The first time I ever visited Brussels I had a rather peculiar experience. I was walking down a narrow street in the middle of the city when I happened to glance through a café window. Inside the café was a tall, thin man wearing a velvet three-piece suit and a top hat. He was seated alone at his table, holding a dozen playing cards in either hand. He looked very determined, lost in thought over his imaginary card game. I slowed down as much as I could, and just before I lost sight of the café I saw him throw all the cards up in the air with abandon, causing clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades to rain down on his table as he smiled. I did too, for this scene was a marvellous picture, one that perfectly reaffirmed all my notions about the loveliest aspects of Belgian art and of the magic of the random; Magritte, Broodthaers, Surrealism and chance occurrences, the conceptual magic of objects.
Perhaps the Belgian curator Sonia Dermience had a similar experience when she began her research in preparation for the exhibition Trust, which has just opened in the five art centres (Kunsthalle venues) in Copenhagen. According to Dermience herself – in statements made during an effervescent conversation with the curator Toke Lykkeberg at Nikolaj Kunsthal the day after the official opening – she gradually discovered that Danish contemporary art, though highly diverse, often has a very careful finish and degree of perfection that might, she guessed, be ascribed to the Danish Design heritage.
Whether Dermience sees what she sees because her ideas and preconceptions prompted her in that direction is difficult to ascertain. However, if we consider the list of Danish artists whom Dermience invited to contribute to the exhibition, we find that several of them are indeed characterised by a certain degree of aesthetic perfection – Pernille Kapper Williams, Mikkel Carl, Sophie Dupont, Nina Beier, Maiken Bent, Ebbe Stub Wittrup and Ditte Gantriis, each in their own distinctive way. Non-Danish artist introduce aspects of the random and the wild, the messy and the unfinished. The exhibition is full of examples of how Dermience has actively used this contrast – for example in Charlottenborg’s largest exhibition room, where Kapper Williams’s floor installation of triangular modules created out of sleek designer shelving units by Montana sail into a tempestuous conglomerate of an installation created by the artist group The After Lucy Experiments – a kind of updated Raft of the Medusa complete with a ferocious termagant’s face made out of latex and with purple hair; a figurehead from Hell.
I allow myself to dwell on the question of cultural differences and preconceptions because Trust should also be regarded as a kind of Copenhagen biennial orchestrated by a curator who not only “lives and works in Brussels”, but is deeply anchored in the local art scene there; for example, she is the founder of the collectively operated exhibition venue Komplot. Somewhat unconventionally, Dermience has elected to bring an extensive selection of her Belgian homies along to Copenhagen. This is, of course, not entirely in keeping with the unofficial Curator’s Guide, which requires a biennial to have a fair and even mixture of nationalities, modes of expression and so on. What is more, Dermience has not offered up any comprehensive details on the curatorial concept behind the exhibition: all we have to go by is the associations evoked by the title and the fact that the five institutions have new names.
With all this in mind, the official opening was very successfully executed in terms of establishing the right biennial-like feel. Throughout the evening, a new performance was presented at a new venue every hour on the hour – with considerable accuracy. This had the effect on ensuring that every time you arrived at a new venue you would find it full of people. Some said that fifteen minutes after the last performance ended, each of those venues were completely empty of people. But what does this matter when everyone had the sensation of Copenhagen as a cutting-edge cosmopolitan centre of art. It also made it easier to adjust to the temporary name changes – for example, Den Frie is currently called The Studio, Overgaden is The Exchange and Charlottenborg is The Palace; an additional layer of fiction gently sprinkled onto this exhibition by Dermience.
Renaming Nikolaj Kunsthal, a former church, by calling it The Temple may not seem the most sensational of ideas, but it actually offers a quite constructive contribution – particularly because it turns out that the Temple houses only three artist groups. This means that the temple is quite empty and open to everyone, and also that it is inhabited by three congregations or three self-initiated sects. Here, the Danish four-man group A kassen replaced the clapper in the church bell with an abstract bronze sculpture, causing the hourly chimes to sound gentler and less authoritarian than before, severing the last ties to Christian liturgy. This paved the way for more cultic mythologies, which is precisely what the French duo We Are the Painters supplied on the opening night in the uppermost room underneath the church ceiling.
