By NADA PRIJA November 25, 2020
While the potential development of COVID-20 in the northern region of Jutland, where the majority of Denmark’s 17 million minks are bred (almost three times the country’s human population) is frightening and horrifying to the world - this is not the only news that currently troubles the Kingdom of Denmark. Alongside the political turmoil related to the culling of these unfortunate animals, the cultural and artistic community in Denmark has recently been fired up by another event which, like a molotov cocktail contains elements of history, heritage, politics, identity crisis and art.
On the frozen screen-grab from a video, a white plaster bust leans downwards, heading toward the dark blue sea water. On first impression, the image appears like a scene from a avantguard movie by T.J. Wilcox, Bruce Conner or Hollis Frampton, but by playing the video - posted on idoart.dk website, described as “an open and inclusive platform, dedicated to actors within the art scene” in Denmark - one finds that the video has nothing to do with motion picture experimentation.[1.]
The video starts with an image of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, housed in the Charlottenborg Palace in central Copenhagen. The shaky image produced by the hand-held camera, then leads the viewer to the Assembly Hall (Festhalen), where the plaster bust of the Academy's founder King Frederik V is displayed on a pedestal. These first few frames of the video do not reveal a great deal. A surprise comes, however, with the moment when the bust’s head is shown covered with a plastic bin bag, where the folds on the white plaster cast which imitate those of the king’s garments, are in visual juxtaposition with the shiny, creased folds of the black bin bag. At this moment, the art-loving viewer is somehow relieved in expectation that the video will be of an artistic nature, while at the same time, the scene, which recalls torture scenes from Abu Ghraib’s prison, with images of its hooded prisoners deeply engraved in our memory, makes the viewer both anxious and nauseous.
The rest of the video, which unfolds in a single minute, shows the removal of the king’s bust from its plinth and its subsequent demise, as it is unceremoniously thrown into the waters of the canal. The video ends, just as it started, with a frozen screen-grab, but now with an image of the sculpture deeply submerged in the peaceful waters at the harbour, not far from the Academy’s Charlottenborg Palace.
Replaying the video is a must, in order to comprehend the text superimposed over the images, and for the shocking nature of the action documented in the video to be fully grasped. A group of artists called ‘Anonymous Visual Artists’ which ‘anonymously’ takes authorship for the action, writes: “By sinking Frederik V into the canal, we want to articulate the ways in which the colonial era is invisible, but still has direct consequences for minority people inside and outside the Academy”. Unsurprisingly, those words have subsequently been quoted in numerous news entries that have appeared in the Danish media, where the action has been seen as pure vandalism and not as an artistic happening, as claimed by the ‘Anonymous’.
It is very rare that art-related events would attract so much media attention here in recent times. The Academy's Council, as legal owners of the work in question, reported the case to the police, as a form of theft from a public art collection. “The art collection represents, for Danish culture, a centrally common artistic reservoir of historical knowledge about the artistic expression and meanings of changing times...if we try to erase the past, by e.g. destroying its art, we find it only more difficult to understand it and thus also to learn from it”, quotes the Council.[2.]
- Why was Frederik V “sunken”?
Some basic historical comprehension of the situation is required. Denmark was one of the seven major colonial superpowers. Slavery was abolished in the Danish colonies in 1803. For someone like me, born and raised in a country where royalty was swept away in 1941, it is hard to relate to and comprehend the continued role played by royalty within contemporary society. Even after having lived in London for 15 years and now in Copenhagen, the confusion remains, as these are both places where the presence of the Imperial past is interwoven into many aspects of life. The use of the symbol of the Royal Crown on the logos and the use of the term Royal within the titles of institutions - such as the Royal College of Art in London (from where I graduated) and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art (discussed here) are only some examples of this.
The Anonymous Visual Artists group provides its own interpretation of selected historical facts: “Charlottenborg was built in the 1670s by U.F. Gyldenløve. Gyldenløve’s ship Friderich, is believed to be among the first Danish-Norwegian ships to transport enslaved Africans across the Atlantic…. In 1754, … Frederik V donated Charlottenborg's premises to The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.”
