Articles and Features

In Conversation with Artist Pernille Egeskov and Curator Claire Gould

Installation view of MAN-MAID-NATURE at Pop-Up Contemporary, Copenhagen.
Installation view of MAN-MAID-NATURE at Pop-Up Contemporary, Copenhagen.

By Benedetta Ricci

“My big dream was to test the flexibility of the concept: that it can take place anywhere, anytime. Across borders!”

Pernille Egeskov

This week we had the opportunity to speak with artist Pernille Egeskov, founder of Pop-Up Contemporary, and Claire Gould, guest curator of the 10th edition of the initiative with the exhibition MAN-MAID-NATURE. We talked about the ‘pop-up’ format, the concept behind the exhibition, the hurdles due to the current global pandemic, and much more.

“Having been shaped, re-purposed or re-appropriated in some way by the artists, each material also undergoes its own intrinsic transformation over time. It is as if the material and nature have their own agenda—something the artist cannot fully control.”

Claire Gould

Pop-Up Contemporary is a mobile exhibition-concept, which can “pop up” anywhere. Can you tell us a bit more about the concept? How did you come up with the idea and how has the Pop-Up Contemporary experience been so far?

Pernille: I started Pop-Up Contemporary in 2009 during the recession in Denmark. Whilst biking through Copenhagen I saw all the empty shop spaces everywhere and thought I must be able to use this opportunity for something! I got the idea to arrange contemporary art exhibitions in different empty shops. To short-term rent a room for about a month and see what it could bring.

I started curating the exhibitions myself, across the artistic groupings that were at that time, and which, due to the financial crisis, were completely open to new ideas. My idea and aim was to create a non-profit artistic experimentarium for artists on art’s own terms.
As this evolved I also started inviting guest curators.

Because it is a ‘pop-up,’ the location always changes. In addition, I place a high value on the graphic identity and that a high-quality catalogue is printed, which is free for our audience. The catalogue becomes in a way the “house” the exhibition takes place in. I only do these exhibitions about once a year. I am an artist myself, so I also need time to do my own work too.

I love the freedom of organizing Pop-Up Contemporary exhibitions, the flexibility and dynamic nature of it. For me, it’s a creative and liberating process.
The Internet and social media are of course a prerequisite for communicating quickly and widely to the audience what and where there is now a Pop-Up Contemporary exhibition. Especially when it happens so relatively rarely. But it makes it possible to reach out both to the art professionals but also just people from the street.

Tell us about yourselves and the collaboration between you two: how and when did your paths cross?

Pernille: My big dream was to test the flexibility of the concept: that it can take place anywhere, anytime. Across borders! I met Claire Gould about 2 years ago, quite randomly at a friend’s celebration, where we sat at the same table, and we had such good conversations: I told her about my concept, and I invited her to join and suddenly it was clear, that with Claire and her experience from the museum world (at the time Claire was working as a Curator at Helsinki Art Museum, where she had been working since 2005.) it was possible to unfold the dream of being able to cross borders but also to have artists from different countries participating. The exhibition idea MAN-MAID-NATURE was born: A Nordic tour with Nordic artists!

Installation view of MAN-MAID-NATURE at Pop-Up Contemporary, Copenhagen.
Installation view of MAN-MAID-NATURE at Pop-Up Contemporary, Copenhagen.

To celebrate its 10th edition, Pop-Up Contemporary presents MAN-MAID-NATURE, an exhibition showcasing six Nordic artists from Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. Challenging the apparent contradiction between nature and humanity, MAN-MAID-NATURE ultimately reveals their interdependency.
Can you explain the idea behind the exhibition and how the artists’ creative practices complement each other?

Claire: The works in MAN-MAID-NATURE embrace and challenge the ‘nature’ of materials. The works are very much in dialogue, and complement each other on many levels, in terms of intention, aesthetic characteristics and materiality of both the ‘man-made’ but also materials sourced from nature.

Materials in the works also convey complex layers, passages, or cycles of time. They also carry a history, or memory, become objects, connecting them to human relationships and actions, shaped by those who have owned, nurtured, shaped, coloured by them—from organisms in continual cycles (Silas Inoue), from textiles that sculpturally dyed and folded (Charlotte Walentin) to natural raw clay that is shaped to inhabit the gallery environments and left to dry or crack over time (Minna Kangasmaa), from the fleeting moments captured in glass blowing (Renata Jakowleff), from chewed chewing gum collected over time (Sari Koski-Vähälä) to the trunk of a tree licked by deers in woodland (Pernille Egeskov).

In this regard, the works express how art transforms nature and how nature transforms art in an ever-re-configuring state of symbiosis. So you are right, there is a kind of interdependency.

