Marie Raffn’s sculptures resist commonly accepted absolutism of language

When Danish sculptor Marie Raffn plays with language to suggest that meaning is susceptible to change, she advertently questions the idea of knowledge received.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : May 12, 2022

What if the words fall short to convey the meaning or the idea of the language as a conduit is no more an obvious statement - this state of disruption of the language could remove the people from the zone of certainty. Denmark-based sculptor, Marie Raffn, creates installations as a way to physically highlight what happens when the language system undergoes a dent. With an experimental approach, Raffn distorts the given uniformity of language. Her work gauges the human response to a situation once the received knowledge of the language as an absolute subject has been disturbed. As the sculptures are twisted and turned in the hands of the artist, the viewers are prompted to probe what has been held incontrovertible until now. The exercise of reading and writing are crucial to Raffn’s art practice. As someone who likes to work in layers and hops on several tracks simultaneously, be it notes, scribbles, sketches, small poems, Raffn explores the development of semiotics. With the sculptures, she plays with the language, not as an intangible entity, but “as a concrete material that can be manipulated so that meanings shift and change.”

01 min watch An oval, a vowel, an e, spatial drawing, performance | STIRworld
An oval, a vowel, an e, spatial drawing, performance Video: Jonas Frausing and Norf Studio

From the formative years, Raffn frequented children’s art school while attending primary school and high school. But it was at Malmö Art Academy while pursuing BFA, followed by an MFA, that she was introduced to the humorous conceptual art practices of 1960-70s. In an interview with STIR, Raffn talks about the impact of the text-based works by the artists such as John Baldessari and Sol LeWitt. “I worked quite concretely with words and played around with language in a dry and perhaps ironic manner. Influenced by typography and the tradition of concrete poetry, I was eager to combine form and content. Later it turned out more broadly as visual poetry influenced by Oulipo literature (works using constrained writing techniques),” she says. As someone who found it difficult to express herself best in the speech, the written word promised to be a source of succour. It was at the workshops, part of the programme at the Art Academy, that she learned to push the techniques and materials to their limits. Combining this interest in language with textual worlds also implies a consistent fascination with exploring semiotics in my way. Raffn adds, "When I present sculptural signs, mostly symbols, in an exhibition space, these signs are part of a larger semiotic – i.e., systems and structures which sometimes render theories or conditions from the real world visible."

Close up of piece: An oval, a vowel, an e, Spatial drawing | STIRworld
Close up of piece: An oval, a vowel, an e, spatial drawing Image: Jacob Friis-Holm Nielsen

Raffn confirms the exhibition of An oval, a vowel, an e at Vestjyllands Kunstpavillon, Videbaek, Denmark, was a physical manifestation of a 'writing in space'. Since it served as the starting point of the display, “I planned an experiment where the exhibition space served as an enormous piece of paper for a fragmented drawing to discover bodily - a play on 2D and 3D with regards to perception.” To visually articulate the conceptual idea around language and its transformation the exhibition demanded a lot of physical work: from bending, rolling to welding metal. The metal was cast with the use of pigments in the end. Some casts remain in their nest, others move around in the space. The artist explains, "These pieces twist and stretch the language like physical sculptures, and the feeling of lightness reflects the fragility of language in an immediate and direct way. I could only do the production of this work myself; it had to be my own imprint and design. If I let someone else do it, it would feel analogous to mixing handwriting. In the beginning, I felt somehow like a font designer working on a large scale, in 3D. I had to spend time studying the thickness, width of the steel, and the shapes' maximum height to make them balance without any risks of falling."

aniso∙lepido∙di∙hymeno-ptera, Installation view at the Kunsthal Kongegaarden | STIRworld
aniso∙lepido∙di∙hymeno-ptera, Installation view at the Kunsthal Kongegaarden Image: Jenny Sundby

Soon when Raffn could deftly handle the final metal she began to identify its similarities with the creatures or animals in some of the pieces. Later the sculptures were classified into abstract poems and fictitious species. She gives an explicit account of the sonic systems integral to the space of the exhibition, "The combination of a notational hum through the room and other animals' ways of communication, made me curious to approach the final spatial drawing in the exhibition space as a score; meaning some of the shapes would serve as symbols for sounds. Working with scores is something I return to as it blends abstraction and language in abstract translations. The outcome turned out to be a score for abstract sounds of and between species, performed on violin. Whale songs, snapping shrimps, echolocation clicks, bird chirps and monotonous yet rhythmic waves inspired these sounds. The interpretation was performed at the opening by violinist Helene Buchhave Lind.”

Close up of the piece: di∙hymeno-ptera, aniso∙lepido∙di∙hymeno-ptera| STIRworld
Close up of the piece: di∙hymeno-ptera, aniso∙lepido∙di∙hymeno-ptera Image: Jenny Sundby

Interestingly, the map of the exhibition space, as part of the immersive exhibition, made at a scale of 1:40 with both graphical and textual representation of the works and their composition in the room lends an added meaning to the reading of the sculptures. "The division of the maps into fields suggests," says Raffn, "different reading directions that point towards a Cubist writing style, where the object is broken up and reassembled in an abstract form."

Untitled, aniso∙lepido∙di∙hymeno-ptera, Detail view | STIRworld
Untitled, aniso∙lepido∙di∙hymeno-ptera, Detail view Image: Jenny Sundby

For Raffn art is an intimate, highly subjective and phenomenological experience that might awaken something unfamiliar inside. With a hope that her work presents a nuanced view by imagining alternative worlds and systems through poetry and abstract mindset, Raffn admits, “It is extremely important to remain critical and to care for the use of language - also be challenging, renewing, and playing with the limitations and infinities of language. How life on earth is treated motivates me, and I hope to shed light on the dangers of the biodiversity crisis we are all facing if nothing seriously gets done.”

Map (Scale 1:40, edition of 222), An oval, a vowel, an e | STIRworld
Map (Scale 1:40, edition of 222), An oval, a vowel, an e Image: Jacob Friis-Holm Nielsen

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