The Right Decision

No more censorship: Russian artist Sergei Prokofiev’s work is once again part of the Spring Exhibition. The chair of the Charlottenborg Foundation, artist John Kørner, has resigned from the board.

Only five days have gone by since the Charlottenborg Foundation chose to exclude the Russian artist Sergei Prokofiev from the recently opened Spring Exhibition. The decision was made with reference to the war in Ukraine and just a few days after the Danish minister for culture had called for the cessation of all state-sector cultural cooperation with Russia. Since then, the culture scene has called for clearer guidelines, but the minister has so far declined to do so.

“Each individual cultural institution must take a look at its planned activities […] and ask themselves, what is the Russian involvement in this? And then make up their minds whether they are willing to lend their name to that particular activity at a time when Russia has launched war in Europe,” said the Social Democrats’ spokesman for culture, Kasper Sand Iversen, somewhat nonchalantly to the digital newsletter Frihedsbrevet.

Caught in the crossfire was the system-critical artist Sergei Prokofiev and his participation in the current exhibition at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. The Spring Exhibition is arranged by the Charlottenborg Foundation, which shares its name and location with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, but is an independent organisation whose main purpose is, and has been since it was set up in 1857, the running of this particular annual exhibition.

Prior to the events in recent days, this year’s jury had even decided to give the Russian artist the exhibition’s Solo Award for the video works Fan of the Land (2021) and Fireworks on the Swamp (2020). The artist responded to this accolade with the following statement:

To be honest, at the end of October 2021, I opened my first solo exhibition abroad, in Uppsala, Sweden. In November 2021, I received an award in Russia, and now I am going to Denmark for such a wonderful occasion. The fact that I will receive the Solo Award is very important to me, just because I will be able to show some Russian contemporary art outside the Russian context and collect opinions about it in Denmark. Everything that has been happening to me lately I call nothing but a series of miracles.

It makes for painful reading. No one can have any doubt about what such recognition and opportunity to show his art internationally means to this young Russian artist, especially after the invasion of Ukraine. All the more paradoxical, then, was his exclusion from the exhibition, the reasons for which were described in a statement issued by the Charlottenborg Foundation on 4 March:

We are aware that the artist’s work is critical of those in power, and in awarding the 2022 Solo Award to Sergei Prokofiev, we have clearly indicated that we appreciate his artistic practice. We also still hope to be able to present Sergei Prokofiev’s solo exhibition in collaboration with Politikens Forhal in 2023 as part of the award. The current exclusion must be seen in light of the West’s current critique of the state of Russia, which we see as a bigger and more important issue than consideration for individuals, just as no distinction is made between athletes, regardless of whether they are critical of Putin and the war in Ukraine or not.

Since then, criticism has rained down on the foundation and Kunsthal Charlottenborg, partly from the cultural scene and partly from leaders across the political spectrum. For example, a critical Facebook post from the Danish Social Liberal Party’s spokesperson for culture, Zenia Stampe, prompted a slew of comments. The many respondents did not mince their words. Take, for example, this comment from literary scholar and associate professor emerita at the University of Copenhagen Tania Ørum: “It makes no sense: this is Putin’s war, not every Russian’s war, and certainly not the war of an artist who is critical of the system.” Many of those contributing to the thread urged the foundation to reconsider its decision.

It would seem that someone had a careful rethink. On Tuesday, the foundation’s chair, artist John Kørner, resigned from the board. That night, the rest of the board – comprising architect Peter Møller Rasmussen (deputy chair), artist Ann Sophie von Bülow, jeweller Annette Dam, photographer Søren Rønholt, and artist Christina Augustesen – convened for a new meeting. Now, the right decision has been made. As of today and for the rest of the exhibition run, Sergej Prokofiev’s works are once again on display.

On the foundation’s website, the board of directors announced that it has appointed Peter Møller Rasmussen as the new chair, adding: “The board has in unison decided to reinstall the work. The Foundation wishes to communicate that the removal of Sergei Prokofiev’s works never has been motivated by artistic censorship, restricting of freedom of speech or anything in that regard. It was solely a wish to join a national or global statement towards Russia.”

Things are happening fast these days. We are all on shaky ground and have not quite found our bearings in the new world order. This will probably not be the last time we find ourselves in such a situation either. One can only hope that the unnecessary attention around his person has not cost Sergei Prokofiev too dearly.

Sergei Prokofiev, Fan of the Land (2021)  and Fireworks on the Swamp (2020). Installation view, Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, 2022. Photo: Søren Rønholt.