IT SEEMS unlikely that transcendence and the divine can be invoked through a plain white sheet of A4 paper, but that is part of what motivates the Danish artist Peter Callesen.
The 53-year-old has been working for several years with a material that he says is “as close as you can get to nothing”, representing “the fragility of the human condition”.
Its disposability and low value provide him with a universal blank canvas through which to explore life’s big questions, and the incongruity of choosing a small, everyday item is intentional. “It’s cheap, accessible, and easy to work with,” he says, “and something that everybody knows. That intrigues me. It’s just a flat piece of paper, but I hone it, animate it, make it come alive.”
Peter CallesenFramed papercut, On the other side (2009)
He is interested, he says, in exploring “transformation, transcendence — things that transform from one dimension into another”. Paper has been key to unlocking that impulse. Three-dimensional angels burst from the page, birds fly through broken windows — or are felled by them — and ladders rise from the earth towards heaven, all created from plain white paper.
Works such as Resurrection, which shows the standing figure of Jesus formed from a piece of A4 paper, and The Lost Sheep — in which a small, solitary sheep moulded from a paper cut-out of a cloud looks up to the paper sky, to the place from which it came — play with the negative space left when paper is cut away and repurposed.
Nothing is discarded. The cut-away parts of the page form part of his work, too, as in My God, My God, which represents Jesus’s anguished cry from the cross. Callesen describes it as “the silhouette of Christ looking up into a huge empty space,” from which “I cut out the silhouette and made a small paper ball of it, and it’s lying, rolling in the bottom of the frame.” The remnant of the paper face lies crumpled in a corner, thrown away like rubbish, emphasising the rejection.
Drawing on the Bible comes naturally to him. “I grew up in a Christian home,” he says; “so, Christianity and biblical stories and theological themes have always been a part of my way of thinking, my world, my vocabulary. It’s also a natural thing for me to make art about, because it’s a part of my life.”
OFTEN, there is a message in a message, although he does not have an evangelistic goal for his work. “If you make art with a purpose of convincing somebody else that this is the way they should believe, then, maybe, that becomes the main thing in the art and not the art itself,” he says.
He is sceptical about the idea — and the value — of so-called “Christian art”. “Somebody once said that political art often is bad art, whereas good art always is political. I don’t know if that’s true. But perhaps you could say the same about Christian art.”
Instead, he prefers to explore whatever unresolved question is occupying his mind. “Dealing with some of the subjects of Christianity and biblical things, that’s what I find interesting.”
This is often prompted, he says, “when I have something to question, or some kind of intervention with God or some kind of struggle. That’s where I find it interesting to make art about my belief — because, in general, most of my art has to do with quite heavy subjects.”
Describing the thinking behind My God, My God he was struck by the parallels between Christ’s humanity and his own. The story, he says, “shows the humanity of Christ and also that he could also feel loss and disbelief. So it adds his humanity and his way of feeling how we feel. And, at the same time, it also raised this big theological question: how could Jesus, who was God — how could he feel left behind by God?”
Peter CallesenDetail from Light of Man in the Margrethekirken Valby, Copenhagen (2017_. It shows the figure of Christ made from the cut-out elements missing from the background paper
Using A4 has allowed him play with scale, embrace fragility, and bring the element of surprise to his work. “I think it gives me the freedom as an artist to work with even more heavier subjects,” he says. “If my works were made in bronze and ten times as big, then it I think it would be more difficult to work with heavy subjects.
“But, where it’s so small and so delicate, and it’s just made from paper, which we all know, I think it’s easier and it becomes at the same time more playful. Maybe not so heavy, but it still is if you get close and look into what it’s about.”
WHILE his works in A4 are striking and yet compact, he has attempted large paper creations, too, including an early performance piece in which he rowed across water in a slowly sinking paper boat. It was, he says, a statement on failure. Paper has also had a more positive and personal significance. When he married in 2019, his wife, Anne, surprised him by arriving in a handmade paper wedding dress, printed with flowers. “It was her gift to me,” he says.
Few things are quite as they seem. Study of a large figure, shape, or image will often reveal surprising detail. In Human Ruin, the outline of a man’s body lying flat is surrounded by broken-down parts of a cathedral.
A viewer walking around it, Callesen says, “probably wouldn’t notice that the plan or the silhouette of the building is a body, whereas if you see it from another perspective, a higher perspective, then you see it all”.
Transparent God is a life-size, robed human body, without a head, standing in the middle of a large sheet of paper, surrounded by the spaces left by paper cut-outs. Only close inspection that reveals the figure is made entirely from cut-outs of people. The robe and hands formed of tiny human figures, and they climb from the bottom to the top of the robe, where their heads form an uneven outline.
Peter CallesenAltar of Mirrors, Copenhagen Cathedral (2006), inspired by 1 Corinthians 13.12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face”
Transcendence is an ongoing theme of his work, which has also found a home in places of worship, often through commissions. Altar of Mirrors, in Copenhagen Cathedral, is inspired by a verse in 1 Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
It is designed to accommodate one worshipper at a time, who sits in an alcove, facing shards of broken mirror. Reflected in each is a refracted image of an icon, lit by an intimate warm glow.
Callesen is hoping to start work on another church piece, based on the story of Moses and the burning bush. “We often have this kind of place where you can go and light a candle. And, often, it’s made as a globe or round shape symbolising the earth, but I have an idea of trying to work with a story from the Bible with the burning thorn bush. I thought it would be interesting to work with that, because that is an image of the presence of God.”
HE SAYS that he prays — sometimes. “I can use God. I’m not so good at doing it on a regular, everyday basis, but I definitely need him when it’s all black.”
Does he find that his work is a conversation with God and acts as a kind of physical prayer? Only some of his work deals with faith and biblical subjects, and, he says, “to some extent, it is a conversation with God; but I don’t see it as prayers.” He pauses before adding: “Depends how you consider prayers, I guess.”
Art provides him with a way of wrestling with his own concerns. “I definitely see it as a conversation with myself about being, and the condition of life, but perhaps that also means talking to God.”
He is convinced of the insight that art can offer in seeing the world anew. “There’s a person who once said that interesting art is the recognition of something you haven’t seen before — which, of course, is a paradox; but I think it’s interesting or right in the sense that I would like to make art which moves people, but also where there’s some kind of recognition. At the same time, it should also make them surprised, and they should see the world from a new angle.
“So, this shouldn’t only be a recognition, but also something that can make people realise or see new images of the world.”