Judith Mastai

Interrupted Pleasure Claus Carstensen and the Röda Rummet


When we look at the work of Claus Carstensen, we experience two contradictory impulses: pleasure and disruption. The pleasure derives from the beauty, mastery and intelligence of the installation. The disruption, in one sense, derives from the personal, from not fully comprehending the ways in which the imagery relates to the artist’s own unique history. But, in another way, it is collective, reflecting the complexities, disjunctures and failures of art's relations to contemporary social and political life at the end of the twentieth century. Broadly speaking, the system of signs and references in the work raise a cacophany of imagery. Historically linked to modernist painting, there is a spectre of the avant garde here, an attempt to engage with contemporary issues as well as a failure to succeed in this aspiration. As Peter Bürger has written:

The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art, by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life. This has not occurred, and presumably cannot occur, in bourgeois society, unless it be as a false sublation of autonomous art. Pulp fiction and commodity aesthetics prove that such a false sublation exists. A literature whose primary aim is to impose a particular kind of consumer behavior on the reader is in fact practical, though not in the sense the avant-gardists intended. Here, literature ceases to be an instrument of emancipation and becomes one of subjection.

These paradoxes are inherent in Carstensen's work. My intention is to address them, particularly in relation to the significance of his installation Röda Rummet in Toronto. Carstensen's biography is important to his work. Born in Sønderborg, Denmark on the Danish-German border in 1957, Carstensen was educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen, where he now teaches, and at the University of Copenhagen, in the Department of Comparative Literature. A poet as well as a visual artist, Carstensen participated in the Copenhagen circle of Semiotics in the early 1980s and throughout the eighties, he and fellow artist Peter Bonde operated an artists' co-op gallery called In/out the Flat, exhibiting art and film, hosting concerts and publishing books and records. His first exhibitions date from 1979 and include venues throughout Europe, as well as in Australia, the United States, South Africa, Canada and Brazil, including the Sydney Bienniale in 1992, the Sao Paolo Bienniale in 1994, and the Venice Bienniale in 1997. His images, like his biography, embrace and incorporate the experience of living and working across boundaries, whether they be geographical, familial, or stylistic.

Carstensen's installation Röda Rummet, for Christopher Cutts Gallery in September 1999, was inspired by the title of a novel by Swedish playwright and novelist, August Strindberg. The "red room" of the title referred to a specific place in Stockholm, where Strindberg congregated with his circle of fellow writers and artists. As the press release informed us, for Carstensen, Strindberg's novel evoked the idea of the artist's socialization at the turn of the last century. And while this idea may be inherent in his choice of the title, the overwhelming impact of the Cutts installation was sensual and aesthetic as much as intellectual or historical. Elsewhere, I wrote:

From outside the Christopher Cutts Gallery at night, the light on the other side of the window revealed walls dramatically splashed with red, as if some giant had accidentally slashed an artery and left a terrible trail while searching for a way to stop its spurting. This kind of red conjures up fear, heat, lust, hunger for blood. This red room signalled danger.

This dramatic exhibition ought to be read first as an installation before addressing the individual works displayed in it. A corpus, whose parts assembled references from twenty years of practice in a variety of media, Röda Rummet was startling, yet familiar, as it contained a combination of personal iconography and internationally recognizable references to the worlds of art, music, literature and film. In addition to drawing on the discourses of painting – particularly abstraction – as a practice in the twentieth century, Carstensen's work also reflects his more literary concern with authorship. Refusing to be an "auteur," in the filmic sense, Carstensen takes pains to credit his social and familial influences through collaborative production. Many of the works on view in the Cutts installation were jointly authored with his wife Ute, his daughter Zoe, his uncle Alfred Friis (a painter in his own right).

For Canadians, the specific, personal references in the individual works require translation. However, the heart of the matter of interpreting Carstensen's work from a Canadian point of view, may lie in our relations to its form of multiple representation, simultaneously showing exaggerated, emotional gestures, fractured subjectivity, and a painterly masculinity. In many ways, the work speaks from within modernism, but also in critical opposition to it. If modernity has consisted of a series of avant garde movements, then equally, it contains their failures. So, in Carstensen's oeuvre, painterly gestures, celebrating the triumph of individualism à la American abstract expressionism, are coupled with an eclectic assortment of nationalistic icons, personal references, botched works and stabs at bad painting. Now, his canvas is a movie poster, layered with paint; then, in other works, photographic images have been silk-screened onto canvas, over-painted, photographed and printed onto PVC (vinyl). And always, whether referencing an album cover of Thelonius Monk or the writing of Freud, verbal texts weave both cognitive and poetic threads through the visual text.

In order to address the question of signification or reception by a local (Canadian or Torontonian) audience, there could be many frameworks for analysis. In a way, the work falls "between the chairs" of modernism and postmodernism. While the mixture of images and styles might aim at critical postmodernism, Carstensen's choice to unite the diverse elements as an installation – the painted walls, the red room – reveals a more modernist aesthetic. From a feminist point of view, Carstensen's work is unrepentingly masculinist, replete with "territorial pissing," but I think the artist is faking it, to some extent, with those moves – trying to bait the feminists. Canadians are probably more comfortable with a post-colonial view, grounded in the duality of "walking in two worlds," as native artist Domingo Cisneros once put it. Almost always having come from somewhere else, Canadians see and are defined by more than one point of view. But from a psychoanalytic perspective, Carstensen's multiple, disjunctive images portray less a split subjectivity in crisis, in the Kristevian sense, than a "set" of images, repeated and unified, constituting a strong, egocentric whole. No; in the final analysis, the ambivalence suggested in the work seems more firmly rooted in high modernism, in the play between the desire and the repressed of a utopian scenario.

From a socio-political perspective, Carstensen's oeuvre seems best suited to the kind of analysis that Frederic Jameson might offer, positioning it in relation to the structures of late capitalism. In that sense, this installation is ". . . an object of meditation . . . whose function is to provoke a fruitful bewilderment, and to jar the mind into some heightened but unconceptualizable consciousness of its own powers, functions, aims and structural limits." It is utopian. It aims "to bring the mind up short before its own ideological limits, in a stunned and puzzled arrest of thought before the double bind in which it suddenly finds itself paralyzed." What is the double bind? – "our incapacity to produce (a utopia, of whatever kind) as a vision, our failure to project the other of what is, a failure that, as with fireworks dissolving back into the night sky, must once again leave us alone with this history."

Finally then, Carstensen's art leaves us with the knowledge that the aspirations of art and society predictably have failed to lead us to a realization of perfection. It's success as representation lies in the drama of its form, which renders us stunned, sensually and aesthetically aroused, but paralyzed in the face of failure. We have been arrested, like a Muybridge figure – caught mid-action, in a state of constant readiness, poised and interrupted – neither emancipated nor enlightened, waiting hopefully, in perpetuum, to complete the project . . .


Judith Mastai
September 1999 – March 2000