On the 31st of October, 2015, Kunsthal NORD in Aalborg has opened Asbjørn Skou’s solo exhibition Misanthropologi, an extensive exhibition inspired by Aalborg’s rapid development from an industrial to a knowledge and culture-based city. References to dystopian science-fiction, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or J.G. Ballard’s novels, are not new in Skou’s work. His 2014 exhibition Terminal Infrastructure, defining the young Danish artist’s inclination for collage, installation and photography, had invited visitors to a synthetic terrain where landscapes, future archaeology and peripheries of urban planning revolved around Ballard’s novel The Terminal Beach and the idea of coded landscapes as portals into “zones of significant time.” Less than one year later, Skou has transformed Overgaden into an installation of collages and sculptures that articulated repressed architectural spaces to create crossing points into possible futures, in Staggering Territory, his first major solo exhibition. Earlier this year, Skou’s Hauntings have imagined the collapse into an imagined future in the form of black punk-formalistic approaches to the impossible space of ruins waiting for their material dusk, also inspired by the theories of Object Oriented Ontology.
Misanthropologi may thwart with an immediate apprehension of the artist’s intention. For all the textual references and Skou’s accompanying literary piece – a post-futuristic theatrical drama that rewrites the 1913 futuristic drama Victory Over the Sun, and where multiple characters the likes of Two Post-futurist Architects, Capital and Debt (a single person), A Time Traveller, The Inhuman, A Heretical Modernist, A Speculative Corpse, or A Misanthropologist, among others, enact a curious case of politics gone wrong that rightly describes the present state of the world –, Misanthropologi is a deliberate misspelling hovering around the disintegration of language itself. It is neither English, nor Danish; but one can immediately sense both the political reach in Skou’s construction and the artist’s intention to top the visual terrains of his images with text “as an imaging on equal terms with the images,” as the artist himself explains in Henrik Broch-Lips’s article Futuristic Gloom, available on Kunsthal NORD. “I do not consider myself to be a writer, but I look at the written and spoken language as an elongation of my imagery. The images arise from texts and texts arise from images.”
Asbjørn Skou’s new work is arguably his most consistent project to this day and offers insight into what may well be a political turn in his approach. By challenging architecture and urban planning as concrete manifestations of social paradigms, economic power structures and cultural codes, Skou’s work approaches the collective subconscious only to expose its projective mutations. The literary devices in his large photo collages address both modernist constructs and mental insecurities; the cracks, arteries and caverns translate the fissures, shifts and reclusions that express both the divisions and the dark alliances between matters of projection and processes of production. As explained in the exhibition presentation on Kunsthal NORD, these amount to gaps “where concealed elements and distinctive beings potentially hide, that can potentially broaden our understanding of time, life forms and spaces for action, as well as remind us about the exposed human position in the midst of architecture, ideologies, industrial toxic sites and the capital’s speculative spells.” Like a mistanthrope anthropologist then, immersed into hatred directed towards the entire humanity and archaeologically carving into intangible origins of thought and matter, “the behaviour and the physical,” one is also divided by the artist’s appeal to elements of drawing and painting: scrawling and harrowing text and image across the walls, Skou’s artistic gesture delivers us to the immediately expressive power of drawing and painting as extension of our own thoughts. This is an utterly political gesture that bears away from modernist conceptions or utopian projections only to return us to the powers of the precarious. There is no objective claim, only an artistically critical aim to expose the architecture of collective fears, urges, dreams, and desires. Is this archaeological enterprise meant to provide healing to those intimidated, sorrowful, anxious and fearful? Maybe.
