Janne Villadsen sits down with Danish artist Alexander Tovborg to discuss his ambitious vision to rewrite his continent's past, through the prism of faith and mythology
Sitting across from Alexander Tovborg, I find myself on the verge of being revolutionised. The Danish artist is a man on a mission to recreate European history, and he’s making it happen through three solo shows taking place in Copenhagen, Athens and LA respectively. 33-year-old Tovborg stands out from the crowd when it comes to young artists in the Scandinavian art scene right now; in a time when the younger generation is attempting more and more ardently to cut loose from religion, mythology and history, with a view to re-establishing itself in a post-factual society where feelings rule the creative class, he is resolute in following a different path. Through painting, drawing, sculpture and performance, he creates in the nexus between religion and faith.
Tovborg’s work examines the past as a means of trying to understand the present. He doesn’t summon any particular denomination, but his work centres on religion and myths; by diving into religious stories, participating in religious ceremonies and travelling to holy places, Tovborg creates what he describes as a “commenting art” – a reminder of our historic origin.
Just four months after graduating from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 2010, he had his first solo exhibition in renowned Danish gallery Nicolai Wallner, reconstructing the space as a spiritual landscape. Since then, he’s had shows in cities from New York and Stuttgart to Dublin and Berlin, and currently finds himself in the midst of his most ambitious project yet, with three solo exhibitions in a row: two simultaneously, at the Copenhagen museum Gl. Strand and State of Concept in Athens, and an upcoming show at Blum & Poe in LA, opening November 12.
These shows mark the beginning of the artist’s future project to recreate Europe's history. The Knight of Faith, in Copenhagen, finds its central theme in the myth of Noah’s Ark, represented by a symbolic full-size bouncy castle which refers to the ongoing European dilemma – who is allowed in, and who is shut out? Meanwhile The Rape of Europha, in Athens, consists of a series of drawings centred on the myth of the Phoenician Princess Europha, in which Tovborg places Europe in a position of power and reflects on the state of the region. For his upcoming show in LA, titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Tovborg has worked with paint – vivid, large-scale acrylic, watercolour crayon, bronze leaf and felt on wooden panel – to formulate a general parabola of good and evil. We sat down with Tovborg to find out more.
On the connections between the shows…
“What I’m doing is a trilogy. First, comes the Flood, then the actual atrocity or re-establishment of the power structure, and the latter is the absolute zero. It is the revolution. It is the union between heaven and hell. Peace on Earth, that allows us to start over. That’s why the last show is entitled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I made a wedding parade with all the wedding guests that I imagine Heaven and Hell would invite to their wedding; anything that usually symbolises good and evil in Western culture. The main piece is a sort of altarpiece of three works, where Hitler, being the evil, marries Jesus, representing the good.”
On the point of interest for faith and the religious…
“I believe it to be a human instinct to be interested in the source of our existence. I think we’ve all been there, maybe just considering for a split second whether one believed or not. Why are we here, what’s the meaning behind it? And so it all began with me as well, but it quickly shifted from being about me to being a question about all of us. What makes people act the way we do, and how has history created that?”
On the purpose of his art…
“Art, to me, is one of the only forms of culture not enslaved by anything. It’s free. You can do anything. Art can’t be censored; it’s an autonomous concept, continually testing limitations. You can be part of expanding peoples’ minds; you can witness the time you belong to, communicating what’s going on to people who may not have much knowledge about what’s happening. That might be the reason why I make art.”
On the next step…
“History keeps repeating itself. And what can we do about that? What we can do is rethink history. Humans haven't existed for very long, so maybe there’s a need for us to seek to redefine ourselves. Try creating a new alphabet, a new imagery. I’m going to paint a new myth for Europe – a long sail of 60 metres from the Danish ship 'George Stage' with images from Europe’s history.
I only know where it starts, and that’s 'The Rape of Europha'. I still don’t know what the sail will feature, but I’m going to travel around Europe, visit places, read about places and talk to people. I expect this project to be ongoing for an incredibly long time. No-one is waiting for it, it hasn’t been created with one particular exhibition or setting in mind. I’m creating this for the history.”