Present Absence

The work of the collaborative artist practice, benandsebastian,teeters on a cusp between designed physicality and intangible theories of the mind. Trained in architecture and theoretically versed, their sculptures take on elaborate mechanics and boast intricate detailing,yet speak to vast philosophical and sociological systems. It is impossible to concretely anchor their work,an elusiveness made evident in their recent exhibition at the Designmuseum Danmark, ‘Phantom Limbs’. Embedded directly within the permanent collection and specifically paired with unexpected inventory from Copenhagen’s Medical Museum, National Museum and the attics of Designmuseum Danmark, their work becomes not only the sculptures on display, but the myriad relationships made between context and object,between body and limb. Evoking the medical sense of phantom limbs, where an amputee still feels the presence of the absent limb, benandsebastian navigate the museum context and call into question the assumed wholeness we expect, perceive and viscerally feel.

“How did you approach ‘Phantom Limbs’?”

We read widely, as a way of addressing the phantom limb phenomenon from various angles, from the medical and neurological to the phenomenological and philosophical. Our exhibition texts include quotations from Oliver Sacks, Sigmund Freud,Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, Foucault and Plato, among others. Two key texts were the introduction to ‘The Anthropology of Absence’, by Mikkel Bille, Frida Hastrup and Tim Flohr Sørensen, which opened up a spectrum of perspectives on the ‘presence of absence’, and Vivian Sobchack’s ‘A leg to stand on’, which is a great read for a number of reasons, not least because Sobchack’s theoretical standpoints are strengthened by her own everyday experience of being an amputee.


“I detect an invisible presence hovering between the individual meanings and histories of each piece – your own or those of the museums’ collections.Would you also describe this ephemeral linkage as a work of its own?”

“Absolutely. We see Phantom Limbs both as a single work and as a series of fragments. The Phantom Limbs exhibition creates its own ghost network of implied absences. We see these absences as having the capacity to link things together. When someon loses an arm or a leg, it is the continuation of sensation in that amputated limb that allows the body to accept and employ a prosthetic limb as part of itself. We’re fascinated by this capacity for absences to create dynamic connections and these are at the core of the exhibition.”

“Titling your exhibition ‘Phantom Limbs’ provokes viewers to discern what is missing or to imagine a wholeness that is visually absent. Can you speak of the various possibilities for locating ‘bodies’ and ‘limbs’ in this exhibition?”

“Our exhibition, our works and texts,Designmuseum Danmark’s collection, and the museum building could all be seen as complete and self sufficient ‘bodies’. But this is a convenient illusion that we want to challenge through the theme of phantom limbs. Designmuseum Danmark’s own collection might appear logically ordered and complete, but we invite visitors to view it as a bizarre assemblage of dismembered objects that have been ‘amputated’ from their heterogeneous cultural contexts. Our own exhibition’s peripheries are intentionally ambiguous; we leave the visitor questioning when and whether or not they have left the exhibition. One visitor became convinced we were responsible for the loosening of a wobbly floor slab in front of our work ‘Made in Ruins’!”

“When you first displayed many of your works together in ‘Unbuilt Extremities’ (February 2011, Berlin), the individual pieces, each with very specific, often site-specific original contexts, came together as a single body of work. Can you see this current exhibition as a further exercise or an investigation into the life of a work removed from its original context?”

“We decided that the most interesting way of using the Designmuseum Danmark’s collection was through a process of disappearing into it, mining it, and occasionally undermining it. We mirrored the details of the museum’s existing vitrines, designed by Kaare Klint in the 1920s, adapting them by removing their glass and under-scaling them so that our works always poke out from their frames. We mounted our exhibition texts in teak frames that take on the detailing of the vitrines, and presented translations in Danish on laminated A4 pages that echo the institution’s yellowing information sheets. We think of our works as prosthetic additions to the individual artefacts at the museum, and those artefacts as prosthetics to our artworks. The act of juxtaposition has been a way of rewriting our own works, and to some extent, our works have reinterpreted the artefacts. One of the exciting elements is that the process has also generated new meanings we did not predict and that are out of our control.”

“Are all of your works uprooted or detached from the moment they leave their point of origin?”

“In a sense, our works are uprooted and semi-detached even at their point of origin. You could say that we make site-specific misfits. The misfit reveals by almost, but not quite belonging. We like the tension this creates. Context is always important to our work, but context can be uprooted too, and we like to think that our works both acquire new layers and retain the old ones as we reinvent them for different contexts.”

“You allow great freedoms for your work to evolve and become altered. How will your artworks advance next?”

“The exhibition will travel to Trapholt museum of contemporary art in Kolding. It will be a very different exhibition when transplanted into a white cube environment. The artefacts we coupled with our works at Designmuseum Danmark will be physically absent, although we will install large photographs of each of them and the vitrines we built will remain a part of our works. ‘City of the (Re)Orientated’, will be shown as a large format photographic print at Trapholt, while the original, in its now integral vitrine, will be shown in a group show at Arken Museum of Modern Art. After seeing it in the rooted context of Designmuseum Danmark, we are looking forward to seeing ‘Phantom Limbs’ in uprooted form within an art museum.”

“The added vitrines seem to bracket this growing context and speak to a conception of negative

“We tend to talk about absence rather than negative space in our work. Paradoxically, absence often has a very strong presence. These presences of absence have been drivers for several of our projects,from the missing child’s limb in ‘Phantom Limbs’ to the absent financial value of the Collyer’s rumoured hoard in ‘2078 Fifth Avenue’. Merleau-Ponty writes about a phantom limb not being the representation of the arm, but ‘the ambivalent presence of the arm’. This ambivalent status is something we see as key to the kind of spatial questions we ask through our work. In ‘The Forgotten Follies of Sølyst’ we cast a series of over-scaled and dismembered classical ruins in white concrete, within the woodland grounds of a 19th century Dutch renaissance style manor in West Zealand. Fascinated by the formworks themselves, they end up being the focus of the project as it stands at Designmuseum Danmark. They have achieved the status of artefacts, while the forms, which they were made to cast, have been demolished and now only exist as documentary material.”

“Can you liken your works themselves to your own phantom limbs? Are they phantom limbs you are hoping to revive and enliven?”

“Hmmm, interesting question. Don’t know quite how to reply…”

“I was thinking about a technique one doctor developed to alleviate the pain of phantom limbs in his patients: he held up a mirror, which reflected their existing limb onto the place of their amputated limb, and through this illusion they were able to regain control over their phantom. Might this show also be a process of reflection or diversion towards the alleviation of a condition?”

“Perhaps you could see the exhibition as having a mirroring role, both for the museum and for our own works. It might sound strange when we describe the exhibition as a series of absences, fragments and misfits, but when we installed the exhibition at Designmuseum Danmark it felt like we had finally come home.”

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