Around 1996

Esben Weile Kjær is having a ball in a show that reveals how shared history is reduced when art becomes embroiled in self-actualisation and experience economy.

Esben Weile Kjær, Butterfly!, 2023. Mira Winding & crew, something forever forever something, 2023.Photo: Frida Gregersen.

Butterfly! is a little like seeing a photograph of yourself from when you were young and thinking: “What an annoying twit. Who does he think he is?”

The irritation stems from the fact that I have skin in the game. As I myself once did, Esben Weile Kjær is now mediating art from the 1990s and the beginning of the millennium. This ambivalent spark of recognition across generations prompts a dual train of thought: how does one go about creating and shaping a reception of recent contemporary art? And how, specifically, does Weile Kjær approach the task?

Having Weile Kjær curate the Arken collection as the first artist ever to do so is a noteworthy event in several ways. Enthusiastic reviews show that he has struck a nerve with Butterfly! – and perhaps also that he has manifested a (historical, institutional) logic that characterises the present moment and contemporary art.

The ideas, practices, and institutionality of contemporary art were reconfigured in the 1990s, and the decade has been revisited in shows such as The 90s Onstage at SALT Istanbul (2022–2023), NYC 1993 at the New Museum in New York (2013), and 1984–1999: The Decade at the Pompidou Metz (2014). The generational logic can be a dubious identification mechanism, but it is remarkable that the period – as far as I am aware – has never before been a curatorial topic in Denmark.

Rather than a declared theme, the 1990s is an insistent subtext in Butterfly! due to the exhibition’s line-up of artists and various direct references. The framing narrative revolves around Weile Kjær being fascinated by the Arken collection as a teenager. In this story, he is the transformational figure suggested by the title, the butterfly that unfolds its wings: the artist visited Arken as a young man, and now he is curating a show at the museum because his encounter with its collection proved formative. It can also be presumed that the museum is now ready to include his works in that very same collection. A story of transformation that verges on tautology and flatters the institutional setting.

Speaking of his turn as guest curator, Weile Kjær himself said: “I want to talk about Arken’s pictures in a new way. […] To use them to try to understand ourselves. Not as we were when they were created, but as we are today.” So far, so clear. Butterfly! is neither about genealogical perspectives, nor about historical transformation as a collective process. Weile Kjær’s statement of intent here revolves around a “we,” without mentioning historical time, and without mentioning art as anything other than a mediating instance helping us “understand ourselves.” This creates a sense of tension in the exhibition, partly between this “us” and art, and partly between the present-day perspective (the people “we are today”) and the historical one (older works presumably important for a common posterity). What are the consequences for art when its importance resides in being a vehicle for subject production and self-actualisation? Who is the “we” on whose behalf the exhibition speaks? Should the people “we are today” be considered a natural or normative way of being? Put another way, if Butterfly! can be about something other than Arken, Weile Kjær, or ourselves, one must address the historiographical effects generated by the exhibition.

Still, it is relevant to ask: who is Esben Weile Kjær, a figure who is so instrumental and pervasive, and tasked with so much in this setup? His SoMe-filtered artist persona comes trailing aura from the club and fashion scenes, and navigating a media landscape characterised by cultural journalism that tends to focus on people and their biographies. An obvious comparison is the stars of the Young British Artists movement – Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas are both featured in Butterfly! – and Weile Kjær’s project aims to be consubstantial with the creative industries and a spectacular event economy. Here, branding and art, impact and enunciation are two sides of the same coin. You will have seen the exhibition, even if you haven’t – for example because it was part of a fashion show arranged in connection with Copenhagen Fashion Week. The exhibition’s image anticipates the exhibition itself.

From Esben Weile Kjær’s performance at the opening of Butterfly! Photo: Betty Krag.

Totalising art in this way is not my thing. But to give Weile Kjær his due, he has a keen feel for orchestration. The Danish newspaper Information reviewed the opening with enough praise to make one regret having missed it: never has Arken “been more on point,” wrote Maria Kjær Themsen about Weile Kjær’s opening performance, and the music provided by DJs from the legendary Berlin nightclub Berghain. The opening of Butterfly! may be seen as a piece of performative reception history. Art from the 1990s entered Denmark in the form of a techno party at Louisiana’s NowHere exhibition in 1996 – and again later that year at Update, an experimental art festival that took place in rented premises in central Copenhagen. The former exhibition entered the annals of art history while the latter was forgotten, or unheeded, as a historical object.

