Art: Another pile of bricks at the Tate

As a child, Per Kirkeby loved this enormous Copenhagen edifice. Now, he's building a copy of it in London. By Lilian Pizzichini
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The Independent Culture
WHEN PER KIRKEBY was a little boy, he used to cycle through the tree-lined streets of a cosy Copenhagen suburb on his way home to the "social housing" complex where his family lived. And he swore that, when he grew up, that's where he wanted to live. Now Kirkeby is Denmark's only living artist of truly international stature. He kept his promise, and now has his studio in that very same suburb. But his heart is still in the working-class district of his youth - for one purely aesthetic reason. For, in the red-brick terrace of his childhood, he lived in the shadow of one of Copenhagen's most imposing landmarks, the massive Grundtvig Church, designed in 1916, and made from the tan bricks (six million of them to be precise) peculiar to the ancient Danish tradition of brick- laying. His childhood impressions of this church have informed the whole of his artistic career.

Now, these bricks are being brought to the Tate Gallery in London, which has specially commissioned Kirkeby's latest installation for a major retrospective of his work. Brick Work 1998 is laden with references, both autobiographical - to the great Grundtvig neo-gothic edifice - and geological. Four metres high and 30 metres long, the structure is made from 20,000 red bricks, currently being laid by an expert team of Irish brickies. It slices through the centre of the north Duveen Gallery, with entrances and exits through which spectators may slip in and out. Its double-helical shape is based on Kirkeby's own sketches of DNA molecules. It is undecorated (Denmark is a Lutheran country), so the clarity of the structure sings out.

Wherever you go in Denmark, be it a railway station, a housing estate, a city square, Kirkeby's "buildings without purpose" loom large and mysterious. Their construction borrows from the rationale of large, public sculptures - labyrinths, crosses - to evoke the mysterious solemnity of ancient religions. But he deliberately leaves these structures empty: there are entrances and exits, but nowhere to go. At the Tate, as you witness the passage of light streaming through the niches carved into the brick walls, and spectators moving in and around them, you will see that mutability gets the last word.

Kirkeby (b 1938) read geology at Copenhagen University, because he wanted a trade, and because he considered the Danish Academy of Art "sterile". Instead of formal art instruction, he joined Joseph Beuys's Experimental Art School in the 1960s which wasn't really a school at all, but "a temporary brotherhood, a group of radical young searching artists sharing a loft". But Kirkeby was inspired by the geometric structures of geology.

Not that bricks are all Kirkeby's work is about. As part of his geological training, he travelled on expeditions to the "forsaken Mayan cities" of Mexico, and the Arctic Zone in Greenland, studying rock formations in the morning and sketching them in the afternoon. And Kirkeby sees himself, primarily, as a painter. Hanging on the walls around Brick Work 1998, will be six oil-on-canvas, expressionist landscapes. The paintings - earthy and passionate - are in sharp relief to the mute bricks.

The first painting you see as you enter the gallery, Withdrawn from the World, offers a good example of the rock formations that are central to his work. Ochres, yellows and blue crowd each other out, and the line- drawn rocks topple over. As with most of his work, the crumbling Mayan ruins are in evidence. His visits to Mexico had a profound impact on him, and he says he is haunted b y one particular passge from the Bible: "And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain, and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent". His paintings are the physical expression of that sensation of things falling apart.

Kirkeby has engineered this particular exhibition so that we are forced to undergo this physical sensation. His installation forces us literally to have our backs to the wall. There's no escape, unless you wriggle through one of its narrow channels. But then, of course, you'll be faced with another giant landscape.

While he was in Greenland, Kirkeby experienced the kind of isolation his paintings express: "You're about as alone as you can be on this earth up there - with no company but the moon. You feel that you can somehow be swallowed up or disappear in the landscape." Like this otherworldly location, his landscapes offer both a threat and a liberation. They are deliberately imprecise. The Siege of Constantinople in particular, displays Kirkeby's distrust of neatness. When he realises that order is emerging in a painting, he feels compelled to scribble graffiti on the surface. The motifs he uses to kick-start the painting process (a tree, a leaf, a member of his family) are gradually obscured by dramatic swatches of colour. Landscapes such as this are not just evocations of nature, but quests to explore an inner geography, "something to think in" as he puts it. He compares his paintings to going on a journey during which impressions crowd in on him.

He insists that his paintings are "pornographic", but it's hard to see what he means. In Flight to Egypt, broken-up glimpses of figures flicker in and out of view, gradually exploding into strokes of pure colour. To call such work "pornographic" is perhaps another way of saying that the original image is soiled or defiled, corrupted. We're on safer ground if we take up Kirkeby's geological analogy, by which the layers of paint on his landscapes are layers of soil. If we go back to the Mayan ruins which Kirkeby saw in the process of being reclaimed by rainforest, his vision of a landscape in a state of flux becomes clearer. Withdrawn from the World is a landscape struggling through the layers to assert itself.

The comparison between Kirkeby's paintings and the sculpture in the Duveen gallery is, on first impression, stark. The paintings are full of energy, but offer no resolutions or cathartic moments of truth. They are theatrical in that they parade great gestural brushstrokes before you, but they are ultimately misleading, directing the eye away from what's underneath. The myth of spontaneous expression is, for Kirkeby, just that. And, with his installation, Kirkeby wants to rub our noses in it. All the forms he uses (and the Tate is also showing his bronze sculptures which, unlike his brickwork, are full of nervous energy) depends on a series of expectations and deferrals that we must experience as we journey through them. Brick Work 1998, redolent of a place of worship, is, in fact, empty, like a temple whose god has long since been forgotten.

Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 26 May.