PRINT November 2011


View of “Ida Ekblad: Poem Percussion,” 2010, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

IDA EKBLAD’S 2009 VIDEO In Exile from the Mineral Kingdom begins with a percussive flourish: In a tightly framed shot, we see somebody whacking pieces of scrap metal with a stick. Cut to the artist standing at the pinnacle of a giant junk heap, laboriously heaving pieces of scrap down to the bottom, presumably collecting them for one of the assemblages she has been producing since 2008. A mock-heroic bricoleur, she seems to be wryly performing her own process. On the sound track, we hear her reciting her poem “Mars Black Hues,” a meditation on restlessness, sleep, fragility, and strength.

To a great extent, Ekblad’s practice is based on her peregrinations through urban and industrial space—particularly locations that contain the discarded objects that are her materials. Often, the works in a particular show will be made from trash and junk culled from the area surrounding the exhibition venue, accompanied by poems composed on the same trips. On occasion her friends come along to help in the construction of the works. (In fact, her practice is animated by collaborative energies—she has previously worked with fellow artists including Nils Bech, Anders Nordby, and Oscar Tuazon.) Ekblad seeks to recuperate the Situationist dérive, or drift, but more as a productive tactic for artmaking in a placeless global art world than as a psychogeographic investigation of a particular urban environment. Mostly avoiding materials that betray their original function, she articulates a formal poetics through the associative combination of disparate textures, colors, and shapes.

For her “Gold Bug Drift” works of 2009, Ekblad trawled the streets of several cities (Copenhagen, New York, London, her home city of Oslo, and Paris) to produce work for different exhibitions. Seemingly as intently committed to her search as the treasure-mad protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 story “The Gold-Bug,” she pushed vessels full of wet cement in shopping carts as she went, periodically plunging found objects into the paste. In the resulting works, bent poles, lengths of rope, potted plants, and miscellaneous shards appear to be at once supported and ensnared by their concrete bases.

In a 2010 show at the Bergen Kunsthall in Norway, she presented more cast-concrete works, but these were emphatically horizontal—low slabs into which objects had been sunk at varying degrees of immersion. These sculptures are the result of controlled improvisation, since Ekblad can only manipulate the material until the concrete dries. She makes an explicit analogy between the decisions at the moment of bringing materials together and the act of connecting words in a poem.

In general, for Ekblad, the “drifts” and the works they generate are fundamentally textual, following Michel de Certeau’s elaborations of the dérive. A poem, a painting, and a sculpture may all bespeak the same journey through the same city, each with its own unique syntax. The colors she uses in her paintings, for example, tend to reference the colors of her sculptures, creating a formal feedback loop; the palette itself, with its jewel-like tertiaries, harks back to Symbolism and that movement’s equation of color with linguistic sign. (She was in a group exhibition titled “Prose pour Des Esseintes,” in homage to Huysmans’s synaesthete, at Zurich’s Karma International gallery in 2009.) The abstract shapes in the paintings fit together almost like puzzle pieces, resembling letters in an unintelligible alphabet. To engage her work is to engage language in multiple simultaneous registers.

In this past summer’s Venice Biennale, Ekblad presented works made in Indonesia, Italy, and Norway. A vitrine holding a mangled pirate ship constructed with materials gleaned from Lido beach stood near a white wrought-iron gate—similar to those on view last month in her exhibition at Greene Naftali in New York—as well as other sculptures and a large painting. The installation’s focal point, A Caged Law of the Bird the Hand the Land, 2011, was a marble slab fashioned to look like a rectilinear divan; a poem of the same title had been engraved on its surface, and surrounding this text were colorful ceramic shards that resembled enlarged sculptural manifestations of brushstrokes. “A Caged Law” captures Ekblad’s fixation on a certain kind of restless activity and near-manic production, but it also evokes a biological entropy analogous to inanimate deterioration. (DIGGING / HOLES INTO MY PINEAL GLAND / . . . / I REFUSE ALZHEIMER . . .) The sculpture oscillates between offering a site of temporary repose and taunting viewers with the threat of permanent rest.

This tension finds a parallel in Ekblad’s relationship to the postwar avant-gardes. In addition to Debord and Certeau, artists affiliated with Cobra, AbEx, and other midcentury movements are liberally invoked in her work. For her, however, the act of salvaging seems to entail the invigoration of old ideas and idioms. Ekblad works to create a language of the here and now that drags the neo-avant-garde object and its theoretical adjuncts out of a melancholic historical register. This language is sculptural, musical, poetic, performative—an enactment of immediate experience that is at once celebratory and apprehensive.

Ruba Katrib is Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.