Relying heavily on the historical circumstances within Imperial-era Denmark, the text in the video represents Danish nobles as the beneficiaries of slavery, while condemning the strategic establishment of the Academy and the subsequent engagement of its graduates, whose artistic production was geared towards the ‘servitude of the elites’. The brick and mortar of the Academy building at Charlottenborg, is condemned as having previously been owned by U.F. Gyldenløve - the owner of ships used for the transportation of the ‘socially dead’ (as Orlando Patterson would call the slaves). At the same time, King Frederik V is condemned as being one of the representatives of structural violence committed by colonial powers over centuries and for his initiation of the Academy of ‘servitude’, or at least that is how one could read the statements by the Anonymous Visual Artists group.
It appears to me that the message of their action and video is two or three-fold: it relates to Denmarks’ historical position of the colonialist past (condemned from today’s perspective); it relates to the direct consequences of colonial times engraved onto the lives of minority people today, as well as relating to the position of artists and cultural workers, who should not be silenced or expected to act as mere providers of services, as declared in the group’s further proclamation: “We want an art world that takes responsibility, not only for the actions of the past, but also for the ways in which colonialism is still active today.”[1.] The Academy’s Council responded as follows: “It is also important that we do not impose the norms of our time onto the past...The bust was not created to pay homage to racism and the slave trade. It is created in a context where it was normal for the king to be autocratic and for the slave trade to exist.
- Did the message fail to resonate?
We have already heard both sides of this argument, in a number of other similar incidents elsewhere, but it is surprising that the Anonymous groups’ letter and the Academy Council’s two page long reply, were the only two occasions in which the relations between the past and the present were openly discussed, at the outset of this debate. Was the Council’s claim with regards to the bust’s immense value and the media and politicians dismay with the act so powerful, that the core message of the Anonymous Artists Group evaporated as a result? Or is it perhaps possible, that public discussions around post colonial heritage is still frowned upon in Denmark, one might ask?
The situation has become increasingly entangled, in a cacophony of information and opposing arguments, that have been emerging on a daily basis in the Danish press and on social media since the initial event took place on 06.11.2020. It is evident that several parallel arguments have displaced the citizens’ attention away from the problematic issues of the country’s colonial past. In this text, I attempt to untangle some of the related, yet overlapping issues.
-Acceptance of the past
Holger Dahl, the art critic of Berlingske, referred to the action simply as "talentless Talibanism.” [3.] Joy Mogensen, the Danish Minister of Culture since 2019, in tune with the Academy’s Council, states it is wrong to destroy artworks portraying individuals whose roles, opinions and positions in society in the past, are today perceived as being reprehensible. Morten Messerschmidt, a Deputy Chairman of the Danish People's Party, which is part of EAPN, the populist coalition of far-right parties in Europe, exclaimed: “We must cultivate both the glossy images and the dark sides of our history much more. But we shouldn't, therefore, be tearing statues down. Instead, we should rather be installing many more.”[3.] While, in their public statements, the politicians urged for an acceptance and engagement with an open dialogue with the past, this to me, sounds somewhat uncommitted.
It cannot go unnoticed that amidst this situation, political representatives failed to provide the public with truly meaningful comments and insights, or constructive solutions to the issues raised by the actions of the artist group. This could have been achieved, for instance, with an announcement of their intention to invest in new cultural institutes dedicated to post colonial research (such as the INIVA in London). Nor did they comment on the recent decision to cut the budget for the Plaster Cast Collection in Copenhagen (Afstøbningssamlingen), a collection of 2000 plaster casts housed in a canal-front warehouse once used for the storage of goods arriving from the colonies in the West Indies, a collection that could have shed some light on the colonial history of Denmark.[4.] These two actions, the finite action initiated by (Anonymous) artists, the other (again finite) closure of a cultural institution instructed by governmental bodies, raises the issue about which one of those two events, is more detrimental to citizens in their potential attempt to better “understand the past”. The answer is clear and it directly exposes the power relations between the artists’ and government’s actions.
