Did you ever have someone tell you what to do? Did you do as you were told? In their simplicity, these questions, actually part of how Christian Falsnaes’s exhibition at Copenhagen Contemporary is introduced to children, come across as sombre, almost ominous. We’ve just passed David Shrigley’s mostly just big worms, and Yoko Ono’s sentimental wish trees are (still) taking up space outside. Take a selfie and use the official hashtag. Write down a wish on a piece of paper and attach it to the tree. Did you do as you were told?
Falsnaes has made his name as a performance artist, but since image circulation and mediated visuality have become an integrated part of our social reality, it follows that the performative field now also includes engaging with media. You are never just a viewer; passivity, too, is an act. The video work Look at Me (2020) is installed within an anonymous art fair architecture, one screen per booth, one bench per screen. A series of scenes introduce the slippery slope between participation and compliance, entertainment and submission.
In a white film studio, Falsnaes orders a female performer, Minni Katina Mertens, to shake her body as much as possible, to scream as loud as she can. The camera zooms in; the screaming is obviously strenuous. She is asked to remove her clothes and arrange her body into a kind of human ikebana – a beautiful silhouette against the white. Falsnaes and Mertens later switch roles, and soon it is the artist himself who’s bound and naked before the viewer. Is he being punished for his exploitation of Mertens, or is the scene more like an allegory for the artist under late capitalism: in the buff and on public display? At the end, it is our turn to shake and dance. “Follow instructions,” enjoins the screen in bold sans serif font.
I rarely appreciate performance art that attempts to ‘activate’ the viewer because I feel it restricts my agency in relation to the work. This is contrary to what is often the declared aim of this type of art, namely to grant the audience agency. It began partly as a democratic gesture to further inclusivity, and to weaken the artist’s absolute ownership of the work, and partly an invitation to self-conscious reflection. Like Bertolt Brecht thought when he argued for breaking the fourth wall in the context of the theatre, an audience should not be seduced or manipulated by art, as the masses were seduced by the epic marches and exquisitely produced films of the Nazis. In a collapsed world, we should not lose ourselves or our grip on reality in aesthetics, but at all times remain alert, at all times be reminded to think for ourselves.
Falsnaes’s work does actually ask this of us. Look at Me opens with a scene from the annual People’s Meeting – per it website, “a Danish festival for democracy and dialogue” – that has Falsnaes standing on a stage in front of a large audience. You sense that the scene has gone on for a while when Falsnaes lifts his arm and hundreds of people do the same. The camera pans across the mass of smiling Danes, inadvertently or not, emulating a Nazi salute. It is easy to provoke or be transgressive of people’s boundaries, but it is not easy to turn it into good art. Here, Falsnaes is balancing on a tightrope. The clip is short enough that the shock-effect is not fetishised, but still etched into your mind, encouraging a measure of critical thinking when the same sheep mentality later comes wrapped in Mertens’s liberal coaching rhetorics as she animatedly yells from the stage of a concert venue: “Dance as you’ve never danced before; let go; feel your own body.” It looks like Roskilde during the first week of July – the opium of the people – and funnily enough, the music festival has co-sponsored the exhibition. Or, how funny is that actually?
In another sequence of the film, it is an art audience that is confronted with the same uncomfortable grey area within the exhibition’s booth architecture. How much institutional critique can the institution lap up before we can no longer call it critique? How meta can a work become before it simply does what it claims to problematise? Again, Falsnaes pushes at the limit. These questions are not mine, but the video’s, and that works.
When we are asked to follow instructions we are confronted with an existential choice: Are you in, or are you out? It feels radical and radically distressing. I never like being made to feel so much by an artwork, and didn’t in this case either. When eager to move and affect the viewer, an artwork is often too invasive, and as such unsophisticated, didactic, clumsy. The distress risks sounding out the reflection. But when the dust from my experience at CC had settled, it became clear that there was no real point forcing itself upon me, but rather the very question of the personal responsibility that comes with being present in the room as such.
This conflict is always there between a work and its receiver, but in this case was allowed to emerge from latency and breathe. I refused to move one bit – refused, even, to turn around to see what others were doing. To become a voyeur was not an option; you make a choice and you stick to it. The feeling that Falsnaes provokes and the train of thought that follows are not necessarily interesting – understood as surprising, or especially complex – but rather, completely fundamental. Look at Me draws up the distinction between what is simple and what is banal.
Our contemporary is not Brecht’s, however, and the fourth wall is increasingly dismantled in the name of entertainment rather than critique. Talk of ‘activating’ an audience often implicitly assumes that we do not already have agency in relation to the work. This follows the misguided notion that any cultural object that does not address the viewer directly is hermetic and anti-social (two words that you do not want to put on your funding application). To ‘partake’ in art today does not imply taking an active stance, but simply submitting to its terms. You go down slides and up and down on swings, you let your field of vision overwhelm behind coloured Plexiglas, you play pétanque in the courtyard at Charlottenborg and get wasted on Sancerre – the latter is quickly the highlight of the experience. The reward is that we are freed from boredom for a while, and that the activity itself secures our inclusion in a prestigious consumer segment. It is striking how little literature is available in Danish museum shops. Let’s not think too hard – then rather buy some ceramics.
Look at Me makes me angry. Not because the work falls into those traps, exactly. But because it serves as reminder of the bloodless ways we’re expected to interact with the institutions around us, from the state to the art centre – except, of course, when someone is cancelled, but that doesn’t require much reflection either. Because the viewer of Falsnaes’s work is necessarily also a performer. Whether or not we choose to dance, we are still caught confusing imperative with law, and confronted with our excessive willingness to comply with authority. Does an artist even have any authority? If not, we have to assume responsibility for ourselves.
From the Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1963, Hannah Arendt deduced that evil is not monstrous or cunning, but banal. Evil comes from a failure to think, she wrote. Coming so soon after the war, Arendt’s point was unpopular to say the least. The Jewish intellectual Gershom Scholem criticised her for failing to recognise the sheer pleasure involved in being a good Nazi. I think they were both right. There is obviously a lot of pleasure involved in being a good art consumer too. That pleasure is partly found in mindless capitulation, and partly in supplying the institutional critique which is so eagerly welcomed. We witness this in the work of Christian Falsnaes. But we also witness when the confrontation between artist, performer, and audience becomes electric. Like when Falsnaes and Mertens’s eyes meet – two subjects colliding – and we remember that devotion is a tool; that a contract must be signed in order to be broken; and that control is not just something we have. It is also something we lose, together.