The Work of Pim Kersten:  Between the History of Sculpture and Visual Deconstruction

By Deianira Tolema – October 2018

European figurative sculpture, from a sociological perspective, begins to lose its decorative reference to Byzantine Art around the year 1009. This can be seen in the work of artists such as Wiligelmo the Romanic artist who sculpted the “Stories of the Genesis” on the walls of the Cathedral of Modena. In the conceptual body of these representations we identify the prodromes of a gradual dematerialization of the scenographic structure of the composition. In a few centuries the thinning of the architectural motifs will lead to a complete elimination of the original context, thus liberating the main subject: human beings with historical and emotional baggage. After thousands of years of fallen empires and Christian stories, the imagination of the artist depicts the flesh of his generation. The planet begins to dissolve between undefined pieces of land. Wiligelmo’s “Stories of Genesis” and other interpretations of the Bible shift toward a more anthropocentric perception of the individual self.

The recurring theme of social hierarchies and the domain of man over matter will be back later in the Gothic sculpture of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. Until then the fulcrum of artistic research can be seen in the pulpits designed for the Baptistery of Pisa and the Cathedral of Siena where depictions of archetypical animals and human figures occur at the bottom of the columns. The religious scenes represented inspired the work of Tino di Camaino for the Tomb of the Cardinal Petroni, and Giovanni di Balduccio for the Arch of St. Peter the Martyr in Milan. Two centuries later, a gigantic sheet of music takes over the whole composition of Luca della Robbia’s “Giovani Cantori” (1431-1438). The human forms in the background are all but obliterated.

It won’t be until the 1900’s that Stefano Maderno allows drapery to draw the contours of a surrealistic body that resembles a still-life in his “St. Cecilia.” Sculpture then turns toward stylization and, ultimately to abstraction with the provocations of world-renowned Italian artists Arturo Martini, Marino Marini, Giacomo Manzù, Venanzo Crocetti, Pericle Fazzini and Emilio Greco. They took a firm position against any left-over academic reference to the renaissance, and Canova’s neoclassicism by investigating other aspects of form. less figurative and more imaginative, their work became more conceptual. These unconventional works put an end to the taboos related to any kind of explicit sublimation of the imaginative, or objectification of the human form and its separation from the divine.

Nevertheless, the sculptor Luciano Minguzzi with his work, “Two Figures”, (1950, now in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum) had already nailed the subconscious need of human beings to own and tame the (in)humane by depriving the physical body of its main instruments of kinetic power – years before Arte Povera.

In conclusion: the artists Fausto Melotti, Umberto Mastroianni and Nino Franchini (author of The Big Araldica) where everything we feared about the potential of art as turned into pure, violent, self-thinking matter. With his work “Wide Gesture for the Maximum Space”, artist Quinto Ghermandi proofs that matter itself can rebel against its own creator by refusing to be circumscribed to architecture and design. With Andrea and Pietro Cascella, and Pietro Consagra, the substance of osmotic matter finally rises above its own aesthetic and anthroposophic components. The final result, so unique and independent from Greek and Roman canons of beauty, and just as irreverent as it sounds is what, during the past fifty years, has led to the climax of the ultimate denial of the self.

There is an absence of time and space. The time of something unreal that reproduces exactly the time of something real that is taking place here and now is doomed to remain unreal.1

From the time of stars to that of atoms 2, time remains a recurring topic among artists and scientists, both driven by the same creative quid according to Einstein: time, in its guise of perennial, immutable entity, has become a way to measure reality’s perception of its own historical relevance. In this regard, the Italian researcher Marcello Archetti writes about the mysterious concept of “anthropology of time” in his book, “Chronologies.” Archetti also discusses the extension of philosophical concepts related to art and life.

Abstracting and measuring time in a certain form means to master the ability to stop it and represent it by culturally putting it back together. The specificity of form comes from the reality of its historical and social aspects and within a plan to domesticate time which is essential to the concretization of any culture.2

According to P. Janet in the book, “The Evolution of Memory and the Notion of Time” in the paragraph, “Two Theories of Temporality”, in a time in history when the irrational has been completely eradicated from common thinking, both men and philosophers have done everything in their power to suppress time. The visual artists of post-Lettrism are at a crossroad, suspended between direct perception and abstract thought, between shapes whose signifier is ambiguous and that doesn’t lead to any particular meaning.

In this light, the work of Pim Kersten can be located below and within the incumbent shadows of an apocalyptic scenario where rarefied time has overtaken matter itself by producing a diachronic crystallization.

The jagged surfaces of Kersten’s work invites the viewer to touch it, and stay away from it at the same time, while accidentally evoking the chromatic experiments of Mario Schifano without any explicit references to pop art. Meantime, the concept of representation gets mixed up with aleatory definitions that, in and outside of time, have exceeded both meaning and time itself.

