There is something subtly mysterious about the films and photographs of the Danish artist Ulrik Heltoft. Drawing on literary narratives or scientific sources, his works often explore the conceptual and aesthetic potentials of specific technologies. Despite his experimental use of his media, his photography evinces a uniform clear and brilliant quality.
For his exhibition at the Secession, Heltoft has created a new film titled Kabinet. It is based on a piece of social critique that has been adapted for the screen many times: Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol (1843), in which the confrontation with ghosts inspires the old and stingy businessman Ebenezer Scrooge to open his heart and change his ways. As in many of his projects, Heltoft plays all parts in the film, which focuses on the protagonist’s threefold encounter with his own spirit. He meets himself in the past, present, and future, or in other words, himself as a young man, his present self, and the man he may yet become. The footage showing the protagonist is the same in all three acts, but as his counterpart changes appearances, so does his position in space: the ghost of the past directly faces the camera, whereas the ghost of the present is seen only from behind, and the ghost of the future ambles through the room, singing, in a synthetic voice, “Daisy Bell,” the song the intelligent computer HAL in Kubrick’s science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey sings as it loses its mind when it is shut down.
The film is set in a sparse room furnished only with a writing desk the protagonist often leans on: “The cabinet and writing desk in the video is furniture that I made 20 years ago. I see the writing desk as the computer of the past, the basis of communication, accountancy etc. Perhaps the cabinet is the backup hard drive. It doesn’t contain anything itself, it is a tool or a placeholder for any relevant content.” (Heltoft)
Heltoft probes the workings of illusion both on the psychological level of the reconciliation of selfperception with the perceptions of others and on the visual level. The film seamlessly blends live-action sequences with animated sections while also activating the tension between the aesthetics of historic photography and digital technology. It is toned in black-and-white and was produced in the highresolution format 4K, which yields a wealth of visible detail that engenders a positively uncanny realism.
“The technique is challenging, it does not forgive, everything becomes painstakingly visible. All illusions are revealed (…) If you imagine watching the news in 4K, you would suddenly be able to see that the anchor has lipstick on his teeth or an extending nose hair. I believe that this hyperrealism transforms the conception of the story.” (Heltoft)
As in earlier works, Heltoft uses technology to create ambiguities and construct moments that hover between reality and dream, between phantasm and disillusionment. “I don’t believe in several parallel realities, I think the reality is a composite of many contemporary realities (…) The reality of dreams is what interests me.” (Heltoft)
The hallmark of his oeuvre is the fragmentation of narratives, whose spatial and temporal cohesion disintegrates at the moment we believe we can grasp them. As François Piron notes in his contribution to the catalogue, many of Heltoft’s works adopt “the logic of dreams in which an everyday object, a breath of wind, or the song of a bird enables the dreamer to pass from one world to another. Heltoft’s dreams have a dual structure of beginnings and repetition. (…) The eternal cycle in which past, present, and future mingle, continues to turn, transcending chance and ‘the instability of human affairs’, in the vortex of infinite space.”
Heltoft presents the film Kabinet in dialogue with four photographs that revisit the paradoxes of the perception of time and the theme of impermanence and repetition. They show a sundial just before noon, two men in the snow, a portrait of the American literary scholar Harold Bloom, and the warning Mane Thecel Phares going up in flames. The works are taken from a series based on Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932) on which the artist has worked since 2006. To have illustrations made for a book of his poetry, Roussel asked a detective agency to forward fifty-nine sets of instructions to the illustrator Henri-A. Zo, who executed them without knowing anything about their original context. Heltoft adapts the early Surrealist images that resulted for a new century and translates them into the medium of photography.
Invited by the board of the Secession
Curated by Annette Südbeck