Knut Henrik Henriksen
Geometric conundrums; architecture, sculpture and a ‘shy, friendly giant’
‘The size range of useless three-dimensional things is a continuum between the monument and the ornament’, wrote Robert Morris in 1966.1 ‘Sculpture’, he went on to say, ‘has generally been thought of as those objects not at the polarities but falling between.’ For Knut Henrik Henriksen, a Norwegian artist based in Berlin, it is precisely at these extremes that he chooses to site his work, settling on the ambiguous divide between sculpture and architecture at one extreme, or between sculpture and model at the other.
Take his contribution to ‘Berlin North’, a group exhibition of Scandinavian artists at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof last year. In the generous entrance hall, which usually affords views into the wide, vaulted exhibition hall with its permanent collection of recent sculptural heavyweights – Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Long and Mario Merz – Henriksen built a formidable wall stretching from floor to ceiling, from side to side. Any severity this image suggests, however, should at once be tempered by a reference to the material used: plank upon plank of pale, knotty pine. With it’s Ikea-comes-to-the-museum presence, it seemed like an ironic emblem for this exhibition, providing all the clichéd woody Nordic realism its curators could have hoped for. For the exhibition’s permanently jaded Berlin art audience it read as a criticism of the museum’s hired collection of late 20th-century statements. Screening them off from view was seen as a radical gesture, replacing their bombast with an expansive, contemporary irreverence.
For Henriksen, however, the point of this work was not curatorial or institutional politics but rather the curious architectural specifics of its location, as the title Architectural Doubts (2004) implies. It was only on seeing the reverse side of this piece that its dichotomous nature was revealed: from the front, the roof was steeply pitched, but from the back it arched gently, slotting perfectly into the vaulted ceiling of the exhibition hall. The point of connection between these two different spaces, which Henriksen termed ‘a rather unclear architectonic situation, where two different spaces with different roofs meet, almost without mediation’,2 was at once obscured and highlighted by his construct. The architectural anomalies resulted from the building’s different uses throughout its history, from railway station to transport museum to contemporary art museum, and it is with this history, inscribed in the building’s very walls, that Henriksen engages. It is an affectionate appreciation, emphasized by the intimate approachability of the wooden panels, which lend it a comfortable familiarity despite its immense scale.
Crucially, Henriksen describes the work not as an ‘intervention’ but as an independent sculpture, whose scale and dimensions were determined by its site. One of the aspects Morris pinpoints as a feature of the monumental is ‘the quality of publicness [which] is attained in proportion as the size increases in relation to oneself’. While Henriksen’s 15-metre-high structure is undeniably public, by spanning the museum’s walls and preventing the audience from freely navigating around it (the other side could be seen only by walking first through another part of the museum to approach it from the back), it relinquishes some of its monumentality. Modest in intentions and means, it is a rather shy, if friendly, giant.
In the artist’s Kreuzberg studio the floor and tables are littered with little structures, cunning geometrical conundrums crafted from any number of materials readily available in your local DIY centre: cork, carpeting, Foamcore, balsa wood or textured tiles and wood veneers of questionable taste. According to Morris’ mode of classification these would certainly come under ‘ornament’, but with their flimsy materials and provisional nature they appeal to the status of ‘model’, thereby overcoming their intrinsic intimacy of scale by suggesting visions of futuristic cityscapes or gravity-defying public sculptures in the spatially undefined mind of the viewer. These are playful, companionable objects, but their frivolity is countered by the rigorous mathematical purpose that decides their forms. With a rigid economy, standard-size sheets are divided through a series of single cuts, halving, halving and halving again; then the pieces are reassembled with a radical new logic. Form is a function of rational investigation, while the objects are stand-ins for the idea of sculpture-in-itself. Existing at an ornamental scale while projecting monumentality, they oscillate between Morris’ two poles to suggest a speculation on the possibilities (as much as the impossibilities) of sculpture – an ongoing interest in the nature of ‘useless three-dimensional things’.
1 Robert Morris, ‘Notes on Sculpture, Part II’, Artforum, vol. 5, no. 2, October 1966
2 ‘Knut Henrik Henriksen in Conversation with Raimar Stange’, Berlin North, National Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2004
First published in Issue 90