(born 1964) is one of the foremost of the generation of Danish poets to emerge onto the scene in the early Nineties. Søndergaard’s first collection of poetry, Sahara i mine hænder (Sahara In My Hands) was published in 1992. This debut collection has been followed by a succession of works which have won him both critical acclaim and a number of literary awards. Language is Morten Søndergaard’s medium and his métier, one which he practises not only as a poet, but also as a translator, sound artist and literary editor. And while his craft is solidly rooted in the classic poetic tradition he is constantly intent on exploring the possibilities of language and new ways in which these can be presented. Over the years, alongside his written publications, this has resulted in musical and dramatic works and in recordings, exhibitions and installations centring on language and sound. Morten Søndergard’s most recent publication is The Process and Half the Kingdom (2010), Pros and cons of developing wings (2013) and Death is part of my name (2016)
Art exhibition Sahara under my feet :
I stayed two weeks in the Sahara, April 2011, and traveled through the white, gray and the black desert. Along the way, I did some walking with printing plates taped to my shoes, and has since tried to decipher the tracks in the sand. The exhibition presents some of the stuff I found in the sand, and the (foot)prints, photos that came out of the walk. The landscape makes tracks and traces. The prints are done by Schäfers Graphic Workshop in Copenhagen. >…
A portrait of Morten Søndergaard
by Ida Bencke
Morten Søndergaard (born 1964) is a critically acclaimed poet and artist. Søndergaard has attended the Danish Writer’s School in Copenhagen, he holds an MA in Comparative Literature, and since his debut Sahara i mine hænder (Sahara In My Hands) from 1992, he has published a substantial number of poetry books, translated several works by Jorge Luis Borges into Danish, been an editor for the renowned Danish Literary Magazine ‘Hvedekorn’ (Wheat-grain), and has co-founded the influential experimental poetry-group ‘Øverste Kirugiske’ (Upper Surgical).
Søndergaard’s tireless explorations of the various collisions between meaning and materiality has resulted in extra-linguistic works that span sound art, artists books, asemic writing strategies and performance. His artistic practice unfolds around explorations and challenges of what poetry can be and is, and how it can subsist in the breaches and connections between signs and things. Unwearyingly, the works plunge themselves into the various alliances and fractures between world and language that constitutes our always already semiotically mediated lives.
Søndergaard’s versatile oeuvre is perhaps best described as a long flickering walk within language, a search into its corners, edges, vantages and points of observation. In an organic manner the works expand into other genres and media over time. The poetry collection Et skridt i den rigtige retning (A Step in the Right Direction) from 2005, branches out into several exhibitions and publications that deal with the somatic experience of navigating in and with language. The exhibition Sahara under mine fødder (Sahara Under My Feet) from 2011 – a title that nods to Søndergaard’s debut book – displayed prints of the etching-plates Søndergaard had attached to his boots before venturing on a desert journey. The result is indechipherable, yet still significant inscriptions that are formed in a transhuman collaboration between landscape, metal-plate and the walking body. The genreless book Processen og det halve kongerige (The Process and Half the Kingdom) from 2010 reiterates the motif of walking with its associative and disoriented drifts in language that constitute a complex mesh of shifts and interchanges between the body and poetry in motion. As a poet, Søndergaard shows an interest in exploring not just the possibilities of a sentence, but the very potential for language: the silent or unarticulated thresholds before meaning is released and separates itself from the material it denotes. His sound performances often dwell in the moments before the articulating voice: the diminutive hesitation and the prepared click of the tongue before the mouth opens to form words. The works testifies to an intense interest in the relationship between body and language – concepts that are never allowed to rest in the binary oppositions that are often taken for granted. In Søndergaard’s work the organic realm is not some semiotically unmarked world of mute things but a meaning-making modality buzzing with strange voices. In the center of this stands the living body: part subject and part object, an equally articulating and articulated nexus of signs and things. In Søndergaard’s work, language is an entirely contingent material that perpetually runs wild and creates obscure meanings. The textless artists book Suture (2015) displays one long transcript of the connective structures of one hundred skulls found in the catacombs of Paris. The word ‘suture’ refers to that strangely ornamental seam binding the different parts of the skull together. Suture is also the word for the medical thread used to sow wounds together, and in geology the word refers to a collision between two tectonic plates. With Suture, Søndergaard insists on reading the seam of the skulls as engraved signs of some strange sort, hieroglyphs in a (still) unknown language. The work offers a quiet, but rather adamant hope for a healing of fractures – of the distances between word and organic materiality, however temporary and brittle such reconciliations might turn out to be.
