Cottagecore Centaurs

These days we see a yearning for the past and a movement towards the transhuman, observes Uffe Isolotto, the artist behind the Danish Pavilion in Venice.

Uffe Isolotto. Photo: Nanna Starck.

It feels rather as if the world has been in a permanent state of crisis since the Venice Biennale last took place in 2019. Global warming, political meltdowns, military rearmament, and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic have taken over the media and our thoughts to such an extent that we hardly even noticed that the biennial, which was supposed to take place in 2021, was postponed for a year.

This year, crises have moved in and settled down in the Danish Pavilion, where Uffe Isolotto’s post-apocalyptic installation We Walked the Earth takes us into the future, specifically to a point right after the cataclysm hit. The pavilion’s occupants, a family of centaurs, are under severe pressure from several consecutive events that will change their future forever. Previously living in a high-tech reality that allowed them to modify human and animal bodies alike, and thus becoming a whole new species, they have been suddenly plunged back to an evolutionary stage where hard manual labour is the only way to survive.

Uffe Isolotto (b.1976), who graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2007, has sprung from the self-organised Copenhagen art scene. From 2010 to 2017 he was co-founder of Toves Galleri, a respected and influential exhibition venue. Today, he and his partner Nanna Starck run the exhibition platform Age of Aquarius from their roof garden in the Østerbro district of Copenhagen.

In 2015, Isolotto exhibited one-third of his exhibition trilogy Dana Plato’s Cave at Toves Galleri. Now part of the National Gallery of Denmark’s collection, the work is a 3D-generated graphic novel based on the true story of the child actress Dana Plato’s sad transformation from hopeful teenage girl to down-at-heel porn actress, staged as a reinterpretation of Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Isolotto has brought the collective work format typical of Toves Galleri and Age of Aquarius with him into the pavilion, and if you have followed We Walked the Earth on Instagram, where Isolotto has regularly posted small teasers in recent months, you will know that the project has been realised with the aid of a very wide range of partners. In addition to curator Jacob Lillemose – who previously ran X and Beyond, an exhibition venue focusing on disaster scenarios – the list includes special-effect makeup artists, model builders, fashion designers, conservators specialising in taxidermy, glass artists, and scenic painters.

Isolotto’s practice spans a wealth of different media and materials, from static sculptural installations to digital formats such as animation and motion capture video. The relationship between the physical and the technologically mediated body is a central, recurring element and often involves mythological, sexual, or spiritual overtones and undertones.

For example, The Pocket Philosopher’s Catharsis in the Winter Garden presented at Overgaden in Copenhagen in 2013 featured an installation of digitally manipulated photographs of an anonymous man pleasuring himself. Here, the unity and coherence of the human body was cut up into several digital frames which allowed limbs and almost abstract body parts to flow out into space like a self-absorbed Instagram feed run amuck. In New Age Headache, a 2016 solo exhibition at Tranen, a venue inside the Gentofte main library, the all-too-human preoccupation with oneself was a central element in a scenography that merged New Age aesthetics and synthetic bodies with an introspective protagonist in the lead role.

Although We Walked the Earth will be a sculptural installation devoid of new media, the technologically modified body will nevertheless inhabit the Danish Pavilion until November in the form of the centaur family. Isolotto reported this as he was preparing to leave for Venice. We met in his studio on Amager where the floor is covered in something resembling internal organs made of blown glass.

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. Concept art accompanying the hyperrealistic installation. The Danish Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia 2022.

This time around, the process for selecting an artist for the Danish Pavilion was based on an open call issued in 2019. That’s quite a long time ago now. Has your project changed since then?

My original idea was to take my starting point in the building that houses the Danish Pavilion. It combines a grandiose building from the 1930s with a 1960s extension that is rather reminiscent of a typical detached family home from the era. There are certain architectural tensions at play here which I thought I’d like to highlight in order to heal the building. Obviously, the pavilion is located in an elitist art theme park, so my first thoughts also turned to national representation and popular appeal. Responding to this, I looked to Danish folk culture and popular culture and the kind of architecture which typifies this hearty, folksy aesthetic: half-timbered farms and cottages, thatched roofs and that sort of thing.

