Denmark could be described as a small kingdom, a fairly homogenous democratic society with 5.3 million inhabitants, and a welfare state in which women have had "equal" rights for years and in which access to education, healthcare, and pensions is free and universal. However, change is taking place. People from other cultures have become a more visible part of society, and their presence has brought into focus cultural values. The growing importance of the European Union, of which Denmark is a member, has challenged notions of democracy and national identity. And everyday life has been transformed with the influx of the international media, especially television. But in spite of the internationalization of Danish culture and society, a certain notion of the particular is still evident-a particularity produced by the fact that the population is small, that the language has so few speakers, and that there is a continuous oscillation between the sense of being both at the center of a specific local culture and on the periphery of global culture in general.
In Copenhagen, the center of the Danish art scene, international developments are more accessible than ever through exhibitions, publications, and personal contacts. Like their colleagues in other countries, Danish artists experiment with a range of mediums (video is especially popular) and have tended to shun the creation of aesthetic objects for private contemplation for projects that investigate social and psychological issues and engage in institutional critiques. Nevertheless, exhibitions such as The Scream (i996), with its Nordic focus, and The Louisiana Exhibition (1997), with its regional one, have more or less openly asserted the relevance of a specific local point of reference (fig.1). Although some artists do work with local references, the question of the existence of a local dialect is a subject of debate-a question addressed in more detail in the two conversations that follow. The first is with Lars Nittve (Swedish by nationality), currently director of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London and formerly director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen, an institution that has framed generations of young Danes' first encounters with modern and contemporary art. The second is with the artists Niels Bonde, Joachim Koester, and Ann Lislegaard (Norwegian by nationality). Both Nittve and these artists share an outlook that is both local and decidedly international in scope.
Vest Hansen: As the director of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, you presented very contemporary international art in exhibitions such as NowHere (I996). And in exhibitions such as Louisiana Udstillingen: Ny Kunst fra Danmark og Skone/The Louisiana Exhibition: New Art from Denmark and Scandia (1997), which inaugurated a new regional quadrennial, you focused on contemporary regional art. Why did you make this new commitment to regional art?
Nittve: I see the quadrennial as a service for artists and viewers in the region. The contemporary art infrastructure here is relatively weak. There are some good, but small and short-lived, galleries run by artists and a few commercial galleries. If you are interested in contemporary art, it isn't easy to see what is happening right now. That's why we decided to inaugurate the quadrennial. The museum didn't do so until recently because previously there had not been a serious interest in regional art.
Vest Hansen: The museum's current interest in the regional reflects a broader trend.
Nittve: The idea of an "international" language of art has been contested. This language never really was international. It was always dominated by a certain tendency, be it French or American, which set the agenda and defined the international. But now the strong center, Paris and then New York, has lost importance to a series of local centers. However, whether it is possible to be local or regional as a visual artist in the international arena is a difficult question. A whole range of phenomena in Western societies, such as the concept of currency, have become global. Art is no exception. You might conclude that we're heading for a Coca-Cola culture, a total homogenization. But, in fact, while the traditional artistic centers have dissolved over the last twenty years, a wider variety of local dialects have arisen. When you have a common ground that enables works of art to communicate across cultural boundaries, a space for differences emerges. An ambitious international exhibition in the 1960s was extremely culturally homogeneous; today it is much less so. If you push something far enough, it will transform into its opposite. In the era of information, we share common codes that can make communication easier, but there are still dialects.
Vest Hansen: Is there a clear dialect in the Louisiana Exhibition?
Nittve: It's not possible to talk about a Nordic light or a Nordic landscape as it was in the nineteenth century. However, it is possible to single out certain traits, attitudes, and ways of thinking that are a function of Scandinavian societyof our welfare state, our version of democracy, our secularized culture. Some foreign critics have been struck by the fact that quite a few Danish sculptors make sculptures that look like houses and have seen modernist Scandinavian architecture in these forms. That is very superficial. What is more important and interesting is the way in which the specific social structures in which we grow up make an imprint.
