Utopia at the Art Museum: A Review of the UTOPIA Project at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark

Article excerpt

A Chinese railroad carriage, a floor and wall painting, a corridor full of fog. This is a brief description of the main works in the UTOPIA project, a research-based series of exhibitions held in 2008-11 at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. The focus of the UTOPIA exhibitions, and the events and educational efforts under the UTOPIA project, is on the "good life" and developing the museum of the future. Supported by the private sponsor Nordea-fonden, the museum has been able to realize a project that it could only dream of before, but did not have the resources to implement. The following is an overview of the whole project that will hopefully inspire and give insight into how the concept of utopia can exercise both relevance and urgency in the context of contemporary visual art and museum practice.

The UTOPIA Exhibitions

The 'Art Axis" is the name of the 150-meter-long curved space that makes up the main passage in ARKEN. With its high ceiling and concrete walls it has often proved difficult to show art in this space, at least works of a more intimate size. However, with regard to the UTOPIA project the space has become a true asset as it allows for big-scale projects to come to life. Over a three-year period ARKEN has invited one contemporary artist a year to develop an installation for this space. The result has been three different works that, each in its way, matched the volume of the space while they examined, and added facets to, the concept of utopia today.

Staring into Amnesia was the title of the first exhibition by the Chinese artist Qiu Anxiong, on show from 2008 to 2009 (Figure 1). In the middle of the Art Axis an authentic Chinese train carriage from the 1960s was installed, complete with twenty-four animated and documentary video projections showing scenes from Chinese history--a history brutally marked by Mao Zedong's attempt to realize a communist utopia in the form of the People's Republic of China.

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The second exhibition on view from 2009 to 2010 was made by German artist Katharina Grosse. Under the title Hello Little Butterfly I Love You What's Your Name? (Figure 2) Grosse completely reshaped the Art Axis with her signature use of brightly colored spray paint; abstract painting marks covering floor and walls; a huge, almost fluorescent earth mound; and larger-than-life sculptures scattered through the space as if dropped by a giant.

The Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is the last artist to challenge the intricate dimensions of the space and thus end the project. On view until November 2011 is Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger), a ninety-meter-long tunnel constructed of plywood (Figure 3). Entering the tunnel, your body is immediately surrounded by thick fog. Visibility is just 1.5 meters, as you grope your way through the tunnel, trying to orient yourself in relation to the space around you. As you proceed the fog gradually changes from white to pitch black, to a yellow monofrequency light, and back to white again--although nothing, of course, is as it was before.

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Utopia as Impulse

Three different projects--three different takes on utopia. Most evidently "utopian" in its content is undoubtedly the Chinese railroad carriage by Qiu Anxiong. From the outside it looked exactly like that--a train, albeit strangely derailed, out of its way. Once inside the carriage the visitor could see documentary film clips showing scenes from Chinese history. In between the film clips silhouettes of people in different situations were shown: Demonstrators clashing with police, chess players wearing gas masks, partygoers monitored

by electronic eavesdropping, all caught in a shadow play underscoring the dystopian specters of utopia. Here utopia first and foremost appears as the subject of the work as it comes to life on a representational level, made viewable on the screens in the wagon. …