When the Water Lilies Bloom

Denmark is awash with spring blockbusters – plus glimpses of experiments and resistant poetics.

Jens Haaning and Superflex, Number Of Visitors (Besucherzahl), 2005. Installed at Frankfurter Kunstverein in 2005, part of Populism curated by Lars Bang Larsen, Cristina Ricupero og Nicolaus Schafhausen. Photo: Superflex.

The number given by Nikolaj Kunsthal is a neat, round 81,000. “More than 486,197,” the oddly specific proclamation by the Glyptotek informs us. While the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) brings out the big trumpets to proudly announce that it has broken its own record by attracting more than 600,000 visitors. It is that time of year when museums and exhibition venues stand up to be counted. “Now, more people visit Kunsten than the stadium,” states the media outlet Nordjyske as it reports on the 119,000 visitors received by the Aalborg museum in 2023.

There was a time when we didn’t really talk about such figures. Or we talked about them in a different way. An apt example is a work by Jens Haaning and Superflex consisting of a digital people counter which until recently hung on the façade of Lund Konsthall, enabling shoppers and hot-dog-munching young people in the square outside to keep tally on the number of visitors to the Swedish venue from one minute to the next.

Called Number of Visitors, the work was originally created in 2005 for the group exhibition Populism that took place in Oslo, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Vilnius. It addressed the then-nascent populism that has now become standard in Europe today. The counting device was a commentary on institutional conditions and criteria for success: the greater the number of visitors, the greater the opportunities for garnering financial support. That part hasn’t changed. But it feels as if the mischievous glint, the tongue-in-cheek quality which was an important component of the work has simply evaporated. Today, museum directors would probably love to receive the work as a Christmas present – not because it is a great work, but because visitor numbers are everything.

And in some ways they are – certainly if we look at them from one specific point of view: that of  Denmark’s upcoming museum reform, which has been on the horizon for several years under a succession of ministers for culture. Now, a proposal for a new grant model has been presented, and the parliament is expected to finalise its processing this year. The proposed reform may result in major changes in public subsidies, especially for the largest art museums. According to the newsletter Søndag Aften, a handful of museums, including Louisiana, ARoS, and the Glyptotek, look set to lose large sums.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the big museums are increasingly reaching for the blockbuster shelf. ARoS, which registered 535,804 visitors in 2023, has just announced that it expects even more visitors this year, pointing specifically to the upcoming exhibition featuring Ron Mueck. The museum already owns the artist’s huge Boy (1996), which now will be joined by A Girl (2006), a five-metre-long infant, and Woman with Shopping (2013), a slightly smaller than life-sized representation of a mother with child. It seems likely that this will indeed send the counters ticking at full tilt. The Mueck exhibition presented last autumn at the Fondation Cartier in Paris broke all records – echoing the previous ones made when the same institution showed him in 2005 and 2013.

Blockbuster artists are a funny breed. Mueck was originally a puppeteer and model builder in the film and TV industry before he began making his labour-intensive sculptures, which he shapes in clay by hand before they are cast in materials such as silicone and resin. They often take many months to make. To date, his oeuvre consists of forty-eight works, most of them on a large scale – a trait which, incidentally, is often a foundational aspect of the blockbuster genre. We may smile at this, but it also reflects the simple and even banal fact that the starting point for the experience of art is still the human body, the flesh we all carry around. This also applies to Anish Kapoor’s large-scale works, due to be presented at Arken in April. They too tend to generate great enthusiasm and ticket sales wherever they are shown.

On the other hand, as critics, we need to remember to take a good look at ourselves in order to properly see the world that institutions face today. Nationwide dailies such as Jyllands-Posten and Berlingske are currently making radical cuts in their coverage of culture, with art criticism being particularly hard hit. Even a newborn venue can see that its chances of getting any mention at all in this arid landscape are much better if it can present, well, a giant baby. First, fastest, or biggest: it’s a race to the bottom.

Installation view, Ron Mueck, A Girl, 2006, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 2023. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Foto: © Marc Domage.