Take the artists' group Superflex. It is obviously the product of a Danish (it could also be a Swedish) way of thinking and working. The artists work interactively with their audiences and attempt to break down the boundary between art and society. Although they are not unique in this regard, it is hard to imagine artists from other parts of the world practicing in quite the same way. For the Louisiana Exhibition, Superflex collaborated with African villagers and technicians and developed a biological gas unit-a very simple form of energy that may be used easily in African villages that otherwise would not have electricity (fig. 2). Although they are working at the borderlines of art, their project is still an art project, and they present it as such with no cynicism at all. To me it's obvious that they are the product of a specific society. They grew up with certain models of development, for example, such as Danish Development Aid (DANIDA), and interests in renewable energy sources. The ideology and structure of their project is quintessentially Danish. It is not a certain Nordic light, but a certain attitude, a certain way of addressing the public and institutions that may be fundamentally Danish in character. I am sure they would resent saying this!
Vest Hansen: The responses to the Louisiana Exhibition were quite mixed, weren't they?
Nittve: Yes. The foreign responses have been a positive surprise. Critics from major international art magazines have been particularly positive with respect to two issues that have been criticized in Scandinavia: the fact that we presented and discussed the idea of the regional and the fact that the exhibition didn't have a specific theme. Although the Danish and Swedish criticism was mostly positive, there were some negative voices. Some critics found the exhibition too curated, probably because the concept of the curator has only recently been "invented" in Denmark. This fact made it hard for critics to grasp the shift from a firmly curated thematic exhibition to one in which the curators function more as the servants or guardians of art.
Vest Hansen: But might this difference suggest the fact that the regional tends to be viewed as a theme from a foreign perspective, in contrast to how it is seen from within?
Nittve: That's an astute observation. There is a difference in perspective. Here people tend to be hypersensitive to the regional as a theme. However, we never made this claim. The exhibition presented a series of works that usually are very difficult for members of the public interested in art to see.
Vest Hansen: It's presented as an exhibition of art from the region, but many of the artists included don't actually live here.
Nittve: Yes, many have decided to live elsewhere. It is reminiscent of the situation a hundred years ago, when Scandinavian artists didn't become "Nordic" until they had moved to Paris. That was the moment when articulating their difference became important. I think formal regional traits are more easily defined in traditional art forms than in more contemporary ones. In painting and sculpture a regional language is more visible, partly because there is a long tradition and consciousness about it in these mediums. In video, on the other hand, it is not as obvious. Video art is influenced and inspired by the media culture, which by definition exists internationally.
Vest Hansen: I would like to return to the question of dialect and the truism about the Nordic artists who became "Nordic" only after they had moved to Paris. In the same way one might argue that an exhibition like the Louisiana Exhibition achieves international recognition only when it is discussed in the context of the persistence of regional culture.
Nittve: That's a reasonable argument. To pick geography as a criterion for organizing art exhibitions is not intrinsically interesting, so if you do so, you must focus on areas of artistic energy instead of nations. On the other hand, it can be very interesting to focus on regions that traditionally have been defined as uninteresting and have been excluded from the mainstream. The current interest in Scandinavia is probably due to the fact that this is a region that has generally been excluded from the international art discourse. Vest Hansen: Does the Louisiana Exhibition help to give regional works of art international visibility?
Nittve: Perhaps the institution, as well as individual agents in the institution, play a certain role in giving the artists and their works international credibility. But it is certain that international interest in what is going on in this region has been growing. The spotlight has moved from place to place for a couple of decades and has finally reached us.
Vest Hansen: You all have close connections to the art scene in Copenhagen and have oriented yourselves internationally. How do you regard the Danish art scene?
Lislegaard: It has changed considerably over the last couple of years. It used to be a very local scene, whereas now there is much closer dialogue with the international art world. Of course, there have always been artists traveling abroad; in the 1980s, for example, many Danish artists went to Cologne, Madrid, and Barcelona. But this didn't have any impact on Danish art life. Today, quite a few Danish artists study in London, Berlin, Paris, or New York and travel frequently, and at the same time many curators and critics pass through the city.
