YNGVE HOLEN: Engines Turn, or Passengers Swim

Thom Bettridge

Emerging from the 3D-printed rubble of Berlin’s “post-Internet” art scene, the Norwegian artist YNGVE HOLEN is a cold empiricist and a slapstick comedian. With sculptural test-subjects ranging from minor appliances (tea kettles and washing machines) to high-industrial behemoths (commercial airliners and CT scanners), his works map the anatomical features of a new human-machine eco-system. 032c’s THOM BETTRIDGE spoke with Yngve Holen about supermarket poultry, airborne claustrophobia, and plastic surgery:



René Descartes (1596–1650) had a problem with animals. Or, rather, he had an animal problem. In the Meditations, the “father of modern philosophy” used skepticism to arrive at a radical theory of mind-body dualism. Bodies were machines. Minds were souls. But since the theological doctrines of the time stated that humans were the only animal that could have a soul, it was imperative for Descartes to prove that animals did not have minds either. The French philosopher thus responded by cutting animals open in private and writing about it in public. He penned a number of letters and texts that described animals as deceivingly complicated machines. What appeared to us as signs of their consciousness – their human-like qualities, or their screams under the knife of live dissection – were in fact spring-loaded responses to external stimuli. In the 21st century context, Descartes’s “animals are robots” writings have become the most unpopular of his theories. Perhaps it is because society as a whole has grown to have more empathy towards animals. Or perhaps it is because we know more about machines. Cutting something open to check for its soul seems like lunatic behavior now. At the very least, those of us in this century would use an ultrasound machine first.

In 2011, the artist Yngve Holen (1982–) ran over a chicken with a Toyota RAV4 and 3D-printed its remains. Unlike Descartes’s test subjects, Holen’s chicken was already dead, plucked, and de-clawed. Yet, when he crushed it open, a soul appeared:

THOM BETTRIDGE: I heard that you once ran over a raw chicken with a car, and then 3D-printed it.

YNGVE HOLEN: Initially, I wanted to scan road kill. But it was difficult to find, and you can’t laser-scan fur. So I got the idea that I’d go to the supermarket and buy a chicken, so I could run it over and scan it.

The meat we see in stores is almost a type of design object. For example, a chicken at a supermarket is so far from being a chicken. It’s had its feathers taken out. It’s cut into thighs and wings and drumsticks with lasers at some factory. It undergoes all these sculptural changes in order to transform from chicken to “poultry.”

It’s a scary industry. If you don’t buy bio, chicken is cheap as hell. For an artist, it’s cheaper than buying clay. Then, when you drive over it and crush those bones – when you turn it into road kill – it’s suddenly this individual thing again. You give the chicken a soul by running it over. And then you extract that soul by scanning it.

It’s a bargain.

That piece was for a show I did at Autocenter, which had all these washing machine drums. It was about detergent, overreactions, and itchiness. A washing machine drum also cleans itself – like an ever-turning wheel, pushing nature away. You can get all these diseases from a chicken lying in the sun, so the laser scan is a sanitary way of extracting information.

The fact that Holen’s project required him to use supermarket meat points to a larger condition of displacement – to the industrial apparatuses that place consumer objects at a far remove from their latent mortality. For Holen’s purposes, road kill was too close to having life. It could not be plugged into the other components of the system – the 3D-scanner, the washing machine drum, the crisp new pair of socks. Holen needed something smooth, a meat that was industrially manicured. By then running it over – by crushing its bones and turning it into something macabre – Holen allowed the chicken to once again be something that had died. A new and smooth type of roadkill. Something clean and scan-able.


