On the Danish Contemporary Art Scene and Art Criticism

Danish Art Critique in a Turbulent Era

The last 15 years have been described as one of the richest periods in the history of Danish art, a new “Golden Age” of talent and expression that is garnering increasing attention from the global art world. But regrettably the visual art is more and more invisible in the mass media. Not since the romantic art of the early 19th century has Denmark had such a flourishing art scene, with many contemporary artists building reputations outside of Denmark. Danish art from the last 15 years differs from the art two decades before by being far more engaged in society and the perspective of the viewer. Many Danish artists have been educated abroad and live typically in Berlin or New York, but the art is still obviously influenced by the Danish society.

The Danish art critic Lisbeth Bonde studying a concrete sculpture by the young Danish artist Søren Pihlmann at Martin Asbaek’s Gallery.

One of the most prominent Danish artists is the painter Tal R. His art springs from stories, a figure or object, that he transforms into complicated expression and his recent paintings have engaged with motives from across art history. Also, ólafur Eliasson has to be mentioned here. He’s a darling of the international art scene. A high-tech romanticist, his art interrogates the way the viewer’s senses work in perceiving his installations. He is renowned for his great and beautiful installations such as the “New York City Waterfalls” (2008), “The Weather Project” (2003) at the Tate Modern and the permanent glass corridor, “Your Rainbow Panorama” (2011), installed on top of ARoS, the art museum of Aarhus in Denmark.

But some of the most innovative art from the Danish new wave comes from the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset with their powerfully critical approach and humoristic installations and readymades. Not to forget the video artist Jesper Just, whose films explore the boundaries between art, photography, and movies. We’ll also mention the collective Superflex—often perceived as the “do-gooders” of Danish art—whose projects relate to economic forces, democratic production, and self-organization. Among other works, they’ve developed methods of producing bio-gas—“Supergas” (1996)—or soft drinks—“Guaraná Power” (2003)—in collaboration with African and South American peasants in an effort to expose oppressive economic structures through art. In 2008 they produced the video “Flooded McDonald’s” which is an apocalyptic allegory of the fast food culture—and of Western society as a whole.

 

Why So Successful?

The role of institutions in the emerging Danish art scene, such as the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and the Danish Art Council, are very important factors explaining the success of Danish contemporary art. The Art Council has been instrumental in creating a new Danish Golden Age, allowing young artists to network whilst abroad, and supporting publications and websites. The Royal Danish Academy also played a vital part; formerly a conservative institution, it woke up to artistic innovation in the ’80s and began to embrace the vanguard. Even still, some of the younger artists consider these institutions a part of society’s power structure and have become more critical toward them through their art.

The art critic Lisbeth Bonde working in her studio in copenhagen.

The Danish art scene is far more pluralistic these days, utilizing a wide variety of expressions, forms, themes, and media, appropriating high and low culture. The international art market, always hungry for new subjects, has found in the Danish art scene a relatively uncultivated peripheral zone with huge potential for discovery.

 

The Art Critic is Diminishing

In spite of the fact that the Danish art scene has become internationally successful and that the number of exhibition spaces and galleries especially in Copenhagen has exploded—coupled with the increasing interest in contemporary art in general by the audience—the number of art reviews in the printed press and broadcasts on television and radio in Denmark is decreasing. On television visual art is nearly invisible if it’s not wrapped in entertainment such as the popular Kunstquiz, where experts compete on their knowledge of art. At the same time, reviews of rock, literature, food, design, architecture, and movies are occupying still more space in the mass media as a general rule. This paradoxical situation has of course been discussed again and again by the members of Danish AICA during the last 10 years or more. The current situation is, actually, quite severe and complex and has, in my opinion, something to do with the above-mentioned explosion of the contemporary art scene which in some ways has changed the role of the criticism from professional critical aesthetic judgment to communicative information for the audience. At the same time, it’s worth noting that there’s only one full time art critic left in the Danish press. Consequently, the rest of our branch is operating as freelancers; flying from job to job with a broad range of functions serving the art scene as curators, journalists doing interviews with the artists, catalogue writers, genuine critics, exhibition guides, lecturers, authors, researchers in art history writing books about art and artists, etc. Of course this situation puts us in a weaker position as art professionals when executing our aesthetical judgments. Luckily three online art magazines have recently come on the scene: kunsten.nu, Kopenhagen Magasin, and Kunstkritikk—the latter also covers the Swedish and Norwegian art scene. These three online magazines compensate, in some degree, for the weak representation of the visual arts in the mass media in general, but in Danish AICA we are trying to regain some of the lost fields—for the sake of the arts, the audience, and ourselves.

Contributor

Lisbeth Bonde

Lisbeth Bonde has an M.A. in art and literature, she is based in Copenhagen, and is the chair of Danish AICA. She was the art editor of the Danish daily newspaper Information from 1994 - 2002 and was an art critic/cultural journalist at the Danish weekly broadsheet Weekendavisen from  2002 - 13. Today she writes for the online art magazine kunsten.nu and the design magazine Bo Bedre. She has written several books on art including Bad Nerves, about the Danish painter Lars Nørgård, and Manual to Danish Contemporary Art (2007) in collaboration with the art critic Mette Sandbye.

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