Mark Sladen talks to the Danish artist, whose work stretched from sculptures and lamps to costumes and performance

By Mark Sladen

One Language Traveller, 2011 (installation view, Statens Museum for Kunst) photo: Anders Sune Berg, courtesy Max Wigram Gallery One Language Traveller, 2011 (installation view, Statens Museum for Kunst) photo: FOS and Kruger & Pardeller. Courtesy Andersen's Contemporary Bakery, 2012 (installation view) Photos: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy Andersen's Contemporary, Copenhagen Watchmaker, Max Wigram Gallery, 2012 (installation view) Courtesy Max Wigram Gallery and the artist

FOS’s recent social projects include Osloo, a floating public space featuring a bar, auditorium and radio station, launched in Copenhagen in 2010 and restaged at the Venice Biennale the next year. His largest installation to date was at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen in 2011, and included tented spaces featuring the artist’s own vitrines and artefacts, as well as a factory making arrowheads from soap. FOS is currently designing furniture for the Paris store of the fashion company Céline.

MARK SLADEN: Previously you have talked about the principle of ‘social design’, which I understand to describe how material products or architecture or behaviour or situations influence each other, in a kind of feedback system. Can you tell me more about the connection between the social and the material?

FOS: Well, if a material is part of a social surface it can interact with a social reality – but that reality needs to be inclusive, it needs to be aware of its physical surroundings. Sometimes you go into an office and you are wondering how the office can work in such a dreadful aesthetic condition, where the sociality has no consciousness of its physical surroundings. I think it’s about awareness and that awareness can happen through aesthetics, so I also think about where the artist’s role lies in an aestheticised real world. One role could be as part of creating a social awareness – which is actually about how the chair you sit on is impacting on what you’re going to say. Giving the chair this poetic role lies closest to my artistic approach.

Is this concept of social design still the guiding principle in your work?

FOS: I think there’s a big question mark about that. My practice has been like this: you are alone, another person enters and a third thing happens – a situation. I do a show, an experience arises and that’s the platform for the next show. Each work I do creates an outline, a periphery of a landscape, and the periphery indicates what the centre is. So each show tries to formulate different aspects of how the aesthetic and sociality intertwine, by using aesthetics in a very active way to create a social engine; or in a passive way where the aesthetics are more like a diagram or model of these principles (a dead work!).

But at this stage, on the other hand, I am actually moving inwards to a cellular scale. To put it differently: in earlier projects like Oslo Bar [a series of social events staged at various Copenhagen locations during the late-1990s, resurrected in 2010 as Osloo], the aesthetic is really a way of trying to define social groups. And then I say, ‘OK, so what creates material and what’s before material, what’s before language?’ So I’m moving inwards, and I guess that I’m just going to hit a dark field that is vibrating, and from there I probably have to move back into the light.

I wanted to ask you about display as a principle because it seems to me that your work often uses framing and display devices.

FOS: I use architecture and design to create a frame. We use frames every day to stop space, or to give a controlled extension to the body – as a first principle, architecture stops space and says things like: here you can sit; and this is how hard you can hit the nail.

The other thing about display relates to the accumulated experience through the last couple of shows. I had a show that was called All This Noise for Nothing, Nothing for Something Art [Statements, Art Basel, 2007], and I used the idea of the kuriositets kabinet – the ‘curiosity cabinet’ in English – which is the first structuring device that leads to the museum. This device was used to collect different exotic stuff – a little like YouTube today – but it was also developed to categorise species. Over time they needed a frame around them, and there you have the museum. So I use this tool of the curiosity cabinet to investigate ‘how something becomes something’, and I still use that frame in these displays, as with One Language Traveller at Statens Museum for Kunst.

In a way it is trying to introduce the idea of a sort of archaeological aesthetics – where it’s almost language, almost form and almost a sculpture. I think that my last couple of shows have been a lot about language: not just what I’m blowing out of my mouth – this air which creates a physicality in your head and which is quite remarkable – but also the language of objects. Maybe these terms such as ‘social design’ are a way to imagine what, if they could speak, these objects would say. I think that’s where these words or phrases come from. I think ‘archaeological aesthetics’ is the latest term on the list because that creates a sort of ambiguity in the sculpture. I think my work has this sort of archaeological aesthetics – especially the salt paintings and the spaghettilike sculptures that I’ve been doing.

I’d like to talk about two of your recent shows, the one in Copenhagen called Bakery [Andersen’s Contemporary, 2012] and the one in London called Watchmaker [Max Wigram Gallery, 2012]. Why these titles?

FOS: I think they’re the consequence of the accumulated experience that the exhibitions take on – because I’ve repeatedly wanted to create a different space, to define the gallery as a different space. It could be a café, it could be just a different setting, but the interior has always been a very important thing – creating a different frame rather than going into the white-cube frame (which opens up a different language).

I guess my experience is that I am working on many different layers: so why not simplify one layer, simplify it into a very comfortable image like a bakery. These titles were designed to create an open door into a more complex space. In the past I have used a lot of text – when people come into the space, there is a text describing a scenery, a situation, a thought – and I think that these titles try to do that, instead of me writing on the wall. These titles are me trying to simplify my work – because you read always in your life a certain degree of chaos.

The progression from the image of a bakery to the image of a watchmaker: what does that represent in the progression of your ideas?

FOS: Of course at one level the show in Copenhagen simply talks about a structure in which you cook something: you put different things in it, put it in the oven and then you have something else – you have a biological structure called a ‘Danish’, which is this delicious sweet!

The show in London was working with something close but different. It reflected the idea that time is a human construction and something we have to create within the infinite space of evolution in which we exist. We need to create stability within this endless movement so that our brain can understand – so this title speaks of this scientific structure that creates a clock.

We are actually working with two sets of reality, in a way, which are time and the system around time (like the North Pole is also a human construct). And all these images we create through a cultural stability – which is time and tradition – all these things become a reality, but then that reality exists also in a reality within nature. Nature has a different time setting, a different idea of space – a different idea of stress, for that matter. I feel it’s a constant fault line that we walk, when we walk down the street; it’s a constant junction between these two realities – like if you take two knives and sort of grind them up against each other, grrrr – so it’s a constant juxtaposition between those two edges.

One of the principles that you use in your work is the idea of a ladder of different states: from the solid to the liquid to the gaseous to the ethereal.

FOS: Each stage of a building process, of something that is being made in our society could work as a piece of art if it was frozen at a particular time – although we don’t see it as that because there is a different goal to it. This staging of a thing could be described as a story. You have a space; you have a lot of people – because people use the space, spaces are for people – and they are discussing or sharing or talking. And all this activity, all this movement, makes them sweat – and they continue doing so until the whole space gets damp. There’s damp on the ceiling and, when they’ve done that continuously, the vapour is going to be so heavy that it starts to fall, so there’s going to be puddles in the space. And the water’s going to seep through; and then it’s going to drip in the basement; and the basement drips are going to make these weird puddles – and those shapes are the lake that the artistic object arises from! I’m trying with this story to say how interrelated these things are. Maybe it starts with something physical that creates vapour, or maybe vice versa; but it’s a constant flux between those two, like the weather.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of ArtReview