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"Peter Land. Naked", exhibition view, 2013, photo by Marek Krzyżanek

No. 1

Peter Land. Naked

The artist talks to Magda Kardasz


I’ve always been interested in slapstick comedy. In particular the early silent era short film comedies. What I really like about them is the simplicity – says the Danish artist, whose exhibition we presented in 2013.

Magda Kardasz: You have decided to title your exhibition at the Zachęta — National Gallery of Art Naked. Is it because you expose delicate/fragile moments of human existence? Because many of your works are based on personal experiences? Is that why you appear nude in some of your films? Or maybe the title says that the artist exposes himself to the audience through his works?

Peter Land: I think it’s a combination of both: There are clear elements of autobiography and self-exposure to my work. I’m not a very ‘formal’ artist: I want to communicate by any means possible, be that sculpture, video, installation, drawings or whatever. And the things I want to communicate must have a sense of urgency to me to feel right. I cannot work in a detached theoretical manner. In order for me to experience what I’m doing as relevant, it has to resonate with something that is personal. I always try to find ways of expressing the personal, so that it becomes as widely understandable as possible.

In the mid-nineties you decided to abandon painting and start making films, many of which you present in Warsaw. What were the circumstances of and reasons for this decision?

When I entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, I did so with a rather romantic idea of myself as an artist. I had already then decided that I wanted to be a painter, and had read a lot of books about painting up and until around the 1960’s. So I was really unprepared for what was going on in the art academy in 1988 when I got in. It was a shock for me to realise the wide gap between my ideas about art and the discussions taking place. For some time I tried stubbornly to cling to my own dated ideas. But in the end I had to admit to myself that my attitude to art and art making was totally out of date. That threw me head first into a crisis, where I had to question all the things about art I had previously taken for granted, and I realised that I would have to start all over again. As painting to me was inextricably linked to the ideas about art that I was abandoning, I had to abandon painting in order to move on. Video, on the other hand, was virgin territory to me. So that became my media of choice as a strategy to find a new and more valid foundation for my work. From there I’ve moved on to other media like sculpture, installation, and drawing. I’ve even done a few paintings again.

Your films look like the documentation of performances, however you never perform in front of a real audience. Why is this so?

I did a few live performances back in the mid 1990’s. But I realised that I didn’t really feel comfortable about the loss of control that I experienced when confronted with a live audience. First of all, it’s difficult to make a clear division between the performance and the reality that surrounds it. Often the audience is witness to the preparations taking place before the performance starts, and they also get to stand around after the performance is finished. So that becomes part of the experience, too. Sometimes they interact with the performance, which I guess some performance artists like. But I don’t. The video media gave me the possibility of editing the performances thereby controlling what you see. I also think there is a feeling of voyeurism to video that I like: You are watching someone’s private recordings that where really not meant for public viewing, a feeling that you seldom get with live performance. Apart from that, almost all my videos, except for the first two: The 6th February 1994 and The 5th May 1994 rely a lot on the editing. Quite a few of them are loops.

Which performance artists are important for you?

Bruce Naumann, Paul McCarthy, Bas Jan Ader and probably a lot more that I can’t think of right now. But again, most of their performances are films or videos.

Art-critics compare your films to slapstick movies. Irony and humour are your major instruments, but you use them to touch on serious, painful subjects. Can you say some words about this?

I’ve always been interested in slapstick comedy. In particular the early silent era short film comedies. What I really like about them is the simplicity. They take a simple situation and create comedy out of it. And because they do so without the use of words, it becomes universally understandable. That has been a great inspiration for me. At the same time I find that there is a trace of melancholy in some of these slapstick comedies. They very often are about people who are up against situations that they don’t understand or know how to handle, either because they want to accomplish something impossible, because of ineptitude, or a combination of both. That, in a sense, is potentially tragic. And I think it is significant that a play writer like Samuel Beckett was inspired by slapstick comedies. Some of his plays, in a sense, focus on this particular melancholic aspect to slapstick: People who are out of their depth, but don’t realise it. It becomes existential.

Constant failure and its overcoming as an essential part of man’s/an artist’s existence is one of your favourite topics. Do you enjoy playing a loser?

Failing is, in my view, a basic condition of being human. But it is something that, for some reason, is very hard to accept. I guess that we would all like our lives to be perfect, and everything we do to be a success. This idea of perfection becomes a fence against a chaotic and ‘flawed’ reality that we don’t want to see. Failure and fiasco become taboo. We want to live perfect lives with our perfect families in our perfect homes. But what is perfection? Who decides? It very easily leads to a kind of totalitarian thinking that I find scary. In that perspective, I think playing the loser is a heroic act.

