The holiday season has passed, and so has the month of January, during which winter briefly decided to show its teeth. While the city seemed to be in a deep freeze, a new year is beginning gradually to take shape on the Copenhagen art scene, and even though it can require a great deal of willpower to go outside at this time of year, it calls for a new round of the city to check out some of the latest exhibitions.
I started my art round in Frederiksberg, which is a slightly unusual and remote spot of the city; not so much in terms of geographical distance from the city center – it's just not a place where you expect to find galleries and art venues, especially the kind that present innovative contemporary art and emerging artists. Compared to some of the more hip areas in the city, which is where the more progressive galleries are situated, Frederiksberg is a green, posh and polished part of Copenhagen.
Kassandra Wellendorf og Simon Løvind. “Sleeping Obstacles”. 2013
Kassandra Wellendorf and Simon Løvind “Close Encounters” Møstings Hus, Copenhagen Until February 23, 2014
Møstings Hus is a venue for art exhibitions and other cultural events, and is situated next to the beautiful Frederiksberg Gardens. I entered the first of the four dark exhibition rooms – it took me a while to adjust to the darkness, so it felt more like diving into a dark space. The only source of light is a glowing object in the middle of the room – the interactive video and sound installation Sleeping Obstacles, by film and media artist Kassandra Wellendorf and interactive designer and media artist Simon Løvind. When you approach the object, you realize that it is a bed with a crumpled white blanket and a pillow on it, and it seems that the top of somebody’s head is sticking out from underneath the blanket. As you come closer, it seems as if the body underneath the blanket begins to move, and a male voice begins whispering anxiously in his sleep, as if the sleeping person feels your presence. The piece is a video projection of a sleeping man that responds to the movement of the spectator – the more you move, the more anxious the person seems to become, being conscious of your presence, and even addressing the spectator at a few points. The experience is quite powerful – disturbing and slightly scary; you really feel as if you are a voyeur who has sneaked into somebody’s bedroom. At that moment, I was the only spectator present at the exhibition, which possibly made the impact of the works even stronger.
In the next two rooms, the subject of observing, of being a voyeur whose gaze is violating somebody’s private space, also comes to mind. The black-and-white video, Closer, by Kassandra Wellendorf, shows two bodies lying in each other’s arms (actually, it shows six different persons, although it takes some time to realize this). However, the emphasis in the video is not on the sexual aspect as such; in fact, the subject of gender has been pushed into the background, or neutralized; instead, the main subject is the desire and struggle to obtain nearness and intimacy with another person.
The second video, Public Gaze #2, by Wellendorf again, is a documentary film featuring people on Budapest’s metro; it also invites the viewer to reflect on the experience of observing, and of being observed.
The last piece, Handmade Memories, is another interactive video-and-sound installation made by the collaboration of Wellendorf and Løvind. It is a video projection of a close-up of the skin of objects – made of silicone and latex materials – that have been placed around the room. The spectator is invited to actually touch the installation. Female and male voices respond to the touch of the spectator, who thus participates in this narrative about a fragmented body – the body in disintegration, craving to be touched. It felt actually quite uncomfortable to touch the objects; you really get the feeling that you are touching something, or somebody, that is alive, and you have to overcome yourself to do it.
The exhibition deals with the theme of: What is it that happens when boundaries break down? Boundaries such as the ones between private and public spaces, between the body and the gaze, and between the viewer and the work of art.
Jonathan Monk. “Back in 5 Minutes”. 2013. Courtesy of Galleri Nicolai Wallner
Jonathan Monk “My Left Foot” Jesper Just “A Ruin in Progress” Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen Until March 1, 2014
I head to Carlsberg City, which is the former area of the nearby Carlsberg breweries. The area is now under development, and there are many plans for the future of the area, but in the meantime, a number of galleries and other art and culture venues have already moved in. Galleri Nicolai Wallner, which has been around since 1993, is one of the leading galleries in Copenhagen. In 2009, the gallery moved to this new location in Carlsberg City. The gallery is very spacious; it is one of the largest galleries in Copenhagen, and it is housed in a former truck garage in which part of the raw, industrial look has been preserved.
Jesper Just’s work, A Ruin in Progress (Intercourses) (2014), is presented in the first exhibition hall. Just combines film, photography and sculpture in this exhibition. Just represented Denmark at the Venice Biennale in 2013, with the multichannel film and site-specific installation, Intercourses. A Ruin in Progress is a sort of extension of this work, and consists of a black-and-white photographic series from the film set of Intercourses. The film was shot in a city in China that had been built as a replica of Paris. The photos show these strange, deserted and almost post-apocalyptic landscapes that resemble the ruins of an abandoned film set: the Eiffel Tower amongst rubble, but with palms and concrete apartment-building blocks in the background – which leave the viewer puzzled. It is a city still under construction, but it is already falling apart.
