Jacob Dahl Jürgensen

croy nielsen

2007:Nov // Laura Schleussner

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Tucked away on a side street off the lower end of Friedrichstrasse is a not-quite newcomer to Berlin’s commercial gallery scene. Since 2005, Oliver Croy and Henrikke Nielsen have been presenting an intelligent program of exhibitions in their Prenzlauerberg apartment. Now a commercial endeavor, croy nielsen inaugurated their new space in September with a solo exhibition “A Tragical History” by the Danish, London-based artist Jacob Dahl Jürgensen. Although this may not seem like a particularly auspicious title for a gallery’s first exhibition, “tragical” (tragic + theatrical or tragic + magical?) is a perfect word for Jürgensen’s ability to infuse formal clarity with mystical aura and to create a choreography of works that heightens the drama of his central theme: the demise of modernist utopias.  

From the street, the gallery has been hermetically sealed by a white film covering the windows. Darkening the exhibition space was important to Jürgensen, who uses the gallery more like a black box than a white cube. Opening the door, one comes face-to-face with a slide projection of a group of figures in white masks and bright robe – a Greek chorus cloaked in the primary colors of an avant-garde palate. The backdrop to the scene is a black and white image of a massive, abandoned concrete chapel, an interior from a brutalist behemoth from the 1960s, St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, Scotland. “Diorama (Motley Chorus)” thus sets the stage for a tightly knit show of pared down objects and images arranged more as a constellation than a se quence of works. Spotlights mounted on large wooden frames function both as illumination and autonomous works, and the projection screen for the slide has been similarly constructed. For the viewer, there is almost a sense of wandering around the set or stage of a theatrical production.  What drama is being played out? According to the press release, the figure of Faust or, more specifically, Christopher Marlowe’s drama “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus” was an important source of inspiration – and clearly a source for the title – even if this reference does not specifically come through in the works. For Jürgensen, Faust is an anti-hero on a quest for higher knowledge and a stand-in for the ideals and hubris of the modernist notion of progress. If the “Motley Chorus” were to step out of the image and take on their roles in this play, the performance would take place among fragmentary references to architecture and the ruin. “Brutalith” is a small sculpture of cast concrete placed on a white pedestal. Brancussi meets archeological artifact in this geometric volume constructed from pentagons and known as the dodecahedron. The shape bears esoteric connotations, and initiates of fantasy role-playing games will recognize the form from various kinds of dice.  Further on, another sculptural work is a large, dangerously sharp mobile made of reinforced glass. Quoting the building of St. Peter’s seminary, the square shapes of the object dangle somewhere between Bauhaus and a cheap dime store object while casting a pattern of refracted light on the wall.  

Another image suggests the forces of destiny and divination cloaked in the guise of popular culture. In the silkscreen raster of “The Phool”, a young man seems to be setting out to meet his fate with an electric guitar over his shoulder. Or is he just leaving the stage? The poster is clearly a contemporary rendition of the archetypical pose of the first card of the tarot, The Fool, which can predict a smooth or rocky start to an undertaking.

On the one hand, this blend of retro-modernist nostalgia and mystical symbolism is so prevalent that it could be called a trend. Artists ranging from Thomas Zipp to Daria Martin have developed darker or lighter adaptations of the theme. The same goes for exhibitions. While the last Berlin Biennale summoned up all possible specters of the uncanny, the most recent documenta attempted to formulate the current appropriation of avant-garde aesthetics with its promising question “Is Modernity Our Antiquity?” On the other, one of the many disappointments of this last documenta is that it did not often succeed in exploring this inquiry through works that take on this complex issue as successfully as Jürgensen.  

It is clear that the reaction to the social spaces and relational aesthetics of the 1990s has long coalesced into a more introspective “Dark Age” laden with supernatural allure. In this context, figures like Faust seem to represent the struggle of the individual against the loss of idealism. Drama is what keeps it all fun and prevents the mood from sliding into despair. The strength of Jürgensen’s work is that it delivers a level of visual punch and minimal pop that lends his dramaturgy a certain edge – without giving away the end.  

Jacob Dahl Jürgensen „A Tragical History“,
croy nielsen,
Hedemannstraße 14,
Jacob Dahl Jürgensen, „Diorama (Motley Chorus)“, 2007 (detail) (© Courtesy croy nielsen, Berlin)
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