We live at a time when the dream of escaping the stress of the modern world is probably greater than ever. Young people are moving away from cities to pursue a life closer to nature, and the longing for a simpler life is a romantic and cherished fantasy for many.
But what if the dream does not hold water? What if escaping the noise of the big city and choosing ‘natural living’ fails to live up to what we see on film? What if all our neuroses, anxieties and inadequacies fail to evaporate once we throw on an Icelandic sweater and head into the woods?
The story of the artist withdrawing to commune with nature to find divine inspiration or their inner voice is a familiar theme – from Thoreau’s classical Walden on his retreat to the untouched nature of the US, to the name of one of the oldest art museums in the world, the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, referencing the myth of art best being contemplated in splendid isolation. Since graduating from the Funen Art Academy, Anna Bak has dedicated her art practice to investigating the myths and paradoxes spun by the encounter between the artist and isolation in the wilderness, and the destinies associated with that encounter. In previous works she has explored how both botanists and amateur scientists were ridiculed or ostracised during their own lifetime, as well as investigated the political – and potentially lethal – sides of escaping into nature to prepare for doomsday in ‘prepper’ culture, or the iconic example of the Unabomber sending letter bombs to the heart of civilisation from his self-imposed exile deep in the woods.
In Hermit, Anna Bak’s first major solo exhibition in Copenhagen, the artist documents and processes a radical experiment from the summer of 2018, when she moved into the Swedish wilderness for a month without any contact with the outside world. She spent the month investigating the psychological impact of the isolation, routine, boredom and her contact with nature, producing a series of drawings, prints and sculptures as well as a video, all of which can now be seen at Overgaden. Many of the works focus on the passage of time and repetition, as in a series of clay mountains – one for each day of the experiment – and 30 self-portraits that register changes in the artist’s state of mind during her time in the wilderness.
A video work filmed during the experiment is central to the exhibition. With diary-like observations and shamanistic rituals it evokes three mythical characters who raise issues of identity, origins and self-reliance. Like the other works in the exhibition, the video expresses the doubt and frustration that can emerge in the face of the lack of others as a mirror for the self, and in the face of the fact that there may be no spiritual enlightenment in escaping civilisation.
Anna Bak (b. 1985) graduated from the Funen Art Academy in 2012. In 2014 she was granted a residency at the post-academic research institute Jan Van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. In Denmark she has exhibited at art institutions like GL STRAND in Copenhagen, Kunsthal NORD in Aalborg, and the House of Art and Design in Holstebro – and internationally at Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen, Studio 47 in Amsterdam, and Glucksman Gallery in Cork. In 2015 she launched the book Wilderness Survival – A Guide to the Aesthetics of Survivalism, published by the Dutch publisher and exhibition space Onomatopee.