As will be apparent, Butterfly! is a far more animated affair than when we art historians outline the big picture of Art. Arken’s galleries have been bombarded with graffiti in a dark, club-like overall staging complete with skateboarding ramps and a soundtrack by DJ Najaaraq Vestbirk (aka Courtesy). Everything is melancholic, trashy, and shrill all at once. Images and meanings are set against each other in harsh clashes, and one-liners thrive amidst the plethora of skulls and genitalia. Some works are completely swamped by the context (poor Hardy Strid), while others revel in it: bathed in red light, Kirsten Ortwed’s The Eyes of the Portrait (1994) is as much badass materiality as it is postmodern metasculpture. Butterfly!’s hedonism and over-the-top visuality merits comparison with Mark Leckey’s atmospheric exhibition O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, which in 2019 transformed Tate Britain by introducing a life-sized mock-up of a motorway underpass from the artist’s childhood in Liverpool.

Kirsten Ortwed, The Eyes of the Portrait, 1994. Mira Winding & crew, something forever forever something, 2023.Photo: Frida Gregersen.

Understanding historical works based on “who we are today” can be seen as a strategy which intensifies cultural studies’ emphasis on the subject’s ability to acquire and adopt elements from popular culture. But how does this strategy affect what is appropriated – in this case, works of art? One example would be Jes Brinch and Henrik Plenge Jacobsen’s oversized neon Disposable Syringe (1996), a kind of anti-monument for drug users, originally created for an exhibition of art in the public space. Writing in the Danish daily Politiken, Mathias Kryger commented that “today, the work is also relevant as a sign of the pandemic,” and he is right to point out how Weile Kjær’s often gloriously opportunistic raid on the Arken collection turns artworks into signs in states of motion. But can heroin and Covid vaccination complement each other as meanings? In such a reading, I would argue, the socially abject drug user is trumped by the state-immunised public body: public health insurance replaces street junk, a shared commonplace experience replaces stigmatisation and death drive. Disposable Syringe likely belongs at the macho end of the scale, but even so it seems a shame to domesticate it in this way. We see, then, that present-day self-actualisation through art runs the risk of deactivating the original meanings of historical works, thereby also depoliticising their presence in the social space understood as an antagonistic arena. If, instead, one wants to read the cultural discomfort of Disposable Syringe into a present that keeps certain people uninvited to the party, the work may be more usefully connected to the furious gentrification of those spaces of Copenhagen where it once hung like a luminous antibody.

Weile Kjær undoubtedly delivers a congenial reading of Arken’s collection. Certainly, if you evaluate it on the basis of the high-profile, high-prestige figure of Damien Hirst: is not Hirst’s project – art as hyper-commodity, art as media image – a neutralisation of historical reflection? Weile Kjær himself aptly characterises the Arken collection as “Pop and dystopian at the same time,” and in Butterfly! motifs such as life and death, body and desire hold sway. Existential elements with a universalising pull, elaborated and extended by Weile Kjær through the lens of consumer subjectivity without apologising for visual excess or emphatic objecthood. The example from the artist’s own hand is his ‘exhibition logo’ in the form of a hefty hand-painted bronze sculpture of a demonically grinning butterfly based on some keychains he had as a child.

The graffiti is the show’s most important spatial gesture. Painted by artist Mira Winding, it opens up Arken’s architecture towards the concrete edifices of its suburban setting in Ishøj, and its strongly visceral effect prompts a sense of emotional transport in the viewer. A lot of work has been put into these riotously coloured walls and floors, a physical labour that still hangs in the air alongside the various tags and pieces. This inciting ambience transforms the diluted sociality of the white cube into a space for memories of one’s youth: you are transplanted into a set for a film about your own life. Tellingly, the effectiveness of this setting is attested to by the fact that several critics incorporated anecdotes from their own youth into their reviews of Butterfly! (an earlier version of this review included some of my own). Concomitant with this all-encompassing spatial gesture is a scenographic tendency to level or harmonise the plurality of the different times and spaces represented by the artworks in the exhibition.

Butterfly!, 2023. Installation view. Photo: Frida Gregersen.

