirits – all these things that were to him living beings with whom he lived, held conversations, kissed. He even took them out on bike rides when he was allowed to. And really this is no more peculiar than people talking to their dogs.

Instead they have become art objects set within a sleek exhibition design custom-made for this show by Petersson & Hein. An exhibition design that wants to pull the artist into a modern, cool perception of the world, but which in so doing jettisons the sense of intimacy. In this sense, the installation can seem rather like a post-colonial jaunt into the lands of the mad – like a display of objects robbed of their home and habitat. The National Museum of Denmark takes ritual costumes worn by indigenous people and places them behind glass, and a similar method is employed here: Ovartaci’s delicate sensibilities have been placed between thick panes of glass bolted onto coloured concrete. The spirits have been put on display – not as friends, but as art objects. That is the kind of barbarism under which we live today. Just imagine what it must be like for a friend to be put on display like that! A victim of the detached gaze of the anthropologist and curator – like an alien in a china shop. This instead of being taken along for a bicycle ride or for a cuddle in a sofa, surrounded by human love. But if you move in close and ignore the reflective surfaces that we see rather too much of these days, the works still live their own lives as conduits to a spirit world that can still be found somewhere beneath the veneer of culture.