Where is the art in Danish art cinema?

7On April 10th 2014, the Danish Film Institute invited directors, film educators, and international film experts to a discuss the question: Where is the art in Danish art cinema? I showed up as one of twelve members of The Art Delegation, which consists of people from different cultures all living and working in Denmark.

The event started with a screening of the art film Seven Boats produced under New Danish Screen. This film should serve as an example of a successful art contribution to Danish cinema but is actually done by the Icelandic filmmaker, Hlynur Pálmasons. Is Iceland in this case considered to be Danish even though Iceland declared independence from Denmark for 70 years ago? Somehow this rhetoric disturbed me, especially because I’m not sure that we would see the same usage of the word “Danish” in connection to an artist with Middle Eastern, Latin American or African background where a word like immigrant is considered more appropriate?

With this film example it was clear from the beginning of the event that the answer to more art in Danish cinema should somehow be found in the non-Danish artistic contributions. And there we were The Art Delegation, sitting in the front row ready to bring cultural diversity in to discussion.

The international panelists tried to answer the question, about how Danish films are viewed and considered abroad. Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated documentary The Act of Killing was highlighted and used as a good example several times. This was interesting because it made me think about when the Danish society and press starts calling a foreign artist Danish. It is not difficult to see that the brand Danish only gets attached to the foreign artists when they get successful and when their productions like The Act of Killing starts circulating globally on hundreds of festivals; not while they are still looking for the career paths in the homogeneous cultural landscape of the present art scene.

The Art Delegation consisting of culturally very diverse group of foreigners was still sitting as part of the audience discovering that that Danish cinema only wants to be relate to productions of some foreign artists; obviously only the already successful ones or the ones that culturally and geographically are close to Denmark.

In my opinion, not helping to cultivate the more miscegenated cultural landscape is a very strange development, because we know that artists with mixed cultural backgrounds have historically always played a progressive role in art movements. Automatically I thought about the development of art-cinema where one of the important contributors was Salvador Dali. Because of his mixed cultural background, he spoke a bizarre mix of French, Spanish, Catalan and English and was freely incorporating words from all different languages. Luis Buñuel is another Spanish filmmaker who used different languages and who apart from Spain also produced films in Mexico and France. As a result of this vivid cultural exchange he enriched the art cinema by working across establish disciplines, expressing his ideas in nearly every film genre from experimental film, over documentary, satire, to musical, fantasy and western. Man Ray is yet another important figure in the art cinema history with a strong immigrant background. He was a Russian Jewish immigrant who grew up in New York having to change his original name Emmanuel Radnitzky, because of the ethnic discrimination. By moving to Montparnasse, Paris, he continued being the immigrant. His artistic production has without the doubt taken shape from his experiences of being a foreigner in various contexts. Others like René Clair and Marcel Duchamp moved from France to USA. They too lived and produced their art between cultures.

So, if we are looking for art in cinema, it is strange not to look for foreigners. Foreigners have the ability to see things from different cultural perspectives, which is the key to new developments.

I turned my attention back to the panelists and heard them talking about the talent and how to support young experimental filmmakers to be more risk-taking. A couple of panelists said that most of the students at the film schools have the same cultural and social background, but that, even though they recognize this problem, it is difficult to break the homogenous educational structure because there are not so many underground film events and alternative platforms where other kind of talented experimental filmmakers could be found. Even when doing workshops and other outreach events, it is difficult to find new people to join the Danish cinema. I could not agree with this information because I personally know a lot of projects that support an alternative thinking about cinema. Denying the existence of alternative platforms that are already fighting for survival and visibility was very close to arrogance. Even more arrogant was the remark that the Danish cinema should be giving less money to alternative projects in order to cultivate more risk-taking filmmakers. In their opinion cutting the budget should be nourishing for new talents, because if the artists are really good and talented, they should be able to make their films in cheap alternative ways. Romanticizing the picture of artists working only for the love of art and without the need of money is arrogant, especially when drawn by people who all are part of the established cinema scene having steady jobs with secure incomes. I do agree that the artists are good at finding creative and alternative solutions and can manage doing their productions with very little or no financial support, but knowing that there is money in the Danish cinema, it is unacceptable to regard this bohemian idea of artists producing without money, as the optimal working condition. If less project-money from the Danish cinema is used to support the artistic expressions, then more will be used to the commercial ones. It is a question of priority that brings us back to the main question of the debate: Where is the art in Danish art cinema?

So the Danish cinema wants to be more risk-taking, but their prioritizing when it comes to financial support and power structure is not really following the same line of thought. This lack of coherence was bothering me, so I posed a comment questioning if they are honestly willing to see more risk-taking film contributions. If so why don’t they welcome contributions from young artists, cross-disciplinary artists or artists from other cultures. A simple receipt for inclusion could be employing young, experimental and immigrant artists for decision-making positions and include them in the boards deciding the flow of financial support and artistic development in the cinema. If we all know what should be done to shake the Danish cinema of today, why is nothing being done? Why are the institutions and people working for Danish cinema only talking about risk-taking without really taking the risk?

