Remembering the Danish artist who died in June, aged 37
The first work I encountered by Emil Westman Hertz was a large, painstakingly dense ink drawing titled The Brave New City. It was made in 2008, the year that Westman Hertz graduated from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen. The work depicts a futuristic yet organic urban landscape where buildings resemble free growing offshoots connected through vain-like channels – a hi-tech anthill in which the micro is tied to the macro and to be brave is not to reject what once was, but having the will to carry it forward.
Westman Hertz passed away in June, aged 37. I was fortunate enough to know him, and his brilliant artistic mind produced work that I will always return to – work that should have reached far beyond the borders of our small country and that should have formed only part of a much longer career.
Westman Hertz’s work captured the body in constant transformation – perhaps because his own suffered from long-term illness and he experienced his own body as a shape that slowly shifted. He saw the gradual change within repetition as a fundamental condition, exploring how shapes, symbols, materials and imagery emanate. He worked in drawing, collage, bronze casting and configurations of made and found objects, and his installations were orderly, almost museological in their approach, establishing anatomical affiliations and relationships.
Exploring the constant break down and rebuilding of the body, for Westman Hertz this often came through the recuperation and transformation of existing material. A work such as Medicinlinjer, 2014 (Medicine Lines, 2014), can be understood as a body in many parts, with each row numbered cartographically. Other works depict environments or ecosystems, such as Prinsens Have, 2014 (The Prince's Garden, 2014), a reference to Westman Hertz’s own garden. Both pieces involve chaotic, natural materials and found objects placed into systematic formations, conveying the sense of something fleeting or wild being held together by an imposed exterior structure.
In some respects Westman Hertz’s work was dictated by the materials he found in his immediate surroundings: branches from his garden and beeswax from his hives, to plaster, cement, bronze and medicine packaging. Yet his work covered enormous distances, even if for years he could not, and related to the ways in which magical and spiritual properties could be bestowed upon worldly objects: he was informed by the trips he made to Africa as a child and a young man: to a sculptural tradition that saw the composition of objects dictated by their materials; to his experience of giant termite mounds, crisscrossed with underground systems of burrows.
Along with this spiritual iconography, a number of Westman Hertz’s sculptures attempted to capture fluid, developing forms, as when he cast branches or stems for the work Nine of Wands (2015), freezing a moment in time and giving transient materials a new powerful form through which impermanence was lifted into eternity. The title alludes to the ‘Nine of Wands’ tarot card, which depicts a wounded warrior who is destined to rise again. Westman Hertz’s interest in ethnography, too, found its way into his work (before becoming an artist, he pursued a degree in Inuit and Arctic studies) but his own obsession with the ways in which sculptural and spiritual traditions have travelled across huge distances, time and cultural history, makes it hard to accuse him of exoticizing foreign cultures, rather his work displays strong knowledge about and identification with these cultures.
The last exhibition that Westman Hertz worked on before he passed away took the title ‘Under Bjerget’ (the English translation would be ‘At the foot of the mountain’). It is on view at Bornholms Kunstmuseum on the remote Danish island of Bornholm until 21 August, now both an exhibition of, and a memorial to, the artist. The title is a reference to the artist’s former home on a cliff in the small coastal village of Gudhjem, and Ernest Hemingway's short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (1936), in which the protagonist, Harry, camps with his wife at the foot of Africa's highest mountain. In this distant setting, Harry’s memories start to force their way back from his subconscious. Gradually, reality mixes with imagination and he falls into a dream state where his body lifts from the ground and travels to the top of Kilimanjaro. His resting place at the foot of the mountain becomes an infinite space of past, present, and future, and his small shelter – a tent, a bed – becomes the passageway between the three.
Speaking to Westman Hertz in the end of April before he began installing, he told me that the exhibition would be divided in two parts. One half a camp where he would position a configuration of found and sculpted objects – amongst them hogweed stems cast into staffs or sceptres – around a tent; the other a collection of everything from the camp that remained after it was taken down. As in Hemingway's story, it made me think of the exhibition is an image of parallel time, where the volatile and the restrained are interdependent, and where the spiritual encompasses the bodily.
Dream visions and voyages to foreign worlds are present themes in earlier works as well, ‘De Smukke Drømmes Lagune’ (The Lagoon of Beautiful Dreams, 2013) for example, in which Westman Hertz also made reference to the American quantum physicist David Finkelstein, who suggested that particles could exist simultaneously in two places at once, a theory that opens up the question of parallel universes. Like Hemingway’s Harry, this simultaneity could allow us to reside concurrently: to span the threshold between the real and the imagined, with one foot in each world. It is within this framework of discovery, hallucination, and dream that much of Westman Hertz’s work is constructed, one that sees the physical body propelled through time and space. While on the one hand it is a reference to a journey and to expansion, on the other, it is an exploration of the body’s volatility.
The body's state of constant disintegration and reconstruction is present in a series of wax heads that Westman Hertz produced over a number of years. The heads are organically constructed within beehives, where the artist placed faceless shapes which were then slowly build up by bees, as if they were honeycombs. Many of the heads take the name ‘Face of Another’, a reference to Kōbō Abe's novel The Face of Another from 1964, within which the protagonist has a new face surgically grafted onto his, following an accident – an operation that leaves him with new view of the world and a newfound freedom.
In Westman Hertz’s work, there is a persistent desire for a reach and a scope that is unlimited. When he chose to start from the smallest part, the branch he found in his garden or the bee that landed on his hive, it meant that the space to be filled in order to assemble a whole body and a whole world was enormous, but it is nevertheless what he approximated through his oeuvre, one that is now heartbreakingly complete. And he will be remembered for a practice that embraced material volatility, the body's impermanence and the ability for a dream to transcend all.
Emil Westman Hertz was born in 1978 and died in 2016. He lived and worked in Gudhjem and Copenhagen, Denmark. He studied at the Institute of Eskimology at the University of Copenhagen (1999-2000) and received his MA from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (2008). Major solo exhibitions include Holstebro Kunstmuseum, Holstebro (2013) and Horsens Kunstmuseum, Horsens (2014). Among awards he has received The Danish Art Foundation's 3 Year Work Grant (2012) and Niels Wessel Bagge's Art Grant (2013). In 2014 he was rewarded Horsens Kunstmuseums Venners Kunstnerpris (Horsens's Art museum's Friends' Art Prize). In 2014 he received ARKENs Rejselegat (ARKEN's travel grant).
Main image: Emil Westman Hertz, The Brave New Cities, 2011. Courtesy: Galleri Susanne Ottesen, Copenhagen
Helga Christoffersen is Assistant Curator at the New Museum in New York where she was part of the curatorial team for ‘The Keeper’ (2016), ‘Nicole Eisenman: Al-ugh-ries’ (2016), the third New Museum Triennial, ‘Surround Audience’ (2015), and ‘Here and Elsewhere’ (2014). She has curated solo exhibitions with Cally Spooner (2016), Eva Papamargariti (2016), Leonor Antunes (2015), Lili Reynaud-Dewar (2014), David Horvitz (2014) and Hannah Sawtell (2014). Previously she was Assistant Curator of the 55th Venice Biennale, ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ in 2013 and coordinator of the Danish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. Currently she is working on upcoming solo shows of Pipilotti Rist and Cheng Ran.