Anyone who follows the exhibition programmes at Danish art institutions will also be familiar with phrases such as “internationally acclaimed artist,” “one of the most significant artists of the 20th century,” or “a unique figure in contemporary art.” Surely, the choice of words also has a connection to the populist currents and haemorrhaging media budgets. Of course, communications departments have to say something, yet it can be rather odd to see how the language used in press releases for art professionals often differs little from generic marketing lingo. Feel free to place in the appropriate categories the SMK’s upcoming exhibition with Alberto Giacometti and Louisiana’s exhibition with Roni Horn in May.

Pigeonholing the programme presented by Rønnebæksholm is rather more difficult. Housed in a former manor house, the Næstved venue has dedicated the whole of 2024 to “exploring a specific theme: HORSE.” Perusing the ambitious programme for the year is enough to make me whoop “Yihaaa!” It includes no less than three group exhibitions and features total of 45–50 artists, among them Agnes Slott-Møller, Nina Steen Knudsen, Mohamed Bourouissa, Rose English, and Mathias Dyhr. The horse theme constitutes an interesting continuation and extension of Soil.Sickness.Society, the venue’s ambitious exhibition venture from 2021. Indeed, some of the same people are involved, including Ida Bencke from the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology and critic and curator Maria Kjær Themsen.

The special segment of exhibition venues housed in former manors and opulent country houses also includes Ordrupgaard and Gl. Holtegaard. Ordrupgaard is off to a hard-hitting start with Ai Weiwei’s “biggest Lego work to date,” the installation Water Lilies #1 (2022), a 15-metre-long paraphrase of Claude Monet’s water lily paintings built out of 650,000 Lego bricks. Meanwhile, Gl. Holtegaard is sticking to its new profile: presenting young artists in their first-ever solo shows at an art institution. This season, the chosen artist is Iselin Forslund Toubro, who will present a total installation based on the centuries-long Scandinavian tradition of “naver” craftsmen: journeymen who set out into the world to practice their craft as part of their overall training.

Ai Weiwei, Water Lilies #1, 2022. Foto: Ela Bialkoskwa og Okno Studio. Courtesy the artist & Galleria Continua.

Gl. Holtegaard is by no means the only kunsthalle in the Copenhagen area to have a fondness for young talent. Such affection is at the very heart of Overgaden: in March, the venue will show a collaboration between Apolonia Sokol and Zahna Siham Benamor. The latter recently delivered a cool performance – half poetry recitation, half song and tantalising dance – as part of Eliyah Mesayer’s Illiyeen Presents at Art Hub. If some of the same open, experimental vibrancy and verve can be transferred to Overgaden, there is much to look forward to.

Turning once again to the more established end of the spectrum, in February Den Frie will offer a duo exhibition with Marie Lund and Rosalind Nashashibi. Kunsthal Charlottenborg will present Vietnamese artist Thao Nguyen Phan’s film installations, lacquer paintings, and light sculptures in a solo show that opens in March concurrently with the CPH:DOX festival. SMK will show an exhibition with Yvette Brackman, who has trawled through the museum’s collection for examples of Danish-Jewish art history. Built around four women artists, each with their own Jewish identity – the defeated (Juliette Meyer Willumsen), the exiled (Ville Jais-Nielsen), the modern (Chana Orloff) and the queer (Marie Henriques) – the exhibition promises to be more experimental in its approach than what we are used to see from Denmark’s national gallery.

Before summer arrives, Kunsten will open an exhibition featuring the photographer Vivian Maier (1926–2009), who only became known after her death, at which point it turned out that she had been documenting American street life for more than four decades concurrently with her work as a nanny. Charlottenborg will offer up a mid-career presentation by Simon Dybbroe Møller, curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen from KW in Berlin. Finally, the artist duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme will visit Copenhagen with their sound-based works, which they refer to as part of a “poetics of resistance,” rooted not least in their origins in the Palestinian diaspora. The project is the second collaboration between the Glyptotek and Copenhagen Contemporary, and the first one – featuring Abbas Akhaven – was among last year’s most interesting exhibitions, so expectations are high.

And then we will have reached the time of year when the real water lilies bloom.

Installation view, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, 2022. Digital photo.