Portrait of the Artist as a Contemporary Artist:
Personal Attempts, Social Invitations and Other Creative
Behaviors in the Work of Nikolaj Recke, 1993-2005
By Jacob Lillemose 

‘Everyone is an artist’ – Joseph Beuys
‘I’m an absolute beginner’ – David Bowie

For Nikolaj Recke, being a contemporary artist – or rather, choosing to call oneself a contemporary artist and making art works – is an ambiguous task that involves continuous questioning on a both aesthetic and personal level. As a ‘member’ of the young generation of Nordic artists that emerged from the Copenhagen scene in the mid 90s Recke embraces a conceptual approach in which neither art nor the role of the artist can be taken for granted, i.e. based on absolute definitions and histories. He understands art and the role of the artist to be a ‘continuous project altered daily’, to quote Robert Morris, who is an artist that Recke has 'corresponded’ with on many levels in his work. Through the correspondence with Morris and the tradition of conceptual art of 60s and 70s, Recke has found an approach that is open-ended and very personal, characterized by equal parts doubts and excitement, challenges and possibilities. According to him embracing this ambivalence is the most honest, credible and forceful approach to art and the role of the artist after the authority and certainties of modernist ideology has left the institution.

The thing formerly known as modern art

Talk about leaving the institution. For his first solo-exhibition Nicky-Dicky in 1995, Recke made the work The Invisible Man, where he covered himself in gauze bandage from head to toe and literally walked out of the gallery in front of the audience. The exit was filmed and shown as a video loop. With a clear amount of self-irony and an akward performativity like the one found in early Bruce Nauman videoes, the work reflects the frustrations of young up-coming artist trying to enter the scene and make something of value in the light of the established aesthetic paradigms. It also very honestly shows that however radical and paradoxical it seems avoiding being an artist – and in a metaphorical sense, avoiding making art – is in principle a real possibility for a contemporary artist. An escape of some kind from the traditional framework is in any case necessary to continue the discussion and development of contemporary art, both generally and personally.

The Invisible Man also makes subtle reference to Yves Klein’s 1958 exhibition The Void, where he emptied the Iris Clert Gallery and painted it completely white. Recke’s notion of the empty gallery space is quite different from Klein’s though. It is more literal in a sense, and it signifies that his point of departure is a concrete and personal practice informed by already existing concepts and histories of art, rather than from transcendental and avant-gardist ideas.
Two other early works by Recke are worth mentioning in this regard: Skater-Klein (1996), where Recke painted his nose red with lipstick and drove directly into a wall to mimic another of Klein’s famous work, the Anthropometries series; and Giving Back (1996) where Recke made a boxing bag out of white canvas, filled it with cotton, hung it in his living room and started punching it – the sand bag, in this context, being an obviously banal stand-in for the monochrome, the crux of the disembodied aesthetics of modernism. Again, with both self-irony and honesty, these two works illustrate that escaping from or just coming to terms with the traditional art framework is hard and difficult work. You either repeatedly skate into a wall or get exhausted from punching at ‘an opponent’ that remains almost unaffected.

So Recke, as a contemporary artist, presents himself as a somewhat tragic-comical character – a street-wise clown with a bloody nose – but also as an unimpressed fighter who does not accept retreat as an answer to the challenge. Instead his answer takes the form of a re-challenge within contexts set by himself. Recke uses his own dumb everyday activities – interactions with his physical and non-institutionalized surroundings – as a medium for making art in more-or-less direct dialogue with both the ideals and the masters of modernism and its conceptual predecessors. With all sorts of ambivalences and liberties he engages in exchanges with the contemporary art of the previous 50 years where it is not a question of winning the fight – being original in an avant-gardistic sense. The point is rather to create new connections and meanings in terms of discourse as well as practice across the aesthetic field that art outlines. That is his way of escaping the framework: By making it dynamic through personal recontextualizations, restagings and reinterpretations.

Keep doing it

A recurrent figure in Recke’s work that springs from this unorthodox understanding of art and the role of the artist, is that of the attempt. The attempt is a recurrent but also very diverse figure in contemporary art, from Richard Serra’s Catching Lead (1969) and Jan Bas Ader’s In Search of the Miracolous (1975) to Peter Land’s Step Ladder Blues (1995). Having realized that, as a contemporary artist, he will not succeed in making (and does not want to make) the ultimate work of art that modernism championed, he turns towards the attempt – the personal act and process of trying – as a working method, and as an end result that in itself contains significant artistic potential and value.

Recke’s attempts are often formally unperformed. In Looking for 4-leaf Clovers (1998), Recke pans slowly with a camera at close range over a field of clovers in search of the rare specimens, and presents the video as a loop to indicate the endless nature of the search. Finding and presenting the 4-leaf clover is not the point in and of the work. Recke want us to search ourselves. He creates an open situation where our senses, perception and thinking are liberated from notions of a fixed object and the rationalities that it induces. In this way he urges us to engage in the event of searching more intuitively, freely and openly with ‘irrational’ phenomena such as dreams, affections and hopes taken into account. Although we might never find the clover that will bring you luck, we will also never not-find it. And this is what Recke is interested in: To present us with an expanded and abstract sense of time and space in a state of potential, where the actual and the virtual are forever interconnected. Through this conception of time and space Recke enables another presence in the world – the imaginary presence of the attempt.

