I recently met Ulrik Heltoft at a private view in town. We talked about vanity, about buying clothes at auctions, about a coat from a French fashion house and about finding the perfect replacement when the old one is eventually worn to shreds. Ulrik also spoke about the opportunity for having a white peacock walk about in the park at Gl. Holtegaard at his recently opened exhibition there.
Given this fact, I rather wish that this was an interview. It might have offered a chance to repeat some of the stories about the price of a peacock or about how much Hermès you can get for eight thousand kroner. One might also ask why Heltoft’s works are consistently black and white, and about what will happen when he chooses to switch the other colours on – if he ever does. Or about how the reception of his works is affected by the fact that the person in front of the camera is also the artist himself.
The exhibition 7 films, one photo and a silver nose is a miniature retrospective: orchestrated in an almost insanely tasteful manner throughout the manor-domestic architecture of Gl. Holtegaard. While there is no albino peacock, there is plenty of high-end, hi-tech designer hi-fi equipment (with fantastic sound), 16mm projectors and Bang & Olufsen TVs galore.
There is approximately one work per room here, as well as a number of camera obscura picture that flow inside from the baroque garden outside, onto the walls facing the garden – a luscious nod towards Heltoft’s main media (photography and film), emphasising the machine-like qualities of these media, especially film, as they transport us away from reality for a while. Outside and inside change places with this camera obscura effect: an entirely analogue, ancient illusion that is always striking and magical (I still do not understand how it works). It literally and metaphorically turns the world upside down, and with its framing of the formal gardens it also nods to Gl. Holtegaard’s series of exhibitions focusing on the Baroque era, of which 7 films, one photo and a silver nose is part.
In his films, Ulrik Heltoft presents – as a filmmaker and as a performer – what might at first glance be described as archetypical, not very specific characters (a gold digger, a Neanderthal, a cowboy, a stage magician and a man with a silver nose who isn’t Tycho Brahe, or maybe he is a bit?). These persons appear as isolated figures in delimited settings that are not specific geographical locations.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze might describe Heltoft’s characters not as archetypes, but as “human animals”, placed as they are in these zones or settings that are recognisable as types, but cannot be pinpointed to specific locations in the world: a desert, a forest, a cave, an attic room. In these settings the human animal wanders alone, even on a loop; and it if does not marvel at life and the cosmos, it certainly seems to be weighed down by such things. Or it bangs its head on the ceiling.
The soundtracks are important aspects of the films, especially in the works HOC COH (As Far as the Eye Can See) (2016) and Origin of Specimen 52v (2013). The latter features music by famous Danish flautist Michala Petri: light, high, shrill notes. The more recent film uses cello to counteract the images, played by Soma & Lil to sound like the beginning of the entire world. Both soundtracks have been improvised into existence. Such improvisation introduces something unruly and entropic to the film media, which, in the hands of Heltoft, appears as stringently controlled as any solitary work created by a madman. By privileging improvisation in such a carefully controlled process, he points the way towards a more meditational space in these films – or perhaps out of the films?
Moving through the architecture of Gl. Holtegaard and Heltoft’s exhibition feels like looping through a film camera. The works show off themselves proudly, strutting like technologically superior luxury peacocks clad in Hermès. And if the characters in Heltoft’s films are cosmically challenged human animals, then we, as visitors to his exhibition, are walking human cameras. What a splendid situation in which to put one’s audience.