A Man of Small Gestures
1. The Course
It is autumn. I have invited him, and we are teaching a course together. I know his work, but I don’t know him. We are both visitors in this country.
We walk around together, from student to student, desk to desk. It is one of the first days, it is a good day. He says something that I write down afterwards. Every element you add to a work takes energy from the others. Two strong elements are weakened if you add a third. Does he mean that the amount of energy is constant? Does he apply the same idea to his words as he does to his work? Is he sparing with words so as not to reduce their power?
2. Something happens to me when I do like this
There are three of us in the room. On the table are two sheets of white copy paper, and on them are some ceramic fragments, two pieces, possibly three. The fragments are roughly cut, from plates or bowls with pale pastel glazes.
We concentrate on the objects, on the material qualities – a worn table top, thin, crisp paper, chiming, high-fired porcelain. The strange shapes of the porcelain, like by-products from an unknown industrial process, against the mute paper, the bland standard format. We regard how the pure white lifts the fragments, how this fraction of a millimetre makes the whole difference, separates the shards from the table, from everything.
And then he takes one of the objects and moves it, he puts it in a different place on the sheet. Something happens to me when I do like this, he says. It doesn’t take long for someone else to say something, something that fills in and explains, that sounds good and necessary in the moment, but is forgotten as soon as we leave the room.
3. Hanging out with Kjell
It is day, it is night. We are in motion.
Foreign streets, a borrowed town. Down stairways, across bridges, underground and above. The motion is continuous. The towns merge. We are there. In a flow of people, in a carriage that shakes along tiled passages. In the heat of the day, through the lights of the night. Never still, always in motion.
That is how I know him, this is where I hear his voice. Against a buzzing background of urban flickering – as though the world were moving and we were standing still. Here, all is transient except the dialogue, what he says and what I say. In these moments, we evade being rooted, we are simultaneously a part of the world, and not, and the sense of community materialises as a body above the buzz.
4. The Cup
I have one of his works. It is a paper cup, white, with a handle, like the ones used for coffee, or hot cordial. It is crumpled and dirty. If I turn it over and look carefully, I can see that the base of the cup is not made of paper but china. It looks like the porcelain circle is cut from the base of a real cup, one with exactly the same diameter. The circle fits perfectly into the hole left by the paper base. I try looking into the cup to see the inside of the base but I can’t, the opening of the cup is tightly shut.
The paper is stiff, the crumples and creases completely hard. I try moving the handles. One is folded out and free, the other is pressed under the cup. A small flap of the lower handle is squeezed in under the rolled upper edge of the cup. The handle can’t be dislodged without unrolling the edge. Why is it like that? Did he fasten it intentionally? What has he done to the paper to make it that stiff?
A coffee stain runs like a circle around the outside of the cup base. In one place the stain washes up over the side of the cup. There is something strange about the position of the stain. I feel the inside of the cup – yes, it is smooth, covered with a thin plastic film. The inside does not absorb liquid. The outside does. It stains easily. But not in the way his cup is stained.
5. The Exhibition
There is nobody in the gallery when I arrive. Two dividing walls confront me, one short and one long. I see the reverse side. I know he built them himself. Objects are lying on white plinths along the walls, some I recognise, some are new. I go round the short dividing wall to see what is on the front. But the front is also a back.
So I immediately go round the long dividing wall. The same thing there, the wall has no front side. It is a free-standing mock-up, constructed in the simplest way to support itself, to stand upright. Against the back wall of the gallery are shelves placed close together with white objects. In front of the shelves is an upturned plinth. I can look inside it. The edges are covered in dust and cobwebs. Under the plinth, pressed against the floor, is a grey metal filing shelf. It protrudes slightly beyond the edges. I recognise it. I’ve seen that shelf many times. Turned the right way up.
I can’t rid myself of the sensation of being behind something. That I’m in the back room, the place where the leftover fragments – the things needed to create the front – are stored. That things are actually happening somewhere else.
Epilogue: The Forum of Half Sentences
Kjell’s works make me breathe more slowly. There is something about them that requires me to calm down, collect myself.
An encounter with Kjell’s works is not, in fact, that different from an encounter with Kjell himself. First of all: Kjell is not for sale. He cannot be lured. He cannot be bribed. He has integrity. Of the tenacious, painfully meticulous kind. And in the same way that Kjell is sober and modest in his work, it is pointless to exert oneself in experiencing them. There is nothing insistent, nothing dead certain, about Kjell’s works. They speak with a level-headed voice.
There is something about this that has a calming effect – the fact that right here, right now, we are not playing any games. Here, the ambitions are of human dimensions. Kjell protects the factual, the core of the work, its idea. He does not allow himself to be distracted by external conventions, demands or expectations.
Secondly: this is the forum of half sentences. An encounter with Kjell’s works is an encounter with something that is still wordless and does not easily take the form of words. His works are scant. There is no abundance in them, and therefore there is nothing in them that seeks to please. This is one of their strengths, that muteness, immutability. For just like some sentences in a conversation are left unfinished, and never need to be finished, because we understand each other anyway and the essence would wither and die if we tried – Kjell’s works give us a beginning, never more than a beginning. That does not make his works easy to decipher. The viewer simply has to put up with many loose ends, a great deal of uncertainty. And yet, it is precisely what is not there but is left open that makes all the difference, that means that something tangential to the work vibrates, is alive.
In Kjell’s works, nothing is taken for granted. He surprises us. What we accept at first glance to be coincidental factors often turn out to be carefully thought-out elements. The sharp gaze, the one we use when we want to understand – and which we often routinely aim at the facade, at the object on top of the plinth – in Kjell’s works, that gaze goes astray, it is discreetly corrected and gently adjusted. Kjell resets the focus for us, he suggests a sensitive wide-angle perspective.
Kjell directs our perceptive attention to things in the periphery, the things we see in the corner of our eye. He encourages us to consider what is primary and what is secondary, what is front and what is back, what is the work and what is not – in short, what we choose to focus on, and why. More than anything, an encounter with Kjell’s recent works is therefore an exercise in conscious perception, an exercise in manoeuvring our gaze towards the hitherto overlooked, towards that which appears at the edges of our field of vision.
Published in Kjell Rylander Archives, ed. Jorunn Veiteberg
Bergen Academy of Art and Design/Gustavsbergs Konsthall, 2012