Spring Sonata – Denmark

The upcoming general elections are unlikely to change the dazed confusion of Danish cultural politics. But an exhibition about the EU and a Sonja Ferlov Mancoba retrospective look promising.

Sonja Ferlov Mancoba’s studio. Photo: Lena Jacobsson.

We’ve grown accustomed to the paradox. Danish cultural politics – and all the discussions itentails, right from the kind of architecture best suited to a Viking museum, to whether the international endeavors of Danish artists should be supported – is ferociously debated by the very same politicians responsible for cuts to public funding for arts and culture.

Shortly before the New Year, the director of the National Gallery of Denmark seemed to have had enough. In a brief, but unusually outspoken interview with the online journal Altinget – apparently the place to speak if you want the Danish Parliament to listen –Mikkel Bogh said: “The politicians are losing their understanding of intellectual infrastructure. Quite simply, they have failed to raise the profile of this area, even though it is crucially important […] We do what we’re supposed to do. But the politicians never do this. As in never.” 

The director was prompted to speak by a poll (conducted by Norstat for Altinget and the daily JyllandsPosten), stating that forty-eightpercent of the Danish population want to continue the annual two percent cuts imposed on state-operated cultural institutions. According to Bogh, this survey proves nothing beyond the passivity of Danish politicians within the field. He took this opportunity to remind readers of an important definition, which is good to keep in mind ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Denmark: “Representative democracy does not mean that politicians must blindly follow the voters’ attitudes to random opinion polls. Politicians also have a mandate to represent their constituents through visions that the voters do not have themselves.”

Pernille Albrethsen. Drawing: Jenz Koudahl.

The quip about “raising the profile of culture” was a retort to the Danish Minister of Culture, Mette Bock, who has often urged the cultural scene in Denmark to stop whining about the persistent cutbacks and “raise its profile.” As if that would change anything. Visitors continue to arrive in droves to Danish museums even though their day-to-day operations have been cut to the bone, opening hours cut back, and admission fees reinstated everywhere. In 2018 alone, the annual two percent cutbacks to which the National Gallery of Denmark has been subjected since 2016 caused the museum to lose a total of thirteen full-time positions. According to the museum’s own calculations, it will close in 2034 if these cutbacks continue. By that time, the budget for operations will be so low that running a museum no longer makes sense; the foundations of the National Gallery that we know today will quite simply have eroded away.

Seen in this light, it is almost impressive to see how the museum continues to present major research-driven exhibitions like the one opening in early February. In fact, the National Gallery’s Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (1911–84) retrospective is poised to become one of the main draws on the Danish art scene this spring. Perhaps this will prove to be Ferlov Mancoba’s true breakthrough on a massive scale – particularly given that parts of the exhibition will subsequently be shown at Centre Pompidou in Paris. Early on, in the 1920s, Ferlov Mancoba showed a special interest in non-Western cultures that informed and shaped her idiom, which is certain to find even greater reception than ever among today’s audiences.

Just a few weeks ago, Copenhagen Contemporary had its finissage for the two exhibitions (featuring Superflex and Doug Aitken) that marked the venue’s reopening in a new setting last June. The spring program appears to follow the same pattern, arranging shows approximately six months long, but this time, thankfully, the venue will make way for another gender. Swiss artist Claudia Comte presents a total installation that transforms the old former industrial venue into a vast forest. Donna Huanca offers a new performance commissioned by Copenhagen Contemporary – an exciting new development for the venue, which has mainly focused on imported exhibitions. An exhibition featuring Marianna Simnett ensures a Britsmart contribution that includes the video work The Needle and the Larynx (2016). 

Donna Huanca, Bliss (Reality Check), 2017. Photo: Peres Projects.

Kunsthal Charlottenborg’s upcoming exhibition is unlikely to have much in the way of Britishsmartness. Europa Endlos is the resoundingly Kraftwerk-like title of an exhibition, curated by Henriette Bretton-Meyer, which quite simply takes the EU as its theme. As we all know, 2019 is the year in which the UK will leave the EU – one way or another. The year also marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and brings us a new round of elections for the European Parliament. I have high hopes for swish synthesizer stylings, Italo disco and Wolfgang Tillmans, bien sur.

A more wide-ranging approach is evidentin ARoS’s exhibition Tomorrow is the Question, opening in April and curated by former gallerist and current director of Faurschou Art Resources, Luise Faurschou, in co-operation with the director of ARoS, Erlend Høyersten. Featuring contributions from artists such as Doug Aitken, Hito Steyerl, Rirkrit Tirvanija, Mona Hatoum and Simon Denny, the exhibition addresses “the changes, challenges and opportunities facing humanity right now.”

In Hellerup, Tranen takes a slightly different approach to questions of this kind. The spring program continues its investigations into what director Toke Lykkeberg calls “extemporary art” – a term which, briefly put, describes contemporary art that does not operate in an explicitly contemporary fashion. Reflecting on the accelerating rates at which we obtain knowledge about the past and accrue ever more speculations about the future, this idea sees part of the art world moving towards the ‘extemporary’; towards art that is ‘out of time’, as it were. This February, the example at hand is E-flux founder Anton Vidokle’s filmson Russian Cosmism, a philosophy based on the idea of immortality for all, across space and time. The dead will be revived, and the ever-growing number of people will conquer and inhabit the cosmos, including other planets.

Anton Vidokle, The Communist Revolution Was Caused by the Sun, 2015, stills, HD Video, 33:36 min.

Arken also continues along its own previously-laid tracks. The venue seems to have a particular penchant for art that depicts monstrous or deformed bodies, from Michael Kvium to Tony Matelli. In 2017, Arken presented a group show bearing the telling title Gosh! Is it Alive?, and this spring they bring us a solo show featuring Australian artist Patricia Piccinini’s mutated hybrid creatures crafted from silicone, fiberglass and human hair. Judging by the press photos, a certain frisson of horror is in store for audiences there, too.

The major retrospective at Louisiana featuring Pipilotti Rist, darling of 1990s video art, is bound to be rather more cheerful. The museum announces that the exhibition – which bears the rather curious title, Open My Glade – will be “a colourful, sensuous bang of a show,” a technological total installation that extends out into the museum park.

By contrast, electronics are unlikely to feature heavily in Danish artist Anna Bak’s first major solo show: last summer, she went off-grid, moving out into the wilderness to live and work with no contact to the outside world. The results of this experiment, which delves into the effects of isolation on the human mind, can be observed in the exhibition Hermit, opening in late January at Overgaden in Copenhagen.

The general state of mind after the parliamentary elections, lurking just around the corner in Denmark, is anyone’s guess. However, few if anyone would expect cultural politics to be featured high on any agendas, neither during nor after the election. There are virtually no parties within the Danish parliament that are willing to defend art in itself. Art andculture are always just means towards some other end – whether a sense of national identity or a feeling of community in rural villages or social housing districts. Or perhaps art is good for integration, for the children, for our health, for the eyes, and so on. It’s all very tiresome, really, but perhaps that’s just how the story goes when you’re born into a small, corn-fed peasant nation with an inherent skepticism of anything that smacks of art.

Pipilotti Rist, I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much, 1994. Still from single-channel video, color and sound.