Butterfly! thus turns the retrospective function of the museum in the direction of subjective history and personal space, staging the exhibited works with a view to reinforcing feelings of individuation. The human need to narrate and actualise oneself is, of course, perfectly valid. But if you ask who is the “we” invoked by the exhibition and on whose behalf it speaks, the answer must be that no sense of community is a given simply as a function of being in the present. People do not become a collective because they exist as individuals simultaneously. The individual self-narrative is relevant for others only if it contributes to a recognition of shared conditions as regards an external reality, and to the possibility of creating meaningful relationships in a fragmented world. After all, may not the morbid tenor of Butterfly! also be a sign that not everything is awesome? That we live in a self-destructive culture? That we fall short of ourselves and each other when the subject-form becomes a commodity form?

Weile Kjær’s nostalgia for the 1990s lacks a politics of remembrance, to put it bluntly. The male (self-)gaze that dominates in the show echoes the blindness to privilege that was also part of the decade. Since then, self-proclaimed killjoys have crashed the party by insisting on how subject positions and relations of enunciation are conditioned by gendered and racialised power relations, making them sensitive and complex. “What became of the optimism, radicalism, and notions of freedom that characterised art after the fall of the Berlin wall?” asks the press release for Butterfly! The concepts activated here also have a systemic and structural significance for the 2020s. Taking them one at a time:

It is true that the time after the collapse of realised communism was one of optimism. However, it should be remembered that this upsurge rode in on a wave of neoliberalism and privatisation that left society with unpaid bills in the form of environmental collapse, growing social inequality, and democratic and cultural institutions put under pressure (if not put out of the running altogether). And the war in Ukraine has become a new chapter in the Cold War.

Radicalism – what might this term imply here? Hardly political radicalism, or critique; a term we (over)used in the 1990s, but which today has become marginalised in cultural politics and, moreover, overshadowed by epistemologies related to, for example, care and networks. Artistic radicalism, then? This too requires certain principles outside of itself if it is not to remain a quantity inherent to the work.

The construct ‘freedom’ is ideally suited to make us forget that through art we are always at risk of realising other and larger agendas within the metaphysics of individualism and the political economy in which art is embedded. The way in which the idea of freedom was weaponised by the West during the cultural Cold War is a case in point: it was mobilised as a reference to democracy, and, at the same time, it effectively and flexibly summed up capitalism’s promises of market and consumer freedom.

Butterfly!, 2023. Installation view. Foto: Frida Gregersen.

The question of memory and forgetting, rupture and continuity, is, of course, much bigger than Butterfly! A fellow art historian laughed out loud when I recently brought up the 1990s: “That was thirty years ago!” he objected, “it’s like people in the 1980s talking about the topical relevance of 1950s art.” The numbers are indisputable, yet the argument simultaneously rejects possible continuities in contemporary art.

While it is true that globalisation – the fundamental geopolitical condition of the 1990s – has now crumbled into war and crisis, art, like so much else, continues to be dominated by a logic of limitless growth in a culture that prefers more of the same. In the 1990s, the role of the artist thus began to be rendered exemplary, taking the form of a professionalised protagonist to be integrated into existing cultural systems – the labour market, business life, science, urban development, popular culture, and so on. The trend did not necessarily originate in the 1990s, but began to coalesce into an institutional synthesis around this time.

These issues have contributed to changing the field of visual arts, qualitatively and quantitatively, in ways that remain current. Perhaps more clearly than any other Danish art museum, Arken, which opened in 1996, has embodied the ever-growing communication and mediation complex from the period, requiring large numbers of visitors within the confines of a digitised and service-oriented experience economy. Now Marie Nipper is the new director at Arken, which invited Weile Kjær to curate an exhibition that loops the museum back to its starting point by presenting works from a collection built under the reign of the museum’s long-standing director Christian Gether.

The butterfly is a creature of the moment, outside of history, and with the party, you can create your own ecstatic time. Weile Kjær delivers in heaps as he burns up the dance floor, rather like Asger Jorn, who once declared that “art is a celebration!” and the Skagen painters raising a glass together. 1990s art or not, everything is as it always was – and it will continue to be so, as long as the party goes on.

BURN OUT (Jes Brinch & Henrik Plenge Jakobsen), Disposable Syringe, 1996. Mira Winding & crew, something forever forever something, 2023.Photo: Frida Gregersen.