The blues, the atmospheres, the lights and drawings are all elements that, in a well-thought-out blend can trigger a formal and conceptual explosion that is in conflict with everything around it including words, signs, and the symbols that we use to link fluid, uninterrupted communication. The core of universal communication, pivoted on its basic, pre-packed codes, is broken, and it conveys all the anxiety of the self along with its emancipation from its own origins.

The territory, the physical space where the artist intervenes, is marked through the reiteration of a sense that is mediated by form itself, left chained, naked, converted into something pure. Changing, possibly to compete with nature itself, matter itself has been overthrown, deprived of its biological codes, of its resistance to not being swallowed by the void or silenced like an old photo – like a dark, broken film that Man Ray would have turned into a moving wheel.

Kersten, in his own way, is a landscape artist, a virtuoso of spatial and temporal bungee jumping from one dimension to the other – of visual perception as well as consciousness. Geometric shapes move through his work in all directions like the natural, dynamic, ancestral shapes they came from. Such shapes elude the finiteness of the defined in a tension that preludes to a mendacious, detached language that is strongly intertwined with the concept of “uncertainty.”


The juxtaposition of the ego to itself, of the human to the humane, becomes a paradoxical matter within nature itself.

Another aspect of Pim Kersten’s work is its apparent absence of any discursive element. The semiotics of the image has no reference to philosophy, history or even to the art of the past. His work has nothing to do with the history of architecture, just as it doesn’t have much to do with interior design. Compared to anti-functional minimalism the work of Kersten stands out because it assumes the impossible task of instinctively giving a life of its own to form and color. The manifold phases of creation and re-thinking of Kersten’s work have been curated in the name of physical control and rationality. But, the same cannot be said about its surgically lucid conceptualism that is, in fact, not based on pure rationality. The starting image is the primary obsession of the artist. It binds everything together and lingers silently in the background. Nevertheless, it resonates – if only unconsciously.

In the work, “20 Minutes of Strict Silence” (wood and linen), the first reference that comes to mind is Yves Klein’s painting, with a small intrusion: a metal hook glued to the left side of the work (it is actually an incision sawed into the surface of the work). This physical cut interrupts the limitless blue mental space. It becomes a sort of unknown life form, a bacterium that secretly appropriates the surface as an active participant in its metamorphosis. The observer is captivated by the emphatic color while struggling with a persistent denial of the figure. Multiple questions pervade the mind in relation to the subject observed – water?, sky?, something else? upside-down mirror? In Kersten’s work innovation is not always a polar position. Image interferences are welcome to disrupt the signal. The poetry-craving thought process of the artist is fleshless and sound- free.

In “Curvature”, the artist plays with the symbol of infinity. In the work, “Blue Cloud”, he explores the juncture of concept, form, and matter. This is antithetical to what he did with the works, “Metre,” “191,5cm Yellowish Green Length” and “191, 5cm of Cement Yellow on Dead Head Purple/White.” In these creations, Kersten takes inspiration from the semiotics research of Roland Barthes. Here openness, closure, cryptography and the understanding of form in all its facets is lightened of its original meaning and purpose and aims to communicate directly to the subconscious rather than being filtered by sensationalism.

The works inspired by nature such as, “Diptych Je Suis La, Je Suis Ici” are purely aesthetic works where the refinement of materials prevails over content. In “Sketch for a Corner Piece” the subject explicitly refers to the role of ideas in relation to artwork as well as its relation to the art market. “Untitled (Man)” asks the viewer to accept the triviality of the human condition without even blinking. Whereas, the work, “A Serpentine Tor” doesn’t pretend to mean anything other than what is suggested by the specular word “representation.”Then there is “A Break Makes a Difference” where the formal and conceptual minimalism is so bluntly vehement that the observer is left with nothing to hang on to but perplexity.

In its totality and complexity, the work of Pim Kersten, technically impeccable, looks new, untouched – not even by the artist himself. Despite its conceptual, impenetrable frailty (which is anything but improvised) it appears to have been purged of anything superfluous. The angst of our time, global instability, is reflected in a dialectic exchange between our interiorized time and its (anti)-plastic density. This preoccupying adherence to the psychological and social concerns of today’s intellectuals, and the quality of his production, make Kersten one of the most significant voices in contemporary conceptual art. His work is of its time – a singular period that truncates history and creates global intellectual and artistic production. It seems to be an epoch conceived to become one with time and space, a period with its own psychological and social dimension. Kersten’s work resonates at its ethereal core.

Book references:

  1. “Image and Consciousness”, J. P. Sartre, published by Giulio Einaudi Editore
  2. “The Time of Things, Life, and Your Soul” by Edoardo Boncinelli, published by Editori Laterza
  3. “Cronologie” by S. Adami, M. Marcucci e S. Ricci, published by Franco Angeli Editore