My question to the panelists was not answered. They simply asked someone from the audience to respond to me. I found it not only rude but I also could not help wondering if the debates, being organized in the name of risk-taking, are showing the sincere worries of the people in Danish cinema at all…or are the people debating at these events only performing in order to make the Danish cinema look critical and seem interested in change, when in reality non of the member of the cinema community of today really want to change anything because they prefer the comfort of already being members of the club?

When the event finished and the lights were turned on I looked around and realized that the members of The Art Delegation sitting next to me in the front row, all had a very depressed expression on their faces combined with defeatism in their looks. I made a strange connection between the atmosphere among The Art Delegation members in the end of the debate and in the film we saw in the begging, showing a man quietly but desperately swimming in the cold see between seven boats all with their own “stories” and non of them willing to give him a helpful hand to save him by taking him “on board”. All boats seem to be occupied in the film and all doors seem to be closed in the real film world. This is how I think The Art Delegation members felt. Like me, they too probably thought that we were invited to a real debate where change could happen, but it seemed like the debate was just a theater play led by the cinema industry to fulfill their own needs and criteria of being critical in order to please the political decisions. Taking active part in the debate only supports the play. Ones questions or comments to the panelists only reinforce the illusion of a critical environment. Any critical engagement from the audience gets observed and neutralized in this setting. So I think the members of The Art Delegation felt closer to paralyzed than depressed, because it became clear that there is no possibility for a real critic, thus no real exchange of ideas or development taking place.



Den Frie Udstilling and the role of outsider in the art scene

1December 18th 2013, together with 8 other members of The Art Delegation I visited the group show by Danish artists association Den Frie Udstilling  (The Free Exhibition).

Pre to our visit we studied the press release. We learned a bit about the history of Den Frie Udstilling and the fact that it was established in 1891, as a protest against the admission requirements for exhibiting at the annual Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition. In the view of its history Den Frie Udstilling perceives itself as a Danish version of Salon des Refusés. We know that Salon des Refusés showed in the 1830s works rejected by the jury of the official Paris Salon and that big names like Cezanne, Manet and Pissarro were among those refused artists. According to Paris Salon theses artists where a danger to society, so by establishing Salon des Refusés the artists wanted to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints. Another more political discrimination of art, happened during the Nazi-regime in Germany, where Bauhaus, Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Impressionism together with other modern art expression was classified as Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art).

Theses two references did not only give an art historical perspective to the show we where going to see but they also put the role of the “outsider” in the spotlight. Looking back in history we see how outsider art groups have been important engines behind turning points in the art world and how we perceive it. The fact that the role of outsider in the art world is loaded with such an importance, made us wonder if the “outsider” profile of Den Frie Udstilling is still legitimate? Or has Den Frie Udstilling with the time developed in to something different or even opposite to the original concept of Salon des Refusés? If so should the name “free” be changed in to “restricted” or “confined”? If that is the case, maybe we should start looking for a new Salon de Refusés of today?

The Art Delegation is a community of non-Danish artists actively working and leaving in Denmark. Together, the members of The Art Delegation try to understand and give feed back about the world around them. The Art Delegation is research media and the main focus of the group is to map the infrastructure of the Danish art scene and detect intercultural problems within it. The Art Delegation has the expertise knowledge on what it means to be an outsider on the Danish art scene and how to map categories outsider, refusés and degenerate. Should Den Frie Udstilling then be thinking more in an intercultural direction and associate with artists who are foreigners but leave and work in Denmark? According to the press release Den Frie Udstilling 2013, the association actually embraces renewal[1] and vitality as well as re-actualization[2]. It also seams like that “renewal” does not only refer to the esthetics but also to the multi-cultural aspect of composition of the members by making sure “new blood” is coming through the association[3].

These reflections lead The Art Delegation to a simple question:  If it is so, why there are not more non-Danish artists in the Den Frie Udstilling? On the other hand and in case we have to accept that Den Frie Udstilling has become the new official Paris Salon exhibition, should a group like The Art Delegation then take over the role of Salon des Refusés? And finally, how would the Danish art scene react to 3this swap of roles?

Equipped with these and other questions The Art Delegation entered the show by Den Frie Udstilling. It is important to emphasize that theses questions are not raised only because of greediness for more exhibition platforms for non-Danish artists, it is (unfortunately) more serious than that. Very much like in the imperial France, not being included in an established art context today has drastic consequences for the carriers of the artists. The French academia of the 19th century was dictating the public, the buyers and other trend-setting agencies, so that all the investments where canalized towards artists endorsed by the Academy. The rejection from the Academy meant professional extinction for the artist, in a very similar way to what we are seeing today. Not being a Danish artist and not being educated within the Danish “infrastructure” makes it very difficult to survive on the Danish art scene. Artists who came to Denmark as immigrants, are often both excluded professionally from the local art scene and socio-politically from the society. They are refusés both when it comes to art and when it comes to life. This is why I think the discussion about inclusion and exclusion is more serious then only talking about being in the show or not.