This interest for the transversals between body and language are expressed in several works that incorporate the medical in the poetic and vice versa. Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren (May Black Boy Die Pure) from 2009 is a poetic experiment that takes as its vantage point an analysis of Søndergaard’s own DNA-profile. The work both radicalizes, dramatizes and parodies the romantic idea that ‘true’ poetry is written in the blood of the poet’s heart – a point supported by the strange title, which is an anagram of the poet’s name. The genetic fingerprint of the poet is translated into the signs for the DNA-bases: adenine (a), guanine (g), cytosine (c) thymine (t), and the combinations of these letters constitute a threshold-language of some sort, mediating between nonsense and meaning, while continually threatening to mutate and dissolve the significations put to play in the poems.
Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren gives a nod to biosemiotics by insisting on a continuity between the organic body and the semantic field, and insists on the subversive potential of the innumerable para-texts that exist everywhere around us, not least in our own living bodies that can never be reduced to the ideas we evolve around them. The interrelations between language and body, poetry and medicine are further considered in the work of concrete-poetry Ordapotek (Wordpharmacy) from 2010. Here, the poet-apothecary ordinates words against various disorders without ever losing sight of the potentially problematic side-effects of language. The work consists of ten medicine boxes each representing one of the ten word-classes, and each containing a leaflet that advises about the effects of the given word-class. Symptomatic of Søndergaard’s practice the work stages an intricate intimacy between language and body that hastily sprouts, and breaches out into the world: ‘Plant a verb. Eat its fruit!’
Morten Søndergaard’s works have been translated into a large number of languages, he has exhibited throughout Europe and has received several literary awards, most recently the Danish Art’s Council life-long grant. Morten Søndergaard lives and works between Paris and Pietrasanta.
Søndergaard’s exhibition practice
Does the entrance into language prompt a somatic or an intellectual experience? Which practices of reading lend themselves available to the analytical intellect, and which to the living body?
How does meaning materialize, and is poetry necessarily something we come across in books?
Such questions are handled with acute attention and care in Søndergaard’s multidisciplinary practice that bears witness to a strong extra-literary interest in the bordering regions between the representational methods of language, and the strategies of interpretation and description found in other fields. The works experiment with insights from medical science, linguistic philosophy, visual arts and music, and they challenge the format of the book by extracting poetic utterances from the page in order to install them in three-dimensional exhibition spaces. Søndergaard’s exhibition practice problematizes the idea of literature as an intellectual experience of linear readings in the private space of an analytical subject. The works puncture the notion of language as an abstract system entirely devoid of material affinities, and manifests linguistic structures in curious compositions of objects, inviting exchanges between the viewer’s perceiving body, and the concretized grammar of the artworks.
In collaboration with the artist’s group We Are Popular, Søndergaard created the exhibition LOVE in Nikolaj Kunsthal (2010). The exhibition was termed ‘a children’s exhibition’, but can perhaps better be described as a re-activation of the linguistic infancy we all have experienced with our first, faltering steps as speaking creatures. The title LOVE emphasized an affection for language, however, in Danish the word ‘love’ means rules, and the exhibition integrated the dual sense of the title by simultaneously celebrating and critically examining the regulatory abilities of language to make sense in and of the world. LOVE re-staged the child’s movement into language by orchestrating the threshold where the words still seem strangely thing-like, where the differences between things and their names appear far from self-evident, but rather irregular and mysterious. The exhibition consisted of ten works – one for each word group – each disclosing the special, and sometimes accidental connotations of the given grammatical category. For example, the Danish word for adverbs is ‘bi-ord’ which translated to ‘stand-by word’, but accidentally it also reads ‘bee-word’. In LOVE, the adverbs greeted the viewer with a buzzing swarm of – yes – bee-words, while the nouns transformed themselves into things in a Wunderkammer full off unfamiliar objects.