Similar to the 1991 photo of a sixteen-year-old Damien Hirst posing next to a decapitated head, Holen’s chicken serves as a type of methodological creation story. A number of Holen’s works operate through the logic of dissection – cut something open, see what’s inside. The gesture is simple, but the shock comes from the mortality we witness in something that we thought was never alive. For the series “Parasaggital Brain” (2013), Holen cleaved a number of water-oriented appliances – an electric tea kettle, an office water cooler, etc. – in half with an industrial-grade water jet. Cutting an appliance with the very liquid it is designed to contain holds a certain tongue-in-cheek irony, but the resulting objects contain an eerie splendor. Unlike Descartes’s unfortunate test subjects, the objects Holen cuts reveal themselves to be something more than a machine. Their valves, circuits, and plastic membranes appear to us as a type of sentient alien life form. These objects have no animated presence as they sit on our countertops and boil our water, but the act of dissection reveals an unknown quantity:

Forcing something in two is such a weird gesture. If the kettle is the brain, and it boils up the idea, then you’re trying to find the idea. But when you cut, it’s already gone. You’re too late: the fluid has leaked out. So you’re cutting it in order to find that the idea is gone.

It is a cruel paradox that the procedures that allow one to look inside often extinguish the very thing for which we are looking. The idea – the object of interest – vacates the premises before it can be seen, leaving behind the banality of its own flesh. For a group exhibition, Holen sliced a Gorenje Smart Refrigerator into sections, as if to inquire what made it “smart.” The result is a grotesque pile of parts – a “dumb” object. Holen’s bisected objects are not live, but rather they reveal through absence that they had once lived. Their “soul” is the byproduct of science’s inevitable lateness.


Engines Turn, or Passengers Swim

The aeronautical industry has its own use for raw chickens. In order to test the structural integrity of a jet engine in the event of an airborne bird-strike, test facilities such as the Arnold Engineering Development Center have used “chicken guns” to shoot supermarket poultry towards planes at speeds exceeding 900 MPH. The airline industry relies on these displays of safety in order to create a sense of comfort around high-speed travel. In the test facility, these measures are loud and extreme. But in the airport and the cabin, they are much more subtle. Inflight movies and synthetic fleece blankets provide a shield against the impending possibility of disaster. Yet Holen himself is an uneasy flier:

Your “Economy Class Legs” exhibition at the 032c Vitrine was accompanied by a bleak text about the user experience of flying. Where does that interest in commercial air travel come from?

I did this show in Stavanger – at the Rogaland Kunstsenter – and I was super hung over on the plane the next day. I ate a lot of tablets and – sorry for saying this – I had to go to the toilet to puke. It was this total experience of being a meat piece – walking to the toilet, walking back again. And I was staring at this stupid carpet, like, wondering why they have carpets on planes. It’s disgusting. Like, how much shit is there in this carpet? Why doesn’t it have a sealed surface, like a medical-grade plastic floor?

What does it mean to feel like a “meat piece”?

Ultimately, it’s a reminder of who we are – pieces of meat being moved from one place to another. You just sit there in this seat, and your legs don’t fit. Space is limited, so you’re right next to someoneelse. You’re original, but you’re also replaceable. When you’re afraid of flying, you think about these things. Should I choose this seat number, or that one? What if I choose, say, 16C? If I die, will I be married to that seat forever? Will I become that seat? If I leave, and somebody else becomes that seat, will this person be that number if it crashes? You know this Air France plane that went down? The one flying from Brazil?

The one that stalled out in a storm?

Yeah, that one. I read somewhere that the first passenger they found was still strapped in his seat, floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently, he still had his boarding pass in his shirt pocket.


Staring into the airline carpet, Holen saw a frail attempt to place a veneer of bourgeois pleasantry over a machine that turns humans into seat numbers. A carpet cannot assuage the fear of high-velocity impact, or the existential dread of becoming fused to an object. It cannot dissipate the feeling of being a “meat piece” – of being a humanoid blob flying over the Atlantic Ocean, sipping on a little plastic cup of Blood Mary mix.

With the artist-publication ETOPS, Holen formed an editorial extension to his sculptural practice. Comprised of long-form interviews with specialists from a variety of occupations, the magazine performs verbal dissection on the routines of otherwise opaque industries. It proffers details that simultaneously augment and drain the fear surrounding professions that operate in the intersections of body and machine. Aptly, the first ETOPS investigated the experience of air travel. In addition to an interview with a commercial pilot, the publication featured camera phone pictures of cruising-altitude sunsets and rows filled with cramped legs.


Why “ETOPS”?

