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Yoko Ono. Wish Tree Garden, and Pettersen & Hein: A View from the Present 1-13, at Copenhagen Contemporary

Ragnar Kjartansson and Bruce Nauman at CC 0

Q&A with the Senior Curator at Copenhagen Contemporary, Jannie Haagemann

Lizete Riņķe

Photos: Lizete Riņķe

Ragnar Kjartansson, through February 5, 2017
Bruce Nauman, through December 22, 2016
Yoko Ono, through December 31, 2017
Pettersen & Hein, through December 31, 2017

A new exhibition venue opened this summer on Papirøen (Paper Island) in the harbour area of Copenhagen, with a view of the Royal Playhouse and the old port area Nyhavn (probably the most famous tourist attraction in Copenhagen), and the Opera House as a neighbour. The area used to serve as a paper storage facility for the Danish Press, hence the name, and is today subject to major transformation. For some time now, the area with its grey industrial buildings has been buzzing with life, particularly due to the enormously popular Copenhagen Street Food – a food market inside the old warehouses where a rich variety of global street cooking is served from food trucks and trailers. A recently opened pedestrian and bicycle bridge provides easy access to the island directly from Central Copenhagen.

Yoko Ono: Wish Tree Garden, and Pettersen & Hein: A View from the Present 1-13, at Copenhagen Contemporary  

Copenhagen Contemporary (CC) is an independent institution founded in January 2015 with the goal of creating an international exhibition space for art that is particularly space-intensive, such as installation art and performance art. CC opened its doors right next to Copenhagen Street Food at the end of June with a ‘warm-up’ exhibition. In the public space in front of CC, the installation Wish Tree Garden, by Yoko Ono, is being presented. It is an ongoing project since the 1980s in which a number of trees are planted and people are invited to participate by writing their wishes on the white tags hanging from branches – and people don’t seem to be holding back. Visitors can also take a seat among the ‘wish trees’ on one of the concrete benches in the piece titled A View from the Present 1-13, designed especially for CC by the Danish-Norwegian art-and-design duo of Pettersen & Hein.

Ragnar Kjartansson. Scenes From Western Culture. Burning House, 2015. Single channel video, duration 01:32:00. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik 

At the end of August, the grand opening of CC took place, at which time the rest of the impressive, raw industrial space, totalling 3,400m2, opened. The exhibition venue on Papirøen was created as a pilot project, and will reside at this location until 31 December. However, the vision for CC is that it can subsequently be established as a permanent venue. For the time being, the space on Papirøen seems tailor-made for showing large-scale installations or contemporary art in general, and the opening exhibition of CC definitely does not disappoint. CC kicks off with two prominent names on the international art scene, representing two different generations working with performance art: the American artist Bruce Nauman, one of the most celebrated and iconic artists since the 60s, and Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson (b.1976), who has achieved significant recognition internationally and has twice represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale (in 2009 and 2013).

Bruce Nauman. Green Light Corridor, 1970

The presentation of Bruce Nauman retrospectively features some of his major video and installation works. Among them is the installation Green Light Corridor (1970), where the viewer is confronted with the decision of whether or not to fight a creeping feeling of claustrophobia by trying to squeeze through the 30cm-wide and 12m-long corridor illuminated by green fluorescent light – thereby participating in the work and becoming a part of it. There is also the video installation BRRR, from the series Raw Material (1990), which really puts your nerves on edge. It consists of two TV screens and a projection showing Nauman executing the meaningless action of intensely shaking his head and continually uttering the same sound: “Brrr”.

Ragnar Kjartansson is being represented at CC with two large video installations: the performance-based video installation A Lot of Sorrow (2013), and Scenes From Western Culture (2015). A Lot of Sorrow is a six-hour long video and the result of a collaboration between Kjartansson and the American indie-rock band The National, in which the band performed their melancholic Sorrow, live, at MoMa PS1 in New York in 2013 – they played it non-stop for six hours. The performance is a challenge for the band in their struggle to keep going throughout the exhausting session, as well as for the cheering crowd in front of the stage, and also for you, as a viewer in front of the video – how long will you hang around listening to the same song on repeat? As you sit there in the darkness and watch the band performing on the huge screen in front of you, you become both irritated over the endless repetition of the same song, but also absorbed by it, and captivated by watching the growing struggle of the members of the band. The video gets so hypnotic that in the end, it even becomes difficult to detach oneself from it; after you leave, the song will haunt you for hours.

Scenes from Western Culture is a monumental, nine-screen video installation that shows different staged everyday situations – some of them trivial, like a couple dining in a restaurant, a woman swimming in a pool, a couple making love, and children playing in an idyllic landscape; others are more puzzling and alarming, like a burning log cabin in the middle of the woods, or a man who transports young women in a boat over a lake. There is no real action, and the scenes are extremely captivating in their beauty, but something still seems to lurk under their glossy surface; it all culminates with the burning cabin – a video with a strong, alluring power.

Ragnar Kjartansson. A Lot of Sorrow, 2013 

The Senior Curator at CC, Jannie Haagemann, tells about Ragnar Kjartansson and the exhibition:

“Ragnar is a performance-, video- and installation artist, and is particularly known for his music-based performances, as well as his large-scale video installations which take a humorous, poetical and melancholy look at our everyday life. I wouldn’t say that there is something essentially Nordic, but with his Scandinavian Pain (2006), Ragnar Kjartansson has obviously alluded to the Nordic melancholy, which is a key subject in his works. In addition, there are references in many of his works to Nordic artists, writers, and musicians, among them: the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness (World Light, 2015), Edward Munch, and Abba, to whom he refers in a number of his works, such as The Visitors (2014) and the performance The Winner Takes it All at the Moderna Museet Malmö in 2013. He has also invited the Icelandic musician Kjartan Sveinsson from Sigur Rós to make music for, and to participate in, his performances.”

“I think that the performative staging is particularly interesting in the work of Ragnar Kjartansson. It affects you so strongly because it contains all three – humour, sweetness, and melancholy. His insistence on repetition, which holds us captured, is absurd, funny and moving – You can’t stand for a long time in front of A Lot of Sorrow without becoming emotionally moved.”

“He is a young contemporary artist at the top of his international career who, in the past few years, has had retrospective solo exhibitions at Palais de Tokyo, Barbican, and Hirshorn Museum, among others; therefore, he is one of the most interesting names for us to have a chance to show in Denmark.”

Ragnar Kjartansson. Scenes from Western Culture, 2015

“When curating our first exhibition, we had a particular focus on how to involve the viewer. We have chosen large installations that have a sensory effect on the viewer’s whole body, and to which the space of CC is particularly well-suited. One of the halls is a “black box”, specially adapted for sound- and video works, and we had a burning wish to show A Lot of Sorrow, which is an amazing work, in this space. We are very lucky to have the chance to show this work, as well as the large video installation Scenes from Western Culture, which is a new work, and which Kjartansson showed at Palais de Tokyo last winter. We chose these two works because they are among his best from recent years, and because they are thematically well-matched with Bruce Nauman’s exhibition.”

Ragnar Kjartansson. Scenes from Western Culture, 2015 

“Both artists work with minimalistic repetitions, staying power, performative staging, and the participation of the beholder. They are also both inspired by the absurd, hence the reference to Samuel Beckett. Bruce Nauman is ‘cool’ and matter-of-fact, without any narrative. Ragnar Kjartansson, on the other hand, is preoccupied with the theatrical, and works with costumes and stage design. Bruce Nauman makes use of his own body, as well as involving the viewer; Ragnar’s installations are similarly ‘immersive’. You become totally engrossed in them.”