The Wunderkammer is a recurrent motif in Søndergaard’s exhibitions: Rooms full of odd things, for which no names are readily given. The exhibition Bestiarium at Læsø Kunsthal (2014) presented a range of mysterious objects: broken marble-plates with cryptic messages, deformed skulls molded in bronze, animal-skeletons in weird compositions, a beehive with a built-in cinema and much more. More or less nameless things in all of their indeterminacy: linguistic bastards or beasts.
The exhibition Bakkehusalfabetet (The alphabet of Bakkehuset) from 2011 continued in the footsteps of LOVE by unfolding linguistic structures in concrete spaces. In Bakkehusalfabetet the viewer was able to undertake a sort of ’embodied’ reading, staged as a stroll in fields of association developed around the single letters. Here, the letter U – for example – represented ‘unreadability’, and it offered a book full of illegible squiggles made from scraps of paper found in the pendepartments of bookshops. The letter U, then, becomes a portal into a nonsensical myriad of signs defying to be read in any classical sense. The exhibition Sahara under mine fødder (Sahara under my feet) at Galleri Tom Christoffersen from 2011 explored the relationship between inscription and (un)readability. Søndergaard termed the exhibition an ‘ethnographic chamber play’, and presented various texts, objects and prints – impacts and imprints from a journey to Sahara, a nod to the debut Sahara i mine hænder (Sahara in my hands) from 1992. The title of the exhibition was quite literal: Søndergaard had fastened metal-plates on his boots before venturing on his desert walks. The traces that would appear on the plates were preserved on prints. These ‘footprints’ testified to an asemic para-text of some sort, an unreadable, but still signifying inscription created by a meeting between landscape and the poet’s moving body. Søndergaard’s exhibition practice bears witness to an experimental approach to poetry that challenges the popular preconception assuming that language in an unproblematic manner belongs, and adheres to human minds. By expanding the page of the book into the three-dimensionality of the exhibition space, Søndergaard enables an embodied experience of poetry, and replaces the act of reading in a public, heterogeneous space. This space is then in turn charged with an indistinct, but commandingly present murmur from the various exchanges, differences and connections between things and the names they have been given.
Here, in the border regions between the wordless, shadowy sides of things and the magical materializations of words, Søndergaard unfolds his extra-linguistic, spatial poetry. In the transversals between meaning and material a poetry comes into existence where it is never easily discernible where the thing stops and the word begins. The Wall of Dreams – an end wall of a high rise in Valby, Copenhagen decorated with glowing transcriptions of the inhabitant’s dreams – beautifully exemplifies the generative interchanges between intimacy and exteriority, between meaning and materiality that characterizes Søndergaard’s practice. The Wall of Dreams is Denmark’s largest poem – a poem that turns the interiority of a building inside out. Symptomatically for Søndergaard’s extra-literary work, The Wall of Dreams asks what can happen when we encounter poetry with our entire living, unruly and desirous bodies.
What is the relation between the living body and the words we use to grasp and voice its being in the world? How does the structure of language affect and regulate our everyday somatic experiences? These are some of the questions that Morten Søndergaard’s Wordpharmacy seeks to highlight and investigate. Wordpharmacy is a work of concrete poetry, which playfully equates the structure of language with pharmaceutical products. It consists of ten medicine boxes, each representing one of the ten different word groups, and each containing a ’User Information Leaflet’ that typographically resembles the kind of leaflets normally found in medicine boxes. In an often imperative tone, the leaflets offer guidance on how to use the given word group: ’To achieve the best result with AdjectivesÆ follow all of these instructions carefully. Do not be afraid. This is vital and necessary. Absolutely’. In Wordpharmacy, the field of medicine is relocated from the pharmacy to that of the library or the dictionary, and the healing expertise of the doctor is replaced by the linguistic authority of the poet: ‘Speak to a poet or visit your local library if a side-effect becomes worse or if you experience side-effects not mentioned here’. In so far as we constantly and inevitably employ and consume words, we are all ’drugged’ by language and consequently, in Wordpharmacy we have all become patients of the poet. The information leaflets manifest themselves as appropriated ready-mades. In the case of pronouns, the leaflet is built from instructions on how to use Prozac. Here, the quality of Prozac to alter and regulate the mind is paralleled to the nature of pronouns as active modifiers of identity: ‘They point to you and your things and make you something other than you are. They fix you and your things in place.’