Bonde: In Copenhagen we regard ourselves as in a periphery, geographically and culturally. The latter is changing rapidly. Lislegaard: In Denmark, we are not as dependent on the mechanisms of the market when producing art, as in the United States, for example. The Danish welfare society provides a certain freedom and security. However, I don't know if this is discernible in the art. There is maybe less interest in producing a commodity, an object to sell.
Koester: For me it has been interesting to discover that some of the issues I was working with while living in Copenhagen were analogous to those investigated elsewhere-almost identical conceptually but taking off from a totally different context.
Bonde: I would instead stress the specific structure of production. In Denmark there has hardly been a market for contemporary art. Since the 1980s, it has been impossible to sell anything. In this situation you might as well make art the way you want to, without thinking about whether it is salable or not. Vest Hansen: Artists travel constantly today. You yourselves are agents in international spaces. Is it possible to talk about the presence of a regional dialect in your work?
Lislegaard: The environment, culture, and education play important roles in the development of one's visual language, maybe more subconsciously than consciously. I think artists work in a specific way in Denmark, but I don't think there is an essential Danishness.
Vest Hansen: Nevertheless, a certain Danishness is often claimed, as in the current exhibition in Kassel, There Is Something Rotten in the State of Denmark. Danishness is the theme of the show, even though many of the artists don't live in Denmark, like Ann and Joachim. Why then focus on the national at all? Koester: Because of the differences in the structure of the art system. In New York, for example, this system is dominated by commercial galleries. In Denmark, by contrast, there is a long tradition of art production controlled by artists themselves. That is mostly made possible by Denmark's welfare society. We don't necessarily have to adjust to the market in order to sell our work. But while I believe that this structure makes a difference, it is not something inherently national. It's impossible to define any common denominator of Danishness without resorting to cliches.
Lislegaard: I think there is one very specific thing about the Danish art scene. Artists form their own contexts and create the possibilities they desire, instead of waiting for others, private galleries or museums, to make their art visible. Baghuset, Bob Smith, Saga Basement, Superflex, N 55 are examples. They have organized their own showrooms, magazines, projects, and exhibitions. This mode of collaborating is specifically Danish, as I see it. Koester: Yes, in an art scene dominated by galleries, the situation is different. Galleries prefer to work with one artist instead of four at a time, because it is easier and usually more profitable.
Vest Hansen: The focus on the single artist is related to a certain notion about what an "authentic" work of art is-a work made by a unique, autonomous artist.
Koester: It is easier to sell one artist's work. In New York, for instance, people will immediately look for the "better" artist when confronted with an artists' group. So there are good reasons for the fact that very few artists work collaboratively in the American art scene.
Lislegaard: There are artists' groups in other countries than Denmark, of course, but this is a characteristically Danish phenomenon. It is a certain way of thinking. In Denmark collaborating groups and unions are very common in many fields of society; the culture of co-ops has a long tradition here. Vest Hansen: This period is marked by a double interest-internationalization and a specific focus on the local. Joachim, in your i996 series of photographs Day for Night, you worked with the Danish free community Christiania in a kind of documentary format (fig. 3). You worked with a specific place that has a particular historical significance in the Danish context, yet you have successfully presented these works abroad-at Documenta X in 1997, for example. Why do you work with the documentary and the local?
Koester: On the one hand, Christiania is a particular and unique place, but on the other it is not an unparalleled and isolated phenomenon. It was formerly a military base. It became a free city in the 1970s. While the hundreds of other alternative communities founded in the 1960s and 1970s have perished, Christiania remains. But the concept of the free city is an old one not specifically bound to Denmark. In the United States there were once hundreds of settler communities in which people tried to create an alternative way of living; many were founded on anarchist ideologies. Christiania is a specific historical place, and I have used it as such in my project, but the concepts it engages-the idea of an autonomous zone in which people may live in freedom, founded on different values from the surrounding society-are not so special. So the project resonates both locally and internationally. The shift from being a space that is structured around control to one that potentially offers as much freedom as possible for the individual also intrigues me a lot.