Despite the countless challenges due to the current global pandemic, after “popping up” in Copenhagen, this week MAN-MAID-NATURE has opened its doors in Helsinki, as the second stop-over of a tour across the Nordic countries. How have you been dealing with the hurdles of such uncertain times?

Pernille and Claire: MAN-MAID-NATURE was originally scheduled for spring 2020, but due to the pandemic we had to postpone. As the situation seemed to have improved last autumn we started re-planning locations and a new schedule. During these uncertain times all the artists, curators, our graphic designer, the spaces that we rented, the transportation companies, funders and supporters, have all had to remain patient and tolerant to last-minute cancellations and changes. As a non-profit, we felt lucky that our funders have also been flexible and understanding about all the postponements and change of plans along the way.

By the time we were scheduled to show in Copenhagen this February, another lockdown came into force. However, as a private initiative we were allowed to be a max. of five people in the gallery at one time. So although we could not have an opening event and though we were not allowed to keep the gallery open, we enabled visitors to book online slots for private viewings. This meant we had to dedicate a lot of time to greeting guests in masks and whilst respecting social distancing. This was naturally intensive, yet on the other hand a highly rewarding experience.

Then in February, when we were planning to take the exhibition to Ping Pong Gallery in Malmö, the Swedish restrictions were tightened. Although we could have had the artworks transported it became too unclear as to whether we and the artists would be able to travel to Malmö to install the exhibition. So we had to cancel. So actually, Helsinki was actually planned to be the third and final leg of the tour.

Now we are in Helsinki at Gallery LOKAL and very much hope the Finnish audience will still come and see the exhibition. If nothing else they can at least view it as a 3D tour created by ARTLAND.

Pernille, MAN-MAID-NATURE features two artworks created by you: Roots and Man-Maid-Nature – the latter titled after the name of the exhibition. How do they express the interrelation between nature and humanity? Can you describe your works and tell us about your own creative process and choice of materials?

Pernille: My work Man-Maid-Nature is a tree trunk: it is cut off, you see 2 rusty nails on top of it. The bark is missing. It has obviously lost its ability to grow. In nature, such a tree would long ago be dead. But here it has got wildly powerful branched roots, which spreads across the floor.

The reason the tree is debarked is due to conservation purposes Deers need salt. If they cannot find it directly from the nature they become ill. Therefore humans offer them salt. This tree originally had a salt block mounted on top of it (fixed by the two nails). When it rained the salt ran down the trunk and the deers came by to lick the salt away. After about 30 years of the deers licking the salt from it, the tree suddenly appears as something new. A treasure in itself. Or it is as if we now see the bone of the tree. That is why I have added these powerful roots: a contradictory relationship where death and a new purpose meet. Where human and nature need/help each other. It is of course entirely up to each viewer to establish their own interpretation of this. I just like the idea that just because things did not end as they were immediately predestined to, something else unexpected and fine may come out of it …

In my work, I am preoccupied with using things with traces of lived life. Often it is objects and traces of our own everyday lives. In this case, I have found this licked tree, which testifies to the community between nature and mankind. But it is also a concrete picture of timeliness. On how things can evolve and change. I have known this tree for 25 years – it has been in a forest near my home – but it was only two years ago its appearance suddenly changed into what you see now. When Claire and I got the title for the exhibition, I thought; Now is the time to use this tree!

Pernille Egeskov, Man-Maid-Nature, 2021
Pernille Egeskov, Man-Maid-Nature, 2021

Roots, is the other work I have made for this exhibition: The installation incorporates an old child’s dress on a plastic hanger. Hanging on a nail at a height suitable for a child, the hanger is decorated with figures from Disney’s Bambi.
On the floor are two shapes made of compressed grass. They are arranged in a way reminiscent of how a child might place their feet – or of an impossible pair of shoes. We see no specific child, but one senses the presence of a small figure or being.
Or perhaps it is the presence of absence we see?
In any case, this work is about roots in a different way: In this work, the title Roots is an open question about what roots we come from and how we fulfil these?

When I work with readymades, I have the objects that I find lying around in my studio for a long time. Different things/objects are juxtaposed and tested. But it takes a very long time to notice what it is that is at stake. It is almost as if I am slowly evoking a photograph in which the meanings are slowly being evoked in my consciousness.

Pernille Egeskov, Roots, 2021
Pernille Egeskov, Roots, 2021

Due to both the substitution of some of the works and the display in various pop-up venues, MAN-MAID-NATURE is an exhibition in constant evolution. Claire, has this aspect affected your curatorial choices? If yes, how?

Claire: Evolution is one way to describe it, but the works also embrace notions of transition, unstable conditions, transformation, re-growth, rebirth, renewal, and also re-appropriation. Having been shaped, re-purposed or re-appropriated in some way by the artists, each material also undergoes its own intrinsic transformation over time. It is as if the material and nature have their own agenda—something the artist cannot fully control.