By transporting rather abstract grammatical classifications of language into the material entities of medicine boxes, Wordpharmacy effectuates a concretization of words and inscribes itself in the literary tradition of experimenting with ways of consolidating linguistic signs with materiality. However, while poetic experiments are often preoccupied with escaping the grammatical constraints and normative uses of language, Wordpharmacy presents an endeavor to drastically enter – through the gesture of digestion – linguistic regulations. Like pills, language is something to be consumed by the body, and in turn, it does not only affect our conception of things, but it also comes to designate our very corporal flexibility in the world: ‘VerbsÆ have a great effect on the motor functions.’ Usually we think of words as something we use to define things around us, from
the most mundane everyday phenomena to our most complex ideas. From this perspective, language is a governing principle, which we skillfully deploy in order to classify the raw material of experience. But in Wordpharmacy, no pre-linguistic experiences are given. Our bodies are always already penetrated, and, to a certain extent, dominated by unruly words that interminably operate within us beyond our control. Articles are, for example, depicted as autonomous markers of identity: ‘we make you someone. If you do not want to be someone, do not use us.’ However, Wordpharmacy does not facilitate any easy smoothing over of the difference between word and world. Nouns especially launch a fundamental breach between sign and referent: ‘Use of NounsÆ can cause you to doubt languages’ ability to cover the world. Please note, therefore, that there is a big difference between words and things.’ Rather than annulling any discontinuity between language and the world of phenomena, Wordpharmacy launches words as fundamental inducers, vehicles for movement in the world. Verbs especially hold such qualities: ‘VerbsÆ make the world work, and consequently there are more of them: the world verbs.’ Here, verbs are described (prescribed) as something which generates dynamic relationships between things, and ‘unlock’ phenomena in order to render them graspable for the human gaze: ‘VerbsÆ appear all by themselves, like the blooms on flowers. See for yourself: the flowers flower.’
Wordpharmacy presents an unsolvable problem: the difference between sign and referent is an ontological limit that can never fully be overcome. Like chemically engineered medicine, language is an artificially manufactured structure, which penetrates and alters the domain of the biological. But words also work as thresholds to the realm of phenomena, where our bodies exist alongside things. Just as medicine initially is produced to heal the body, but often carries decidedly unhealthy side-effects, so are the prescriptions of words in Wordpharmacy enclosed with warnings. The side-effects of pronouns include: ‘Panic attacks. Teeth grinding. Namelessness. (…) Loss of place. Loss of self.’ Words are not only something we consume; they are potentially menacing entities that in turn consume us. In Wordpharmacy the trademark Æ consistently accompanies each mention of a word group as if to remind the reader that what she is presented with is an already copyrighted and ideologically charged view on language that words emerge into economic structures: that they are always somehow for sale. As antidote to these easily manipulated, buyable meanings, Wordpharmacy launches a linguistic system in which words perpetually assert a certain unruly ‘surplus value’, and asserts language as a noncompliant and refractory system, which will always escape the total control of the politician, as well as that of the poet. Words might function as tools in the hands of authorities, yet they are also disobedient components of our everyday bodily encounters with the world.
Morten Søndergaard’s book and exhibition project Suture rethinks an age-old dissonance between language and materiality by suggesting alternative ways of articulation and inscription in the world.