On a trip to Morocco, I drove around the country and grew quite fascinated by the Berber culture I encountered in the Atlas Mountains. A culture where the past seemed much more present than it does here in Denmark. People sat on the ground, hunched over their crafts, fully focused on the material they were processing.

The first sketch from 2019 was rooted mainly in the aspects of craft and architecture, but later I needed some creatures to inhabit the house I was creating, and because the architecture occupies a field of tension created by two disparate parts, it made good sense for the inhabitants to be hybrids of a kind too, specifically centaurs.

Many of your previous works have involved mythological superstructures, for example Dana Plato’s Cave. Is this also the case here, where the main characters are centaurs?

Actually, the centaurs in this exhibition have less to do with mythology than with sci-fi and fantasy. I have always been interested in hybrids and in the tension inherent in putting together two things that are not a natural fit. When I look back at my old works, I see plenty of examples of that kind of clash, so pursuing this particular direction felt quite logical for me.

During the research phase, I spent a lot of time at the Frilandsmuseet north of Copenhagen [an open-air museum dedicated to ‘Old Denmark’, Frilandsmuseet conserves and recreates historic buildings, augmented by live recreations of life in rural Denmark in the past]. Back when peasant culture prevailed in Denmark, people and animals lived together under the same roof, and I think there is something exciting about that space. I thought that the smells, the light, and the atmosphere would make a good starting point for an installation. It is a staged reality, of course, but at the same time it is as close as we can get to experiencing what life must have been like back then.

I have this feeling that there is something in the air in our present day and age, a certain longing for the past. A romanticisation of peasant culture, a necessary turn away from industrialised agriculture and animal husbandry towards something more sustainable. It’s an ecological movement that also has an academic superstructure in posthuman theories on how we may approach a natural state – the animal within ourselves – after a post-industrial revolution. We are moving towards being transhuman individuals, and that became the other extreme of the project.

At the same time, we entertain various dreams about the universe, about expanding and settling on, for example, Mars. These ideas are strikingly reminiscent of the kind of very primitive societies, where you live in tiny close-knit communities and grow your own crops in very small ecosystems. It’s like returning to the past, just on another planet.

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. Concept art accompanying the hyperrealistic installation. The Danish Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia 2022.

What kind of situation is your centaur family facing when we meet them?

You enter the installation at a point in time when something highly dramatic has just happened in their lives. When I first embarked on the project, I wrote a story that sought to explain what might have happened during the period between the present day and the near future in which the centaurs live. In my story, the centaurs are the result of biotechnological developments where humankind has tried to grow closer to animals by modifying themselves into a hybrid mixture between human and animal. By the time we meet them, they have peaked as a self-created species, entering a kind of downward slope, a state of decay. We enter the centaurs’ lives at the very moment they find themselves in the midst of two great crises.

I understand that you do not wish to reveal exactly what types of crises are involved or why the centaurs have become marginalised as a species. But can you say something about how they react? Do they have any particular technologies or tools they use to survive?

By the time we meet the centaurs, they have been hurled back to the Stone Age. There is no technology anymore. Their tools are based on old tools that I have modified. Some of them are also inspired by survival tools, meaning tools with many functions. When I was a kid, the coolest gadget imaginable was a Rambo knife where the hilt was hollow and contained things like a fishing line and a compass. Such products have accelerated in popularity to the point where there is now a huge market for survival tools.

