Off to Neverland!

The liberating potential of partying forms the focal point of Esben Weile Kjær’s outstanding performance, which portrays millennials as a generation poised between anxiety and self-staging.

Esben Weile Kjær, Hardcore Freedom, performance still, Copenhagen Contemporary, 2020. Photo: David Stjernholm.

Ever since March, when the coronavirus pandemic closed down all Denmark’s nightclubs, there have been few opportunities to party on a grander scale. Festivals were cancelled, bars and pubs close long before the party really gets started, and last week alcohol sales from late-night shops were also subject to new restrictions. Tut-tutting in frowning disapproval, parents call for a show of community spirit; why can’t those pesky young people just stop partying?

If you belong to the group of young people who sorely miss partying, you may find some small solace at Copenhagen Contemporary, where Esben Weile Kjær has transformed the smallest exhibition hall into something that looks a lot like a nightclub. Upon my arrival during the opening night, there was already a long queue of people waiting to be let in – a queue that, just like at clubs, only grew longer as the evening progressed. I waved my press pass, had a beer shoved into my hand and glided into the darkened room, my face alight with smug VIP self-importance.

Esben Weile Kjær (b. 1992) has a long track record as far as parties are concerned. Right from the time he was old enough to be let into nightclubs, he has worked as a DJ and been behind countless club concepts. And even though he is still a graduate student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, this autumn has seen him present solo shows at no less than three of the city’s major institutions: a billboard exhibition in the garden at the Museum of Contemporary Art – an advertising campaign for the upcoming shows; a performance and installation at Gl. Strand; and now, to culminate it all, Hardcore Freedom at Copenhagen Contemporary, featuring a two-hour performance involving ten performers in addition to Weile Kjær himself.

In the gallery’s centre is a specially built stage, covered in mirrored vinyl reflecting and refracting coloured light around the room. On the wall above the stage, a neon version of Tinkerbell from Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) hovers in the air, and is reflected in the floor. In a central scene in the animated film, Tinkerbell hovers over a hand mirror, gazing at herself and becoming aware of her body for the first time – and of the fact that she has feminine curves. Weile Kjær’s Tinkerbell has an aura of red light bulbs that switch on and off in slow succession, rather like how the character in the film glows red when she gets angry.

In addition to being a cute Disney character, Tinkerbell is also an icon of the strip clubs that, alongside cabaret and burlesque, appear to be more direct sources of inspiration for Weile Kjær’s take on performance art than the more intimate encounters between work and audience found in 1960s and 70s incarnations of the genre. We may also recall thatTinkerbell’s visage was imprinted into some of the first ecstasy pills; she represents the fall from innocent child to sexual being, as well as humanity’s dream of being able to take to the sky in a state of drug-induced rapture.

Indeed, it’s quite a sexualised Tinkerbell who began the opening-night performance. Danish pop star Lina Rafn stepped onstage in sky-high patent leather boots and a diminutive Tinkerbell costume, belting out Infernal’s Eurodance version of Raf’s 1984 Italo-disco hit ‘Self Control’ while surrounded by countless cameras – operated by the audience members, the other performers, and even a drone. Then the performers entered one by one, briefly dancing alone on stage until the entire ensemble was assembled and the party could begin.

Esben Weile Kjær, Hardcore Freedom, installation view, Copenhagen Contemporary, 2020. Photo: Esben Weile Kjær.

Weile Kjær has hired performers from a wide range of backgrounds (everything from pole dancing to ballet), and even though they move to the same rhythms – a thumping soundtrack that mixes tracks from all of nightclub history, right from early Detroit techno to the poppiest EDM – their physical modes of expression differ greatly; a difference best appreciated when they dance alone.

While the movements of the individual dancers are improvised, there is clearly a system in place by which Weile Kjær’s signals set in motion a new part of the party. Moving on from the dance, the performance turns into a form of wild sweaty game where the performers wrap each other, the stage, and – if you’re not careful – members of the audience in yellow barricade tape. The performers trip over each other, fall onto the floor and slide in and out of the communal body being created by the pulsating techno rhythms and constricting tape. Responding to another signal, several performers dress up in neon orange uniforms of the kind traditionally worn at construction sites, but which have also crept in as part of the club culture.

Just as the punks appropriated the school uniform, tearing it apart and putting it back together with safety pins, the club stage has a keen interest in authoritarian symbols and in queering them so that they stand for the exact opposite. These symbols are then picked up by the fashion world, which transforms them into eye-wateringly expensive branded designs that can in turn be re-appropriated by subcultural movements.

Esben Weile Kjær, Hardcore Freedom, performance still, Copenhagen Contemporary, 2020. Photo: Esben Weile Kjær.

Weile Kjær’s performance is full of such references to the history of club culture and fashion, but is particularly attentive to the anarchist potential of celebrations, partying, and subculture. There is a reason why every youth uprising in history has had its own fashion, music, and party culture. In Weile Kjær’s work, partying becomes a symbol of a deeper need to escape the constraints of the status quo and create one’s own reality.

Hardcore Freedom incorporates post-performance strategies. The ubiquitous cameras which record the performance from the performers’ point of view and project the previous night’s footage onto a large screen are key elements. All cast members are constantly aware that they are being watched – by us, but especially by the camera’s red eye – and regularly arrest their movements to present themselves as tableaux vivants that work well as still images. There is a huge preoccupation with the image, with self-presentation and generational anxiety as proclaimed by a large banner carried in from one side. Here we find cultural consumption as an identity marker in millennials’ digital self-branding. Their performance eloquently speaks of a generation informed by personal development, individualism, immense expectations, and their fallout: anxiety and depression.

You could call this a manifestation of the experience economy, incorporating the aura of cynicism inherent in that concept. But for me the piece works so well because being part of the audience of Hardcore Freedom is such a celebratory experience in itself. It prompts wistful yearnings for a corona-free past that would allow the performance to be even more participatory. Quite a few years have gone by since I myself was part of the club scene, and I had no idea that I missed it. During this performance, I realised that I had forgotten about the full potential of partying. As Underworld’s 90s hit ‘Born Slippy’ bursts out of the speakers and the performers, half-dressed and wild-eyed, tumble and crash amidst cascades of stage lights, it briefly feels like we’re becoming a vast collective body taking off from the room, flying with Tinkerbell out to some utopian Neverland.

Perhaps this is why those pesky young people can’t just stop partying: it is not about alcohol culture or a lack of community spirit, but about becoming a communal body that can, for a few scant hours, forget all about pandemics and the necessity of bloody well maintaining a two-metre distance from each other at all times. I… I live among the creatures of the night…

Esben Weile Kjær, Hardcore Freedom, performance still, Copenhagen Contemporary, 2020. Photo: David Stjernholm.