When we study Jens Fänge’s new works for The Hours Before somehow Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist play from 1921, Six Characters in Search of an Author, comes to mind.
I think this is because Fänge’s assemblages force onlookers to reconsider again and again what it is we are actually seeing – or maybe witnessing. There is a drama going on here, but which one? And what is it about?
In Pirandello’s famous play the rehearsals are interrupted by six characters, who enter the scene claiming that they are the real characters, constantly criticizing the actors for failing to get a detail right. After trying to chase them away, the Director gives in, and attempts to integrate the Characters’ stories into the play – which, of course, fails completely. Pirandello had intended the piece to be a comedy, but he was whistled off the stage by the furious audience and had to leave the theatre by the back door.
As Fänge himself says, his point of departure is somewhat like an empty stage, on which actors and props slowly emerge. But he denies himself the role of all-knowing artist. On the contrary, he very soon changes methods, and starts to listen to what is going on in and between the works. He even talks about the existence of a mystery about which he, the artist, knows little, but which has to be there.
Through the assemblage technique, another factor lays claim to making a contribution to the production of meaning, and that is, of course, the material itself. Already now, even before we enter into the labyrinths that Fänge constructs, we can see how different layers of creating and breaking the illusion, of making and breaking the meaning are put into play.
In this context it is, of course, quite “natural” that Fänge is interested in the early 1400’s, when central perspective was constructed – or invented – more or less simultaneously in Flanders and Northern Italy. We can also see remnants of even older ways of constructing perspective – the special perspective used in icons. We see this in the way that Fänge depicts a dress, or in the way that the floor is chequered. The important thing here is that there are several ways of constructing a perspective, of which central perspective is only one. Also interesting is the reason why painters, usually working for the church or patrons closely connected with it, took on this task: with oil painting it became much easier to create an illusion of light. Why not also make the mirror world that central perspective suggests? It would make miracles plausible. Now, the angel can stand there, with his fantastic wings, right in front of the Madonna, sitting on a “real” chair, or leaning over a “real” book – between them lies a “real” floor with its tiles – through the window we can see a “real”, or at least a realistic, landscape.
Iconic perspective works a little differently, and is actually a reverse perspective, meaning that the vanishing point is located in the beholder.
By problematizing central perspective, Fänge creates a connection with a number of artists of the 20th century. The first, of course, were the impressionists and post-impressionists, followed by cubism and surrealism. In particular, Fänge creates a link to Giorgio de Chirico, who used distorted perspective to change the whole setting of his pictures. The perspective now shows the nightmarish dream scenario of a haunted mind. There is a similar quality to Fänge’s scenes, as if the perspective were being faithful to an inner experience. Maybe that is the reason why there are no vanishing points in these pictures – this is a place of no escape.
But the artists who most actively took up the – one might imagine – obsolete art-historical debate about central perspective were the postmodernists, not least in Scandinavia, where some artists were, moreover, specifically using the pre-renaissance masters to show the alternatives to the hegemonic mono-gaze of central perspective. Just like Fänge, they deployed it as a tool for thinking, and as a commentary on what they felt to be
a normalising modernist canon.
Fänge has a refined way of undermining any canon. He deliberately uses anachronisms to tell nonlinear histories. The very fact that something is declared out of date attracts him. This makes it possible for him to apply it for his own purposes.
The German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters is one of the ambivalent figures with whom Fänge feels a connection. The fact that Schwitters could make his Merzbaus and collages using all sorts of materials in an “Ultra modernist” way, and still make his living through landscape and marine paintings during his exile in Norway, without disavowing any of his works, makes him a highly complex artist, and one of the few of his generation who dared to question the general modernist idea of art as a sign of progress.
Ambivalence, or ambiguity, is always there in a work by Fänge. It is there on all levels, but not the least when it comes to questioning the rigid divisions between the sexes. I write ‘sexes’ instead of ‘genders’ on purpose here. It is the male or female persona that Fänge is playing with, and it is a matter of identification rather than projection. In a series of “self portraits” made in the 2000s, Fänge adopts the persona of a refined , frail, dandy-like man who is literally going to pieces. In the The Hours Before series Fänge sees himself as the female protagonist, if not, in a sense, regarding all the figures in the drama as self- portraits. This, of course, follows a noble tradition. We only need to remember Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, c’est moi. But it also has to do with the feeling of theatre, of a masquerade, which is there in almost all of Fänge’s works.
What is happening in The Hours Before? The title is borrowed from a novel by the Swedish surrealist Stellan Mörner, a most courteous nobleman and flâneur, more of a romantic dreamer than a hard-core surrealist. The inspiration for the show came from a two-masted model ship that the artist has in his studio, and in particular from the texture of its sails. It is now part of the exhibition. This elegant ship with the black–and-white pattern on one of its sails could come from one of the dreams that Mörner used to depict. But the way the paintings or assemblages develop is typically Fänge.
In the centre for the exhibition is a loving couple, a man and a woman, embracing, as is seen in the painting Soft Machine. In particular, the woman is carefully painted, whereas her partner is at times barely outlined, which gives the image of the couple a dual quality – showing both fulfilment and longing in a single image.
But there are more figures in the pictures – a small, naked man with what looks like a halo around his head, and a small, naked woman lying on the floor. The strange perspectives, the materialized shadows, the paintings within paintings, the sharp angles, the sloping floors... What kind of drama is this? Is it a crime scene? Occasionally, we get a glimpse of nature in a painting within the larger work, a wood of sorts, perhaps the kind of forest that Dante had his protagonist get lost in. What seemed to be an escape from the nightmarish feeling in the interiors turned out to be yet another symbol in the subtle echo chamber of memories and references that Fänge puts into play. In the end, what is there left for us to trust? The materials that constitute the assemblages are the very sails of this wondrous ship on which Fänge invites us to embark. The rest, the enigmas and the dramas, has travelled from the canvas into our own minds. It is up to us, the onlookers, to reconstruct the drama, to speculate on what happened in the hours before.
Drop, 2015, is an emblematic example of Jens Fänge’s painting process. In the picture, ideas, images, chance and even mishaps are carefully looked after, creating a logic of it’s own. The tension and the drama in the painting result from a sense of nakedness and concealment, of displaying and obscuring, of sharp angles and soft billowing architecture. A quote from the German romantic poet and philosopher Novalis comes to mind:
“The art of alienating in an agreeable way, of making something strange and still familiar – that is romantic poetics”.
The mural installation Journeys at Home, 2016, is a 10 metre long wallpaper. As on a widescreen panorama, it depicts an interior in steep perspective and opalescent colours. Covering two adjacent walls in a corner of the gallery space, the mural tilts our view of the actual physical space. Fänge places paintings and objects on the wallpaper, suggesting they have emerged from the flat surface, creating an uncertainty about the world to which they might belong to.
Hinterland, 2016. A two-masted model ship, part objet trouvé, part arts and crafts, hangs from the ceiling over the gallery space, displayed in the same way as ex-voto ships hanging from the vaults in Nordic churches, to express gratitude and hope for protection. The constructivist design on the sails is made of patches of fabric. Meticulously sewn and embroidered as if to repair the worn sails and at the same time creating an ambiguous pattern that brings to mind both modernistic painting and bandages. Painted, sewn and embroidered with the help of the artist’s mother.