Mika Utzon Popov

Mika Utzon Popov's peripatetic life has unfolded between and beyond the beech forests of Denmark, Sydney's sun-drenched Northern Beaches, and the cliffs of Mallorca—locales that are indelibly imprinted on both his personal philosophy and artistic output. Equally formative was an upbringing within the orbit of Jørn Utzon—an architectural legend who instilled within his grandson a sensitivity to the poetics of light and space, and the limitless potential of their interrelationship.

Jørn Utzon was guided by the ideology that architecture is not an external form, but a frame enclosing a collection of ritualised events. For Mika Utzon Popov art can also be a ritualised experience. He emphasises that the most profound encounters are designed and experienced as a procession where art, architecture, atmosphere, and environment conspire to afford transcendence. Utzon Popov cites examples such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace placed on the pinnacle of the monumental Daru staircase at the Louvre Museum, and the experience of rounding a corner at the Musée d’Orsay to be “punched in the guts” by the splendid reveal of Van Gogh’s L’église d’Auvers-sur-Oise, vue du chevet, 1890.

Sometimes the procession and the reveal can be softer. Our conversation drifted towards Richard Serra’s The Gate in the Gorge, 1983-86: two sheets of Corten steel that like a lock ajar on a canal, form a gate through which one gains passage between high and low terrain to reach the shoreline boundary of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s extensive grounds, located in Denmark. Utzon Popov describes how the behemoth steel structures emerge from the earth to inspire gentler, quieter movement. We agree that Elmgreen & Dragset’s spectacular Powerless Structures, Fig. 11, 1997, installed within the museum’s Panorama Room, engineers the same alchemy of art, architecture, atmosphere, and environment to superb effect. The site-specific sculpture features a diving board that penetrates and protrudes from a thick pane of glass, extending toward an abyss of sea and sky. On a silvery still and cloudy day when the horizon melts into abstraction, the Ganzfeld effect seems to tease the higher visual cortex.

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is famed for its sense of welcome, and the cohesion of its modernist architecture, permanent works, artistic program, expansive gardens, and location on the Øresund Sound, — a “total experience” and model for a life of art, and art of life, that remains imprinted on Utzon Popov, who was raised in the nearby coastal town of Hellebæk.

Over the years, site-specific commissioned works such as Illuminate, 2021, Poble, 2018, Triptych, 2016, Coast, 2013 and First Movement, 2011, provided opportunities for Utzon Popov to craft wholistic experiences born of this essential dialogue between the material, social, and natural. Poble, for example, was a public art commission for a retirement development in Wollongong, New South Wales where the artist sought to counter symbolically the epidemic of loneliness through the employment of art as social structure. Utzon Popov explains that “the intention was to create a journey across the building, culminating in a sculptural plaça, a public square, with benches where people could share and reflect, meet and connect.”

After a period devoted to such commissioned projects in Australia and beyond, Utzon Popov is now tirelessly preparing for his first gallery exhibition in ten years. Courage at the Olsen Gallery in Sydney will consolidate the many material and conceptual chapters of a hugely diverse oeuvre. Utzon Popov describes his vision of the show as “an amalgam of my two-dimensional and three-dimensional work with bronze and textiles, plaster and paper, allowing these things to speak together in a similar voice.” Anchoring the exhibition will be a suite of new tapestries that build on the cultural heritage of the Balearic Islands; a location that, like Denmark, exudes a gravitational pull on the artist.

Jørn Utzon’s Mallorcan residence Can Lis was completed the same year as the Sydney Opera House. The home, perched atop a cliff with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, was meticulously designed as an ensemble of pavilions and courtyards, carefully oriented to harmonise with the surrounding topography and panoramic vistas. Utzon Popov spent almost all of his childhood summers in Can Lis and continues to spend time on the island with his mother, Lin. He reflects that “some of the greatest conversations and lessons I have had, have been at Can Lis,” a place he describes as “a platform of reverence that enhances the nature in which the building sits. It is, like the classic ruins and great buildings across the world, a place where you become intensely aware of the passing of time across its space. The building places you in eternity.” He is enamoured, further still, with the building’s broader setting. In describing the rich cultural history of the Balearic Islands, the artist highlights the fact that these lands have been shaped by a diverse array of influences over the centuries. As he puts it, “The Islands have been a crossroads of civilizations, visited, invaded, and influenced by peoples from all over the world.” Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera, today, are a palimpsest of Talayotic, Roman, Byzantine, Visigoth, Moorish, Phoenician, Spanish, and Catalan influences.

Utzon Popov perceives the traditional “siurell” figurines, now ubiquitous tourist souvenirs, as a poignant representation of the cultural mosaic that defines Mallorca. The petite clay anthropomorphic and zoomorphic creations, embellished with white lime and colourful patterns, represent a Cadavre exquis, of sorts. The siurell of today embodies the original creative impulse of the Phoenicians, whilst preserving the residues of successive cultures who transformed the figurines’ form and function. “To some, they became toys, to others, protectors, and to yet others, ritual objects associated with a Saint . . .” he says, “There is something inherently beautiful to me about this amalgamation, adaptation, and endurance.” Other artists have been equally moved by their magic. Joan Miró, a long-time resident of the island, professed to have “observed them constantly,” captivated by the individuality of their physiognomies, and their association with festivals and courting rituals.

With the siurell tapestries, Utzon Popov explained a desire to “create a series of works that amalgamated a sense of nature with the cultural artisanry the island has developed over thousands of years.” The textile works draw on the lively palette of the figurines; the lyricism of Miró; and a repertoire of borrowed and invented apotropaic icons. True to his Scandinavian roots, he was interested in exploring the effect of textiles to enhance the hygge or cosiness of a space through the softening of sound and the comforting nature of their tactility. Expanding on previous incarnations, the new works will feature much longer threads, variously plaited, entwined, and unprocessed, such that colour will spill forth into the room. Embedded within this stylistic device is a subtle reference to Norse mythology, specifically the Norn deities Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld, who are responsible for weaving the threads of fate. Utzon Popov notes that “I like the idea that the stories that pour out of these tapestries speak to the uncanny connections and random events that define our lives and form our totality.”

The exhibition itself was marked by wonderful kismet. Utzon Popov explains that most siurells employ a combination of two colours: green and red, yellow and red, blue and yellow or green and yellow—their combination and design demarcating individual makers and locales. “I had been working with the uniquely Mallorcan red and green siurells. When I presented Tim Olsen with one of my figurines ahead of the exhibition, he revealed a striking yellow and blue piece from the neighbouring island of Ibiza.” Since then, Utzon Popov has extended his range of colours to include the entire spectrum, with the addition of black, pink, and light blue. These new hues will be used in a series of night pieces, providing a striking contrast to evocations of dazzling Balearic sunlight.

Utzon Popov’s work betrays a desire to reconcile three starkly contrasting cultural and geographical homes. The artist Sally Mann has described the Welsh conception of hiraeth, or “distance pain,” as “a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love.” For Utzon Popov, this longing for people and places was a constant presence in a peripatetic life. Instead of succumbing to melancholy, he sought to “distil the best parts of these things, pull them together,” and allow them to inhabit both his being and his art.

This article was originally publishing in Artist Profile, Issue 63

14 June – 8 July, 2023 
Olsen Gallery, Sydney

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