Like in Terminal Infrastructure, this installation can be seen as a “reconstructed excavation” deep within a mental landscape. It reveals layered realities and intermediate spaces. And Skou’s gesture is not only precarious – it constantly plays on the outskirts of text and image, constructed environments and living matter, aspiration and decay. Like in most of his works, the tension between premonition and oblivion creates a synthetic territory where time and context are suspended; where pieces and bricks, fragments and scraps outline a liminal memory where the actual and the fictitious merge into what the artist has described as “an uninhabitable habitat, like a fossil of the present, or ruins from the future.” (Asbjørn Skou) The artist’s turn from the post-apocalyptic to the post-futuristic also marks a new artistic intention; to no longer look at erosions and erasures, but rather find the inherent, synthetic expression that conflates all thinking and all matter, all states and consistencies. There is a somehow settled tone in Misanthropologi. The infrastructures, elements and situations find a peculiar balance. As the disillusioned mystic in Skou’s dramatic rewriting of Victory Over the Sun claims, “the inner non-lives of things become flotsam in the human cloud of unknowing.” In this fragile equilibrium, history, politics – the architecture of politics –, social and psychic unrest search for a meaningful expression.
The shattered situations in Skou’s Misanthropologi are just as many ways to reclaim a certain politics and plasticity of the senses. The thinking of language, the architecture of space, the intangible imagination need to be exposed and subverted in order to reappropriate a kind of subjectivity. Like everywhere in Skou’s work, the black and white collages address a basic yet expressive coding of representation that holds the power to regenerate the artistic condition. But, as mentioned before, this site-specific installation is a politically representative scenario. By focusing on architectonic traumas inspired by the recent history of the city of Aalborg – a city undergoing profound changes that outline the passage from industrial production to knowledge economies too, with their inherent speculative construction undertakings –, the artist articulates a much more elaborate artistic-political discourse on capitalism and capitalisation. The fictional analysis of the various elements at work in the built environment and geographies relating to the city’s past, that “continue to haunt the city and in many ways act as resilient ghosts” – “Agents that are both products of industrial capitalism, and are at the same time elements that resist the capitalisation of the urban space through the construction of a new city on the poisoned grounds of the old.” This, of course, is a gesture that gains consistency and reflects the artist’s maturing considerations on the various levels of physical and mental complicity between capital and architecture, as well as the spectres of inherent ruins or catastrophes.
The tension between the different realities is articulated by Skou in a more pronouncedly dystopic, poetic and graphic manner: The Young Wo/Man in the dramatic play says “The city overthrows itself,” a comment that references both the construction and dissolution of built environments, whether architectural, mental or political. Here again, Skou’s long interest in how fictionalised archaeologies of modern ruins depict and rightfully enact the collapsing of spaces, is a means to consolidate a psychogeography where any established spaces/geographies and any set chronologies are overturned to reveal fragile infrastructures. This is a discourse on failure, which has become a central subject of examination in recent art, that aims to reclaim the mental and physical spaces of failure as a means to resist the capitalisation of the world itself, to assume governing paradoxes and refuse capital dogmas.
For Skou, the conversion of space into capital is addressed by also “examining how some of industry’s negative bu-products return as defiant ghosts and haunt the heritage of consequences that melt into history and keep on coming back to us.” (Henrik Broch-Lips) The artist’s critique of capitalist paradigms assumes a form of historical materialism that becomes increasingly aware of the interactions between human and non-human agents as influenced by the arbitrary, the accidental, the erratic, or the precarious. Capital matter – capital instability. “The entire modern growth society has been based on this utopian idea that there is a future and that the future will be better,” says Skou. “The ideological thought that we can work towards a better future and a better place is the reason for, among others, capitalism and the historical avant-garde in art.” These overlappings create a visual deterritorialisation of social, ideological and cultural concerns that the artist engages in his archaeological practice as a means to unveils the lurking imbalances, incertitudes, inequalities, and instabilities that have come to define the domain of the physical and the contemporary psyche. It is interesting, for this reason, to observe how the artist displays the elements in his installation, in a play of scales and arrangements, architecture and body, social context and indivisual narrative. This marks Skou’s openly speculative approach and formulates a powerful expression around the ways in which contemporary urban spaces can encompass and reflect the sensibilities, projections, and traumas that often lie most hidden. His collages appeal to elements of graphic design, advertising, and cartoons to stress contemporary tensions between design and drawing, in a gesture that reclaims the grip and agency of the precarious within an established system of language and signs. Everywhere, a sense of a bleak fin-d’histoire reveals the dogmas of aesthetic ideologies, the visual and spoken systems that govern and administer society, as well as point to a commodification in the language and verbal expression of individuals. Instead of looking into a future where man is governed by technology, Skou sees it as the domain of technological fossils, fallen under the empire of ideologies, capitalisms, and capitalisations of the living. Whether abstract or concrete, his ‘images’ survey the latency of meaning and offer visitors a glimpse into the precarious post-landscape of disaster and utopia.
