Autumn Sonata – Denmark

Solid solo exhibitions, even of a more woke variety, lie ahead this autumn season. But this year, it was the Danish minister for culture who set the ball rolling.   

Danh Vo, She was more like a beauty queen from a movie screen, 2009. 54.5 x 96.5 x 13.5 cm. Collection Chantal Crousel.

In a departure from the usual state of things, this year’s autumn season on the Danish art scene was not ushered in by the Copenhagen-based Chart Art Fair and Code Art Fair, which took place this weekend. Instead, the minister for culture herself set the ball rolling. Mette Bock had invited 100 people from the Danish cultural scene to take part in an almost-24-hour seminar at Rødding Folk High School near Vejen, addressing themes such as ‘Do artists have a responsibility to take part in the public debate?’ and ‘How can art generate value for civil society?’ And even though many, including this author, read these pointed phrases with some annoyance and a heavy heart, we have certainly seen that the mission succeeded. We have rarely seen an August in which the public opinion pages of Danish newspapers were so full of contributions from writers, artists and other stakeholders on the cultural scene eager to explain to the minister why they see no imperative to take part in the public debate.

With most of the crowd consisting of practising artists, the Rødding assembly did more or less agree that art and artists don’t have to do anything at all. However, the meeting also showed that a good handful of prominent artists had firmly adopted familiar paroles from the cultural struggles seen in the last few decades: that art occupies its own special preserve, that the establishment gives handouts only to the elite, that the Danish Arts Foundation is governed by blinkered self-appointed arbiters of taste, and so on. In some sense this only served to make the minister’s briefs for discussing the legitimacy of art all too relevant, and it did nothing to make me dream fondly of more artist participation in the discussions.

Yes, the basic premise of the meeting was off. Why should artists speak up and contribute more than anyone else, without any remuneration? Several of us had turned up to the meeting to inquire into that point. No reason to belabour it here. However, during the meeting I did wonder whether the whole issue might look something like this from the politicians’ perspective: if artists no longer believe in the figure of the artist-genius and can’t be bothered to act as 1960s-style agenda-raising authors – because doing so makes so much less sense in an era where the days of state-monopoly TV and a well-defined national state are long gone while the consumption and production of culture has grown exponentially – has it become more difficult for politicians to spot the artists? 

When oracles of the art world are no longer speaking from university staircases or banging desks on prime-time TV, does it become more difficult for politicians to justify state support for artists in their own and each other’s eyes? Is that what’s going on? As we know, not even the evident growth in the consumption of culture – at all levels and in every nook and cranny of the nation – has done anything to mitigate this bizarre crisis of legitimacy currently experienced by the realm of culture in Denmark. Sadly, I had no opportunity to ask any politicians about this: all of the parliamentary spokespersons on cultural affairs had opted out of attending the meeting.

Rita Kernn-Larsen, Self-portrait (Know Thyself), 1937. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice.

As we continue to ponder the issue of how to defend and justify culture, the art scene is busy coming up with the goods at the nation’s museums, art venues, project spaces and galleries, private and public. This autumn, the selection of solo shows is particularly encouraging – it even includes quite a few exhibitions of contemporary art of the woke variety.

I have to say that I fall smack-bang within the demographic targeted by Gl. Holtegaard’s autumn exhibition featuring Danish artist Rita Kernn-Larsen (1904–98). Not just because her paintings look absolutely surrealist-slash-yummy, but because I must admit that I knew little about her before stumbling upon an exhibition of her works at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection during last year’s Venice Biennial. Kernn-Larsen had close ties to the international Surrealist movement and spent long periods working in Paris and London. Featuring extensive loans of more than 100 works from the 1920s to the 1980s, the exhibition serves, among other things, to reintroduce this distinctive oeuvre to audiences in the artist’s native country.

Had Danh Vo lived back in Kernn-Larsen’s day, we might not have seen a retrospective of his work while the artist was still alive – and certainly not at the tender age of 43. Like Kernn-Larsen’s, Vo’s art has very much been formed and developed outside of Denmark, his adoptive homeland. Instead, it has been shaped by the discourses found among the leading institutions of the art centres of the world today. Indeed, Take My Breath Away at the National Gallery of Denmark is a reworked version of the special exhibition shown earlier this year in New York – at Peggy’ uncle’s place – in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

In addition to presenting 75 works of art, several of them created specifically for the Copenhagen show, Vo also takes over the so-called Sculpture Street of the museum with a curated project that incorporates plaster casts from the national gallery’s collections, design objects and plants. This is not the first collaboration between Vo and senior curator Marianne Torp – they also created the Danish Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennial – and expectations regarding this exhibition are, quite frankly, running high.