Jesper Just. A Ruin in Progress (Intercourses) #IV. 2013. Courtesy of Galleri Nicolai Wallner
In the middle of the room is a concrete structure with bamboo growing out of it (a sculpture by Just, High Bench (2014)), which is similar to the structures that were a part of the installation at the Biennale. It creates the impression that a part of the location has been relocated to the exhibition space.
The idea of a ruin in progress is also present in the film Llano (2012). The film is titled after the place where it was filmed, Llano Del Rio; found in the desert outside of Los Angeles, it was once a small, utopian socialist community that foundered because of a lack of water. A girl. in a tie-dye shirt that is soaked to the skin, struggles to reconstruct, stone by stone, a collapsing stone wall in an otherwise empty desert; meanwhile, the rain pours down – which we later see is not actually rain, but an irrigation system. The footage of the girl in the desert shifts with footage of water pipes in a dark and deserted basement, which adds a slightly creepy dimension to it – as if something unexpected is going to happen. The only sounds in the film are the persistent dripping of the water, and stone hitting stone – which are sometimes interrupted by the silence of the basement. Listening to the sound of water dripping while you regard this meaningless endeavor, and with the water pouring down all the time, it becomes kind of hypnotic. Like all of Just’s films, the work is very perfectly and beautifully produced – it is very cinematic. The girl tries to rebuild this utopian, imaginary place – which can only become a replica of what it once was, if it even ever existed – where even the rain is artificial.
Jesper Just. Installation view. 2014. Courtesy of Galleri Nicolai Wallner
In the second hall is the exhibition Left Foot, by British artist Jonathan Monk. While in Just’s work there is underlying hopelessness and melancholia, Monk’s work is distinctly humorous. As you enter the room, the first work that catches your eye is four pairs of mannequin legs, in multicolored stockings, that have been attached to the wall. At intervals, each pair makes a kick, thereby imitating a cancan dancer. Even though the kicking of the legs in this piece, titled All The Possible Combinations Of legs Kicking (One at A Time) (2012-2013), can seem random, it is programmed to happen in different, but set, sequences – a total of 40320 – that take over 177 hours to complete.
The title of the exhibition refers to the plaster cast of Monk’s left foot that has been enlarged and placed on the floor. It resembles a part of a classical Greco-Roman statue, and is one among the many references in Monk’s work. The other foot was supposedly placed somewhere else in the gallery, but I never found out where.
The pieces, Back in 5 minutes (2013) and Back soon (2014), each consist of a large photo of a nude pin-up girl posing with a piece of furniture, and then the same piece of furniture in real life, placed in front of the photo with a sign on it that states the title of the piece.
All three pieces play with the concept of time in a witty way. In different ways, they invite the spectator to reflect on how we, individually, understand time. This idea seems to be emphasized by the piece Rock Around the Clock (2013) – a large, Millenium-brand, bass kick-drum with a pedal – that has been placed in the lobby of the gallery, just before you enter the exhibition. A timer activates the beater that has been attached to the pedal, striking the drum at intervals (it happens once an hour, and the number of beats corresponds to the actual time – like a chiming clock). You stand there and wait for something to happen, but you don’t know the exact moment when it will happen – just like you cannot predict when each kick of the legs will happen.
Richard Hughes. Installation view. 2014. Courtesy Nils Stærk
Richard Hughes “Scene Inbetween” Nils Stærk, Copenhagen February 01 – March 15, 2014
You don’t have to walk far to get to the next gallery – just next door to Nicolai Wallner is the Nils Stærk gallery, where the work of British artist Richard Hughes is being presented. Hughes' works are objects that are somewhere in-between sculpture and installation. The sculptures seem to be made of brick, rubble and concrete ornamental tiles (or other found, everyday objects), but in reality, the spectator is being deceived – the objects are, in fact, meticulous copies created from lightweight materials such as fiberglass and resin, and resemble the real thing.
Hughes practices in his work something that can be described as an “aesthetic of decay”, but it is, at the same time, endowed with poetry and humor. At first glance, the large sculpture, The Pedestrian, in the middle of the gallery hall, looks like two concrete lampposts that have been broken in several places; but viewed more closely, you discover that it is actually impersonating a pair of legs that are taking a large step across the room.
The piece, Grimewave, looks like a piece of corrugated cardboard that has been propped up against the white wall of the gallery – as if to hide a hole in the wall, but then you realize that it is a hand, clenched in a fist. It seems as if all of these useless things have come to life and have acquired a life of their own. Hughes is influenced in his work from his own background of growing up in the 1980s, in the British suburbs. His work is a subtle and witty critique of the political situation that prevailed in Great Britain at that time, but it can also be transferred to the current political and social situation.