The other key problem of your art is identity. Your diagnosis of the contemporary world is quite pessimistic. Is there any chance for contemporary man to achieve balance in between fallen authorities and changing social patterns? Can art help in this process?

I’m not as much of a pessimist as I used to be. But I believe that it is up to the individual to find its own identity in an ever more complex world in which the old fallen authorities have been replaced by more opaque and decentralised power structures that operate in ways that are not immediately obvious. I think that hope lies in people becoming aware. And I believe that art, by addressing these issues, has the potential of helping to create this awareness.

Music plays a very important role in your art. Can you say something about it?

The music for my videos is picked based on the extent to which it underlines the content and rhythm of the work. For instance in The Lake, in which I’m playing with the romantic idea of nature, I use Beethoven’s 6th Symphony Pastorale: partly because it goes very well with the rhythm of the video, partly because the music itself exemplifies ideas that are intrinsic to understanding the work.

After shooting The Lake video in 1999, you decided to turn to other media — sculptural installations, paintings, drawings, and graphics. Was this return to so-called ‘classical media’ a refreshing experience?

It’s always refreshing to do something different. It offers new perspectives, and can be very productive.

Your recent projects examine the dark side of childhood and so-called ‘dark pedagogy’. In painterly and sculptural works from this series you present (with the help of scary or cruel images) education as an oppressive process. Is this shock therapy effective for the audience?

I have depicted children in a lot of my work. I think that what makes childhood interesting is the degree to which adults use it as a ‘screen’ for projecting themselves. Children become these small mirrors that reflect the hopes and fears of the adults. In that sense, my work really isn’t about childhood. Maybe that is also the reason why some of the works are shocking. I’m dealing with subjects that in some cases are nightmarish, and yes, I want that shock effect. But I’ve never seen it as therapy.

There are also many references in those works to fairy tales — such as those of the Grimm Brothers or Lewis Carroll. With your work Small Doors you create for viewers the possibility to go to the other side. Do you believe in the cognitive/therapeutic/transitional possibilities of art?

I like to refer to classic illustrations from children’s books and fairytales. It is something that most people recognise and remember. In that way, the images become more unsettling. But again: No it isn’t meant as therapeutic or cathartic. But I believe that art can have that function to some.

In that case should one rather say that revealing hidden problems, bringing awareness of deeper senses of the phenomena, would be an important function of your art?

Yes. I hope my work have the potential for that.

In the series An Attempt At Reconstructing My Elementary School Class, Based On My Memory, you are trying to memorise every single classmate of yours. However, in your drawings they all look alike and rather constrained. Can you say some words about this?

The idea for this series of works came from encountering Moritz Schreber, a German pedagogue from the 19th century. Today he is seen as one of the prime examples of everything that was wrong about Victorian childrearing. He created devices that were strapped onto children to make them sit or walk erect or to prevent them from touching themselves in inappropriate places when in bed, etc. While studying his ideas, it became clear to me that he wasn’t interested in the wellbeing of the individual child. He was pursuing some kind of ideal. He seemed like a sculptor using these children as raw material to be fashioned into perfect unidirectional humans. In that way, some of his ideas are anticipating the Nazis. Again, the works very much originate from my suspicion towards any notion of perfection or disdain for failure. Of course, inherently, there is also a critique towards the role of the artist as perpetrator of such ideals. The title of the series provided me with a starting point for the work. It also places me in the picture and I think that is important: There’s an element of introspection about the work I want to make apparent.

What are your nearest plans? Will you change medium again or you will see what subjects and media the future brings you? What is your usual artistic method?

I’ll see what the future brings. Of course I have a lot of new work I want to do. Ideas that I want to develop further.

My artistic method is usually to start out by making a lot of drawings, almost like a stream of consciousness, doodles, funny faces, whatever, no self-censorship at all. Then if an idea emerges, I pounce on it and start developing it. At the same time I start to write down notes about the work as a way of clarifying to myself what I’m doing. Then, at the end of this process, I decide what would be the right media for the idea. How long this process takes differs a lot. Sometimes it takes a month, sometimes a year. I haven’t always worked like that. It’s only in the last 5 years that the process has been this organised.

Peter Land was born in 1966 in Århus (Denmark). From 1988 till 1994 he studied at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen, and from 1994 till 1995 at Goldsmiths College in London. One of the most known Danish artists of the middle generation. He lives and works in Mal