There was a time when modern art sought and found its identity through a triple negation: thenegation of tradition and of history, the negation of ordinary bourgeois and petit-bourgeois living, and the negation of rationalist science, the short-comings of which were becoming ever ore
obvious. What had happened to the human experience of the world, to the inner life, to the interplay with the surrounding world and with others? Where was the courage to stand before the unknown, to experience loss of control and of mastery? Art was supposed to illuminate and grasp everything that the natural sciences would not know of; but in the very same move, it was to also direct its critique against an everyday living supposed to lack intensity, self-reflexivity, commitment andunpredictability. For the world picture that appeared through ordinary, mundane and everydayexperience was a lame picture, the result of numbed senses and impoverished insight.
This situation has since changed radically. The new sciences preoccupied with human intelligence and cognition do, to a larger extent than previously, emphasise emotionality and self-awareness as crucial and indispensable elements of so-called rational thinking. Human way of thinking and acting cannot be understood independently of the concrete situations in which it finds itself as a sensory-corporeal being. Its consciousness is not seen as a logical abstract machine with a firmly anchored identity. Rather than being viewed as a centralised and homogenous system, consciousness may now be described as a heterogeneous complexity consisting of identities or micro-identities. And the particular way in which consciousness grasps the world, or its way of engendering meaning, may be explained on the basis of that original experience which our moving and temporally determined body gives us through its daily encounter with things in the world. The world takes place both within us and outside us, it is comprehensible to us. But that is precisely because we have a body through which we may relate to it in a concrete manner. And the world cannot be conceived without our awareness of there being other people in it, other people that are also viewing it. The world is, as phenomenologists have long since put it, „a system with many entries". How would one otherwise explain that we have a history, that we constantly change, change our perception of ourselves and of our surroundings, while at the same time the world continues to appear in all its insisting and evident splendour?
And it is not only the new sciences that make possible another understanding of human kind. Society has changed, everyday living has changed, work has changed. What science is capable of observing in human kind generally, that it consists precisely of a plurality of identities adapted to certain 'situations' and 'worlds', seems hence today also to manifest itself in a modern version that seriously tests an inherent ability to adapt: the demands on the labour market for adaptation and flexibility have increased dramatically and belong to the both multifarious and stressful conditions of a society full of risks. But what is the function of art, when it cannot with the same conviction as previously define it's practice in opposition to science, which for its part is already well into breaking down the former sharp divides between so-called irrational and rational behaviour? And how is art to conceive its own political role, when it can no longer define itself in opposition to everyday living and everyday experience, which have long since surpassed art itself in their capacity for renewal, unpredictability, and risk?
Of course, there is no univocal answer, since art does not, and never has, fulfilled just one single role. But with the rediscovery of the experienced world as a structured and yet heterogeneous universe - a system with many entries, whose specific appearance depends upon the desire, interest and projects of each individual, but which depends just as much upon the communication between subjects - art has, together with the new sciences, been endowed with a wide-ranging field of exploration. The lifeworld, as the ordinary non-specialised experiential world is called, always unfolds within the tension between the immediate presence of the present and the irretrievable past, without however being either pure presence or pure history, without remaining either direct unmitigated experience of the immediately given or, on the other hand, crystallising into pure, universal knowledge. Within this world filled with tension and fissures, with places, spaces and times without any overarching unity, within this at the same time historical and general world, where forms and identities are constantly constructed and destroyed, redefined and mixed - today more than at any previous time in history - here science now finds material for its concepts and art finds material for its sensations and images. But for science to retain its rational scientificity intact and not become dogmatic communication of knowledge; for the works to retain their status as art and not become kitsch or power play: this is ensured through an openness towards experimentation alone.
References to material and to elements in movement are contained not only in the joint titles of Morten Stræde's most recent works: Lovestreams, Mudflow, Windfall, etc. Through their both formal and thing-like appearance, the sculptures contain analogies to elementary processes that we know from nature, and that our language, and hence our culture, constantly convert into images and other phenomena, both within and outside ourselves. Slowly fleeting, amorphous masses, quick currents of branching water, light shining through the foliage, wind-swept leaves, complicated twists of branches and twigs, sliding cliffs... In their portrayal of both unbroken movement, cessation and leaps, of flows as well as demarcations, of continuity and discontinuity, of modulations between light and darkness, in all this, these sculptures relate to the dynamic, figurative aspect of a natural world, to the conditions in the world that make it visible to anyone, with or without measuring instruments. And at first glance, this provides them with classical and romantic features.