Nina Beier, Automobile, 2017. 17 x 26 x 61 cm. Courtesy the artist STANDARD (OSLO), Oslo. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

In a few weeks’ time, Kunstforeningen Gl. Strand will open an exhibition featuring Nina Beier. CalledFood Chain Café, it will take the form of an immersive installation that includes numerous antique marble lions. And last week, Tranen in Gentofte opened an exhibition featuring Rasmus Myrup, who has only just graduated from the Funen Art Academy, but is by no means an unknown quantity. For example, Myrup is the man behind Weekends, an exhibition platform initially launched in Copenhagen before taking on Paris instead.

Tranen shows Myrup’s installation Homo Homo, which – mimicking the kind of dioramas found in museums of natural history – offers a depiction of the pre-history of homosexuality among archaic humans, predating Homo sapiens. The exhibition also marks the start of Toke Lykkeberg’s own exhibition programme at Tranen.

Exactly one year has gone by since Lykkeberg took over the director’s chair at Tranen. One of the knock-on results is a marked increase in the standard of press releases here in Denmark. The serious, yet ebullient press releases issued by Tranen are a breath of fresh air amidst the mire of soulless marketing lingo that dominates the genre. Many Danish museums and art venues, large and small, would do well to watch and learn.  

This season also brings us Kirsten Astrup’s first solo show at an institution. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde presents her new film cabaretUroligt hjerte (Restless Heart). Like Astrup’s graduation piece from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2017, she takes her starting point in a venerable welfare state institution that has come under pressure. At her graduation, the postal services were under consideration. This time, it’s the Danish railway service – DSB. I expect drag queens in crisp uniforms, political satire and papier-mâché.

If we turn to the more established end of the spectrum, the Belgian artist duo Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys await us at Kunsthal Aarhus in early October. Here they will show a series of 54 small sculptural heads made out of plaster, artificial hair and paint – 3D-prints of researchers, politicians, dictators, actors and the artists’ own friends – all arrayed on little shelves on the walls without any kind of hierarchical or moral order. We can probably expect something minimal and deadpan from this duo, who have worked together for more than 30 years and also happen to be the featured artists in the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennial next summer. Speaking of which – I wonder when we’ll know who will inhabit the Danish Pavilion. A young artist recently said to me that Christian Falsnaes would be an obvious candidate. Not a bad guess.  

Falsnaes is part of the autumn programme at Andersen’s in Copenhagen, presenting Icon, an exhibition consisting of the relics and leftovers of a performance that took place earlier this year at the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld. Here, audiences were invited to take part in the destruction of a range of copies of iconic works from the museum’s collections, the originals having been created by celebrated artists such as Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein and Bruce Nauman. The processed, almost ravaged copies are shown in Copenhagen as an exhibition in its own right.

Kunsten in Aalborg have just bought a ‘constructed situation’ by Tino Seghal. This Succes This Failure (2007) will be the main attraction of the exhibition shown at the museum in mid-October. Among other things, it involves children from the local area who will greet museum visitors and engage them in conversation. Most likely, the experience will be both intimidating and fascinating in equal parts.

Christian Falsnaes, ICON, Kunstmuseen Krefeld – Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, 2018, still.

As far as the other museums are concerned, ARoS presents the exhibition Schnabel by Schnabel featuring the American painter and film director Julian Schnabel. According to the museum website, the artist has been given free rein and intends to approach the exhibition as if it were a set design for one of his own films. It will be interesting to see how an artistic oeuvre that is so very closely tied to 1980s American art history will settle in at a Danish museum today.

Louisiana presents the exhibition The Moon. From Inner Worlds to Outer Space. This looks poised to be a real Louisiana Classic offering, spanning 150 works, several centuries and many different fields and genres – ranging from Galileo Galilei’s original watercolours of the surface of the moon to contributions from present-day artists such as Camille Henrot, Marie Kølbæk Iversen and Alicja Kwade. The latter will also be featured at Kongens Nytorv in central Copenhagen, where Kunsthal Charlottenborg presents a major solo show, curated by Marie Nipper, featuring this Polish-born artist.   

This is to say that the autumn season has plenty to see, discuss, consume, ruminate and reflect on as we ponder ‘how art can create value for civil society’. A rather paradoxical cultural struggle that should also be seen in the light of the fact that only 0.05% of the national budget is spent on culture in this country – a piece of information you don’t need to attend Folk High School to learn, but which nevertheless seemed to be something of an eyeopener for several of those present at the Rødding assembly.  

Those of us on the cultural scene need to sharpen up our act. We need to know our facts, such as the fractional funds allocated to creating a whole cultural nation.

Max Ernst, Birth of a Galaxy, 1969. Oil on canvas. On display at Louisiana’s exhibition The Moon. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection. Photo: Robert Bayer.