Ten Questions: Ulrik Heltoft

“I strongly believe in illusion,” says Ulrik Heltoft, whose intriguing photographs of botanical motifs and film about a questing Neanderthal man are exhibited in Copenhagen.

Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.
Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.

In a prehistoric universe, on the brink of a frozen lake, a Neanderthal man wanders about in search of something. He looks out across the barren winter landscape, searching for something; he finds a plant, examines it carefully and eats it. He drools into his long, matted beard. The enigmatic prehistoric universe is part of Ulrik Heltoft’s film The Origin of Specimen 52v, which is currently on view for the first time ever at the Copenhagen gallery Andersen’s Contemporary.

Heltoft works – in analogue and digital formats – with photography, film, and video, often seeking to push back the boundaries of his chosen media while still retaining an old-fashioned Kodak-like quality. His films and photographs are usually presented in an installation context where screens and projections underpin the artist’s ceaseless exploration of illusions – whether optical or personal. Or, as Heltoft himself puts it in this interview:  “I choose to believe in illusion”. Perhaps this explains the many roles he has adopted in connection with his works – as a moustachioed dandy clad in velvet, tossing playing cards into a well; as the anaemic French writer Xavier de Maistre during his house arrest in 1794; as a toiling gold digger during the American gold rush, and now as a long-haired Neanderthal man clothed in furs and pelts.

Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, 2013.
Ulrik Heltoft / Miljohn Ruperto, Voynich Botanical Studies, 2013.

What do you show at the exhibition?

Twelve photographs of plants entitled Voynich Botanical Studies, done in collaboration with Miljohn Ruperto, and the video The Origin of Specimen 52v, in which a Neanderthal man plants a seed in a geocentric universe. It is about the origins of one of the plants, Specimen 52v, which is also featured in one of the photographs. 

The photographs are enigmatic – strangely stylised botanical motifs? What is the deal with these flowers and plants? Where do they come from? 

Actually no-one knows. Our images are based on the illustrations in the Voynich manuscript, which presumably dates back to the 16th century. The manuscript was written in an unknown language and in encrypted writing. It is full of simple botanical studies – drawings of unidentifiable plants that only appear in this manuscript.

What is that special technique you use?

The plants were created using 3D software to make a skeleton frame – and onto this frame we then added textures based on a range of photographs and scans of materials, e.g. an old carpet, potato peels, and whatever else you can find with a surface capable of mimicking microscopic plant parts. The 3D plants were then transferred onto photographic material that enables us to develop the pictures in a darkroom. That is where the plants take on their existence in the physical world – born out of light and light-sensitive material.

Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.
Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.

Several of your photographic and filmic works feature you as the protagonist, clad in a variety of costumes. In the work 1848/1954/2060 – And Other Specimens (2012) you filled the part of a gold digger during the American gold rush of 1848, and in the new The Origin of Specimen 52v you play a Neanderthal man. What is the significance of the fact that you yourself take on these parts?

It is probably because I usually work on the basis of a linguistic or text-based draft, such as in my series 59 Illustrations (2006). Here I took my point of departure in oral instructions for a drawing that the writer Raymond Roussel gave to a private detective that passed on the instructions to an illustrator who executed the drawings, which would later be featured in Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique (1932). I followed the same instructions, but offered a photographic and personal interpretation. In that sense you could say that my personal presence is part of the interpretation. That is also why it makes sense for me to be featured as a character in many of my works.

You have lived in the US for many years, you have an American family, and you have studied at Yale. Does all this affect the ways in which you conceive and think about art?

Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.
Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.

Combining different disciplines is important to me, and that probably stems from there. My grandfather is an engineer and used to design cameras, medical equipment, and missile control systems. At the same time he would potter around in his basement, creating Baroque furniture out of Brazilian rosewood for his living room, hammering out silver dishes, and making a range of strange apparatuses for everyday use. For example a titanium cheese cutter complete with ball bearings and a Teflon coating to enable it to handle the tough Danish cheese crusts. When you’re enrolled at the School of Art at Yale you take half your credits outside the subject of art. That gave me the chance to study other subjects while being taught by true experts in their field. I think this gave me the opportunity to try out what happens when you transpose one set of skills and knowledge into a different discipline, but it also opened my eyes to the act of studying in itself – of getting immersed in a subject and using it in your own project. I was interested in working with that.

How would describe your working method, your approach?

Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.
Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.

I work along two different tracks – one is about quick and improvised work, while the other is really slow, and I always have several projects on the go simultaneously.  For example, Voynich Botanical Studies is a long-term project that will extend across the next couple of years. The manuscript contains 129 plants, and the work will evolve over the course of the time it will take us to make them. As yet we have made 16. The film shown at the exhibition is more of an instant piece, but it contains ideas that I have had “stored away” in my mental sketchbook for quite some time, such as the Neanderthal figure and the geocentric universe – where the Earth is the centre – that I wanted to work with.  My works are always interlinked in a series of aliases – references that open them up towards other works. The film is an alias for the photographs because of the plant discovered by the Neanderthal man. In this sense the model or matrix for my works lie hidden inside the different works and in each of them. If you look carefully each work incorporates a number of references that link it to previous and future works.

Are there any contemporary artists or projects that inspire you?

So many fantastic things are happening on the Copenhagen art scene right now. Rolf Nowotny has just had a magnificent exhibition at Christian Andersen – which featured a cool chant by Tim Morton, by the way. I am really looking forward to seeing Jeanette Sætre’s exhibition at Antechamber. Or you can go to Statens Museum for Kunst to see Danh Vo’s Statue of Liberty-project. It is very inspiring that the art scene around me creates and shows really good stuff. There is something about being a spectator and a part of things at the same time that gives you energy and inspiration.

Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.
Ulrik Heltoft, The Origin of Specimen 52v, 2013.

You appear to be addressing the phenomenon of illusion in almost all your works. Could you elaborate on why?

I don’t think I see it like that … Illusions can be seductive, and even though I know that I go along with it I am not really that crazy about illusion now that I think about it. That probably has something to do with the fact that the concept of illusion presupposes that what we are seeing is “distorted” and that there is something else that is “right”. I probably choose to believe in the illusion. In the Voynich Botanical Studies we are quite unlike most of those who work with it; we are not interested in decoding the manuscript. Quite the contrary.

Why did you become an artist?

I was attracted by the mysterious, by the inexplicable, and by the fact that meaning might reside outside of the object itself – by how an action or object might be a source of reflection and awareness. I thought that was tremendously exciting.  When I was very young, around 14 or 15, I took out all the books about art I could find at the library and got caught up in it. I really appreciate the librarian who made the selection – just think how I might have wasted my time! Anyway, I originally wanted to be an architect, so it took some time before I realised that I really wanted to be an artist. Peter Bach Nicolaisen aka Stormhat – it wouldn’t have happened without him. He is a wise and knowledgeable man.