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Interview

Work in Progress

Vilmer Engelbrecht’s Dreamlike Painterly World

Continuing our series of conversations with contributors to the world of Slowness, we speak to the Danish artist Vilmer Engelbrecht, who recently spent two solitary weeks at Arnesse, our Prussian manor house opening this summer in the Uckermark, creating a mural that leaves the room in limbo between past, present and future.

  • Photography Jose Cuevas

Continuing our series of conversations with contributors to the world of Slowness, we speak to the Danish artist Vilmer Engelbrecht, who recently spent two solitary weeks at Arnesse, our Prussian manor house opening this summer in the Uckermark, creating a mural that leaves the room in limbo between past, present and future.

  • Photography Jose Cuevas

The painterly world of Vilmer Engelbrecht is as rough around the edges as it is ephemeral and dream-like. In muted, earthy tones, his figures and landscapes are psychologically intense, often heavy in symbolism, and yet simple in their timelessness. Born in 2000 in Copenhagen, Engelbrecht recently enrolled in the Düsseldorf art academy, where professor Peter Doig counts among the young painter’s influences, alongside modernist masters such Edvard Munch, Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne. In collaboration with the Berlin gallery Cabin, we commissioned him to create a mural at our Prussian manor house, Arnesse. And late last summer, while immersed in the quiet of the still-unfinished countryside estate, Engelbrecht filled the walls of one of the salons with otherworldly creatures and celestial bodies, drawing inspiration from the surrounding nature and historical architecture. His interest is in the mystical power of nature, the ineffability of time and the frailty of memory – concerns that echoed through our conversation when we met up to discuss his latest work.

Slowness You’ve spent two weeks here at Arnesse working on this mural. What was the experience like and how did it influence your process?
Vilmer Engelbrecht Yes, I’ve had the house to myself. After a long summer with a lot of social activity, that has actually been very nice. It’s such a mysterious and beautiful place, so I wanted to stay here through the night, even though there’s not much electric light, so I've only been able to work during the day. I’ve felt completely immersed in the place, looking out of the windows, going for walks around the lake. The main theme of this work is nature, so in that way being here has been an inspiration. You walk for thirty seconds into the forest, and it’s a whole other atmosphere.
S So what is it like at night here? Were you ever scared?
V At night when I’d been working late and I was tired, I’d come down to look at the sunset, walking through these dark hallways… At those times I definitely had to pull myself together.
Vilmer Engelbrecht

“I didn’t plan the motifs ahead of time, but found that they were in the walls already. On the first day I saw the outline of a figure here and then another figure there – they created themselves in a way. I started with the red colour, traces of yellow and blue were already there, and I just worked them into the picture. So you could say that it was the the walls that made the piece, I just listened, observed, and responded.”

S Do you believe in ghosts?
V Of course. But maybe more as a kind of energy. You can really feel the history here. The old world decadence of the architecture, this aristocratic feeling. It’s crazy what it does to you, living in this house, to look up and see this light coming in. You become sensitive to the environment.
S The mural does have that energy of the in-between, kind of linking what the house is now with what it will become and what it has been. It’s interesting that these buildings were built in stark contrast to nature, as something modern and ornate. But then when they fall into this state of transition or disrepair, they become almost like nature, in a way. How much did you want to know about the history of the building as you were working on this piece?
V Not much, actually. It was only last night that I started to read a bit about it. Instead I wanted to develop my own take on the place and its atmosphere, to focus on this room and the different ways it might be experienced. The walls are very characteristic in themselves, there’s something very aesthetic about how rough they are, and I wanted to keep that. I started to see characters and motifs for the mural all around. Like faces in the texture of the walls, and the trees outside as dancers, gesturing with their arms, almost crawling towards the water.
Vilmer Engelbrecht

“I’ve felt completely immersed in the place, looking out of the windows, going for walks around the lake. The main theme of this work is nature, so in that way being here has been an inspiration. You walk for thirty seconds into the forest, and it’s a whole other atmosphere.”

S I know you are interested in the concept of pareidolia. Can you talk more about that?
V Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon, which is sometimes linked to people with anxiety or schizophrenia, or to taking drugs. But it basically means to recognise faces or figures, for instance, in a power socket, or, like me, in the trees and the walls. I didn’t plan the motifs ahead of time, but found that they were in the walls already. On the first day I saw the outline of a figure here and then another figure there – they created themselves in a way. I started with the red colour, traces of yellow and blue were already there, and I just worked them into the picture. So you could say that it was the the walls that made the piece, I just listened, observed, and responded.
S It doesn’t have a super finished feeling. How did you know when to stop?
V There were times when I wanted to fill up everything, but in the end decided I wanted to keep some empty spaces. I try not to compete with what is already there. I think that the nerve of the piece is in its sketch-like quality. It’s closer to drawing, and that’s where I want it to be.
Vilmer Engelbrecht

“I really like the idea of metamorphosis: bodies turning into trees, animals with human heads. How everything merges and connects. I also painted Icarus, flying towards the sun, as well as the cycles of the moon. I guess the central question I’m posing is to do with how humans try to understand the world by mirroring it, for instance through art.”

S There are a lot of symbols in the work, like animals, religious symbols and celestial ones. What are some of the themes that you are working with?
V Mother nature is very strong to me. I painted her carrying water in her blouse with a facial expression that is comforting but also a little scary. For me, it's a reminder that nature is not perfect. Reconnecting with nature means developing a sense that we a part of this system full of cracks, holes, and contrasting layers. I really like the idea of metamorphosis: bodies turning into trees, animals with human heads. How everything merges and connects. I also painted Icarus, flying towards the sun, as well as the cycles of the moon. I guess the central question I'm posing is to do with how humans try to understand the world by mirroring it, for instance through art. Is it possible to know what it feels like for a bird to fly at the first light of morning? Does it enjoy flying as much as I enjoy watching it? I think we get closest to answering these questions through imagery and imagination, where all of a sudden there are no boundaries between you and the bird, between its flight and your idea of flying as such.
S It reminds me of this poem by this 12th century Chinese poet Xin Qiji, when he writes: "Oh, how lovely the green mountains look to me! Do I look the same in the eyes of the trees and flowers?” It’s a very beautiful, spiritual idea. Do you have some kind of ritual or habits that you rely on in your creative process?
V In my life in general, I'm quite controlled. But when I make art, I go into a totally different state, where I really let everything loose and immerse myself so much that I become the thing that I'm painting. If I didn't paint, I think it would be too much control, almost.
S How would you like your work to be experienced?
V There are obviously a lot of weird narratives and symbols in the work, but, through the monochromatic colour scheme, I also hope to create a kind of immersive and peaceful experience. I don't want it to be part of the luxury, like decoration, but rather to look like it was always here, and maybe inspire a moment of wonder or awe.

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