Suture – created in collaboration with Danish book-artist Åse Eg – is a speculative journey, an exploration of the possible para-texts deeply engraved in the impassable inner spaces of our bodies. The work is a both archeological and etymological expedition into the word ‘suture’, exploring the horizon of meanings that inhabit this word. A suture is the curve where the various parts of the skull meet. It also refers to the medical stitches that hold together a wound. In geology, a suture represents a collision between two tectonic plates. The suture encompasses intersection and conjunction, healing and fracture. The word is linked to the sphere of the body, and to the field of medicine, but it also confers with the domain of signs. The seam-like structure of a suture, and the act of stitching together reaches into the world of language via the etymological connection between the words ‘textile’, ‘texture’ and the word ‘text’. Suture is a so-called artist’s book: a textless document, hand-bound with a surgical thread. It depicts seams from one hundred different skulls found in the catacombs of Paris. The suture of the skull is – like a fingerprint – unique to every human. Deep within our bodies we carry our own secret signatures, a para-linguistic testament of some sort that testifies to our existence in this world a long time after the body has decomposed into inorganic, mineral matter. Suture reminds us that the body is a meaning-making mechanism, perpetually producing all sorts of information that by far exceed the temporary subject who inhabits it for a short period of time. In the essay ‘Primal Sound’ from 1919, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke compares the suture of the skull to the groove of a record, and fantasizes about playing the suture in order to reveal a ‘primal-sound’ of the body. If we accept the suture as a sort of para-poetic text, a strangely ornamental trace ‘told’ by the body itself, then we must also accept the premise that not only human subjects inscribe themselves in the world in order to make meaning of it. In this perspective, the suture is a transhuman marker of difference and connection that bears witness to a more-than-human semiotics. In all its suggestive simplicity, the suture resembles a visualization of an alien heart-rate, or unknown radio-waves carrying cryptic messages. The ‘text’ of the suture is found on the mineral bone-material that is left after the brain – and hereby also the consciousness – has dissolved and left the body. The suture thus extends itself to us from a component of being that is absolutely necessary for sustaining our lives, but whose existence neither starts, nor ends with our finite minds. The line depicted in Suture is a discursive ‘ready-made’ of some sort, a collection of arcane inscriptions found in the parallel world of the catacombs, a subterranean archive of a different – quite literal – sort of subconsciousness. The sutures symbolize a semiotic drive deep within the most intimate spaces of the human body that cannot be reduced to the human articulations we normally identify as language. Suture might best be described as a speculative asemic fabulation exploring the poetic potential of regarding the skull – the container of the mind – as inscribed with a text that does not belong to the human consciousness that inhabits its. Suture thus challenges conventional cuts between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and reflects on alternative potential for generating meaning in and with the world. The work calls to reconsider the interconnectedness between ‘texture’ and ‘text’, between the non-human fabric of the world, and the multiplicity of voices and expressions that are imprinting themselves on this fabric. Until recently, surgical sutures were fabricated with animal gut, mainly from cat and sheep. Today, sutures are often made from the glands of the silk-worm, and the medicinal industry invests great amounts of money in producing a special ‘super-suture’ from the silk-fibers of spider webs. The cut between subject and stranger is not given beforehand, but is composed by temporary breaches, collisions and conjunctions in a dynamic choreography, an interweaving of differences. It is the other that holds us together. The body is not in the world’s buzzing multiplicity, it is of it. Suture tunes in on the alien frequencies that rewrite what it means to be a speaking subject by inscribing themselves on the constantly merging, enmeshing and growing fabrics of the world.
Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren (May Black Boy Die Pure)
Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren (May Black Boy Die Pure) is a biopoetic experiment, a piece of concrete poetry investigating the relations between genetic information, semantic noise and poetic meaning.
The book unfolds around three different sign-realms: the DNA of the author, an arbitrary pool of signs, and finally more traditional stanzas. As with many of Søndergaard’s poetic experiments the work takes as its vantage point oulipo-like restrictions. The particular title Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren / May Black Boy Die Pure is an anagram of the name of the author, and the texts are built from Søndergaard’s DNA-profile, here translated into the so called ‘genetic alphabet’ that represents the compositions of the nucleobases in any given piece of genetic information: adenine (A) og guanine (G), thymine (T) og cytosine (C).