This can be seen in, for example, Pernille Egeskov’s Man-Maid-Nature (2021) which has been transformed by both man, animals and nature over time, revealing cracks as the wood dries out when taken from its natural and living environment. In the same way, Minna Kangasmaa’s Prima Materia II (2021), a wall-structure created from natural raw clay dried, cracked, changed colour, and collapsed during the exhibition in Copenhagen. Clay from the broken wall has now served as raw material once again from which she has created an entirely new work in Helsinki.

In terms of transformation too, Sari Koski-Vähälä’s works Thought of Beauty (2016-2019), and Transition (2015/2020) have taken on new physical forms in Helsinki. The works of Koski-Vähälä and Prima Materia II by Kangasmaa both defy the notion of a finished artwork, as the works can change shape and composition, be deducted from, be added to according to each space, or installation. Clues to this are in the years of the works, spanning years of creation and re-thinking. The materials of these artists’ works (roses made from chewing gum, rose hips from her garden, unburned clay), go through their own life cycle, and rebirth as an artwork.

The notions of the transformation, growth and decay, and cycles of life and material are also reflected in the works by Silas Inoue, such as Acid Dew (2020). Made from remnants of plastic and wood from his studio recycled they also address consumption, pollution and ecological collapse. Transformation is also evident in Renata Jakowleff’s Torso (2020), which despite being made from glass has no permanent form. In each new location, the form is slightly modified as it is handled and displayed, which I personally find challenges the perception of what sculptural forms are and can be. This is also true of the works by Charlotte Walentin, which also evolve throughout the process of creation that she cannot predict or foresee, which she describes as a transitional form between painting and sculpture.

In this way, many of the artists in this exhibition are working highly intuitively, working in a dialogue with the materials. Many too are working in ways that require repetition to create some kind of transformation, whether it’s the folding, placing, installing and reinstalling the same materials, elements, or works.

Many of the works presented in MAN-MAID-NATURE see the use of perishable materials – from chewing gum (Sari Koski-Vähälä, Thought of Beauty from the series Rosario) to wood (Pernille Egeskov, Man-Maid-Nature) and dried rose hips (Sari Koski-Vähälä, Transition from the series Rosario) – or vary in aspect or shape (Minna Kangasmaa, Prima Materia II).
What are your thoughts in regards to preservation? According to you, to what extent should the varying and ephemeral quality of such works be embraced?

Pernille: I actually do a lot to ensure that my works can be preserved. Or recreated. I make manuals and descriptions that make it possible to preserve the predictably perishable installations. Or I describe how they can be remade or recreated if they are damaged or perish. The most perishable work I have made is a human imprint in withered leaves (HAM, 2018) acquired by Bornholms Kunstmuseum. For that, I made a detailed description and drawing of how I have made it, and I created a contract where I promise that as long as I live and able to, I will be helpful with repairs/restorations.

Sari Koski-Vähälä, Thought of Beauty from the series Rosario, 2019
Sari Koski-Vähälä, Thought of Beauty from the series Rosario, 2019

Claire: That’s an interesting question. I have worked many years in a museum where the conservation or preservation of artworks was a key and important part of the museum’s mission. In terms of contemporary art and the diverse materials and artists practices, conservation is nowadays very complex. I enjoyed working with these artists that question this need for permanence, who have the ability to rethink material consumption, who are able to re-appropriate materials to constantly create something new, and who do not underline the importance of a ‘complete’ artwork. This is refreshing.

Also, many of the artists in this exhibition are working with non-traditional media, some perishable, some not. It is interesting to think how traditionally artworks are created to endure the test of time, to be viewable or accessible to generations in the future, yet for the environment this is problematic. As I said above, some works in this exhibition are assumed to be taking on a new life later. This resonated with many of our visitors in Copenhagen when discussing consumption surplus, sustainability, and the life cycle of materials within the context of art. On the other hand too, many of the works also embrace the ephemeral as part of their material and aesthetic characteristics, such as light, an intrinsic characteristic of Renata Jakowleff’s glass works.

Sari Koski-Vähälä, Thought of Beauty from the series Rosario, 2019
Sari Koski-Vähälä, Thought of Beauty from the series Rosario, 2019

What does the future hold for Pop-Up Contemporary? What are your plans and expectations?

Pernille: Right now I have to focus on my own art. And we really need to get on the other side of the pandemic. I’m not ready for another pop-up exhibition during these unpredictable times! In the future, I actually very much hope that I can invite Claire to curate another Pop-Up Contemporary tour: I have been incredibly happy with our collaboration!

Relevant sources to learn more

Pop-Up Contemporary on Instagram
Pop-Up Contemporary website

You may also like:
Art Curator Interview: Edoardo Monti
Art Curator Interview: Annamaria Maggi