Yet there are neither metaphors of growth, pantheistic philosophy of nature, or even imitation of nature at work here. Even if the presupposition is that nature creates forms and thus manifests itself as something other and more than just myriads of material particles, it is not the calm, rational and spirited nature of the Golden Age that is here invoked. Natural processes are neither more nor less formal and constructive, neither more nor less image-engendering, than the processes of culture and consciousness - advanced computer simulations show it -, but they are certainly completely without values, simply because nature does not have a view of itself and is thus without reflexivity. The history of nature and that of human kind do not follow each other; to reduce one 'history' to the other would either be rampant scepticism (nature is only what humans make it) or pure ideology (the course of history is the result of a 'natural' development). One could say that Morten Stræde's sculptures attempt to encircle a point where the obvious directness of the natural creation of forms (not to be confused with the 'good' organic growth of mainstream modernism) meet with the, as it were, spiritual values of reflection and thoughtfulness. A point where form does not yet seem permeated by expression, meaning and intention, where it, so to speak, appears as created of its own accord - regardless of its obviously constructive feature -, but where it on the other hand is already symbolic form, is significant, incarnates a 'value'. This point is difficult to strike; it can never be but an approximation. A rare place, that is, and yet everywhere present, actually part of the under-lying, of hypokeimenon as the ancients put it, that which language, concepts, and thoughts must invariably lean against in order to refer to a world outside of their own universe. This underlying element may actually be captured through the incursions of art, and through the power of that aesthetic faculty named sensibility: this is the awareness, grounded in an elementary corporeal experience and independent of conceptual categorisations, that a significant form appears in the material; this is the openness towards the figurative aspect of the world, an elementary awareness of the lifeworld. The sculptures of Morten Stræde are quite literally about such a sensibility. As such they constitute various roads into that lifeworld where abstract knowledge and concrete experience are never far from each other.
But so far only the most general has been said, that which pertains to the conscious balancing of these works between the formal and the concrete. This could, however, also apply to the work of a contemporary painter. What do these works express as sculptures and in what way are they sculptures at all? Sculptures have a special way of being present in space and in front of a viewer that often makes them easily distinguishable from painting on the one hand and architecture on the other. Since the 1950s, the conventional boundaries of the classical media have been persistently and meticulously challenged, and many artists have worked with the tension between the two-dimensional surface and the three-dimensional object by, for instance, letting colour mediate between surface and space. By now, it hardly makes sense to speak of a sculptural syntax or a sculptural 'logic'. Those ontological considerations were popular with modernist artists and theoreticians that wanted to cultivate the possibilities and boundaries of the media. A quick glance at a selection of Morten Stræde's works would immediately convince one that sculpture is today without any formal logic, that it may appear in any conceivable fashion, that it may be constructed according to all kinds of principles adapted to various purposes of expression, that it may be both an object and illusory, thing-like and imaginal, in process and formal: sculpture thus contains countless ways of seizing its viewer of which no single way is more fundamental and more sculptural than the others. Nonetheless, sculpture, like other art forms, has its possibilities and its limits that make it relevant to retain the label 'sculpture', not in a diluted, but rather in a neutral sense. Above all, sculpture does, to a higher degree than painting, provide an opportunity for direct presence, a directness which puts it in line with other things in space, with everyday objects like tables, chairs, and telephones. This objectival and, so to speak, 'extrinsic' tangibility has, in the course of time, been the object of much criticism, particularly during the romantic and post-romantic period, where art and subjectivity were closely knit entities. In a time like our own, however, where ordinary, concrete experience is about to loose its very mundane and habitual banality, and where a re-enchanted lifeworld may now stand forth in all its complexity, here the three-dimensional art forms seem to acquire a renewed relevance. Sculpture does hold this possibility of creating a connection between a physical, corporeally experienced object and an abstract space of imagination or signification.
If Morten Stræde's works actually approach that point where a significant and expressive form acquires a concrete and incontrovertible character, then it is as sculptures that they do it. Precisely because it is artificial all the way through, the work of art has to operate on two levels in order to work: It may have its 'motif', its theme, always an expression carried forward, a space that unfolds, possibly an insight to offer. But this space must permeate the form and material of the work. If the awareness is lost that the actual significance lies in the form and nowhere but here, then the work risks becoming an illustration of an idea. The work points towards something, it shapes or constructs space and sensation, but it is at the same time itself the object of contemplation and of sensation in time and space. These two levels are intimately woven together in the works that are hence never just 'conceptual' (but nor entirely free of conceptualisation). For the work of sculpture, this implies that a direct connection has to be created between its way of being a thing in space, its way of addressing the viewer, and the universe of signification that it opens.
