It sounds like a joke: Europa Endlos (Endless Europe). Europe is defined by its endings and new beginnings, historical, geographical, cultural. Traveling the continent, you experience this over and over again: borders, landmarks, and yes, museums.
The title of the show at Kunsthal Charlottenborg refers to the opening song of Kraftwerk’s seminal album Trans-Europe Express, which was released in March 1977 to a rather different Europe, still divided by national border controls and the iron curtain. At Charlottenborg, Europa Endlos presents artworks which reflect on diverging ideas of Europe, from ironic ambivalence to the “European dream,” as a character in Bouchra Khalili’s video The Tempest Society (2017) puts it. But what would that dream represent?
Maybe an anecdote from the exhibition’s opening days can provide a clue? Curator Henriette Bretton-Meyer had signs made for theshow’stwo entrances that werereminiscent of airport passport controls: ‘Europeans’ on the right and ‘Others’ on the left. After the show had gone up, artist Šejla Kamerić noticed the similarity to her own work, EU/Others (1999) originally produced for the third Manifesta in Ljubljana in 1999, and contacted the curator, who in response suggested replacing the signs with Kameric’s piece consisting of signs with the more precise inscription, ‘European citizens’ and ‘Others’.
Integration is a key issue here. By including an artist who, over decades and with sharp wit, has reflected and acted upon the E.U.’s policies of in- and exclusion and their effects on herself, as a woman from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the exhibition as a whole makes a stronger statement, paying homage to the complex story of the people in Europe after the fall of the iron curtain.
Entering the exhibition via ‘Others’, you are confronted with an installation of intersecting black metal turnstiles which fill the room all the way up to the ceiling. The installation Tourniquet (2015), by young Ukrainian artist Daniil Galkin, invokes the harrowing steeplechase of entering the EU without the right passport. If you’re not part of the club, you’re not welcome. Whereas following the ‘European citizens’ side leads you to a long blue wall of welcome greetings in all the languages spoken in Europe, like in a duty-free shop.
The airport theme continues in the first room with a selection of photographs of three European airports by Swiss artist duo Fischli/Weiss, surrounding a metal scaffolding structure by Monica Bonvicini. The sculpture recalls a section of a stadium, which, to this viewer, represents the idea of the circus – the empty spectacle – rather than the agora (the very core of democracy), as the accompanying text suggests. While not a place where citizens congregate to discuss, Bonvicini’s sculpture does, however, indicate a desire to accommodate the audience, and as such provides something of an antithesis to the exclusive nature of Galkin’s piece.
In Jimmie Durham’s photo-series In Europe (1994–) the artist poses with an eclectic variety of products in locations associated with Europe by virtue of their name, from a pharmacy to a shopping mall, and even the European Parliament. Fischli/Weiss’s and Durham’s positions reflect an older generation, marked by an ironic, even ambivalent, approach to the basic, but important question: what does Europa stand for and why is it special?
Swedish artist and filmmaker Sara Jordenö attempts a response in her film Diamond People (2016), which succeeds in portraying the social effects of a factory’s closure in the small Swedish town Robertsfors, without omitting the larger economical and historical context of industrialisation and globalisation. In one scene, the laid-off workers are given a lecture on social media. As the educator suggests using specific websites, the workers’ faces show that they are hot harbouring any illusions: there are no prospects for them anymore, no matter how qualified they are or may have been. The main blow is to the cultural identity of the individual blue-collar workers, not necessarily to their individual economies. Is the social safety net of the welfare state model representative of the European dream?
The next gallery presents two well-known public campaigns: Wolfgang Tillmans’s anti-Brexit or pro-EU campaign is already a classic work of political art, with subtly romantic imagery and clear statements. On the opposite wall are Jeremy Deller’s tee shirts, which give banal phrases a contemporary twist: “My boyfriend went to London and all I got was Fuck Brexit” ; “Don’t worry – Fuck Brexit”; or “John&Paul&George&FuckBrexit.” The idea of a sloganeering tee shirt reflects the problem that the whole of Brexit poses in regard to a concept of individual identity beyond the purely national.
What both positions share, albeit with different scales and strategies, is the idea of public art as a form of civic involvement – and an active stance for Europe. Both artists belong to a generation that has witnessed the early stages of the EU, and may today see it as a continuous process, rather than accept it as a given.
Olafur Eliasson is about the same age. His driftwood compass, Crossing paths compass (2018) hangs from the ceiling over three ready-made installations comprising historic materials arranged by the curator. A table with protest signs from the UK relating to the Brexit vote in 2016, is juxtaposed with handouts of historic posters from Denmark related to the first Danish referendum on the Maastricht treaty from 1992, a big step towards European integration. Dealing a significant blow to the overall development in Europe, the Danes rejected the treaty by a small margin before accepting a slightly modified version a year later. Slogans like “Holger og konen siger nej til Unionen” (Holger and the misses say no to the Union) still resonate with the generation that witnessed these developments.
The third element is a handout with the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights, an ambitious proclamation that on the one hand could represent the European dream, but on the other is read with mixed feelings in light of how European countries are currently treating immigrants.
It is wonderful to have a luxurious viewing situation for Bouchra Khalili’s poetic and sharp video The Tempest Society, to explore her alternative historiographies. Shown to much acclaim at documenta 14, Khalili’s video takes the theatre project al-Assifa (the Tempest) which was founded by two French students and a working migrant from northern Africa in 1970s Paris as a starting point. Her characters reflect on the potential of theatre to give a voice to oppressed people, to empower the individual to speak collective truth back to the collective in the sense of Pasolini, the ultimate “poeta civile”, or political poet.
Related to the problems encountered by Syrian refugees upon arrival in Greece, it becomes clear that their European dream is one of solidarity, equal rights, and democracy. Don’t we share this dream?
Even in formulating this question, one becomes aware of the urgency to take a stand for the current construction of the EU, however flawed it may be. Here, it appears as a defining subject of this specific generation of artists, Deller, Tillmans, Jordenö, Bonvicini, etc., but also curators, like Bretton-Meyer, who are striving to grasp the essence of a European dream. Not primarily as a political vision, but with the idea of reactivating the collective body of European citizens, rekindling a flame.
Art can visualise the joy in finding this body by enabling, to paraphrase Franco Berardi, an eroticisation of society. It’s about overcoming fear and finding joy in change on a grand scale, to eventually break free from the dominating, bigoted, capitalist, colonialist narrative. What Bretton-Meyer seems to suggest is that Europe is more than an identity, it is also a tool that can lead to a new universalism. To at least make sure we keep it in our collective toolbox is something worth every effort.