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Does living with birds enhance my life?

Svend-Allan Sørensen talks about the relation between birds, colours and politics and explains how being a visual artist is similar to going hunting

Interview by Lotte Boesen Toftgaard, Overgaden

Lotte Boesen Toftgaard What has your education at The Funen Academy of Fine Art meant to you, and how has your provincial childhood and adolescence influenced the way you work as an artist?

Svend-Allan Sørensen Well – it suddenly occurs to me – both things are peripheral in relation to something else. I mean, I was born in Kjellerup, and from the age of three to the age of twenty I lived on an old fieldstone farm in a place called Borre, near Bjerringbro. It was the kind of place where you would simply open the door and let the dogs run free. And I was the kind of boy who didn’t go to kindergarten, but just stayed at home and talked to the dogs and played with the chickens.

I guess, like so many others, I have dissociated myself from my background. It’s something you have to do when you’re cool, tough and twenty. But I sense that certain things are coming back to me: I’ve begun to go hunting again, bought Wellingtons and everything. It’s not that country life and art are closely connected. Not in any direct way. But I feel that there may be certain links between hiding in a ditch waiting for a duck and sitting in the studio trying to learn something. The same quiet feeling. In the words of Danish poet Dan Turèll, going hunting is one way of “being beat.”

Regarding my time at a provincial art academy, I don’t actually think it matters as much today as it did then. The distance from Odense to Copenhagen was short even then, but it has become even shorter, not least mentally. One difference, perhaps, is that you can’t exactly hang out at one opening after another, Friday after Friday. This is the kind of thing I think people do all the time, even though I’m perfectly aware that many don’t, but it’s just so damned enticing to think about, Fridays at nightfall, when you’re busy peeling potatoes in the kitchen.

LBT I would like to dwell a little on the question of this outsider position. Earlier, for instance in your graduation exhibition You can’t have a Svend without an Allan at The Funen Academy of Fine Art in 2002 you have worked with your understanding of yourself as an artist and with the roles and structures of the art institution. On the occasion of your exhibition at Overgaden you publish the book Svendsk Nutidskunst 32 [English approx.: Contemporary Svend­ish Art 32], which is visually a paraphrase of Dansk Nutidskunst [Contemporary Danish Art] - a legendary series of artists’ biographies issued in the nineties by Fogtdal Publishers – where you present yourself on the cover in a hunting tableau. Like you say, there is of course no direct relation between art and country life, but I’m still curious as to where these two identities meet and how you link this meeting to your reflections on the art world in general. And now that we have brought the art institution up, it would be quite interesting to hear how you feel about exhibiting at Overgaden, specifically?

SAS The whole Svend and Allan thing was about the fact that no one can stand alone. The artist depends upon the institution and vice versa. One cannot define itself without involving the other. It’s Ying and Yang all over again!

Generally, I tend to alternate a lot between my various main men – my sources of inspiration – from Joseph Kosuth and Peter Laugesen to Johnny Cash and Johannes Larsen, all jumbled together and yet in a certain order, I like to believe. So playing with you guys at Overgaden is just as interesting to me as playing with Koloristerne at Den Frie Udstillingsbygning which, incidentally, is what I’ll be doing in the month prior to my exhibition at Overgaden.

The exhibitions are two sides of the same coin. I approach the same theme in two different ways, because the frameworks, the different institutions, lend themselves to it. Koloristerne and the associations as such have a long and venerable tradition that I like very much. They have begun as anarchist attacks, and that really does wash, if you ask me. There is something very romantic about Den Frie Udstillingsbygning, Koloristerne, classic anarchism and modernism, hunting, nature, even ME, for that matter. This is what I intend to take up over there. At Overgaden I make things a little funnier and slightly more political – even if some of the works recur. So I don’t have any problem about exhibiting first among old­timer Koloristerne and then at Overgaden where the agenda is completely different.

As far as the book series is concerned, I’ve actually always thought to myself, hey, I want to make a book like that, too. Too bad the series is no longer produced. But then you might as well just paraphrase it which I then proceeded to do. Svendsk Nutidskunst 32 is at once silly and serious. Serious because this way I’m actually inscribing myself into the history of art and because I’m attacking from below. All the other artists included in the series were established (when and how does one become an established artist?), whereas I’m sort of an outsider. I don’t have a dealer who sells my stuff and I’m not represented at any museums. On the other hand, it is silly, because I’m making fun at the whole established artist thing, for example by calling all the other artists included in the series Svend: Svend Kirkeby, Svend Haugen Sørensen, Svend Trampedach, Svend A. Frandsen etc.

LBT You have called your exhibition at Overgaden Does Living With Birds Enhance My Life? Tell me a bit about the way you have worked with this exhibition and about the concept behind it.

SAS Like many of the other texts and motifs I have used, this title is derived from the Internet. I always carry something in my head that I’m looking for an explanation to, and sometimes my own logic is insufficient... and so I’m trying to find an explanation by way of cross­ searches. This was the technique I used a couple of years ago when I set out to examine the intersections between birds, politics and colours that simply HAD to be there. I began by using the entry words of birds and politics. In Danish as well as in English. Subsequently, birds and politics led to colours. You know, the black, the red, the green, the grey etc. The colour works are meant to be very political.

One search leads to another. And so the word life turned up among the other entry words. I just wanted to find the story behind all those word birds. Then I found this inquiring sentence, the kind of sentence in which I ask myself a pretty open question that doesn’t necessarily correspond to any final explanation. An entirely open question. A question that the people who attend the exhibition at Overgaden might also ask themselves. I mean, my My may just as well be the viewer’s My. The title­sentence, then, is a summary of my work, a question, a line in the sand and a work that will probably be included in the exhibition.