The vaulted ceiling had been furnished with a mural: an equally vaulted, abstract vulva-like painting in gentle tones of pistachio green and thunderstorm blue; a perfect match for the two performers’ floor-length robes: At first they stood stock-still in their stiff cloaks and equally stiff, pitch-black Playmobil-like hair, accompanied by an aural backdrop of tinkling bells. This was followed by a more sombre, deep bass that seemed to be emanating from the depths of the Earth, heralding the birth of a third Pochahontas-Playmobil-performer, emerging through the vagina-like painted portal. The trio then proceeded to enter into a range of slow, ponderous changes of position – on a line, in triangular shapes, diagonally. Eventually they slowly glided out of the room.
I was quite seduced by this group – which I had never heard of before, and which insisted on old-school performance seriousness (wearing their faces like masks; for example, one performer kept their mouth open throughout the entire session) – and which along with the artist congregations in The Temple also prompted me to look at Nikolaj Kunsthal in a whole new way. For why not go all the way and brand Nikolaj as the city’s temple to performance, sound, and avant-garde theatre? After all, the venue has the Fluxus legacy to render such a move perfectly natural. Just imagine it done with the crisp clarity and conviction of e.g. The Kitchen in New York or the Volksbühne in Berlin. I adore the fact that a curator from abroad not only successfully presents art that you feel called upon to explore in greater detail – she also makes you see familiar institutions in a new light. That is quite an accomplishment.
It is really no wonder that the exhibition occasionally prompts thoughts of Fluxus or early avant-garde theatre, for more than anything the main bulk of Trust is a good old-fashioned theatre body/performer body. Here you will find few of those post-human presentations that tend to infuse contemporary art these days. Similarly, the sculptures and objects presented in this exhibition are neither “intelligent” nor “speculative”; rather, they gesticulate furiously. “I’m obsessed with the object,” said Dermience at the press launch, and this statement offers a key to understanding her reluctance to have a dense curatorial superstructure – and her willingness to allow objects to speak for themselves.
Dermience’s faith and, indeed, trust in the objects’ ability to speak for themselves is most emphatically highlighted at The Salon, aka Kunstforeningen Gl. Strand: it offers an abundance of things that glitter, shine, light up or lure you in with their attractive shapes. A cacophony of gesticulating, (self)promoting and communicating objects of such vast scope that it is difficult to focus on e.g. Seyran Kirmizitoprak’s casually crazy sequinned ladybug sculpture before the next sculpture prods you in the shoulder, eager to turn somersaults before you.
Nina Beier’s upturned box of vegetables is the very first thing that greets you at the foot of the stairs of this Rococo mansion. Carrots, leeks, onions and cabbages lie scattered around an organic veggie delivery box – a no sugar cornucopia for our health-conscious times. From this point on the works just keep on coming: Fos’s pianola, which can be heard form every floor of the building; Loïc Vanderstichelen & Jean-Paul Jacquet’s film showing a scene from a generic office setting with smooth office furniture where the conversation between the antiseptically well-groomed main characters becomes increasingly absurd; a room with a glossy rock made out of glazed ceramics (Cécile Noguès), rotating potatoes (a film by Nina Beier) and a stack of delicate, orb-shaped glass (Sophie Haesaerts). At the back of everything hovers the headache-inducing sound of the next-door neighbour practicing their piano playing – an aural backdrop that adds to the absurd tone of it all, which certainly is not lessened by Mikkel Carl’s (the name itself suddenly seems like an assemblage) palm tree with a balloon shark. And then the implosion – Emmanuelle Lainé’s chaotic installation. The Salon is a mess, with clay and gravel scattered across the floor – and, of course, a small shelf carrying a soldier’s helmet with a nailbrush perched on top of it. The chance encounter on an operating table and so on. For at The Salon the poetic has been taken to near-nauseating levels, which is infinitely preferable to poetic in the sense of “atmospheric”. And good fun, too.
