Growing up in Norway, the artist Tiril Hasselknippe watched a lot of nature documentaries. One program, focused on a volcano whose eruption was 100 years overdue, convinced her that the end was near, and she has held onto that apocalyptic worldview. “That’s just how I’m wired,” the 35-year-old says, sitting in the Magenta Plains gallery in New York, where her latest solo show just went on view.
Hasselknippe is no pessimist, though. Much of the New York–based artist’s work, which has appeared in the 2018 New Museum Triennial and shows at kunsthalles across Europe, could be seen as attempts to stave off or mitigate such disaster—they’re scrappy, hand-fashioned solutions to potential catastrophes.
Her latest piece, “Braut” (2020), which premiered at the gallery on Sunday, takes the form of five cast concrete columns that are arranged in descending order. The top of each one holds a basin of water filled with pebbles, gravel, sand, or coal, which together illustrate the steps of water purification. There’s enough room for a person to stand between the pillars and, if one wants, transport the refined liquid to the next dish, cleaning the water, per Hasselknippe’s system.
The smell of steel treated with penetrol, a moisture sealant, hangs in the air, mingling with eerie reverberations of a waterphone, the instrument on which Hasselknippe and a friend improvised a soundtrack, pumped through speakers, for the show. The sculpture’s rough-hewn exterior and bleak color scheme transform the room into a dystopian construction site—and Hasselknippe, in a neon orange sweater and paint-splattered work boots, inadvertently is dressed the part as one of its builders.
But “Braut” is a lot more than a water filtration system. Hasselknippe explains the countless ideas packed into the piece: the shapes of the pillars’ top and bottom recall the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the infamous Moria refugee camp, and the crab carcasses mixed into her concrete are meant to reference an early Roman recipe for that material as well as things that wash up on seashores. Discussing the work, she also goes down verbal rabbit holes, noting that the piece’s title can be roughly translated in four languages: as “path” in Old Norse, “bride” or “woman” in German, “béton brut” in French (which translates to “raw concrete”), and “brut,” short for brutal, in English.
“Sculpture is a hard medium because unless it’s very literal, it can be very abstract,” Hasselknippe says. “I struggle with that. I have so much I want to express, but I want to let the artwork be itself and not tell people what to think.”
One might say that her work is about the hazards of being alone. Placing it in a post-apocalyptic narrative provides her the opportunity to point out that people need each other, right now and at the end of the world. The water-purifying columns of “Braut,” she says, amount to machinery that is meant for people to operate together.
Downstairs, in a room equipped with a fog machine and three rows of filtered orange fluorescent lights, sits a welded steel and resin maze formed by hollow, inverted sections (it, too, holds a dizzying number of the artist’s politically and philosophically charged ideas). Like the ramparts of a medieval town or fortress, the outermost parts tower over the shorter parts at its center, protecting them from harm.
Asked about the role of art in human survival, Hasselknippe brings up a short story she wrote where a sculptor and a filmmaker meet in post-apocalypse Berlin and mount an exhibition for nobody. “Surviving on your own isn’t worth it,” she says. She sees her adopted home of New York as a kind of living love letter to humanity. “We’re willing to live stacked on top of each other to coexist,” she says. “There’s no greater expression of ‘Love thy neighbor’ than that.”
Besides infrastructure, Hasselknippe also loves science fiction. The scrappy, futuristic aesthetic of her work hints at that (the curved edges of her steel maze is a reference to the circular state of time in “Battlestar Galactica”) as well as her zest for experimenting with new mediums. She rotates between stone, light, plaster, aluminum, and other industrial matter, aiming never to get too comfortable with any material. “A lot of sculpture is problem-solving and thinking on your feet,” she says. “There’s always some level of impossibility to my ideas, so I have to try and overcome that. This gives me endless pleasure.”
But as much time as Hasselknippe spends figuring out how to express her ideas in physical forms, she is always mindful of how viewers will respond to them. Her favorite times as an artist are when she gives a talk—not by flipping through images on a PowerPoint but by speaking about the concepts in a given work—and can see people’s faces to gauge what she needs to explain things more clearly. “There’s a real energy there,” she says of that intimate exchange. “I wish I could give a private tour to everybody.”