The reason I began making these inquiries into birds in the first place was that I had some students who were always bickering about birds and the position, and hence success, of birds in Danish art. This was a question I had to delve into, of course. Meanwhile I had also become interested in political aesthetics and linocuts. In short, I made both elements into a kind of sandwich.


The birds are words, sometimes motifs and in a couple of instances they are present in stuffed condition, but always as representatives of something else. It is very unlikely that I will bring living birds to an exhibition. I am not interested in that. It is more the icon of a bird – the word, the motif and the sound. I guess I got it from Kosuth and his handling of the tautological. I believe I belong to the schools of both Joseph Kosuth and Johannes Larsen.

LBT Joseph Kosuth and Johannes Larsen! An interesting linkage, could you please elaborate.

SAS Well, a bird is a bird is a bird. Both artists possess an objectivity that I like very much. I actually don’t think that Larsen’s drawings and watercolours of killed animals are that far from Kosuth’s works with chairs and umbrellas. Both cut straight to the heart of the matter in their descriptions. They both know/knew how to do something formally completely correct.

LBT I would like to know why there absolutely HAS to be a connection between birds, politics and colours. Why do you set out from this particular premise?

SAS Because everything is interrelated. I think. It is not a religious thing. But if there is a connection between Man and politics, then there is obviously also a connection between birds and politics. People and birds are living creatures with hierarchies, supra and subspecies, pecking orders, colours etc.

The colour issue is quite simple and rather political (although not politicising), because it’s not really okay to talk about black people, whereas it’s okay to refer to birds and even name them on the basis of their colour and their sex. The blackbird, for instance, is named after its sex, since it’s only the cock that is actually black. Basically, I’m not a political artist in the traditional sense, but I use animals and colours as a gangway into the political. I’m not trying to save the world or anything like that. And I don’t have any final answers; I’m just emphasising a few things in a mix of aesthetics and humour. I think.

I began working with birds and politics, that is to say the entry words of birds and politics, simply because I was interested in both subjects. I was confused and I wanted to be on top of things. I guess I’m a control freak in this respect. I felt that there had to be a reason why I was thinking of birds and political art (probably a result of my work with linocuts).

It occurs to me that perhaps the whole issue of the colour black has to do with a day in December two years ago where I decided to stay in my studio, which is a shed in an allotment garden without electricity, until after dark. I was sitting there writing with black ink in the dark, and a few days later, as I reviewed the whole pile of crabbed drawings, I discovered that I had written a note saying ‘Africa’.

LBT You’ve mentioned your preference for the linocut a few times, and by far the greatest part of the exhibition consists of linocuts. What is it that this technique can, as opposed to other media? And are you building on any particular tradition here?

SAS Hmm, I suppose this is where some people would like me to say Dea Trier Mørch. But I’m actually not familiar with her work at all. I haven’t really checked out that many works by other artists in this particular material. I do own an Aksel Jørgensen and a Toni Larsen, but that’s it. I’m much more preoccupied with Søren Hjorth Nielsen, Johannes Larsen of course, Joseph Kosuth, Per Kirkeby, Peter Bonde and a number of others.

Concretely and physically a linocut can endure more than an etching. It is fast and technically very simple. I like that very much. And then it strikes these socialist, art class­like chords.

I suppose I lean quite a bit on these political aesthetics, but it is not something I look at all the time. If I were to name something, it would have to be Asger Jorn’s posters from Paris.

LBT Your works and exhibitions are generally characterised by a serial quality. In the Overgaden exhibition you work with a theme – or is it several themes? – unfolded by way of recurrences and repetitions of motifs and words. How do you go about putting together the works for the exhibition?

SAS I can see that it has to do with the birds and the politics we spoke about earlier. They have since been joined by some dogs, a couple of singing stuffed birds, a hunter and some other stuff. So, you know, one thing leads to another. If I have written blackbird in one way, then I can also do it another way. And I can have a blackbird stuffed. It is not the same blackbird; rather it is first an experiment with the word and then the object of the blackbird.

I’ve realised that this is often what happens. If I do a sketch of a dog, pretty soon there is also a text with a dog or with the entry word dog. Or maybe it is the other way around. I scan for word, motif and significance.

The layout of Overgaden’s exhibition space enables small secret exhibitions to occur within the exhibition. This makes it easier to elaborate smaller themes. Right now I’m thinking a lot about a kind of salon hanging used for Johannes Larsen’s hunting motifs in his studio in Kerteminde. I’ll probably try to do something similar.

As far as motifs and themes are concerned, there are many kind regards to people like Lars Bent Petersen, Jesper Christiansen, Peter Laugesen, the Larsen mentioned before and my namesake Svend Danielsen!

Birds constitute a major theme, but only superficially, because the big bird drawer is also filled with references to personal experiences (such as hunting), poems, music, other artists, the significance of the different colours, tradition etc.

LBT By way of summing up a bit, I should like to zoom in on a single work De trætte fugle vender hjem [English: The Tired Birds Return Home]. I would like you to tell me a little about your work with this piece, your inspiration for it, its form, content and possible references.

SAS Ok, you got me there, because this particular work is actually a reference to Røde Mor, the Danish artist collective established in 1969. The text is the second line of the song Lil’ Johnnys Mund. The tired birds are the bombers returning from the war filled with coffins. When interpreted detached from its context, however, this statement can also point to Steen Steensen Blicher’s Trækfuglene. Anyway, that is what it means to me. Here, the linocut is of course extremely important, since the text is taken from Røde Mor. Incidentally, I would like to add that I have also referred to Johannes Larsen’s woodcuts. In lino! I don’t see why I should consider myself above that.

The interview was conducted via e-mail in December 2007.

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