Recke’s most symbolic attempt in this respect is his breakthrough work Knowing You, Knowing Me (1997), an email correspondence with Robert Morris about his famous felt sculptures and the possibilities of a rendezvous, transformed into a silent video with text and slow-motion images. The correspondence turns into a combination of a farce and a melodrama. Morris is reluctant to participate in the project but nevertheless keeps responding to Recke’s emails. The two never get to talk about the sculptures and when Recke goes to New York to meet Morris at his studio on a set date, it is only to find out after six days that Morris has already left the city and stood him up. In the end, the ‘readymade’ correspondence – the attempt to have a conversation – becomes a conversation in itself and consequently replaces the intended work. The attempt allows the processual notion of an open-ended and interchangeable work-in-progress – indeed a fundamental aspect of communication – to replace the notion of the finished product.

A more recent example of Recke’s aesthetics of the attempt is Capturing Sand Martins (2003). The Sand Martin is the fastest flying bird in Denmark and Recke went to one of their natural habitats by the coast to see if he could follow them with his hand-held camera, if only for a few seconds. The result is a video with a lot of blue sky and an occasional tiny brown-black spot moving rapidly across the picture frame. As a piece of documentation the work is absurd nonsense. But as art – as a symbolic and conceptual gesture – the work expresses a complex interplay of meanings. With precision and simple means, Recke shows that from his point of view art and the world in which it takes place, as represented by the Sand Martins, is difficult if not downright impossible to get a grip on.
So for Recke, art is a continuous attempt to make art, and to reflect on and challenge this condition – to turn the attempt to do the impossible into an aesthetic possibility and an existential statement; a possibility to talk about and comprehend the impossible; and a statement that allow us to live and perform the impossible and eventually reach beyond it.


Another motif in Recke’s work that runs parallel to, supplements and in some cases (as in Knowing You, Knowing Me) even overlaps the figure of the attempt, is the invitation. The invitation works as an open effort to generate different forms of interaction such as communicating, sharing and identifying, on an imaginary as well as physical level, most often both at the same time.
One example of this is A Room with Thousand Thoughts (2002) where Recke took a window from his apartment and installed it as a replacement for one window of the gallery. This installed window is more than a mere object of biographical fetishism because Recke has often thought about art in general, or been inspired to actually make new art, while looking through it. The work presents art as an open and transparent frame that provides viewers with an opportunity to reflect upon the moment of creation and to observe the world. Metaphorically speaking, the window acts as a membrane between the inside and outside, the institution and reality. And Recke is saying that this is where art (and the art of existence) begins – by paying attention to the surrounding world and connecting it with one's inner self.

A more straightforward and directly dialogue-based example of an invitation is Conversations (1996), where Recke called up 200 random people and presented himself as his own or other artists’ art works, then printed out the conversations as Dymo-stickers and taped them to the walls of the gallery. Apart from general confusion and irritation, the reactions at the other end of the line varied from concern about his psychological state to refusals to let him enter the living room through the telephone.
These works are symptomatic of Recke’s use of his person and the figure of the contemporary artist, to create a more-or-less direct discussion of art that challenges social situations and generates ambiguous meanings that force us to rethink and expand our understanding of the situation, of art, and eventually, of the world.

Recke has also worked with these invitational aesthetics in a series of installations, such as Bus 7 to EveryWhere (2001), which consists of a simple, yellow Danish bus stop placed on the sidewalk in Copenhagen next to an ordinary bus stop. The number 7 is a non-existing line in the Copenhagen transit system. As the name of the destination indicates Bus 7 is an imaginary line and if we take a closer look at the route plan – a stylized world map – we realize that it does not accommodate physical travel like regular public transportation. Like A Room with Thousand Thoughts, the work presents art as the medium for the imaginary travels of the mind that takes places within, and interacts with, a physical environment, adding an extra immaterial layer to our perception of that environment.

In I could be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky (2001), done at a church in collaboration with Swedish artist Lene Malm, Recke stretched out a net 10 feet above the floor, which people could lie in on their backs, alone or with someone, and look at a projection on the church ceiling. The projection showed a video documentation borrowed from NASA of an extraordinary night sky during a meteor storm. Filled with hundreds of shooting stars, the sky invited people to make an infinity of wishes, just as if they were walking in a field covered with only 4-leaf clovers – a related but never-realized work considered by Recke.
Another collaboration that quite literally uses the figure of the invitation is Tiptoe on the boards of love (2002), done with Danish artist Kirstine Roepstorff. The work consists of a wooden dancing stage decorated with colored light bulps and music playing so that everyone can step onto the boards and take a sentimental dance to a handful of familiar tunes speaking of lost love.

All three of these works show how Recke, informed by pop-romantic thinking, invites us to attempt to make something extraordinary happen by opening our minds and hearts. And making us believe that this is possible despite the improbability of such an event actually taking place is the conceptual vigor, imaginary beauty and human generousity of Recke’s invitational art.

A new world

Whereas a number of his contemporaries emphasize the political and culture- critical dimension of art, Nikolaj Recke is more involved with the emotional and imaginary qualities of art as a part of everyday life and experience. He often uses stories and events from his personal life in his work (including mourning over the death of loved ones and dedications to former partners in Crystal Tears (1993) and Ponds of Waterlilies (2004)), but these emotional and imaginary qualities are neither defined by, nor restricted to, the private sphere only. They address our shared experiences and represent instead common models for perceiving and relating to the world anew, and consequently, for conceiving of a new world. All we have to do is accept the invitations and make the attempt ourselves.