Artistic Baggage

At Sorø Art Museum, Peter Bonde engages with the past and role models in an exhibition that refuses to be retrospective.

Peter Bonde, Unclaimed Baggage Will Be Destroyed, installation view, Sorø Kunstmuseum, 2021. Photo: Morten Jacobsen.

There is something particularly sentimental about revisiting places you knew intimately as a child. Everything not only seems smaller, but also a little off. A kind of doubling occurs, with the memory of the place superimposed on top of the current experience, reflecting and shifting the here and now.

I think about this as I ramble through the rain-soaked forests at the edge of Sorø Lake looking for a real-life childhood memory – an area popularly known as Little Finland because it boasts a small lake surrounded by birch trees which, with a bit of imagination, is reminiscent of northern Scandinavia. Peter Bonde played here as a boy, setting out on the small lake on a raft made of styrofoam. On the other side of the big lake sits Sorø Academy, where I myself went to boarding school as a teenager.

Little Finland is dotted with several pairs of jeans hanging from the tree branches. They look left behind, rather like when a child loses a mitten and some kind soul hangs it from a branch in order to make it easier to find. But there is also something strangely sexual about these jeans; juicy branches protrude from their legs and flies. Given the name of the place, I am reminded of Tom of Finland’s drawings of jeans-clad young men. What has taken place in this small grove to make someone leave their trousers behind? A loss of innocence, perhaps?

Peter Bonde, Unclaimed Baggage Will Be Destroyed, installation view, Sorø Kunstmuseum, 2021. Photo: Morten Jacobsen.

The work presented in Little Finland is part of Unclaimed Baggage Will Be Destroyed, Peter Bonde’s take on a retrospective exhibition – which also fervently rejects being one. Bonde, who burst onto the art scene in the 1980s as part of De Unge Vilde (or, “The Young Wild Ones,” a circle of painters that included Claus Carstensen, Kehnet Nielsen, and Nina Sten-Knudsen, and had its breakthrough with the exhibition Kniven på Hovedet [The Knife on the Head] in 1982), primarily shows works from recent years; the oldest are from 2012. This despite the fact that Sorø Art Museum actually owns quite a substantial collection of his works from the 1980s. It seems like a deliberate rejection of nostalgic flashbacks in an exhibition that, nevertheless, comes across as an accumulation of all those things that, together, constitute a total artistic body of work.

Inside the museum’s more recent extension, we find allusions to previous works and a substantial selection of the Book Paintings that Bonde has been working on for the past ten years. The series consists of photos of book covers from his personal library, enlarged and partially overpainted. Some books are immediately recognisable: catalogues about Isa Genzken, Richard Prince, and Martin Kippenberger hang side by side with more anonymous books whose authors and titles disappear behind thick strokes of metallic paint. The works invite a biographical reading. They constitute the artist’s literary baggage, allowing us to orient ourselves among various sources of inspiration and role models. But the whole thing also smacks of a postmodern play of references. What we find here are books that cannot be opened, connections between Bonde and other artists’ biographical catalogues that cannot be completely decoded, and names that have been censored.

The floor is covered with the remains of Ghost Paintings, a series of huge mirror foil works that were previously part of Danh Vo’s installation at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The story goes that during his tenure as a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, Bonde advised the young Vo against becoming a painter, and the work appears as the young artist’s response and homage to his older colleague. At the museum, the mirror foil is spread out like a reflective lake on the floor and stacked up in a nonchalant pile, ensuring that the full picture remains hidden.

Peter Bonde, Unclaimed Baggage Will Be Destroyed, installation view, Sorø Kunstmuseum, 2021. Photo: Morten Jacobsen.

On one wall hangs a modified bench from Bonde’s own exhibition in the Danish Pavilion at the 1999 Venice Biennale, where he showed a video of a race between himself and American artist Jason Rhoades in the desert outside Los Angeles. At Sorø, you can – in a metaphorical sense – look from one biennial to another and ponder not only how the work of art can be understood as a network of relationships and contexts, but also whether you actually see anything other than yourself when looking deep into the mirror foil in search of Bonde.

In the older part of the museum, Bonde engages more directly with the museum’s collection. A small gallery, the entrance of which is blocked by a work, contains an accumulation of several book-based and mirror-foil works, as well as pieces from Pole Paintings, a series of paintings installed on pole dance poles. They engage in a dark dialogue with Nicolai Abildgaard’s painting Nightmare from 1900, a small picture that depicts two sleeping women and an allegorical ape-like figure representing the nightmare itself. As Kristian Vistrup Madsen writes in the catalogue text, this is “a strange doubling of consciousness,” where the figure and the women are simultaneously one and two bodies.

Something similar holds true of this exhibition in general: it is full of objects and ideas that Bonde picked up throughout his entire career, but still does not want to claim fully. Or, perhaps more accurately, it presents the kind of artistic baggage we unpack only to find that the context has shifted in the meantime, and what once was is now embedded beneath a fine layer of what came later. 

At the edge of Sorø Lake, an area popularly known as Little Finland is dotted with several pairs of jeans hanging from the tree branches. Peter Bonde, Lille Finland, 2020-2021.