Oh Land and Eske Kath’s Visual Art at New York’s Charles Bank Gallery
Denmark's breakout singer Oh Land took over a New York gallery for a series of intimate and sparkling visual art shows. The former ballerina spoke to Marlow Stern about her inspiration.
With her slender physique and sharp, Claudia Schiffer cheekbones, Nanna Øland Fabricius peeked out from behind her banged golden tresses at the packed opening night crowd swimming with scarves, camera flashes, and disaffected gazes. “This ees what we call the ‘peecnic setup,’” uttered Fabricius—who goes by the stage name Oh Land—motioning to the string quartet to her left. The audience at New York’s Charles Bank Gallery, hopped up on free champagne and Red Bull, fell silent, as the keyboard and xylophone kicked in, signaling the opening to the delicate ballad “Lean,” off her self-titled major label debut, released March 15.
Gallery: Oh Land at Charles Bank Gallery
Although the set was stripped down, highlighting the pop artiste’s Danish-accented vocals—which fall somewhere between Lykke Li and The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson—the performance space was an orgy of shape and color. An oval-shaped portal lined with tiny houses marked the entryway into the gallery, which is hosting Oh Land for a four-day set, while images of multicolored, free-falling homes were projected on the right wall and ceiling, creating a we’re not in Kansas anymore vibe. In the middle of the room lay a towering pile of homes created by her partner, Danish artist Eske Kath, that lit up in a rainbow of colors with each beat of the bass drum.
The writhing chanteuse, meanwhile, was positioned in front of a mural titled Red Horizon, depicting clusters of the same homes and amorphous shapes being sucked into a vortex. Bulging white balloons emitting shimmering beams of light, images of tigers, and ballerinas doing pointe work and fouettés, were situated on either side of Oh Land. The images are particularly evocative considering that, prior to her musical career, the 25-year-old was poised to be a ballerina.
The daughter of an opera singer and a composer, Oh Land grew up in a small house on the outskirts of Copenhagen, surrounded by animals. Besides playing with her tortoise, chicken, guinea pig, rabbit, and seven cats, she would find comfort in rescuing birds that had fallen out of the trees. At the age of 10, she entered the royal ballet school, and trained in ballet and modern dance very rigorously until a slipped disc in her back ended her dancing career at 18. “When I stopped dancing, I did a lot of stuff to try and keep myself going, and not just getting completely depressed,” she told The Daily Beast. By day, she worked as an assistant for Kath, 10 years her senior, and by night, she would write music.
“I started to write lyrics, songs, and melodies, and that became my way of dealing with the loss of dance, because that was a big personal tragedy—to suddenly lose something that had taken up all the time in my life,” said Oh Land. “I would write things I wouldn’t tell my friends and my family. Music was my closest friend, and I wasn’t afraid to admit or confess anything.”
But she kept all the music to herself, as a form of therapy. One day, at the age of 21, she was driving to the studio with Kath and played him a demo she made. “I was blown away,” Kath told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘You need to take this serious. You’re a good painter, but this is brilliant.’”
Oh Land’s debut album, Fauna—which she considers “more like a soundtrack”—was released quietly in 2008. Around this time, she began collaborating with Kath on artwork to accompany her music.
Kath, also a native of Denmark, attended The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts from 1997 to 2003. His work primarily explores themes of natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, and how these catastrophic events upset our normal lives. “I come from a country where we don’t have [natural disasters] at all, so for us it’s something we see on the news, and it becomes a little more abstract than people who experience it,” Kath told The Daily Beast. “It’s a strange, symbolic thing where you try to control everything in your daily life, but no matter what you do, you can’t control it.”
The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan struck a chord with Kath, who started depicting disasters in his work after the 1995 quake in Kobe, Japan. “I just ended a project about a mythical story from Japan with a catfish that people thought created the earthquakes,” said Kath. “Suddenly, it’s very real.”
Kath doesn’t like incorporating human figures into his work because then, he says, “your natural tendency is to relate to that person.” Instead, he uses his trademark house to symbolize human civilization. The symbol also resonated with Oh Land, who chose to exhibit Kath’s work on her first album cover.
“To him, it’s about how we make these frames and protect ourselves from something that’s quite uncontrollable,” said Oh Land, who describes their working relationship as “two brain-halves.” “For me, it was building my own house—which was dance—and thinking I knew how everything would be my whole life, and suddenly that gets smashed, and I have to find a new home.”
Heavily influenced by Björk’s recent output, Oh Land went in a more electronic direction for her sophomore album, Oh Land. Following a series of show-stopping performances at the 2009 South By Southwest Music Festival, as well as support from taste-making bloggers like Perez Hilton, she was signed by Sony’s Epic Records, and has since collaborated with big-name producers like Dan Carey and Pharrell Williams.
“I started to write lyrics, songs, and melodies, and that became my way of dealing with the loss of dance, because that was a big personal tragedy—to suddenly lose something that had taken up all the time in my life.”
The terribly catchy first single off the album, “ Sun of a Gun,” has racked up over eight million views on YouTube. The song was inspired by a night observing the sunset in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful.’ Then I thought, “Oh, just stay down. I’ve had so much sun for the past three months in L.A., I come from the north. I need darkness,” said Oh Land. “That feeling inspired the song about a relationship that’s destructive and a person’s not good for you, and every time the person comes up—like the sun—you love it, but if you get too much, you’ll get burned.” She paused, adding, “So you need to protect yourself.”
Gliding across the stage in a shoulder-baring black top befitting Grace Jones, Oh Land quieted the tightly packed crowd with a 30-minute, six-song set. Without the album’s pulsing electronic beats, the xylophone and keyboard-driven numbers were reminiscent of Feist’s head-bopping oeuvre. As the set drew to a close, each struck note illuminated Kath’s cluster of homes in the center of the audience.
“When I step into my little world of music,” said Oh Land, “I feel it’s a safe environment for me where I can feel like myself.”
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and is a masters degree recipient from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial dept. of Blender Magazine, as an editor at Amplifier Magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.