Nov 2022
Essay written on occasion of Dag Erik Elgin’s exhibition ‘Provenir’ (2022).

Dag Erik Elgin, Provenir (2022). Installation view, Gallery Opdahl, Stavanger. 


Over the past twenty years Manhattan has slimmed down considerably. The world’s skinniest building, the Steinway tower, colloquially known as the coffee-stirrer, is only the most recent addition to New York's increasingly anorexic lineup of skyscrapers. The shift towards an architecture of emaciation is driven in part by quirks in the cities urban zoning laws (air rights in particular), but perhaps more importantly, a drive towards the liquefaction of real estate. While real estate traditionally represented the prime example of the fixed asset, the super-thin skyscrapers are shaped to circulate markets as fluidly as possible, designed for longevity, marketable recognizability and financial efficiency. Coincidentally, the slenderness which turns the towers into a liquid asset moves them in the wind to the point of inhospitality. Rather than shelters, these swaying, largely uninhabited buildings serve as flexible storages of capital, circulating markets freed from the burden of bodies. As one realtor assured potential buyers of condos in the coffee stirrer: 'If you tell someone you have an apartment at 111 West 57th Street, they'll know exactly who you are and what you are good for.' Not, as it were, where to find you.

The explosive price-growth of art on the private market, paintings in particular, can be attributed to a similar liquefaction process, albeit on different terms and with a different liquid style from that of the superslender pencil tower. For some time now, Zombie formalism has been the example par excellence of an aesthetics of financialization. But while the minute variations that characterized Zombie formalism seem to mirror financial derivatives logic of quick profitability, miniscule regulation and volatility, a separate financialized ‘style’ has emerged in the attempt at establishing paintings as more stable repositories of wealth. 

This style's site of aesthetic production is not the front of the canvas, but rather its back. Here, particularly true of works that have been around for a while, one might find a collage of business cards, certificates of ownership, bills of sale, traces of transport and inventory numbers—anything pertaining to its proprietorial circulation. While art historical interest in provenance research is reaching somewhat of a climax in the wake of discussions concerning the repatriation of stolen artworks, auction houses have long recognized its potential for financializing the recalcitrant and risk-prone art-asset. The establishment of a seamless history of ownership, along with the taxonomic branding of the proper name of the artists similar to the addresses of New York’s new skyscrapers ('a Picasso,' 'a Cezanne' and so forth), has provided artworks with the quantifiability and liquidity which was considered its primary shortcoming as an asset class. Because this taxonomical method of attributing value essentially eschews the image itself, linking value to provenance, the name of the artist, and market trends, rather than contingent notions of quality, works of art are free to circulate markets without ever really showing their face, attested to in the hermetic and climatized storage boxes that artworks circulating financial markets increasingly call their home. In the world of digitized storage the importance of the back of the painting is, of course, more symbolic than real. But far from separating art and the informational deluge its circulation entails, digital storage technologies hold the promise of a seamless suture of the image-asset to its provenance, storing auction-prices, successions of ownership and certificates of authenticity in even closer proximity than an artist's signature or the labels affixed directly to the stretcher. 

What can be observed in both of these liquefaction processes is that, by cutting the dwelling or sensing body out of the equation, capital seems to desire to reproduce itself tautologically. In Provenir Dag Erik Elgin marks the attempt to claim some of painting’s primacy over its own circulation, challenging this closed and tautological reproduction of financial speculation with the open-endedness of artistic speculation. Exemplified in Elgin's two empty plaster plinths, first shown at his intervention in the Vigeland Museum in 2020: Rough plaster copies of the plinths of Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures that muddle distinctions between copy and original inherent to the history of the plaster copy, and re-imagining the plinths of Vigeland's neoclassical project as minimalist sculptures. Here, Elgin muddles both the distinctions between the authentic artwork and copy, along with the taxonomic demarcations of periods and styles that financial systems exploit in the liquefaction of the artwork. Moreover, the perimetric figure of the plinth is, borrowing the formulation of Julia Kristeva, 'pulled into existence' by the clear imprint of the hand of the once-present artist, representing, in visceral terms, the aristic project of Elgin: Pulling the post-product back into the realm of artistic concern. If one imagines that the flood of data, material traces and referents generated by the circulation of artworks—pedestals, labels, plaster copies, ATA carnets, sales invoices, auction catalogs, archival material, and so on—threatens to bury the image beneath itself by rendering it redundant, then Elgin attempts to regain some control by entering this material back into the pictorial field.

Take La Collection Moderne (Munch, Starry Night), where Elgin presents an empty frame next to a painted registration of Edvard Munch's eponymous painting. The registration refers to the museal labelling of artworks, but furthermore conveys a detailed account of the artwork's provenance as researched by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, whose collection currently includes the work. The 18th-century frame last adorned the painting at an exhibition at Henie Onstad Art Center in 1978 according to a stamp on its back, and was acquired by Elgin at an auction. While the painting initially was a gift from Munch to Christian Krohg, Munch later reacquired the work to sell it to Fridtjof Nansen. Its subsequent journey through a string of illustrious collectors, a trading corporation in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands, before finally finding its way to the Getty, testifies to the painting's many faces besides the pictorial: platonic gift, financial asset, and artifact. A finished work, future changes in ownership will not register on Elgin's canvas, existing itself as a frozen point in time of Starry Night's circulation.

Elgin's works are themselves by no means exempt from financial circulation—certainly not in the context of a gallery exhibition. Addressing this point in the series Originals, Elgin appropriates paintings through the repainting of works that are either beyond financial reach, have been lost or exist somewhere outside of the market. Rather than the historicist desire to relive or experience the past ‘as it was,’ these repetitions are better understood as the re-animation and displacement of dormant pictorial material. None of Elgin's Originals are for sale; instead, they are routinely reused in exhibitions, allowing the artist to seize control over their circulation. Circulation is here understood in terms of the production of counter-factual histories as opposed to that of material wealth.

In Provenir, the series after which the exhibition takes its name, the artist has flipped the canvas, turning the site reserved for traces of provenance into the pictorial. Here, Elgin has composed the picture with squares whose dimensions are sampled from labels and inscriptions found on the backs of historical paintings. They are, however, abstracted beyond recognition, so that they may neither fulfill their function as liquefactors of the art assert nor as historical sources. Purpose-built hinges leave just enough space between the wall and the painting for the viewers to catch a glimpse of the recto-cum-verso of the works, symbolically integrating any future traces of provenance that the paintings may create into the works themselves.

In Originals (The Black Sun), Elgin’s reimagining of Mikalojus Čiurlionis' Black Sun is presented next to its museal registration. Čiurlionis’ original was lost sometime during the Russian Revolution of 1917, its last documented owner being the composer Igor Stravinsky. Elgin’s liberal redoing of the Black Sun however, far from concedes that Čiurlionis' painting now only exists in the purely post-productive realm of archive and rumor. The reference to Stravinsky recalls the performative circulation of the score, where reproduction and repetition are the principal modes of dissemination. Čiurlionis himself was a composer who became a painter. Conversely, Elgin here seems to paint according to the performative logic of music.

November 2022

© Gustav Elgin 2024