The light is dim in the basement of Den Frie, as if it were an exclusive jewellery shop. But, then again, several of the coins on display here have become expensive collectibles, and all are artefacts with special cultural-historical value. The display tells the fascinating story of the currency called 1 fed (literally ‘1 fatty’ because its value is equal to one gram of hash), which was launched by the pushers of the Freetown Christiania commune in 1976 as an alternative to the Danish krone, one of countless initiatives aimed at seceding from the Danish state.
The coins are displayed in beautiful showcases created by artist J.F. Willumsen (1863–1958) for Den Frie, which he also designed. I have not seen these cases before, but Den Frie is currently bringing plenty of things out of storage that Willumsen, in true Gesamtkunst-Art Nouveau style, created for the place, including a number of extraordinarily long benches painted in shades of museum grey. One of these is also included in the exhibition 1 FED, letting you sit down to study the catalogue, an essential part of the show.
Back when they were first put into circulation, 1 fed coins functioned exclusively as valid tender – as was originally intended. But for many years they have also been collector’s items, with long waiting lists for each year’s new coin. Most are made of silver, a good handful of gold, and a few of brass or copper. The iconography alternates between Viking ornamentation, motifs from ‘naver’ journeyman crafts, meandering natural ornaments, or ornate psychedelic abstractions. Several depict familiar Christiania locations: the skatepark, Pusher Street, or the furious swans in the moat. From 1976–2021, all coins were struck by the engraver Vagn Sorento Dichmann, who died last year. So does the story of the coins end here too? In some ways, it would be entirely in keeping with the Christiania spirit, and far removed from official banking compliance, to assert that even money has a soul and that a currency can end with a life. On the other hand, the coins have only been lent to the exhibition and will go back into circulation afterwards.
The exhibition is arranged by Det Kosmiske Hierarki (The Cosmic Hierarchy), a curatorial platform driven by artist Ann Sophie von Bülow, which has launched several exhibitions and interventions at Christiania since 2019 (in the cinema, at the upcycling market, and at the local newspaper). The exhibition at Den Frie sees the hierarchy operating outside the freetown for the first time. Von Bülow was born and raised in Christiania, but no longer lives there. This dual position is palpable in everything that bears the signature of Det Kosmiske Hierarki, both in terms of rejuvenating Christiania as an idea – including notions of autonomy and alternative lifestyles – and when it comes to big-picture issues of Art and Freedom. Big words, perhaps. But, in fact, this small and quite conventional exhibition of coins at Den Frie encompasses all these elements.
The catalogue has a glossy white cover, its outward appearance as stringently tight and simple as everything in Christiania most emphatically is not. It consists primarily of pictures, photographs of all the coins, one page per coin, front and back. At the back of the catalogue we find the only text, a record providing sober descriptions of every single coin, including its subject matter, size, and material: “A jester points at his own nose. The jester holds a marotte (a fool’s sceptre) with a hemp leaf at it top (1 FED, reverse, gold, 2008)” or “A frog surrounded by drifting smoke sits in a lotus position while smoking a chillum (1 FED, obverse, silver, 2013).” No analysis or interpretation. It reminds me of a subject once taught in Danish art history programmes, ‘Describing Art’ – which may no longer be part of the curriculum? In any event, it involved very little in the way of ‘selfie’ indulgences because ‘Describing Art’ classes did not allow us to make any analyses, only statements of fact: media, dimensions, subject, year, style, etc. Being sent to a museum to write a page of purely descriptive facts about a sculpture often felt dull. Later, I saw the point: it was an exercise in seeing.
Of course, using dry-as-dust numismatist jargon in a catalogue of coins is an obvious choice. But the approach also has the brilliant side effect of limiting all the tittle-tattle – the torrent of gossip that gushes out of Christiania the moment you cast the slightest glance at a self-built chimney or get chatting with a couple of the original residents. At the same time, I cannot help but see it as a comment from Det Kosmiske Hierarki, whose ears have long since been chewed off in marathon communal meetings in the freetown or simply in general: “For f’s sake, will you just look at the coin!” An exercise in focusing for a day and age that seems to be on fire. Here we find another field of intersecting currents vibrating underneath the surface of this otherwise low-key exhibition: the juxtaposition of fires past and present, inside and outside the commune. But also inside and outside the community of art, because 1 FED also takes place on the outside of Willumsen’s building.
On the facade of Den Frie, facing the busy crossing opposite Østerbro Station, hangs a large LED work. The words HA$H and 1 FED are spelled out in thin LEDs accompanied by a glowing arrow pointing towards the entrance. The work is by Mira Winding, who studies at the art academy in Copenhagen and also has connections to Christiania. The result is a kind of Christiania Conceptualism like you’ve never seen it before; such thinking is hardly found at all in the freetown’s art history, which is rather freaky in itself. At the same time, much Christiania folklore does have a kind of whimsical commune/sanctuary concept running through it, an aspect to which Det Kosmiske Hierarki is uniquely attuned. Something special is happening here. This new generation of artists clearly feels great love for the enduring heart-and-peace sign-hippie aesthetic, yet is also able to take it further and put a new spin on it, regardless of whether this manifests itself in the local currency or in the eternal Christmas of Pusher Street, forever swathed in fairy lights.
The concept of freedom and coins in showcases may not be obviously connected, but in this exhibition they end up strangely and wondrously intertwined. When I revisited the exhibition several weeks after the opening, I found myself alone in the space. My corny brain began running its own soundtrack: “Come and sing a simple song of freedom / Sing it like you’ve never sung before…” I smile at myself, but also at the fact that while Denmark’s middle-aged commentators (who really need to practice their art description skills!) fill the newspapers with pseudo-debates about so-called scandals in art which they think will interest the country’s young art scene, young artists are finding a crack, a place to skim the spirit of the times in an exhibition featuring Christiania’s cryptocurrency. As Ann Sophie von Bülow writes in the catalogue’s afterword, it is: “a testimony of a world that can’t and won’t be described.”