For that same reason, Morten Stræde's works never have the character of being diminished or enlarged objects. They are 'sufficiently' large, both in relation the size of the viewer and in relation to the architectonic space. Riverrun stands directly on the floor and has a clear reference to a table function; Windfall hangs directly on the wall like a shelf; Landslide and the other smaller sculptures are situated on bases that bring them to a level where they become 'manageable', that is, where they lie within the immediate reach of the body; Doubleblind is literally and violently at eye level. This intimate adherence of the sculptures to an intimately experienced space, their discreet situation within a world of scales, things, and relations with which we are spontaneously at ease, has an effect of immediacy or of presence that one cannot fail to notice: The sculptures hereby acquire an obliquely insisting and incontrovertible presence as material, thing-like, physical, and spatial phenomena, a presence that grants them their elementary accessibility. Discretely insisting, precisely by not inviting the viewer to any particular encounter, since they do, despite their accessibility to corporeal experience, have absolutely no practical, social or other preconceived function. In that sense, they do, without hesitation or irony, assume their function as art, as objects of sensation, of reflection, of encounter, and of thoughtfulness.
The actual presence within the space of the viewer is therefore in the works of Morten Stræde accompanied by, and perhaps even determined by, a no less insisting rejection of any schematised appropriation. Quite symptomatically, his sculptures do not avail themselves of the, within contemporary art, so prevalent flirtation with apparent functionality (as seen through the use of furniture within installation art). They persist and admit to being in dialogue with a history of sculpture, even where they are most 'deconstructive' in their approach, almost as if the medium itself conveyed a demand for awareness of tradition. Amidst their twisted, broken, bulky, folded, doubled, decentered, split, condensed, disjunctive, and constructive appearance, amidst their weirdly minimal sensibility, they are marked by an unwieldy, but at times also humorous, abstinence. They hold the will to maintain their own space, they investigate the possibility of what is almost impossible: to keep something together in one place at a time in history without a centre, without a centralised power, without obvious and other than fleeting points of gathering, and with a strongly decaying public sphere. As a viewer, one senses this clearly: These works contain a consciousness of their own (im)possibility, and as sculptures they work both with and against movements that pull in another direction: they fight against general work-lessness and futility, against levelling of differences, against informatisation and digitalisation; but they do not fight this struggle without as the same time curiously following such trends all the way to the point where the medium of sculpture reaches a limit and encounters problems that are completely foreign the tradition of sculpture. Morten Stræde's sculptures mat hence claim to be at variance with both tradition and their own time, being both within and without. In the same way, they transgress the physical space in which they are situated. This is also linked with their attempt to join the concrete-spatial with the formal and thereby highlight the transition between corporeal-sensory experience and imagination. Their fundamental disjunctive, twisted and heterogeneous space is neither an image of human consciousness nor an illustration of the discoveries of the new sciences. But they act, both individually and as a whole, somewhat in the same way as does consciousness according to them. That is to say, as a collection of individually incongruous processes, whose identity or structure is tied to specific 'worlds' and concrete situations. To consciousness, such a 'world' may be a well-known situation like driving a car on a busy road; for the sculpture, the concrete situation is, however, the very locality itself, the unique structure of the sculpture itself and the unfolding of this structure through the encounter with a viewer. In marked difference from human consciousness (which does know of frequent breakdowns of these 'micro-identities', but which inevitably seeks stable situations), these sculptures, however, seek destabilisation and breakdown. Not so much because they are 'art', and that art is perhaps in an elementary sense the opposite of predictability, but because they seek to point out the very multiplicity of directions, spaces, times, connecting lines, perspectives of development, and mixtures, which characterise the history of nature itself, which characterise the lifeworld, in general, and the experience of our own unpredictable, complex, and risky contemporary history, in particular. And because they - also with nature as their 'model' - seek to grasp a local complexity within a time of globalisation that in certain respects, right across phenomena of migration and new cultural mixtures, tends towards the mono-cultural. In order to maintain an idea of complexity, and in order to actualise this within sculptural and spatial terms, more is required than merely a situation and physical presence. Morten Stræde's figures thus constantly project models of space that one cannot immediately enter into and which for that reason may be experienced as 'cool' and inaccessible. Such are probably the conditions for a sculpture that wants to be both here and there, a sculpture that wants to be both dramatically present and offer the possibility of loosing oneself. The sculpture is physical, but not mere physics. With Morten Stræde, sculpture also becomes history, a space without foundation, a space with fissures and many entries. And hence a space of transformation.
Art Critic, Headmaster at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts
Translated by Michael Münchow