At the entrance of the exhibition by Den Frie Udstilling, a very polite young man Kristian Rasmussen received our group of delegation members, on behalf of the exhibition venue. He was our host and started the tour by an introduction of the association Den Frie Udstilling. Very quickly we started talking about the members of Den Frie Udstilling and the rules for membership.

2He told us that one cannot apply to become member but has to be invited by one of artists who are already members of the association. The delegation member Victor Vidal commented that this way of choosing the new members reminded him of a process of asking for a membership in a golf club. Our host smiled at Vicotr’s comment and his anecdote that he could not get a membership in a golf club because the membership price is based on a percentage of ones income and since Victor Vidal’s income was not high enough the golf club did not have any interested in having him as a member. Then our host continued explaining that to be invited one has to be exhibiting and visible in the Danish arts scene. This is already a contradiction. If an artist is refused, then obviously he/she is not visible enough in the mainstream art scene. The fact that one cannot apply but has to bee chosen is also in conflict with the original philosophy of Den Frie Udstilling because the elite-like way of trading the group is exactly what Den Frie Udstilling was criticizing about Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition and what they focused on in the deed of foundation of the association.

Then we asked about the new tendency of inclusion we read about in the press realize. Our host told us that the renewal is being done in order to make a truer picture of the art scene today. So the membership list of the organization is changing in steps with actual changes in the art world. Naya Buric asked if the association represents the demographic picture of the art scene today.

And our host looked around at the members of the culturally “colorful” group of delegation members and said: …”No”. So the inclusion that was emphasized in the press release was not really visible when it comes to including artists from other cultural backgrounds then Danish.5

But then our host tried to move our attention to another kind of inclusion, the one that allowed a bigger group of young artists to become members of the association and show their work together with old members. The new profile that goes cross the generations should also be a way of welcoming more critical and risqué art works. So Victor Vidal asked our guide to show us one of these more critical art works that are commenting issues in our society. He shoed us a piece by Bjørn Nøregaard called “Spørger Jørgen Stadig”

Before finishing up the tour and before The Art Delegation members had a chance to walk around the show, Thierry Geoffroy asked the guide if there is at least one not 100% Danish artist in the show, that we might have missed. The guide said ”…actually yes we do have one Norwegian artist in the show, Maria Finn”…”She is from Sweden” I added and the delegation members looked a bit disappointed because nether Swedish nor Norwegian participation responded to the cultural diversity they were looking for.

Then we thanked the guide for a tour and he thanked The Art Delegation by saying “you really made me think about some things”. The Art Delegation members dispersed around the exhibition venue in order to get the whole over all picture of the exhibition. I took a walk through all rooms noticing especially the curatorial hold in the show, the structuring of the space and organization of the artworks. Homogeneity of the show was clear to me, like it was for journalist Peter Michael Hornung in his review in Politiken[4]. The difference between Peter Michael Hornung’s 5-out-of-6-stars-review and my observation is that in my opinion to be “more homogeneous then ever before “[5] is not necessarily a compliment for an art show; especially not for a group show by Den Frie Udstilling that is branding itself as important show in Denmark founded in the end of 19th century on a protest against the established annual mainstream exhibition tradition that took place in Charlottenborg.


After leaving Den Frie Udstilling we walked to Charlottenborg. While walking and digesting the impressions, we discussed about the fact that Den Frie Udstilling is promoting itself with an “outsider” brand that does not belong to it. In fact if anyone should use that brand “outsider” it should be a group of artists like The Art Delegation. In the similar way the usage of foreigner-friendly slogan by the art group Superflex; “Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes” looks good as a poster-artwork but not as authentic statement behind the art group’s behavioral pattern. We discussed this slogan outside of the Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall, because despite the famous poster, some of us did not feel welcome.

4Orsolya Bagala, one of the delegation members made an interesting point about the Superfelex’ statement and what effect it had on her the first time she saw it. She said that, it seamed provoking, because it was pointing at her as a foreigner by asking her not to leave, instead of pointing at the people who were forcing foreigners to leave. “The foreigners never wanted to leave”, she said, “but some of them simply got kicked out.” The second observation made by The Art Delegation members was about the very populistic way of using the poster. For some years ago, when the poster was published for the first time, many people started using it, even politicians, but not many of them really tried to make a change in their behavior in order to include the foreigners in their real life. So the poster was a catchy slogan and a very light critic that made it easy for people to be right-wing-ish, without risking anything or sharing their benefits with foreigners. Very contradictory to their slogan, in professional situations the art group Superflex has not often been seen associated with foreigners who are artists. This double-game seams very interesting and definitely something The Art Delegation will continue discussing in the future excursions.


[1] ”…fornyelse”

[2] ”…vitaliseret og reaktualiseret Den Frie Udstilling”

[3]“…optage nye kunstnere for at sikre nyt blod i årerne.”

[4] Danmarks ældste kunstsammenslutning er mere homogen end nogensinde http://politiken.dk/ibyen/anmeldelser/kunstanmeldelser/ECE2162253/danmarks-aeldste-kunstsammenslutning-er-mere-homogen-end-nogensinde/

[5] ”…mere homogen end nogen sinde”