The work is regulated by a double set of rules: on one hand the quite arbitrary linguistic restrictions of the anagram, and on the other hand the specific, biological data of the human genome. They both point back to the poet himself: a mutation of his name creates the title of the work, while an analysis of his blood generates the semantic building blocks of the poem.
Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren produces a conjunction between poetry and biology, and from this hybrid position the work articulates intersections between information and identity. Søndergaard had his blood analyzed by giving a blood sample and thus, quite literally, sacrificed a part of himself for the sake of poetry. In line with a romantic ideal of the author, the book is a transcript of the poet’s inner life, and it is probably not a coincidence that the genetic texts featured in the book are taken from ‘Opoid receptor mu1’ – the receptor that regulates sensations of pain and desire in the body.
Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren conjoins Søndergaard’s alphabetical name with his genetic one, and consequently it reveals an extreme autobiography of sorts, an immensely intimate self-portrait of the emotional inner of the poet, in an untraditional manner orchestrated around genetic compositions. In this respect it is worth noticing that even though we all possess our own genetic code, this code shows very small variations in relation to the DNA-profiles of others. What at first sight looks like an entirely intimate tale is also a common narrative about almost identical DNA, not merely joining people, but also connecting across the boundaries of species. We share about 80 percent of our gene-pool with rats and mice, and approximately 25 percent with trees.
Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren consists of seventeen poems, each divided into (at least) two different kinds of language: semantic noise and meaningful sentences. The difference between these is mediated by grey and black text colors. However, these delineations are quickly revealed as entirely flickering and unstable. Noise is constantly crossing the border of meaning to dissolve the coherence of the sentences, just as entire words occasionally leak into the surrounding noise in order to create small sanctuaries in the midst of a seemingly semantic chaos of disconnected signs.
In this respect it is interesting to note that even though it is currently possible to transcribe the human genome, this does not mean that we are now capable of interpreting it in its entirety. Only around 2 percent of our genome consists of coded DNA, the rest is composed by non-coded, so called ‘junk DNA’, and the functions of this (yet) nonsensical genetic material are far from scientifically clarified.
Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren is a linguistic self-portrait of ‘.o~>”, g et. o”’’’’.this living noise / splashing perfectly as glittering mucus -% ‘5 ; (p. 9), a lively ‘foaming id.!> /’, whose poems perform the fluctuations that are taking place in the tiniest building blocks of our organisms.
The ‘disorder’ that exists in our bodies is also the generative potential that moves evolution continuously forward towards the unknown possibilities of genetic coding: ‘o further as growth a mess.. . a S …….”.’ Also the development of language – and poetry in particular – is dependent on transgressive movements towards non-coded realms of potential meaning.
Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren places the (poet) subject as an ‘object in doubt’ (p. 13). By offering the special alphabet of the genome a place in the poetic text, and by intermingling genetic information with semiotic systems, the work plants a seed of doubt into the material of the linguistic subject. The poems carry out a critical deconstruction of the conventional idea of language as a result of a human consciousness. In Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren it is not possible to sustain any clear boundary between the genetic information system of the body and the poems more abstract generation of meanings. The organic materiality of the body does not belong to some silent, ahistorical matter, but rather to a buzzing conglomerate of inter-species connections, and millions of years of interchange between code and ‘error’. As evolution has taught us, these ‘errors’ have often proven indispensable to the continual survival and development of species. Bodies are temporary genetic results of evolutionary negotiations with biological information, and the human is merely one momentary form of these negotiations.
In the same way, the special symbolic language of the human is merely one way of inscribing oneself in the world – as well as in poems. The meanings that exist in the material world are not solely redeemed by a human consciousness, but exist and operate beside and beyond our control.
The world is more than the thoughts we make of it. Our living bodies, as well as our thinking, speaking minds are configurations of the material and the discursive. Or even better: our existence testifies to a collapse in the difference between mind and consciousness, between body and information. In Må Sort Dreng Dø Ren the autobiography and the self-portrait are not stable depictions of identity, but performative renderings of the semiotic-material becomings that work in us, while we work in the world.