„When the Dough Warrior Turns Into a Landscape Himself”

– Aya Kinoshita

The Dough Warrior arrived on the scene and there was a feeling of tension in the audience, uncertain as to whether they should laugh or be terrified by the Warrior before them. The Warrior had no obvious weapons, but was heavily armored with carefully aligned baguettes clinging to him from head to toe. First confronted by a three-sided structure of green hedges and buckets of colorful paints, the audience cast their eyes on a sign reading, “Keep out! And watch out for flying paint!”

It was on one typically Danish summer afternoon in the park of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, then celebrating its 50th anniversary, that Søren Dahlgaard was invited to perform “The Dough Warrior landscape painting (2008).”

Dahlgaard’s face, obscured by the baguettes, was invisible to the spectators, and perhaps their reaction was to him as well. With a thrill of expectation, they watched him abruptly shove his baguette arm into the paint. The well-baked armor was hardened into shape, in contrast to the sticky, almost dough-like texture of the paint. Dahlgaard made sweeping, choreographed strokes across the hedge, creating a sharp distinction between the constraining armor and the loose flying paint.

Such corporeal restriction may recall Paul McCarthy’s “Painter,” and the exaggerated features of its darkly comical character. McCarthy dons a big round nose, large enough to obscure his sight, along with oversized hands and soft floppy fingers that enforce his clumsy movements. However, there are marked differences between Dahlgaard’s performance and that of McCarthy’s, which relies on a jarring verbal accompaniment. McCarthy’s ongoing barrage of profanity in his work heightens its disturbing effect. In contrast, Dahlgaard’s mutedness leaves less room for his audience to objectify the Dough Warrior. It allows the viewers to be more visually attentive, providing more chance to identify with him subjectively.

The tension in the audience was alleviated after they learned the Warrior was not going to act aggressively towards them. Instead, he punched and scraped the hedges, rubbing and pouring the paint over his body while sliding against the hedge walls. When he dashed the paint on his head, the audience gasped with a sense of identification, laughing with relaxed glee as the paint softened the baguettes, thus gradually freeing him from his armor.

Dahlgaard performed in three rounds, each lasting about 20 minutes. Each round was a carefully planned improvisation, executed in a fast and incessant series of actions. “I select colors like a painter,” Dahlgaard said, “looking at the colors to compose a painting with nice details, but also I can’t see much, so there is not much time to decide. It’s very fast painting with some planning. I challenge painting – how you paint.”

Up close, it’s a fight. Dahlgaard’s reflexive actions are not obvious in the video work, “The Warrior painting in studio (2007),” where he steps back and ponders the next stroke. In a live performance he is not simply fighting with “painting” itself, but also struggling in a state between consciousness and unconsciousness. In order to further explore this idea, I would like to briefly discuss two artists from Japan, who have created some representative works concentrating on the “action” of painting.

Kazuo Shiraga (1924 – 2008) is known for being a prominent member of the Gutai Art Association (1954 – 1972), often compared with Art Informel or Action Painting. Shiraga struggled to deny the composition and ignore the sense of color, sliding over the paint with his feet while swinging from a rope attached to the ceiling. He did not care to paint on canvas because for him, the work was the action itself. Working on paper, he threw away his paintings after each exhibition.

It was exactly the same with Ushio Shinohara. Shinohara (1932 – ) came one generation after Shiraga and is associated with the Neo Dada movement. One of his signature works is Boxing Painting. He explains, “I do my Boxing Paintings from right to left, bam bam. I don’t think at all about composition or nuances of paint handling. The speed of punching with boxing gloves on both hands with paint on them must coincide with the speed of thinking. Therefore, thinking becomes very limited. The hands are faster. So my hands lead my thoughts, not the other way around.” Shiraga puts it this way, “Because the work can be completed so fast, it is difficult to stop. It is like Sukiyaki. No good if you cook too much.” It’s likely that Dahlgaard shares this sense of conflict during his live performances.

It is interesting that Shiraga and Shinohara eventually started working on canvas, yet in their earlier works they did not leave tableaux as a result of challenging and exploring the notion of art making. Dahlgaard struggles with “painting,” but not in the same direction as Shiraga and Shinohara. In his landscape painting, he eschews canvas, creating his landscapes on three dimensional plastic hedges, embedding the artificial within the natural.

By the time the Warrior disappeared into an enormous tree that stood behind his performance, the audience had witnessed not only the painting on the hedges, but also on the baguettes that came off after serving as brushes, and the Warrior himself. Nearly denuded of the softened baguettes, the Warrior was now clothed in the various hues splashed over his body. The Dough Warrior had, in fact, become a landscape unto himself, melding the media of painting and sculpture.

However, it was probably not only the artist who was transformed. Anthropologist Victor Turner postulates that cultural performance, in other words social drama, is comprised of four phases: breach, crisis, redress, and reintegration or schism, a transformative process that engaged Dahlgaard’s audience. The appearance of the Dough Warrior was a breach of a norm, and the act of painting represented a crisis for the concept itself. Towards the end of the performance, a redress between the conventional and the unconventional was prepared, allowing the audience to reintegrate the latter or shut it out.

In the quiet relaxed atmosphere of the park, a few baguettes remained scattered in the grass before hedges that were no longer a shy constituent of a landscape, but part of the Dough Warrior’s canvas. Dahlgaard had created a multi-layered landscape in which even the smallest leaf contained a mesmerizing micro-universe.