Tourist attraction

Elmgreen & Dragset's Han is annoyingly banal as an idea and as an image in a newspaper, but standing on the pier in front of the Culture Yard one sees that it actually works as an object.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Han. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Elmgreen & Dragset’s newly revealed Han (He) on the Elsinore quays constitutes the first definite attempt at creating a new sculptural tourist attraction in Denmark in the last hundred years. If we look back through history, modern tourism is behind the national symbols appointed as Denmark’s main examples of such by Grundlovsforeningen Dansk Kultur: Holger Danske at Kronborg and The Little Mermaid on Langelinie in Copenhagen. Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid was given sculptural form in 1913 with Edward Eriksen’s small-scale figure in the Copenhagen Harbour, «sitting on the moonlit rocks, watching the large ships pass by,» as the fairytale says. The mythical hero Holger Danske (“Ogier the Dane”) from Jutland rose to popular fame in 1903 with the plaster cast of H.P. Pedersen-Dans’ seated figure located in the vaults under Kronborg Castle. According to the prophecies of the Sibyl, he shall rise «when the Turks water their horses by the Kongeå river».

Han refers to both figures; formally it is closely related to The Little Mermaid, geographically it is close to Kronborg. As a symbol, however, Han is devoid of any narrative: no deep mythology or meaning is associated with the boy on the rock. Han is actually intended to mean as little as possible; everyone is free to project whatever they wish onto him. One might elect to consider this democratic art. However, the most obvious explanation is that as a present-day artist you cannot possibly create mythological national symbols, only mirror them. As Michael Elmgreen put it: «Time has outrun mermaid’s tails.»

From the exhibition Ankomsten – Elmgreen & Dragsets Han og kunstens lokale betydning (Arrival – Elmgreen and Dragset’s Han and the Local Impact of Art). Photo: Julie Trier Petersen.

The recently opened panel exhibition Ankomsten (Arrival) at Kulturværftet (The Culture Yard) in Elsinore offers a catalogue of the myriad historical and symbolical readings that can be applied to Han if you should find yourself short of one. The media have also presented a wide selection of frames of reference; these have primarily focused on the figure as a sexually charged symbol and on art history. Han is the titillating younger brother of the mermaid, but he also occupies a strange position somewhere between a contemporary commodity aesthetic and a late Romantic tradition of sculpture with Classicistic, homoerotic undercurrents. Somewhere upon the axis we find a range of existential readings about yearning and loneliness. Thus, the vast majority of readings are concerned with Han as a figurative symbol.

Curiously, no-one seems to attach much significance to the choice of material. Not even at Arrival, even though the exhibition takes a very thorough approach, featuring three good films about art in public spaces in Denmark, an account of the background and debate surrounding Han and a somewhat revisionist overview of the «wild» artists’ past and other work. The exhibition simply asserts that the material used for Han mirrors its surroundings to thought-provoking and entertaining effect. And indeed most people will be able to take pleasure in how the sculpture will, on clement days, reflect the sunlight gleaming in the shiny waters of the Sound in the prettiest manner imaginable.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Han. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Nevertheless, what Han lacks in terms of symbolic history and meaning he represents in abundance in his materiality. The highly polished steel surface, meant to emulate liquid mercury, is in fact heavily loaded with present-day mythology and romance.  

First of all, stainless steel is a megatrend within art and decoration. To Bilbao-like effect, stainless monuments crop up all across the globe. From Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate for AT&T in Chicago to the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s new symbol: a steel egg with an aerial, conceived by Inges Idee. Fascinatingly, this material creates an illusion of liquid non-materiality. Unlike bronze it evokes a sense of reflecting and shaping itself to match its surroundings. Doing so makes it appear more weightless, less monumental, and less didactic. Of course it also just looks expensive; a point that mattered in the last decade. Also, liquid steel is a prominent techno-aesthetic fetish. Visual sources of inspiration include the last two decades of 3D animations of immaterial materialities, such as the water in the film The Abyss or the nanomorph character T-1000 – the mercury man – from the film Terminator 2; a character which is already rooted in its own mythology.

From the exhibition Ankomsten – Elmgreen & Dragsets Han og kunstens lokale betydning. Photo: Julie Trier Petersen.

Due to the unofficial canon of 1990s art the T-1000 from Terminator 2 is not alone in shaping the perception of concepts and materials that infuse artists such as Elmgreen & Dragset; Jeff Koons’ series entitled Statuary, Luxury, and Degradation have also been quite influential. Koons’ exclusive steel casts of banal objects such as bar cabinets and cheap inflatable toys embodied the postmodern concept of simulacra with which an entire generation grew up. In addition to this, however, the project that is Elmgreen & Dragset is also in itself about doubles, reflections, and the non-dialectical. In their production these themes are associated with the very act of being a gay artists’ duo whose fundamental formula of art has, in its most condensed form, been shown in a slapstick-like format through «impossible objects» (Powerless Structures) that address this relationship of mirroring and reflections and which can be understood as both a gay sign and an artistic position.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Han. Photo: Galleri Nicolai Wallner.

The pitfall of this is that when mirroring, doubling, and surface become the key principle in a body of work, it is forever teetering on the edge of fetishism. This can be regarded as a growing problem in Elmgreen & Dragset’s work where everything seems to have become possible, including tins for a supermarket chain and advertising-like cleverness. However, as they have become increasingly successful the once-critical and idiosyncratic artists actually seem to have begun to take the fetish seriously as a category. Possibly because they have had to confine their anger, their artistic and sexual sense of marginalisation to the sickbed and try to find a new way of approaching an art world that no longer places obstacles in their way, but happily falls in love with them time and time again. One can actually wonder at how they allow themselves to work with corny and easy ideas. Han is also annoyingly banal as an idea and as an image in a newspaper, but standing on the pier in front of the Culture Yard one sees that it actually works as an object. Among other things, it works because the artists themselves do not hide the fact that they have created a tourist attraction and not a public art commission, even though the exhibition that accompanies it mainly claims the latter. In this sense, Han is a work that has ceased to promise anyone anything, but which has nevertheless come to mean something for everyone in just two weeks.  

Translation from the Danish by Rene Lauritsen.