Wax works
by Ditte Vilstrup Holm

The primary material in Finn Naur Petersen’s exhibition, Frederiksberg Drawings, is wax. It has been smeared and painted on the walls, in several layers and in different nuances. A team of people were working for the whole week leading up to the exhibition’s opening, heating the wax into liquid form and painstakingly applying layer after layer after layer on the walls.

This is what artists have actually been doing for centuries. Well, not exactly like this. But they have been manipulating and experimenting with wax and other substances. For painters, it has been stone dust and liquids. For sculptors, it has been stones and precious materials. The artist cuts away, pulverizes, applies heat, shapes and sometimes blends the material together with other substances.

In this way, art has always been a laboratory. Not in the modern scientific sense of the word, of course. Art’s laboratory has more the character of being a space for alchemical experiments. When you initiate a process, you don’t really know what’s going to happen – and that is simultaneously art’s challenge and its driving force. Maybe it will all fall to the ground. Maybe you’ll create gold.

Wax is a substance that can be manipulated by heating. At a temperature of approximately 45° Celsius, it becomes liquid. In the week leading up to the opening of the exhibition, a number of portable hotplates were standing inside Møstings Hus, in the middle of the exhibition hall’s floor, with large pots on top of them. They were melting soap-bar-shaped slabs of wax – and this liquid wax was subsequently painted on the walls, in layer after layer, while it was simultaneously cooling off, hardening, and settling in the form of rough impasto layers.

A small portion of the wax used here was beeswax; its yellow color can trigger associations with the beehive. Are we standing inside a beehive in Frederiksberg Park? A cubicle? A colony of its own? Is Frederiksberg Park a closed-off enclave? Is Frederiksberg? Wax is one of the many passing references in the exhibition to Møsting Hus’s placement in Frederiksberg and inside the cultivated nature of Frederiksberg Park. Inside the exhibition’s smaller rooms, there were drawings of plants, drawings that were cut out of a book that was first published in 1650, when Frederiksberg was originally laid out. The drawings were painted right into the wax.

We can also see the installation here as a bell-jar dome encompassing a cheese-dish. Wax is, for that matter, industrially produced and is used primarily in cheesemaking to make rinds – and then it also makes a special effect on the acoustics. It deadens the sounds in the rooms. Otherwise, industrial wax is used in making cosmetics, hair tonics, candles, shoe polish preparations and for insulating surfboards. It has many potentials – artistic ones, as well.

As a matter of fact, wax has a long history as an artistic material. Some of the earliest known sculptures from Egypt were created in wax. It was there, in ancient Egypt, that wax was used, later on, for painting portraits of the dead on the coffins. This is known as “encaustic painting”. Wax has also been used as a material in making bronze casts. But this is probably the first time that wax has been brushed onto all the walls in an exhibition and has accordingly been allowed to stand forth with its own autonomous, sensuous, aesthetic qualities.

And these are actually the qualities that matter most to Finn Naur Petersen. This applies to the wax’s transparent appearance and to its impasto solidification. This applies to its yellowish nuances, to its soft surfaces and to its acoustic effect. And moreover, this applies to the sensation that it is manipulable and that it allows the creative process to be registered and delineated in the manifestation of its application. We can see precisely how it was behaving when it was being painted on the walls. It can both last for centuries but can also melt if, for instance, the temperature in the room would change significantly.

In Finn Naur Petersen’s installations, there is always a dimension of time and transitoriness being put into play. His works typically exist only for the duration of the exhibition period. Like plants and animals in nature, the exhibition has a short life span. And the potential for transformation and the possibility of seeing the process leading up to the exhibition’s opening and the process during the exhibition’s course are essential aspects of the installation’s expression.

But why on earth should the exhibition space be a laboratory for experiments with wax? Historically, artists have experimented with their substances inside their studios. The rest of us saw only the final result. With installation art, however, the situation is different. Now it’s right here, in the middle of the exhibition space, that the substances are being manipulated. The laboratory has been moved out from the private sphere and into the public domain.

This is not only because the installation is being made on site; that the exhibition space has become a laboratory is also due to the fact that the material which is being manipulated is not only the wax on the walls but also the other discrete elements that form constituent parts of the exhibition: gold leaves, a translation into Arabic of N.F.S. Grundtvig’s text, the bird holding onto a branch, the lemons – all of these being small mementos of Finn Naur Petersen’s previous installations, which take on a new meaning here when they are conjoined with Frederiksberg's history as a nature reserve for the wealthy.

Those of us who enter into the installation are also materials in the laboratory. We are a part of that which is being manipulated. We are not merely eyes that behold a work of art. We are also bodies that are being sensuously exposed to the work. Finn Naur Petersen evokes this in a discreet way. The sound is slightly modified by the wax on the wall. The vision is affected by the wax’s yellowish tones; the impasto layers tingle in your fingers in response to your touch, and yes, you are allowed to touch them. And then there are a few porthole-shaped ventilation ducts that might or might not be open and might or might not be circulating air through the rooms and at the bottom of the large room’s perimeter, our feet are reflected in mirrors that are mounted in front of the exhibition rooms’ sources of heat.

The exhibition space at Møstings Hus makes its appearance with a distinctive sound, light and air, all of which offer testimony about the time that is passing and that couples itself to Frederiksberg's history and to the history of art, and of course, to the ongoing story of artist Finn Naur Petersen’s artistic praxis.


translated by Dan A. Marmorstein