Vest Hansen: Niels, one could point to similar strategies in your work by focusing on the intersection between the private and the public in your projects. You present "authentic" experiences, pictures, and stories from your childhood and school life-specific images from Danish suburban life in the 1970s. Do you see any difference in the way people react to your work in Denmark and abroad?
Bonde: No, not at all. This has somewhat surprised me. In Frankfurt people say, "So war es genau bei mir." People from Los Angeles or New York say the same. Suburban culture is a world-wide Western tendency, a world-wide problem. I didn't have to add subtitles because people tend to recognize this experience. Or in the installation I never had hair on my body or head (fig. 4) at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, where I was working on surveillance and paranoia, issues not specifically Danish.
Vest Hansen: Nevertheless, your works come from a specific experience.
Bonde: Yes, I want to grasp the histories, what has been going on. I want to point out that I don't just make up stories. My work is about real people's experiences. I work to find a kind of loyalty toward the history.
Vest Hansen: Ann, you have worked with perception, as simultaneously concrete, abstract, and ephemeral. You have worked with smells in rooms, with videos that challenge the common way of seeing. In I cannot escape the ghost of you (fig. 5) you use the rose and its smell while incorporating a space of sensibility and culturally laden values. This video was shown recently in Copenhagen in the exhibition Boomerang, which focused on the work of women artists. Could you talk about the renewed focus on feminist issues and sensibilities in Copenhagen?
Lislegaard: It has been hard for women artists to succeed in Copenhagen. For many years feminist ideas were resented so hard that they weren't even discussed, but now things are changing. There is a gradual openness toward discussion of social structure and identity, of how different backgrounds and contexts give rise to different needs and therefore different forms of expression-a discussion that plays an important role in loosening up the dominant masculine conception of art history.
Vest Hansen: Besides making these theoretical openings, there are also very specific and concrete reasons at this particular time to organize exhibitions with only women artists in Copenhagen. Even if Denmark is regarded as a country with a high level of gender equality, it has been very hard for women artists to gain full visibility.
Lislegaard: Denmark seems to be a country in which men and women have equal rights and opportunities; however, this is not the case in the art world. Take the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. Out of eight professors, only one is a woman, even though more than half of the students are women. If you visit the galleries that show contemporary art, you will have a hard time finding work by women. Perhaps it's I 0 percent, perhaps only 3. The tendency is the same if we look at the museums; only a few works by women are acquired and exhibited. To me this indicates that something must be wrong. Women artists are as active and interesting as their male colleagues, but they don't have the same opportunities to show their work. In this context, exhibitions like Boomerang are extremely important for Copenhagen and for Danish art.
Bonde: Yes. We needed it. Women organized the entire project, which is the right way to do it. If the women want it, then they should go for it and support each other.
Lislegaard: It was interesting for me to come to New York and experience a culture with more possibilities for different languages and different cultures and identities. Copenhagen has a much more homogeneous art scene.
Bonde: It's striking that you talk about women as if they are a minority. I know women often are treated that way, but it is somewhat disturbing.
Vest Hansen: It may also be related to the masculinist Renaissance notion of the artist as genius or the Romantic notion of the artist as a true selfexpresser. What do you think of the role of the artist?
Koester: I think it is important to demystify the process of making art. Of course, my works have personal and biographical elements, but I don't refer to them, since this information is not important in order to grasp their meanings. For me art is primarily a way to describe and analyze what we can call reality.
Bonde: You are right. However, it is obvious that certain histories are required for the marketing of art, and that is very evident in a place like New York. It is a package deal: you get the work of art, but not alone. You also get the story about the artist, how she or he has made it. It is the same for performance and film. It is a certain story that always involves the artist as a person. It is a rare thing to read reviews that focus purely on formal qualities and the stories that are represented in the work of art. There will most often also be a focus on the artist's personal and biographical aspects. The work of art is seen in specific ways. You are regarded as an exponent of Denmark; the Danish story becomes your story. That's what I call double agendas.
Malene Vest Hansen is an art critic and art historian from Copenhagen. She is a Ph.D. candidate at
Copenhagen University; her dissertation is on Sophie Calle. The author of numerous publications, she is
presently editor of the Danish art historical journal Periskop (Copenhagen University).…