In 1997, Danish painter Michael Kvium gave his exhibition at Aarhus Art Museum the title Circus Humanus (The Human Circus). The title encapsulated the performative themes of his work, which delights and disturbs the viewer who is confronted with grotesque performers. 20 years on, Kvium returns with new paintings, sculptures and film in Circus Europa, which presents his audience once again with the uncanny bodies he has become known for.
Kvium’s distinctive style has made him a standout figure in contemporary Danish art ever since his breakthrough in performance art and film with the performance group Værst in the 1970s and 80s. His figurative paintings satirise the grotesque nature of humanity and frequently utilise black humour, absurdity, and even disgust to elicit strong reactions from its viewers: grossly fleshly figures are surrounded by symbolic objects, making eye contact with the viewer and confronting them with grotesque elements of themselves.
Over the past 20 years, Kvium’s work has often returned to the idea of the circus through his visualisation of entertainers and performers. At Circus Humanus, Kvium played with the innate and grim fascination we experience when looking at things that unsettle us. There’s a childish element to gawking at dancing ponies, contortionists, clowns, sword swallowers. But the circus as a concept is not limited to nostalgia. In a world of reality TV, big brother, gossip rags, and even the ‘political circus’, we are fascinated by looking at things we ought to avoid. And so it only seems appropriate for Kvium to return to the idea of humanity’s sadistic voyeurism, as seen through the prism of the tragicomedy of modern politics.
A confrontational experience
Dea Antonsen, curator at Arken, describes the symbolic and theatrical effect of the circus in his latest exhibition.
“The circus has become Kvium’s way of visualising contemporary times and the political reality. This exhibition is bigger than just the paintings – it is the creation of a whole theatrical universe, where, as a viewer, you experience a kind of display of a circus. It is a reimagining of a circus from the olden days – a place where you would go to experience a satirical vision of reality.”
Antonsen makes clear that the exhibition is not limited to solely what is hanging on the walls, and that Kvium has also worked closely with the museum in the creation of the entire exhibition space.
“Viewers will see his characters come to life through silicon sculptures and two films made especially for the exhibition. Taken together, they stage the circus that the viewer is invited to engage with. It is a performative approach that the audience will move through, and the experience will shift from room to room. It will be an experience in time and space.”
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Kvium hasn’t merely produced canvases and handed them off to Antonsen to arrange on the wall. Rather, he has envisioned his paintings as part of a wider whole, much as performers are only part of the wider confusion and magic of a circus.
“Kvium has produced everything,” she says. “The artist had a model of our exhibition space with him in his studio and produced everything for each room, tailored to the situation of each space. Our audience will feel this engagement when they experience it.”
Not wanting to give too much away – Kvium wants visitors to be in the dark about what they will experience – Antonsen describes how they worked to maximise the confrontational power of Kvium’s figures via the theatrical setting of the total installation.
“The figures in Kvium’s work perform for the audience; they hold your gaze and confront you. They ask us: what do you feel? What do you recognise? You can’t avoid them, especially in this kind of space. These deformed or monstrous figures – both human and non-human in their nakedness – relate to our sense of our inner selves. They dredge up the monster inside us, expose authority figures, or in modern life in general. They draw attention to the ugly side of life. Not to point a finger, not to say what the right way is, but to raise questions about the human experience.”
Unable to avert our eyes
Kvium’s utilisation of stunningly beautiful painting skills to depict something nasty is often regarded as paradoxical, but Antonsen explains how this cutting satirical style belies his classical influence. Though some critics have been repulsed, Antonsen notes that the powerful use of humour and detailed brushwork draw us closer to recognising the ugliness beneath the surface.
“Kvium is inspired by the baroque masters, whose work was also quite grotesque. They would paint elaborate, exquisite paintings, often in churches, but they hid critique within these works, with some kind of ugliness subtly prodding a reaction from the viewer.”
Though subtle may not be an accurate descriptor for Kvium’s work, there is certainly more than a nod to the kinds of epic baroque paintings that unite ugliness and beauty to prove our morbid fascination with the cruel and the uncanny. Because no matter the contortions, the dangers of sword-swallowing, and the uncanny face paint of clowns, we go to the circus because we enjoy it – because we can’t look away.
With Kvium’s work, it’s impossible to be a passive spectator, so Circus Europa promises to be more than merely an exhibition, but a kind of theatrical event. His paintings speak to us with taboos and often with cruelty, but also with their humanity and even their beauty. M