It is said that the world’s first clowns can be traced back to Egypt’s fifth dynasty no less than 4400 years ago. So the internet tells us. From there, of course, the clown spread and evolved in terms of geography, character traits, and its function in society; it probably also branched out in directions not fully covered by Wikipedia, becoming associated with everything from spirituality and rituals to critique of established norms, as well as with the realms of theatre, circus, and general tomfoolery. The breadth and primordial potential of the figure means that it belongs to everyone and no one. So, when the French curator duo Pierre-Alexandre Mateos and Charles Teyssou interweave the clown with Denmark in a newly opened exhibition at Maison du Danemark in Paris, the connection seems both apposite and arbitrary.
Le Bicolore, a new exhibition platform for contemporary art, architecture, and design in Denmark’s own prime piece of Paris real estate right next to the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysées, forms the setting of the group exhibition Le Royaume des Clowns (The Kingdom of Clowns), a presentation of works by eighteen Danish artists. Each in their own way, these works present or resemble or dream of what the exhibition text calls “the clowndom.”
Small and packed with works and exhibition design, the space makes for a somewhat underwhelming experience while also unshackling the show from all vestiges of ‘white cube’ stiffness. Perhaps this is because the floor is black and the lighting has a flourish of theatrical drama rather than exhibition intimidation; or perhaps it’s because there’s something homey about the sofas and lamps and rugs that have been scattered all over the room like stage props.
“Denmark is the clowndom of avant-garde art movements,” says the exhibition text, which goes on to claim that the Danish “kingdom of just under six million inhabitants has historically summoned up the figure of the clown, buffoon, fool or prankster.” I am absolutely not well-researched enough to be able to reject these claims, but the supposed specific connection between varieties of clown and modern Danish art (history) seems either surprising or a little contrived. For example, I would argue that the use of the grotesque, playful, mischievous, humorous, and leering as a critical artistic language could characterise the vast majority of historical avant-garde movements, just as the clown figure could belong to any culture.
However, the fact that the curation seems a little too insistent, too overpowering, or perhaps just too eager to achieve thematic jackpots does not necessarily harm the the works. Sidsel Meiniche Hansen’s animated masturbation in the video work NO RIGHT WAY 2 CUM (2015) certainly caught my gaze and refused to let go of it, putting a crotch right smack-bang in my face as if this square screen on the wall constituted a personal encounter with a clown displaying scant respect for personal boundaries. Or Magnus Andersen’s strange portrait of a magician (School Hallway Magician, 2021), a red painting installed on an easel with supreme silliness: all this red, the expression of sheer petulance on the child’s face and something Pierrot-like about his shoes makes the totality zany and beautiful, infusing it with the same peculiarity as a small circus.
Tora Schultz’s Pinocchio strap-on (Pinocchio II, 2022) hangs on top of a locker column and is brightly lit in a prize-like way that makes the doll’s fresh face – stupid and content as a patriarchy – even more amusing. The brutality of the wooden mock-up stands unconcernedly erect, and for one moment, when I was in the exact right position, a line of sight perfectly matched to this work extended from the tip of the nose through the head of fellow vernissage guest Peter Aalbæk and almost straight into the mouth of John F. Kennedy placed at the centre of a target – a reproduction of a classic Situationist work (Destruction of the RSG 6, 1963) installed behind the sculpture.
Digitally animated people vomit or fall apart in front of equally animated (and, thus, even more feeble-minded) paintings by Kristian von Hornsleth in Line Finderup Jensen’s video work Kill Joy (2018). Henrik Plenge Jakobsen’s toxic-looking laughing gas playhouse (Laughing Gas House For Kids, 1998) comes across as eerily clown-like due to the jarring sense of disconnect often created when empty and disused children’s stuff is found in adult spaces without children. Ann Lislegaard’s silently psychedelic black-and-white video (Tapping of the Fox Sisters, 2010), a haunted repeated movement towards the kind of closed door that oozes ominous dead, essentially evokes a pale discomfort more associated with ghosts than the brightly coloured clownish madcap frenzy that dominates the most eye-catching (sculptural) works in the room.
There are plenty of excellent things to look at in the Danish house in Paris, and there is certainly also a well-meaning curatorial attempt to produce coherence, to bring together quite different practices in a bristling exhibition that tries to be neither streamlined nor introverted. However, an overabundance is also at play here. For example, it seems unnecessary to have audiences sit on a couch to watch a feature film, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), inside a room whose vinyl floor is a replica of Von Trier’s iconic Dogville (2003) set design. And it’s a shame that Esben Weile Kjær’s twelve-metre-tall, inflatable, and synthetic dream of a glittering clown persona, Julian Luxford (Bloated [Floating Signifier], 2021) has been pushed into a corner which cannot really accommodate it; it ought to be put somewhere with room enough to allow it to fuck around with issues of scale in that appetising way that big fragile things can sometimes do.
If the clown can be said, among many other things, to encapsulate the indefinable aura of something that might be funny, might be displeasing, or just borderline psychopathic, something that is embellished with colourful lashings of make-up and feels like an inexplicably alluring melody of tones that don’t really go together, then Les Royaume de Clowns captures this quite accurately. But as a structuring principle for a presentation of Danish contemporary art, the clown narrative and aesthetic also become a stumbling block, an impediment to all the works that make the exhibition both worth seeing and easy to overlook. The weird and the quirky and the funny usually benefit from being downplayed.