- If it is not “Trumpism”, it might be “left-wing delusionalism”
Merete Jankowski, the former long-term director of Overgaden, a beautiful and centrally located gallery space which predominantly promotes the work of young Danish artists, initially expressed her opinion about the event, via an FB post. Her engagement with the topic is to be expected, as Jankowski was also a decision maker within the realm of art education, in her role as Dean of the Funen Art Academy (2009-12). Jankowski sharply condemned the event. “Identity policy, as it is currently being unfolded, including within the artistic environments in Denmark, is to a high degree shaped by American academia.” She further unfolds her opinion in an article for the Nordic art portal Kunstkritikk: “...it annoys me that we cannot talk together, that the dialogue has in advance been cancelled…”[5.] While most will agree that there is a need to engage in a democratic discussion before finite actions are made, it is also worth noting that Ai Weiwei did not discuss or seek permission from anyone with regards to his intention to break and destroy invaluable vases dating from the Han Dynasty. Likewise, neither did Ulay announce apriori, his intention to steal Hitler's favorite painting from the National Gallery, nor his intentions of leaving it in the custody of a Turkish gastarbeiter family in the city of Berlin. Those works also involve violations of our shared heritage, yet they also shift perspectives.
Jankowski’s allusions to “Americanisation” is not an isolated case. “...We must not end up like in the United States", Berlingske newspaper titles scream. It would be easy to simply ‘dump’ the whole argument on the generally despised effects of Americanisation in this Nordic country, especially within the cultural sector, but it would not be justifiable. Monuments have been taken down on numerous occasions, in different decades and in various parts of the world. However, if the event is not a reflection of “Trumpism and other scary authoritarian flows” (as Jankowski characterises it), should it instead be defined as an act of ‘Left-wing delusionism’? Ferdinand Ahm Krag, an artist and Professor at the Academy claims to Berlingske, to have witnessed in recent times, an ‘increase of talentless left-wing intellectuals whose political delusions have distorted the minds of an entire generation of students.”[6.] Professor Ahm Krag publicly characterises some of his colleagues as “talentless lefties”, a statement which echoes in my ears, but this is just one of many personal insults which is part of the current milieu.
- Chaos within the Royal Academy
The Minister of Culture points out in her press release, that she is aware of internal problems at the Academy, with regards to “identity politics”. Since last year, various issues could be seen as having been destabilising for the Academy, the most recent one occurring only days before the Anonymous event. Professors and artists Henriette Heise, Ferdinand Ahm Krag, Simon Dybbroe Møller and Carla Zaccagnini expressed in a letter to the Ministry of Culture, to have "experienced increasingly unhealthy and unproductive working conditions as a result of an authoritarian and unclear leadership.”[7.] These issues and conditions have all influenced the dynamic of the educational institution. Anonymous writes: “The event took place in solidarity with all the artists, students and people all over the world who have had to live with the aftermath of Danish colonialism in the US Virgin Islands, India, Ghana, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark”[1.] The burden of so many centuries and people is arguably too large to ‘fit the Academy’s shoes’ - and the Minister’s attempt to ‘cocoon’ the problem within the management, employees or students of the Academy, seems unreasonable.
All the parallel claims: the justification of the value of historical artworks, the relation between art and vandalism, the Americanisation of society or the rise of leftist ideology, nationalist dogmatism, the identification of internal problems within the Academy and other issues raised (which this text will not define), such as self-promotion through art, the alleged elitism of the authors of this artistic happening and of other graduates of the Royal Academy, which is supported by taxpayers money - and various other topics that are currently circling in the media, create a loud noise which ultimately threatens to overshadow the core issue being raised by the art happening, related to the desire for raised awareness of minorities and their suppression within Danish society today.
- “Police, handcuffs, judge and prison”
This is what is needed for the 'vandals' from the Academy, States Tom Jensen editor-in-chief of Berlingske newspaper. The main images of the event that had been circulating in the media are those which showcase the act of pulling the remains of the bust out of the canal - into which it had been plunged. What we see in these images is the dehumanised bust, now deemed to be beyond repair. The statue's deformed shape is shown covered with a grey felt blanket, positioned on a transport trolley - an image highlighting the violence of the act of vandalism and its direct consequences. Now the sculpture is just a mass of deformed, wet plaster.
