Interested in pop culture and commodification, Esben Weile Kjaer reflects on his own generation by using different types of media.
Stepping into a room of one of Esben Weile Kjaers performances filled with electronic rhythms, light shows, textiles, reflective elements, sculptures and moving bodies is not only overwhelming in a positive sense but a rather hard confrontation with a precise analysis, leaving you somewhat lost in a big picture. A feeling he creates by introducing the aesthetics of pop culture into the context of fine arts, playing with the physical or metaphorical meaning of the elements and creating sculptures, performances and online phenomena. In the interview with Luca Büchler, he talks about his inspirations, working on new symbols and his personal relationship to pop.
When I looked up your Instagram, there was this one name that always popped up – who is Julian Luxford?
I’m still figuring that out. For now, it’s kind of an alter ego, an empty signifier, an avatar and, most of all, it’s a face filter on Instagram. Julian Luxford is a reflection of what you want them to be. The project started in my exhibition »Public Drama«, which took place in Denmark’s oldest shopping mall. That place is very important in relation to the history of Danish consumer culture. It interessed me to creat a performativ work that connects with the image of a seemingly functioning economy and in relation to the space - the shopping mall as frame for it.
Where does this urge of creating an alter ego come from?
The theme of the alter ego is a super old strategy in art, music and literature to explore other parts of one’s personality. I was interested to see if I could create a brand by framing part of my personality and make it perform at malls, in magazines, on billboards and so on. I was reading these marketing theories about empty signifiers and they say that if you push and increase the visibility of a character or concept enough, then people will recognize it and stop asking what and why. For me, Julian Luxford is a strategy and a kind of tool that I can work with to understand the mechanisms of commodification.
What was your inspiration for Julian Luxford?
Mostly Robin Hood and marketing strategies. Today, money is mostly invisible and we live in an imagined economy. And the figure of Robin Hood has become a pop cultural icon in a naive class war. I wanted to work with this idea of »What would Robin Hood do today?«. And that made me reflect on how to use this pop symbol to make art break into spaces of consumerism. Somehow I came across this professor named Julian Luxford, who became famous when he proved that Robin Hood isn’t just a fictional character but that there was a real person called Robin Hood. So, all this kind of made me choose this name. But the project has its own life. It’s an ongoing process. Right now, at the Kunsthal Aarhus BBC, you can see my exhibition »Letters to Julian Luxford«, in which five art historians are advising Julian Luxford on where to go from here. It’s another added layer outside the representational sphere of images.
Performances are also part of your artistic practice; the latest being »Hardcore Freedom«. What does the title stand for?
I came up with the title »Hardcore Freedom« while I was playing around with some words and logos. I found one of an American baseball team called freedom and then the logo of hardcore music. I copy pasted the two logos together and that kickstarted a meditation on Western perception of freedom and youth and how it’s one of the biggest and emptiest narratives of our time. It is very complicated to work with concepts of freedom because one’s own freedom will basically be at the expense of someone else. Precisely for this reason, the work does not come with an answer but rather raise a question: Why is the ideal of freedom often portrayed in this way in the popular culture I grew up with? Pretty fast it became clear that this must be the title for a performative work.
For me, the title does not suggest a celebration of extreme freedom. It’s a critical analysis of how youth, freedom and partying are illustrated in pop culture. Hardcore Freedom examines the double meaning of desire and loneliness / desperation and exhaustion. It’s a film set on which everyone is posing for the cameras and no-one really knows what they are doing, but they are playing their part.
What is your method and approach when working on performances?
I’m not a choreographer or a professional dancer, I’m a visual artist and I work with regards to that tradition. For a long time, I have been very interested in ‘social dance’, as opposed to professional dance. A big influence was Isabel Lewis’s talk »Dancing = Social data«, in which she talked about social dances as dances coded with the behavior of a generation. So, in general, I present some poses, attitudes, sound, concepts and ideas and let the performers take it from there.
Still, my process changes from work to work. »BURN!«, for example, is one thing and »Hardcore Freedom« is another. If we specifically talk about »Hardcore Freedom«, then it’s based around an installation that is framed by the space, including its elements of light, sound and smell. The bodies of the performers (including myself) take part in that scenario and change it over time. The performers are themselves in the piece and dress as they want. They come with their own backgrounds and experiences and choreograph their own solos. On top of that, we have workshop-based rehearsals before and an ongoing conversation during the exhibition. In that sense, it’s a very social process. And it’s conceptual in the way that the work is a lot about the internal dialogue between the performance and the audience. It’s more about creating images than movement.
You refer a lot to pop culture. But do you even like it?
The power of pop culture today is very extreme and I’m afraid of the commercial consequences of a world with no alternatives to pop culture/capitalism. At the same time, I find it fascinating. In my art practice, pop culture becomes a tool to capture the present and enhance it in order to see it for what it is.
Pop culture has a long, complicated history (as all history does) and I do not believe that I or any of us will ever understand its full impact. At the moment, I’m trying to better understand it’s dynamics by using some of its strategies. But to answer your question: Yes, I do like a lot of pop culture – and some of it I don’t like, of course. In general, my taste is very pop-oriented, that’s for sure.
I like the nostalgia and ambivalence towards that nostalgia in the work (and my work in general) and I think some of this is derived from peoples’ different and personal associations with the widely distributed symbols of pop culture. I grew up in Denmark and have lived there my whole life. So, my scope is influenced by that, of course. I am not trying to state anything universal about pop culture, but I am approaching it from the only perspective I own.
We all know pop art. Where do you see the difference between what you are doing and this historic art movement?
I don’t know, to be honest. I refer a lot to pop art, situationism, dada and relational aesthetics in my work, and I flirt with specific works as well. Today, however, the time and context is completely different. I think that’s the biggest difference. Pop culture - the material of pop art - has changed because society has changed. I enter into dialogue with works, reproduce a lot and use modified parts of other works, but I never copy. I often love copies. For example, Sturtevant is one of my favorite artists, but my project is very different. Pop art emerged with some questions that were needed at that time, and I’m trying my best to do so with regards to today’s questions.