Jonathan Meese. 2013. Photo: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy of Jonathan Meese, Galleri Bo Bjerggaard
Jonathan Meese “ZOO(M) DE LARGE (JAIL D’ART) Galleri Bo Bjerggaard Until April 26, 2014
I leave the Carlsberg area and head in the direction of the city center, to Meat City. My next stop is a solo exhibition by the German enfant terrible, Jonathan Meese – at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard. This gallery is another one of the large and established galleries in Copenhagen, and it works with some of the big names on the international contemporary art scene.
The exhibition presents Meese’s latest paintings and a single installation, but Meese works with a wide range of media, including painting, drawing, collage, sculpture, video, installation and his rather wild performances, which occasionally create quite a controversy. There is something both childish and diabolic present in most of Meese’s work, just as in Meese himself. The site-specific installation that occupies one of the gallery rooms is extremely imposing – it is both funny and frightening, in a peculiar way. The installation refers to the title of the exhibition – it is a representation of this “prison of art”. Meese has filled the room behind the prison bars with various curiosities – toy animals, mannequins with masks, books about animals, a skeleton with a helmet, an alien hanging in the bars, piles of cardboard boxes, tubs of paint, and those kitsch bath towels with pictures of lions and kittens hanging on the walls. Meese is known for collecting huge amounts of different things which he then incorporates into his work. Meese has created a strange and fascinating universe behind the prison bars – a prison, and at the same time, a zoo. The subject of the “animal” continues on into his captivating, highly expressive paintings, in which motifs of different animals appear.
Meese’s work allows for numerous interpretations – Who is this captivated animal? Is it about being imprisoned in the prison of art, or is it art itself that is being imprisoned by institutions and ideologies?
Jonathan Meese. Photo: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy of Jonathan Meese, Galleri Bo Bjerggaard
Meese believes in art as the only god, the only ruler of the world, and describes himself as the servant of art. You can see Meese in his studio talking about The Dictatorship of Art, on the website of The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.
Asger Carlsen “Hester” V1 Gallery, Copenhagen Until February 15, 2014
Next on my route is Asger Carlsen’s solo exhibition at V1 Gallery, just a few meters from Bo Bjerggaard. Carlsen works with photography, but not quite in the traditional sense. The black and white photographs show surrealistic and grotesque nude human figures in indefinable and empty rooms with white walls. The figures can be described as kind of amorphous flesh-sculptures, where different body parts melt together in distorted headless bodies, or even only a barely recognizable spine. This becomes particularly accentuated in some of the photos in which the bodies are staged like sculptures on a table, or on another surface.
Carlsen creates his photographs by digitally merging together different bodies and body parts from his archive of nudes, including himself. All of his photographs are shot in his studio in New York, which is where he lives and works. The exhibition is named after the street where the studio is situated, and which also provides the settings for the sculptures. Even though the photographs seem rather uncanny, or even macabre, they are, at the same time, highly aesthetic in their simplicity and form.
The photographs are definitely highly fascinating and haunting. Carlsen plays and experiments with the human body as a sculptor, challenging our understanding of normality and ideals of beauty, leaving you astonished and overwhelmed by different emotions.
It is also possible, until March 23, to see the work of Asger Carlsen as a part of a group photo exhibition, Beyond Realism, at the Fotografisk Center (www.photography.dk).
Matt Saunders. Lilian Harvey #4. 2012-2013. Courtesy of Martin Asbæk Gallery
Matt Saunders “Slow Fading Hand” Martin Asbæk Gallery, Copenhagen Until March 1, 2014
I end my round in the center of Copenhagen, in the Martin Asbæk Gallery, which is where I started my previous gallery round. The gallery presents an exhibition of works by the American artist Matt Saunders, and which were created as an extension of his solo exhibition, Century Rolls, at TATE Liverpool in 2013. In his work, Saunders explores the field between painting and photography. As you look at the works, you become uncertain about exactly what you are viewing – the large black-and-white portraits and figures remind one of something that is equal parts photo negative, x-ray image, a graphic drawing, and a painting. The works are created by projecting light through a drawing or a painting, so that the subject is revealed on photosensitive paper. The works are thus given a photographic expression, but without the use of a camera.
Magdalena (Window). 2013. Courtesy of Martin Asbæk Gallery
Saunders finds the subjects for his works among icons of cinema; one of them is Danish actress Asta Nielsen, who has a central place in the exhibition; others include Louise Brooks and Lilian Harvey, but more recent iconic films are also represented, such as Antonioni’s Blow Up.