Sun King and Jester

Not all instruments are tuned to perfection in Frederik Næblerød’s Masquerade at Gl. Holtegaard. I danced anyway.

Frederik Næblerød, Masquerade, 2023. Installation view. Photo: David Stjernholm.

Sadly, I did not arrive at Gl. Holtegaard in a horse-drawn carriage, but by bus, and so I had to tread my weary way through the drizzle from my stop on the Elsinore motorway. A carriage would have been entirely appropriate on this occasion, for we have been invited to a masquerade ball at master architect Lauritz de Thurah’s old country manor, which incorporates architectural references to the Sun King’s palace in Versailles. Of course, nothing less would do for someone like de Thurah, who had climbed to the top of eighteenth-century Denmark’s hierarchical social structure and needed to proclaim his newfound status by parading a neat little baroque mansion to the world.

The venue’s deeply embedded genius loci of ambition, power, and self-staging forms the starting point for Frederik Næblerød’s immersive installation Masquerade, a satirical costume ball for the upper echelons and a necessary outlet for pent-up energies in the thoroughly regulated eighteenth-century society. Sheltered by the anonymity of the night, masqueraders could get it on, sneer and leer at power, and indulge in the anarchy of the party. And Næblerød certainly gets it on: the place is filled with all the vainglorious characters of courtly life. There are fools, jesters, demons, and ghosts, all dancing with wild abandon in six scenographic tableaus.

The party gets started in the courtyard, where eleven grotesque gold-coloured masks are arranged in a circle, each standing on an ultramarine pedestal. Right from the outset, I sense Næblerød’s idiosyncratic and extremely energetic work process. These are hastily made and processed works: rough, crooked, and angular, their expression poised somewhere between the comic and the almost brutal. When working as intuitively and spontaneously as Næblerød seems to, artists sometimes hit the spot and sometimes miss by a mile. Here in the courtyard, the eleven masked guests form the perfect welcoming committee.

Frederik Næblerød, Reflection, 2023. Sealant, wood, mirrors. Photo: David Stjernholm.

Inside the venue we meet the exhibition’s main character: the court jester, who seems to act as the artist’s alter ego. In his role as the only person who could make fun of kings and princes with impunity, the historical court jester served a double function. Firstly, he could turn hierarchies upside down for the amusement of the people. Secondly, he could make the king aware of what the people were saying about him out of earshot. Something similar can be said about Næblerød’s deliberately anti-academic style and his apparent resistance to the too established parts of the art world. From there, he can flip an affectionate finger at all established dogmas about good taste, and perhaps also tell us a few home truths along the way.

We zip through a hunting room with utterly absurd ceramic trophies on the wall and continued directly into the prince’s bedroom. The grand ruler lies in an elegant bed in the middle of the room, and above him hovers death itself in the form of a full-sized skeleton. Grinning from the walls are myriads of white faces, ghosts created by thick layers of sealant pressed directly from the tube onto gold-framed mirrors. The scene is baroque in the most literal sense of the word, kitschy and so over the top that it veers toward pure comedy.

Frederik Næblerød, Masquerade, 2023. Oil on canvas. Photo: Alice Folker Gallery.

A hallway, where a series of monochrome portraits of the evening’s partygoers – wearing masks and secretive smiles – looks down at us mockingly, leads into yet another bizarre set-up. In the middle of the room, the royal family sits at opposite ends of a long table filled with neon-coloured plastic fruit. The two mannequins are dressed in baroque costumes and deer antlers, and a mechanical string pull makes their arms move slowly up and down – a reference to the carefully staged spectacles that royal dinners constituted during the Sun King’s time. Back then, ordinary citizens were sometimes granted access to witness the spectacular and theatrical productions set in motion wherever the royal family appeared: a single, ceaseless proclamation of the order and opulence of power. We sense how Næblerød, in his role as court jester and with a satirical glint in his eye, points to these staged scenarios and says to viewers: “Look at the vanity of humanity with all its ridiculous norms and airs and graces.”

To put it mildly, not all the instruments in the evening’s orchestra were perfectly in tune, but as is the way of wild parties, I still got carried away by the atmosphere. Næblerød has exactly the kind of restless energy that can make a slightly stilted, uptight masquerade ball explode into a dazzling display of pure chaos, and while the music played I quite happily danced along with the ghosts, demons, and sun kings until dawn. And, suddenly, there I was, back in the courtyard with my pumpkin. Perhaps I did not learn that much about the hierarchies of power in the Baroque or death – an ever-present spectre at the feast, peeking out through the many vanitas symbols in Næblerød’s works. But, then again, the jester’s role may be to remind us that since we are all going to die anyway, we might as well party while it lasts.

Frederik Næblerød, The ceremony, 2023. Oil on canvas. Photo: David Stjernholm.