Wolf Disguised as Human Disguised as Wolf …

The group exhibition Varulv! at Overgaden in Copenhagen shapeshifts its way through contemporary political spin. Language is God and art dances on the peripheries like elusive ghosts.

Marie Kølbæk Iversen, Nine Bats, 2016. Biosonic light nstallation. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.
Marie Kølbæk Iversen, Nine Bats, 2016. Biosonic light installation. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Isn’t it in fact unusual to see a thematic group exhibition curated by a curator who works for a Copenhagen kunsthal?” – I asked myself the other day when I visited the thematic group exhibition Varulv! (Werewolf!) at Overgaden, curated by the venue’s own curator Anna Holm. “Yes”, I answered.

Group exhibitions are typically created at the behest of artists associtations (such as Den Frie at Den Frie), staged at the various micro-institutions found in Copenhagen (Toves, Sydhavn Station and so on) or entrusted to external players (such as the Copenhagen festival Trust). Varulv! therefore equals to fresh and welcome, exclamation point.

The theme of this exhibition is the contemporary political landscape and how it is embroiled in language, spin and rhetorical tricks. The main emphasis is placed on the recurring use of “crisis” as a linguistic motif. The werewolf motif, by contrast, comes from Peter and the Wolf, the 1936 Soviet composition for children with music and text by Sergei Prokofiev: a work that points to how the enemy lives within us. Here, in the exhibition, the wolf has become a werewolf, a creature who transforms from its human form into a wolf, and Holm’s introduction to the exhibition diagnoses our present day as precisely such as shapeshifter.

This animistic aspect is beautifully present in the exhibition itself, which has been structured in accordance with a firm parcours, employing a sequence of sections that audiences are encouraged to experience like movements in a piece of music or acts of a drama (in keeping with Prokofiev’s work, one supposes).

Aurora Sander, The Fantastic Four, 2016. Varulv!, Overgaden, 2016. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.
Aurora Sander, The Fantastic Four, 2016. Varulv!, Overgaden, 2016. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

Marie Kølbæk Iversen’ biosonic light installation Nine Bats and Henrik Plenge Jakobsen’s giant suspended cocoons Sanatorium Skulpturen speak to each other from something akin to Batman’s gloomy cave in an almost directly animistic manner. They are quite overtly shapeshifting: technological /sanatorical/mineral/soft/hard – animal. The works by Jasper Sebastian Stürup and Aurora Sander also change from the animal, mineral and technological – and shift from being objects to drawings and back again.

A depression theme runs parallel to – or intertwines with – the animistic theme, most clearly so in Swedish artist Iris Smed’s video The unsold dream and the prop accompanying it: a noose. These days, depression, mental illness and diagnoses are linked to the overall pace of our society, posited as an effect of neo-liberal, accelerating economic processes. Marx said that history repeats itself: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Those two entities, tragedy and farce, have always been shapeshifters of a kind; two aspects of the same reality. It is quite enough to drive one insane.

The cure – or, if nothing else, the method – presented in this exhibition has a strangely Freudian feel, and the exhibition’s focus on linguistics, particularly in political discourse and rhetoric, testifies to how language is God and remains the main structure underpinning how we perceive and understand the world. Lacan and the Lacanian theorist Žižek are both mentioned in the curator’s long and dense text in the accompanying materials, and the relationship between language and artworks is a particularly interesting aspect of this exhibition.

This is due to the fact that the artworks are left unexplained: no information beyond the usual data – name, title and materials – is provided. As a result, the artworks almost seem to dance on the outskirts of the theme, like spirits or dreams or nightmares that must slowly be conjured forth in speech by the visitors themselves in order for them to make sense. The exercise is quite interesting – regardless of whether you subscribe to Lacan’s position or not. Nevertheless, it is delightful to see that neither the art nor the curating constitutes didactic illustrations of – or instructions for – what we call “the political”.

Varulv, installation view: Lise Harlev, You don’t say anything, 2016 (centre); Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, Sanatorium Skulpturen, 2015.  Overgaden, 2016. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.
Varulv!, installation view. Overgaden, 2016. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.