Friday, 26 November 2010

Rendezvous With Elia: Cronhammar at Herning

Ingvar Cronhammar has implied that his life's work has been an attempt to get over the trauma of existential angst that struck him upon sneaking into a screening of Bergman's The Silence as an adolescent. There is a kind of opaque muteness to all his work, none more so, perhaps, than Elia, the enormous creation (60 metres in diameter, 32 metres high, weighing in at 380 tons) that dominates the far end of Birk Centerpark, just outside Herning, Denmark.

Cronhammar's work seems to have been becoming more and more inhuman, more and more inorganic ever since his earliest work from the late sixties to the early eighties. Most of the early stuff tended to involve the bodies of animals, whether living - as in the live chickens with flashing lights on their backs in Concert for Member of the Home Guard (1969) - or dead - as in the taxidermied pigs heads, mounted and tagged with the logos of prominent local institutions, of Those Pigs (1976), or the stuffed swan perched at the top of Time is On Our Side (1983).

The elliptically titled Time is On Our Side was followed by the even more mysterious The Gate (1988), the work which Cronhammar admits opened the door to artistic life for him, as well as pointing the way towards the monumentalism of his more recent work. The Gate resembled a great industrial machine, like something wrenched from the bowels of a ship. Only it would seem that the only conceivable purpose of this engine is the raising and lowering of a whale skull in a tank of water.

Since The Gate, Cronhammar's art has increasingly developed a kind of forbidding sheen, as though refusing to tell tales on its own manufacture. And, whether the scale has been domestic - Torben Weirup, in his book on Cronhammar, speaks of "memories of furniture... or furniture for other beings" - or landscape, they have never lacked a certain sublime, impenetrable mightiness, and metaphysical wonder. In fact, there may be less distance between his animal bodies and industrial edifices than you might at first think. He grew up in Kristianstad, Sweden - just next to a slaughterhouse.

I came across Elia (2001), earlier this month, when I was in Herning for the opening of the Socle du Monde Biennale at Herning Kunstmuseum. The day after the private view, we were given a brief tour of the Birk Centerpark area, the final stop of which was here. Immediately upon seeing it I was dumbstruck, confounded. It is common to compare Elia to the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but to me it more resembles another Arthur C. Clarke creation from just a few years later.

In Rendezvous with Rama (1972), what is first mistaken for an asteroid turns out to be an enormous alien space craft, 20 kilometres in diameter and 54 kilometres long, that, whether by accident or design, has drifted into our solar system. When the crew of a the space ship Endeavour, go in to investigate the alien vessel, they discover it to be completely uninhabited, empty but for a few dormant machines, the size of cities.

Like Rama, Elia is built on a scale not quite human, but not so far off. You can climb the staircases that lead to its summit - but it's slightly uncomfortable, each step being just a bit too big. Similarly, Elia gives the distinct impression of being both brand spanking new (“everything looked absolutely new; there was no sign of wear and tear”), and a million years old. But what is perhaps most disturbing to the crew of the Endeavour upon exploring the insides of Rama is its silence, and much the same could be said of Elia.
“During the first 'nights' on Rama, it had not been easy to sleep. The darkness and the mysteries it concealed were oppressive, but even more unsettling was the silence. Absence of noise is not a natural condition; all human senses require some input.”
But like Rama, Elia is constantly threatening to 'wake up'. The tops of its towers contain red lights and lightning conductors, and the steel and concrete base has been designed for maximum resonance. Engineers have estimated that a clap of thunder would be returned and amplified for about forty seconds. Also, twice in every nineteen day period, providing weather conditions are favourable, the dome - which is connected to a natural gas pipeline - will shoot a nine metre high flame into the sky for half a minute.
“One might speculate endlessly, but the nature and purpose of the Ramans was still utterly unknown.”
On the day of its unveiling, on the 28th of September, 2001, a television journalist asked the artist what the monument was for. 'Nothing,' replied Cronhammer. Six months on site, 'scanning it in' to develop the idea, followed by twelve years to build the thing at a cost of twenty-three million Danish Kroner. The journalist repeated the question, what is it for? It is a place, Kronhammer replied testily, where people go to be quiet, to shut up!