The outraged Minister of Culture, Mogensen, writes: “it is a criminal act that needs to be investigated and one that should have consequences for those responsible”[8.] But who to call responsible? Media communication announced: “Students at the Academy of Fine Arts support vandalism against Frederik V-bust: "We are not done”[9.]Shortly thereafter, the press release from Kirsten Langkilde, the Academy’s Dean, calmly recognised that all voices need to be heard, confirming that the Academy will reassess its own culture: “I have the responsibility to ensure that there is room for all opinions - even if we cannot all agree on everything”[10.], she further claims that students, if any should not be expelled from the Academy even though they took a part in the happening.
A week after the happening some clarifications have been offered, nevertheless those new findings did not calmed down the situation: During the afternoon of 13.11.2020, Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, an artist and head of one of the Departments at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts claimed responsibility for the event to the newspaper Politiken. She is claiming sole responsibility for the action which, according to Politiken, involved a group of ten hooded individuals. On the same day, the Minister of Culture publicly condemned KDH’s actions and she was made redundant from the Academy. On the afternoon of 16.11.2020, Politiken published that the bust is less old, actually just a copy (re-cast) made in the 1950s, not an original sculpture by the French sculptor Jacques Saly (1717-1776), as it was initially proclaimed - and therefore far less valuable. The police have categorised the happening on 21.11.2020 as one of "serious vandalism", for which a maximum penalty of six years in prison could be imposed on the responsible parties.[11.]
Berlingske's art critic Dahl describes the artistic action as ‘talking baby language and making baby art.”[12.] For me however, it appears more like a scream of pain. It is inadequate to be activating only the ‘punishment’ mode here. We must understand and acknowledge that this action demands proper comprehension, calling for a new form of communication and exchange with the Millenials and the youth of Gen Z, who are fully aware of a wide range of both domestic and international issues. When citizens of Copenhagen protested in large numbers this summer, in support of Black Lives Matter cause, it was not referred to as ‘Americanisation’. In Malmo the other day, I witnessed a group of young people protesting in support of abortion rights in Poland. The world is changing and we care about one another, even if the problems arise far away from ourselves. Probably we, the practicing artists, educators at art institutions, ministers of culture and all citizens need to be able to better comprehend the new generations who are rebelling against our generations’ acceptance of the status quo.
From the rubble of the remains of the recently sunken plaster cast, a discussion slowly emerges within the Danish art circles. The Danish artist and educator Jakob Jakobsen asks, via an FB post: “What would the decolinialization of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts actually entail?”, to which Katya Sander, the established Danish artist and a former employee of the Academy, responds, continuing the dialogue: “That's a really good question! Both for buildings, artworks, paintings & decorations, but in particular in relation to teaching approaches and curriculum.” More voices are continuously joining the public debate, including local art legends such as Bjørn Nørgaard and Carsten Juhl, All of those artists, critics and educators show a willingness to discuss one of the most difficult questions of post-colonial nations - how to approach and teach new generations of students and citizens, about our shared political and cultural heritage?
From the outset of the events, there are now only two possible directions for it to unfold - Denmark could either accept a more open discussion about discrimination by turning a blind eye to the responsibility of the individuals who performed the art happening, or alternatively it will lead to the formal judgement and potential imprisonment of those responsible by turning instead a blind eye to the demands for a more open questioning of the country’s postcolonial culture and heritage. Before this happens, it is important to understand that the local art community must be proactive and more vocal in order for the outcome of this situation to be defined by art workers, and not by the media, politicians or particularly vocal citizens who have shown little understanding towards art institutions or the position of art within society. Will we step into the future, by finding a way to confront our current dystopias, is soon to be revealed.
Nada Prlja is a practicing artist. Her practice is focused on the exploration of political systems, migration and issues of injustice and inequality in contemporary society. Prlja constructs site or condition specific, socially engaged works of art, aimed at dissecting contemporaneity and the burden it imposes. Her professional career was initiated in London, where she lived and worked from 1998 to 2014. She currently lives between Copenhagen and Skopje. Prlja represented the Pavilion of the Republic of North Macedonia at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019. She took part in the Innsbruck International Biennial in 2020. She has previously participated in several other Biennales, including IV Bienal del Fin del Mundo de Arte Contemporáneo, Chile/Argentina (2015); 5th Moscow Biennale, (Film Program) Moscow (2013); 7th Berlin Biennale, Berlin (2012), Manifesta 8, Murcia (2010) and the 28th International Printmaking Biennale, Ljubljana (2009).
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