“The exhibition is based on a certain type of gloom, an anti-futurism that both manifests itself concretely in the fact that I primarily use black and white as an aesthetic and stylistic grip, but which is also a mental processing of the recognition of having lost hope. And in that, there is something liberating,” says Asbjørn Skou. Liberation can only be reached by assuming the void or the abyss that lies between us. One that, it should be said, we’re intensifying through our inobservance of genuine ‘care’ or ‘responsibility.’ The ruins are waiting to happen, ‘to take place,’ to rise again, also because of our poor negotiation with the agencies of the non-human. One should acknowledge that it is not form the shapes the real, but the brute and unmasterable materiality of our surroundings, that we only seem capable to master through ‘misplaced’ ideologies, fetishistic desires, or sanitary approaches to the imperfections, turbulences, and discharges of matter. By denouncing the domination of language, Skou refuses the systems of thought that aim to take the world into possession; as such, he dismantles a series of philosophical considerations that aim to assimilate reality to the subject through either power or the Concept. Against idealist or purist conceptions of art, Asbjørn Skou creates a dramatic and poetic scenario for a type of materialism that can reference Bataille’s notion of “the formless,” a precarious world that one must learn to grasp in its very transient and unstable mutations, as an expression of life itself.
If Skou has previously appealed to Object Oriented Ontology, as a means to detach things from human optics and position them free from the human sensory apparatus, he now develops it within a given cultural and social context to further stress the lack of significance in both the real and the projected. While all matter is present within an expanded space-time, it is the fiction, the meta-narrative of ideological constructions that governs our existence in a given place and a desired state of the mind. The narratives in Aalborg are but a metaphor for all the narratives taking place everywhere: “The exhibition is not about Aalborg,” Skou acknowledges, “but I have taken a basis in some themes that are derived from Aalborg’s more recent history, which I then have taken through a form of generator, where they turn into a kind of fiction. For example, I use cement production as an image, but at the same time personify it as a form of dust demon that operates in various temporal layers by being formed from a geological material, which then turns into powder dust and used as a material for construction, and after that becomes dust again (…). I also relate to asbestos, which is a very concrete example of a geological material that in an unholy symbiosis with production capitalism, has wandered out of the rock and into our buildings, and eventually ends up in our lungs. In a sense it is horrible, that the way in which we humans establish connections to the world, often has such devastating consequences.”
Man will continue to be ‘Victorian’ in his aspiration to tame the environment and feed himself with the material possession of his surroundings. What art can do is to constantly subvert the ideological and narrative construction of the world in a way that is not only critical, but first of all responsible. “Being able to encrypt reality and find new frames of understanding through artistic work is extremely important,” says Asbjørn Skou, aware that what art can do is to decorate the life rafts that we use to float across an ocean of shortness and frailty. To acknowledge this is, to the ‘misanthropologist’ in every one of us, an intimate responsibility to reimagine social systems that, through all displacements and aberrations, can reclaim an imperative of responsibility, a goalless attitude that transforms self-consciousness and self-reflexivity into an open gesture towards the changing state of the world.
– Text by Sabin Bors, the curator and editor of the
anti-utopias contemporary art platform