It was my first visit to Saint Peters Basilica in Rome. I had done a good deal of research and the interior corresponded to the commentary I had read. I had expected the immense scale. I was prepared for the opulent and overwhelming physical grandeur. All that was as expected. Why then did I find myself disoriented, confused, perplexed and mysteriously elated? The reason was that I was having an experience that was nowhere mentioned in any of the literature I had read about the church. On the one hand, I was (as expected) overwhelmed by the physical force of the interior. On the other hand, though, I was struck by the fact that the place seemed to dissolve before my eyes. It appeared like a chimera or mirage. I found myself in the midst of a paradoxical experience in which the interior of Saint Peters was both overwhelmingly present and invisible at the same time. The putative content of the place was the objectification of the spiritual domain. You would think that the opulent and overblown degree of that objectification would destroy the spiritual component with it's massive physicality, but that was not the case. The opposite proved to be the true. Turning the spiritual domain into such an enormous physical edifice, paradoxically vaporized that physicality.
It's not a prefect analogy, but something like that happens when I experience Nils Karsten's current work. I am simultaneously struck by it being both very present and invisible at the same time. It's passing strange and mightily difficult to explain, possibly because paradoxes resist explanation by the very fact that they are paradoxes. I sense that the best way to start is the simple way, by just describing the work in question.
Karsten's new work are prints, very large prints. The core of the work are images taken from classic rock and roll album covers like the exploding zeppelin in the first Led Zeppelin album. Only the images from the album covers, not text, are deployed. These images are carved into enormous handmade woodcut blocks (about six feet square). The blocks are made from rough construction grade plywood that are held in place by a slightly larger cradle. Karsten uses dental drills to carve into the surface. The finished woodcut (it seems absurd to call them woodcuts) is printed onto very large, heavy, somewhat rough paper. Both the oversized woodblocks and the corresponding prints are almost overwhelming in there physical presence. Their size and weight is impressive. Their gruff (mostly black and white) graphic look is commanding. And the images themselves tend to have a certain rude power. This is not a rarified, minimal art that presents itself to us. And yet, all that being said, I have seen these these works dissolve before my eyes. They are very much there and then they are not.
For sometime I was befuddled by this experience. Did I have an attention deficit problem? Did some part of me, at a certain point, recoil from the work and mentally shut it off. Intrigued and troubled, I committed myself to a careful examination of the nuances of my response to see if the mystery could be untangled. What I found was exhilarating. These works are the locale for an experience of the dynamic progression and dialogue between objectivity and subjectivity. It goes like this. In the first stage I find myself drawn to and attentive of these powerful objects. A connection and relationship is established between me and the woodcut. This is the objective, externalized aspect of the experience. Next I find myself engaged in the image and the image generates a flood of memories from the distant past. As I turn inward, the woodcut dissolves in a wave of subjectivity. I find myself no longer present to the work, but in another time and place, flooded with sites, sounds, and feelings. It appears that the images used are so culturally iconic that they simply cannot be experienced without activating a subjective response powerful enough relocate our attention from the external world of fact and object to an internal world of feeling, memory, and even longing. But it doesn't stop there. There is a third movement that occurs and that is that from within that subjective space there is an urge to reestablish a connection to the work. I find myself reaching out from the depths of those memories to reconnect with the woodcut but in a new, more nuanced and complex way. Just like life, I now inhabit a place that is determined by a dynamic and complex relationship between externality and internality.
With that realization in mind, a better analogy occurs to me that might illuminate the value of these works. This is something most of us have experienced in one form or another. Let's say that you are driving down the highway. You are being careful, attentive to the road, the traffic around you and the vehicle you are driving. At some point a favorite song comes on the radio. In a moment you are flooded by memories of another time and place, no longer truly present to the world you inhabited only a moment ago, but between or within two worlds, one external and objective, the other internal and subjective. The internal memory world is powerful and insistent, but it would dangerous to allow that world to obliterate the world of driving the car. A complex dialectic emerges and the "total experienced world" becomes a dynamic dance between two worlds, one objective, one subjective. Herein, it seems to me, resides the lasting value of Nils Karsten's current work. These works generate a condition that is really a subset of the human condition. The work does not tell us, but shows us that we never, for long, live in a single world, but several worlds all at the same time. And these worlds do not, necessarily either destroy or dominate the other world/worlds. Rather, we drift, slide, shuffle, and dance within many worlds. It's a marvelous realization. There is no need, no possibility, says Nils Karsten to be obsessively attentive to the Now or, contrary wise, to rule it out of order, seeking out the comfort of the past. The many worlds of our being can have a lively discussion with each other. It's all a song, a dance lodged in an album cover from long ago.
Just to tidy up, it should probably be mentioned that there are smaller satellite works that orbit around the large pieces. These works seem to me like supporting characters in a play. They are not the central protagonists, but still are valuable and even necessary players. And what has been said about the big works can likewise be said about the smaller pieces. They, also, call up the many worlds of our being. As an example, there are woodcuts with only the lyrics of songs carved into them. Like the aforementioned work they are rough and powerful pieces despite their smaller size. And a similar condition is generated by these pieces. Just begin to read the lyrics and the world of memory and longing is called forth. And the dance begins. They remind us that Proust's madeleine could be an object, an image, even a word will do.