A ship is taking shape in the nave of a former seaman’s church in central Copenhagen. Seven shipping containers are stacked high to the ceiling, and waves made of foam cascade outward from the prow. Off to the sides, colourful boxes jut out of the floor, as though they were precious cargo, lost at sea.
I’m greeted by 41-year-old artist Eske Kath, who has created the installation – aptly named The Ship – together with his partner Nanna Fabricius Øland, otherwise known as the singer Oh Land.
Covered in dust and grime, Kath has taken a break from shaping the foam waves to give me a tour.
“It’s a picture of humanity,” he says, his voice almost drowned out by the drilling above us. “It’s moving with a lot of momentum in one direction and not really trying to slow down.”
It’s a stark image, and one that won’t be lost on visitors when the installation opens in Nikolaj Kunsthal, the contemporary art gallery that occupies Sankt Nikolaj Kirke just off the walking street, Strøget.
Kath walks us to the entrance of the ground floor container, the ship’s engine room, shaped like the belly of a whale. He explains that it will have the feeling of being in a submarine whose pipes rumble and shake, with an opening at the end that only children will be able to squeeze through. Nikolaj Kunsthal presents art for the entire family, so Kath and Øland’s installation needs to connect with adults and children – it must be both playful and cerebral.
“Nanna is making the sounds, but it won’t be a soundtrack – we want it to be a physical part of the visuals so you can’t pull them apart. They stick together,” says Kath.
Up a set of stairs is the second floor container that is dimly lit and clad in mirror foil. Kath explains it is meant to represent society as it sees itself – smug in its self-satisfaction and unable to realise its limitations. Finally, the top container acts as the ship’s bridge, with tv screens showing the internal workings of the ship and ropes that, when pulled, play the church’s organ like a musical foghorn.
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But this container is askew, teetering over the edge and the sea below.
“This container represents how we see the world, and at some point, when it is no longer useful, it will fall off too. Everything that is no longer needed by society is pushed off the ship. Things like myths and old ideas about how the world worked. Then new ideas will arrive, and a new container will take over,” Kath explains.
“You will get a sense that the ship is ploughing past these floating containers, old ideas that it lost the last time it went around. It’s sort of a picture of where we are right now, hitting our old ideas and coming full circle.”
The end of humanity
The tense relationship between humankind and the natural world is the focus of much of Kath’s work. A 2003 graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, he is recognised for his stylised paintings of apocalyptic scenes and natural disasters in which colourful swirling landscapes engulf houses. The houses are a recurring symbol in his work, and represent anything relating to humanity – their sharp edges contrasting with the soft contours of the natural world.
“In the beginning, it was more symbolic – I wanted to talk about inner turmoil in a country like Denmark, where we don’t have natural disasters. But even though the old work was abstract, the audience didn’t always think that, and I got tired of being ‘the natural disaster painter’. Many people took it literally, that they were about natural disasters, but that wasn’t really the original idea.”
The Ship is a mix of Kath and Øland’s ideas, and he repeatedly emphasises that it’s not meant to be read a certain way. And yet there are some inescapable metaphors. He explains that by making the engine room feel like the belly of a whale, it communicates that humanity is driven more by its animalism than its rationality.
“You can see in my work that although we try to move away from nature, we are still swallowed by it. We cannot remove ourselves from it – whether we like it or not, nature is always there,” he says.
“When we talk about global warming, we talk about it being the end of the world. But it’s not the end of the world – it’s the end of humanity.”
Kath and Øland have been working on the immersive piece for more than a year, coinciding with their move back to Denmark from New York and the birth of their first child. Their initial inspiration came from a conversation they had with their movers, who explained that most people could fit their entire life’s possessions into one 20-foot shipping container.
He explains that Øland sees the containers as representing children – we can equip them with knowledge and tools, but we are helpless to change the conditions they face at sea.
