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Interview: Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen talks to Leslie Deere about the exhibition Estuary


Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen is an artist working with film, video, photography and installation. He is based in Paris and London. He studied sculpture at Chelsea College of Art and holds an MA in Fine Art Media from the Slade. Larsen has exhibited internationally with solo shows in Peru, France and Denmark. Group shows have also been far reaching and include the Folkestone Triennial, biennales in both Sharjah and Thessaloniki and La Maison Rouge in Paris.

Leslie Deere speaks to Nikolaj about his new commission for Estuary – the latest exhibition at The Museum of London Docklands. Estuary includes newly commissioned pieces and older works by moving image artists such as Andrew Kötting, William Raban and John Smith. Nikolaj’s new film, Portrait of a River, has been commissioned in collaboration with the Film and Video Umbrella.

Leslie Deere: Can you tell us a little bit about the project?

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen:
My commission for Film and Video Umbrella, as part of the Museum of London Docklands’ new art exhibition Estuary is called Portrait of a River. It’s a single screen video piece consisting of several self-contained chapters that are filmed at various locations along, and on the Thames Estuary from the Pool of London (Tower Bridge) to Sea Reach.

Portrait of a River touches on a wide variety of topics including the slowly diminishing communities of Watermen still working on the river. It also touches on the river’s rich and multi-layered history, and explores how the river has been in a constant state of flux, changing in parallel to the development of the rest of the world. Some chapters simply just depict beautiful moments and land or cityscapes - like motifs for paintings, but played out in time.

Leslie Deere: What was your approach to capturing and interpreting the Thames Estuary?  How did you go about creating this new piece?

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen:
Portraiture is a difficult genre to master. Where does one begin? One could make a long film about Tower Bridge alone, and seen from that perspective, making a film about life along a 120km stretch of the River Thames is a difficult task. It is incredibly important to find a good starting point (which in this project was Waterman Captain John Potter from Gravesend). Our encounter with John Potter led us in some very fruitful directions.

The River Thames is a vast number of different things for a vast amount of people. Before starting a new work I try to unlearn everything I know about the place I depict. I rediscover the place by filming a variety of clips that both touch on its poetic aspects as well as filming scenes of a more factual and personal nature. The film becomes a documentation of my way of rediscovering and experiencing the river and its communities at the time I was there with the constraints and the revelations I discovered en-route. I have come to realise that if I try to take full control over the process of making a piece, it can easily become contrived and will not work.

Leslie Deere: There is a sense that you reveal perspectives in your work. Was that important for you with this project?  

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen: Most of the things I film are filmed in public places. The people in my films are often individuals I happen to meet in the process of making the work, not somebody with whom one needs special access to get in contact. I chose to film certain things at certain times, or I waited for something special to happen. It’s important for me to show that by looking at mundane things in a certain way the ordinary can become extraordinary and reveal its magical or poetic side.

I have lived in London for almost 20 years and the Thames has just been this thing that I crossed on my bicycle. I have rarely given the river much thought. With this piece it was as though a new world and a new way of understanding London opened up to me.

Leslie Deere: Have you always had a fondness for the Thames or is there another link for you in terms of this commission and your previous work?

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen: Last year I was commissioned by Peckham Space to make a video portrait of North Peckham, and I found it incredibly exciting to make a piece in the city where I lived. It was more challenging than I had expected because I first had to go through a long period of unlearning everything I knew about the place. I normally make my films abroad and somehow it seems easier for me to make films in a place I don’t know beforehand.

With Portrait of a River, I had to go through a similar unlearning process before I could start working. It is very important that I have time to find a way under the surface of the place I portray. What links this piece with my other films is that it is my personal way of depicting a place.

Leslie Deere: The Museum of London Docklands is an institution dedicated to the local maritime heritage.  Does the specificity of this museum resonate with you?

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen: Absolutely! I always love when the work becomes site specific. It adds to the work and hopefully also to the venue within which the work is exhibited. One thing I particularly love about the place in the museum where Portrait of a River is exhibited is that opposite my work there is a permanent work, which is a large illustration of the River Thames from Tower Bridge looking towards the west. And my work portrays the Thames Estuary from Tower Bridge and eastwards. And in a subtle and poetic way the two pieces become a portrait of the entire River Thames from West London to Sea Reach.

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen

17 May – 27 October 2013
Museum of London Docklands
West India Quay
Canary Wharf
London E14 4AL


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