The three other venues fall somewhere between the empty, spiritual temple and the overcrowded salon. Here things are more loosely orchestrated. But this is not in any troublesome way at all. Indeed, the open-ended curatorial approach is, generally speaking, not a problem. This is not cowardly curating. The curator’s signature is clearly felt throughout the exhibition. It is not heavy-handed, trying too hard to push art through a discursive grinder; rather, it offers the gentle imprint left by a curator who is well versed and well informed in her craft; who has made her choices and has a keen and confident sense of – if not always what to present, then certainly whom.
It seems as if Dermience gave the artists quite free rein, prompting some quite surprising constellations as a result. Few would have guessed that they would, after having viewed the complete candy store-like presentation of Maiken Bent’s functional sculpture ABC at Den Frie, go on to enter a small curated exhibition focusing on works by Adriana Lara – essentially a reworked version of an earlier exhibition at Komplot in Brussels. These sudden shifts in scale are utterly stimulating, as is the chance to see the curator offering examples from her own background and previous endeavours.
Something similar applies to the fresh and appetisingly cryptic contribution from Good Times & Nocturnal News at Overgaden – a huge Styrofoam wall the colour of inland ice cuts through the room, acting like a platform in its own right; a platform that is used as the basis for gestures supplied by some twenty artists: a transparent raincoat hangs in one corner, while a microscopic lightshow blinks away at the foot of the ice cap. This project, too, appears to be the result of an experiment – created on-site and for this occasion.
Even though it is a mega-scale exhibition, Trust is remarkably devoid of grand giant installations of the kind often used to brand events at this level. Also, the forty-five artists featured are not exactly left short of space. Many of the seventeen Danish artists have been given large solo rooms – even though many of them have never been shown at Danish institutions before. The gesture is not only generous; for a curator from abroad it is also a shrewd tactical decision: it ensures local support and allows audiences to see if their home team measures up to outside competition. Ditte Gantriis certainly does: she merits special mention for her room at Charlottenborg, aka The Palace: here she has placed five huge wickerwork baskets in front of a greenscreen-green mural featuring a white “pattern” – hand-painted pictograms of flutes and candlesticks that hover weightlessly on the “screen”. A simple installation of tremendous impact: the huge baskets almost seem to hover against the weightless studio backdrop – rather as if they had been photoshopped into The Palace.
Unlike the 2012 Copenhagen Art Festival, Trust was created without the aid of a joint secretariat; rather, it was orchestrated by working groups that cut across the five participating institutions. Undoubtedly quite a daunting task, particularly in light of the fact that many of these venues are understaffed as it is. In addition, the exhibition should not be regarded as a second instalment of the Copenhagen Art Festival, a fact that I only realised shortly before the opening. Hence, the press releases issued by the various venues use the not so catchy expression “joint exhibition”. It is, of course, true that the term “festival” comes with a range of rather unfavourable connotations. Nevertheless, given the fact that we have such a successful result on our hands – a curated exhibition that spans five venues and has plenty to offer the uninitiated while still being highly inspiring for those who are well versed with contemporary art – and also the fact that many have not yet found out that Trust is not, in fact, the second instalment of a festival series, it would have made sense to have kept within the framework of the festival set-up, not least because that concept is widely and easily understood locally and internationally.
When faced with an exhibition on this scale, you really wish that the faith and confidence in art demonstrated by Trust will have a widespread impact. Many talk about having trust in art and claim to have it – just look at the insanely proliferating art business in Denmark and abroad. But the truth is that only a fraction of them actually practice such trust. Sonia Dermience is one of few practitioners. Lucky for us. We needed a little of that here in Copenhagen. Now the season has truly begun.