There was a time when people snickered at preppers, but we may need that kind of equipment much quicker than we think. Just watch the news right now, where we see the people of Ukraine making Molotov cocktails in old bottles – at the request of their own government. The need to suddenly get hands-on, to be able to cope in a crisis might really not be very far away. If you look to TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale [2017–ongoing], it is interesting to see how the transition to total dictatorship or the total dissolution of society can happen extremely quickly. If that happens and you need to flee from a solar storm or nuclear war, what tool do you take with you? You can’t really do much with your laptop if there’s no electricity.

You could say that as biotechnological beings, the centaurs are not just a fusion of humans and animals; they are also a fusion of a yearning for the past and a commentary on our present-day headlong dash into the realms of technology. It’s not really about being afraid of that technology and of the future, because we create ourselves all the time. Perhaps it’s rather a snapshot of what it feels like to be here right now. And then you hope you don’t put the wrong kinds of ideas into people’s heads.

What kind of ideas did you have in mind?

A lot of technological developments are based on images created by artists. There is something exciting and poignant about how the visual arts can create these worlds which might actually become a reality. There is lots of literature, art, and films where humans and animals merge, but the first transplant of a pig’s heart into a human being happened not that long ago.

Uffe Isolotto, Bodies on Balconies, 2018. Public Art Commission for Vendsyssel Theatre, Hjørring, Denmark. Photo: Torben Petersen

The exhibition in the Danish Pavilion includes a publication, created in collaboration with curator Jacob Lillemose, which visitors are welcome to take home with them. What kind of interaction takes place between the text and installation?

The action of the text is set in the time after the narrative presented in the exhibition is over, looking back at the history of humankind, which has now long gone. In that sense it’s a classic post-apocalyptic piece of fiction. But because we’re gone, there must be another narrator, and who might that be?

In the text, some kind of being or intelligence is seeking to understand a world that has been. It sees the world from a subjective point of view which is very much about language. It has no words for many of the things we have words for, which makes for a more naïve and playful way of being in and approaching world. It explores everything, and in that sense this being may be on equal terms with the visitors who enter the exhibition.

Right from the outset, it was important for me to ensure that this exhibition would not become a standard bearer for one particular theme. Lots of present-day currents – transhumanism, ecology, biotechnology, and so on – obviously permeate this exhibition; it is a product of its time. But these currents are only implicitly present. Ensuring that there are many points of entry to the work was important to me. I like the works I make to have a certain immediacy, inviting reflection in the viewer without being utterly open to any and all interpretation.

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. Concept art accompanying the hyperrealistic installation. The Danish Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia 2022.

Do you think that years from now, someone will look at your exhibition in the same way you have looked at older sci-fi? As a part of the image bank of days gone by, offering examples of what people of the past thought the future might look like?

Probably. If 250,000 people come and see the exhibition, it will become part of their stock of images. So it was important for me to make sure it held water; that it doesn’t simply latch onto some clichés, but that the clichés I use are used with care and consideration.

It’s also the most personal project I’ve done. First, because it figuratively and conceptually picks up on things I’ve done in the past; for example, works that talk about hybrid fusions of body and machine. Secondly, the exhibition also draws on personal family traumas. My dad has done some genealogy research, and it turns out I come from a long line of farmers. But within the last few generations people have pursued other routes. However, a few of the younger members of the family have returned to farming, and that is a good thing. There is a need for someone to take care of the earth, including the soil, because the population growth means that we will need a lot of food and clever hands in the future.

I have previously felt disconnected from the part of my family history in which agriculture played a role. By becoming an artist I have chosen a different path, but through this project I have found my way back to memories of the smell of a grain silo, of the complex feeling of freedom and claustrophobia and imminent danger that goes with playing on a hayloft. In addition, some of the things that happen in the pavilion also draw on my personal experiences and traumas. I don’t think you need to communicate that, because it’s just what propels me to get things to fall into place. When you do such big projects, you tend to get into every nook and cranny – especially when you’ve had so much time to work on it.

Uffe Isolotto, We Walked the Earth, 2022. Concept art accompanying the hyperrealistic installation. The Danish Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia 2022.