“Having a child changed everything,” says Kath. “We used to have complete freedom. We saw each other maybe half the year if we were lucky, and now it’s more like a traditional family. I definitely wouldn’t be without it. I don’t miss all the freedom. When I did my last show, it was a completely new way of working, from morning until he got back from kindergarten. That worked out – just the fact that I couldn’t work all the time made working more interesting. And having a perspective that some things are even more important than working.”
Standing in the middle of the church in the midst of the building site, I try to visualise the final exhibition and wonder whether the audience will pick up on Kath and Øland’s metaphors. Will the children squeezing out of the engine room understand the message that while adults are hard to change, children can escape their preordained paths? How will they respond to the contrast between the installation’s engaging visual aesthetic and the pessimistic worldview that informed it? Will they pick up on what Kath and Øland are saying about society, with their rudderless container ship forever ploughing on into the distance?
“It is really hard to change course, and we are so close to getting to a point where we can’t stop it with the technology that we have,” Kath says, referring to the fight against climate change.
“It’s a picture of that, but without trying to say we are all doomed. I don’t know any more than most people. I am concerned of course. When we got this idea, we thought of the earth as a spaceship just floating in space. There is a lot of talk of abandoning this planet and taking up sanctuary on another. But it is much easier to save the ship that you are on. It’s like being on the Titanic, heading toward the iceberg, and looking for another ship on the horizon instead of steering away. It’s just a weird mentality. But it’s also not very surprising. Humanity has never really changed direction in a sense, we have just moved forward and seen our time as the pinnacle of human evolution. And now we are seeing that there is a natural limit to where we can go.”
The opportunity of disaster
Kath brings many of his recurring symbols to the installation. There’s the sunrise on the Eastern horizon, and the glowing houses attached to an anchor chain running through the second floor, like a bunch of mussels.
But one character is conspicuous by his absence: Namazu, the giant catfish, which started appearing in Kath’s paintings around 2008. In Japanese folklore, Namazu lived in the mud beneath the islands and caused earthquakes when he wriggled about.
After a major earthquake shook Japan in the 18th century, Namazu was depicted in woodcuts trying to make amends by forcing wealthy people to literally excrete money to help the poor rebuild. Namazu recognised he was responsible, but he didn’t mean to do harm – he just couldn’t help doing what catfish do.
“The Japanese saw natural disasters as natural and not always bad, because they allow us to rebuild and move forward. But in Europe, we saw these events as punishment by the gods – we are much more self-centred,” says Kath.
In The Ship, Kath seems to have discarded Namazu in much the same way that the containers that float around us have been shed by the ship – Namazu is no longer useful, at least not for this exhibition.
I have a thought – if we are having such difficulty taking action on climate change despite all the science telling us we are approaching disaster, maybe mythology could help? Maybe’s it’s myths like Namazu that have helped make Japanese society so highly organised that it was able to bounce back so effectively from catastrophes like the 2011 tsunami.
But Kath isn’t convinced.
“I see why we need myths, but I am too embedded in the western rational way of thinking. I am very interested in natural sciences. What I really like is when science makes discoveries that change what we thought was true – I love it when things get opened up. So in that sense, I like when things are connected to rational thinking but can surprise you. When there is mystery. The worst thing that could happen would be finding the end-all answer to everything. That would be so tragic. And still I love the search for it. I love the scientific search for the one rational answer. I just hope we don’t find it.”
The next generation
The development of Kath’s work suggests a change of perspective in recent years. While earlier paintings depicted catastrophic scenes, his newer work appears to show Earth after the disaster has passed. The houses are embedded in eroded and windswept landscapes, and hidden beneath an overgrowth of green plants. The message is that life will go on, even if it is without humans.
That’s the worst-case scenario. But if we are to develop a more sustainable relationship with our planet, our future is in the hands of the youngest members of the audience.
“I want to try and connect with more hopeful thoughts. This is a show for the whole family. And there is still reason to be hopeful. Sure, it doesn’t look like we are going to do what is needed. So let’s hope that this new generation will.” M
Eske Kath & Oh land
Nikolaj Kunsthal / nikolajkunsthal.dk
August 23 – January 7, 2018