ETOPS is regulation system in aviation that says how many minutes you can fly a twin-engine aircraft without being in a certain radius of an airport. So a plane will be certified for, say, 120 minutes. Or now some are certified for 720 minutes, so you can basically fly wherever you want. But there’s this pilot joke that ETOPS stands for “Engines Turn, or Passengers Swim.” It’s funny. Metaphorically, it’s a question about how long we can stretch an idea before we crash it. How long are you allowed to spin off certain ideas before it doesn’t fly? The materials can only go for a certain amount of time. After that, the idea can go further, but the materials then won’t allow for it. We tend to think that these thresholds don’t exist, because they keep getting pushed further and further. Like, how far can the body swim before it drowns? We want to know that limit.

With ETOPS, Holen turns his line of inquiry away from the insides of machines and towards the invisible limits of how far the body can be stretched into something foreign from itself. For the second edition of ETOPS, designed by Per Törnberg, Holen and his editorial partner Matthew Evans travelled to Los Angeles and Monte Carlo to interview members of the pornography and plastic surgery industries. The resulting collection of anonymous interviews provides a look into two fields of practice that blur the distinctions between the natural and the artificial. By discussing the minutia of these occupations, ETOPS provides a textured account of everyday life in a futuristic present. During a dinner conversation, a pornstar gives advice on what to eat before sex scenes. In another interview, a plastic surgeon discusses how the placement of scars has been effected by trend cycles:

– Now we do the scar like a low bikini cut. In the old days it was like in Brazil, the high bikini cut. Now in America we only do low because we all wear low cuts. We have to change according to the fashion of the day.

– Big huge breast implants are not big anymore. Like the, uh, TV show – Baywatch.

– Very 90s.

– Yes, and now everyone gets smaller breasts. The aesthetic has changed through the years. What is good-looking now may not have been 10 years ago. Look at Kim Kardashian. I think her ass is way too big.

– Maybe ten years from now she’ll need an ass reduction.

– Right.

– Breast reductions are more prevalent now than they were 15 years ago.

– Right. Centuries from now, when archeologists dig up our civilization, they’ll find dust, bones, and implant bags.

As recent certifications allow us to fly farther and farther away from the nearest airport, it becomes increasingly unclear where we had planned to land.


“World of Hope”

For his solo exhibition “World of Hope” (2015) at Galerie Neu in Berlin, Holen released the second edition of ETOPS alongside a series of works make from the faces of CT scanners, which the artist dressed in custom-fitted fishnet fabric. Unlike the dissected water vessels of Parasaggital Brain, the sculptures allude to the possibility of seeing inside without incision. They present a technology designed to see through skin that is encased inside a fabric designed to see through clothing. Mounted on the wall as a type of relief, the works masquerade as paintings, winking at the Renaissance ideal that a picture should be a “window” into another world. They allude to the limits of the two-dimensional – the blurry and flattened organs that appear in radiology. Their shape suggests a type of industrially-designed orifice, although it is unsure whether it is designed for entrance or exit. Speaking about the sculptures, Holen joked about how another artist had called them “whore vaginas.” He remarked, “But they could also be ‘anuses.’”


Burger of the Month

As Holen and I conducted our interview, we sat next to the half-eaten wreckage of take-out from an Icelandic hamburger restaurant. Compressed and bisected by our bite-marks, the remains of our “Burgers of the Month” (ground beef, bleu cheese sauce, onion rings, bacon, cheddar, sesame seed bread) had become a road kill compound of organic matter – the billboard promise of a fast food advertisement gone horribly awry. Next to the burgers was a ripped paper bag filled with three orders of french fries, placed next to their accompanying dipping sauces: bright red ketchup and a traffic-cone orange chipotle sauce. After an hour of speaking, a dark film had begun to harden on top of the sauces. The fries – once golden and crispy – had wilted into a mass that slowly fused with the grease-stained translucent surface of their paper container. It was a sight that could convince someone to retire from eating food. Yet I silently wished that Holen could scan it – to turn it back into the clean and plastic thing that I had purchased.

Do you want some of my burger?

I’m full, but I might have a fry.

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge