press release

Clowns’ Kingdom
March 23–May 8, 2022

Lars von Trier, Ann Lislegaard, Henrik Plenge Jacobsen, Jens Haaning, Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Knud Vesterkov, Tora Schultz, Sahar Jamili, Line Finderup Jensen, Lise Harlev, Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Lene Adler Petersen, Elisabeth Therkildsen, Christian Falsnaes, Rasmus Myrup, Magnus Andersen, Esben Weile Kjaer, Peter Land, Co-Ritus (Jørgen Nash, Jens Jørgen Thorsen & Dieter Kunzelmann, Hardy Strid), Situationniste Internationale

Curated by Pierre-Alexandre Mateos and Charles Teyssou.

Denmark is the clowndom of avant-garde art movements. This kingdom of just under six million inhabitants has historically summoned up the figure of the clown, buffoon, fool or prankster to disrupt the merry-go-round of vanities and sham. Clowns are borderline entities: through their absurdity, obscenity or radicality, they personify a form of ultimate otherness in opposition to the smooth moral veneer of public postures. Danish avant-garde art has a long tradition of using play, humour, pranks and hoaxes to jostle the established order and norms, never mind if they get broken in the process.

With Destruktion af RSG-6 in Odense (1963), the only exhibition mounted by Guy Debord, art was transformed into a theatre of operations in which revolution became a game and vice versa. Accompanied by the deafening sound of an army siren, the exhibition culminated with viewers firing at targets depicting the great dignitaries of the atomic age. A year later, Jorgen Nash subversively turned the statue of Andersen’s Little Mermaid into a headless heroine. A decade on, the clown morphed into an emasculatory figure, joining Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Lene Adler Petersen and Elisabeth Therkildsen behind the camera in Three Girls and a Pig (1972). Dark and caustic in the work of Lars von Trier, the clown became Denmark’s anarchic Auguste in The Kingdom, The Boss of It All and The Idiots. Disturbing and embarrassing in the cruel satires of Henrik Plenge Jakobsen and Jens Haaning, terrifying in Ann Lislegaard’s exploration of the invention of spiritualism through the hoax perpetrated by the Fox sisters in puritanical mid-19th-century America, the clown also seeped into Lise Harlev’s ambiguous political slogans.

The contemporary generation of artists summon up flesh-and-blood clowns, be they outsider Arcimboldo figures in Rasmus Myrup’s anthropomorphic assemblages of plant-based materials, faux naïf in Magnus Andersen’s paintings, narcissistic and helium-filled in the work of Esben Weile Kjær, sexually ambiguous in Tora Schultz’s Pinocchio, inchoate and mired in the suburban tragi-comedy of Line Finderup Jensen’s CGI videos, the melancholy Pierrot of surveillance capitalism in Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s simulation, revealed in broad daylight as the monsters they are in Sahar Jamili’s wardrobe, or alternately embodying artist and spectator in Christian Falsnaes’ performances.

Clowns are everywhere—in drag, as trolls, wearing the face of the Joker. Even when they are identified and sometimes vividly embodied, they remain incontrovertibly taboo. No one really wants to be a clown—simultaneously euphoric and dispossessed, dangerous yet risible, necessary but repulsive. But if we showcase clowns and their tricks, aren’t we shutting off their most corrosive side? The French philosopher Paul Virilio exhibited accidents in the Museum of Accidents he developed in the 1990s to avoid being exposed to them. Mapping clowndom necessarily means tracing the streets of a ghost town. But what might be seen as an avenue of worn-out gestures asks us to reconnect with a form of idealism and delude ourselves like Don Quixote when he takes windmills for giants. When we do so, we summon this tragic buffoonery—this deliberate silliness—to ward off fate, for in the clowns’ kingdom, we all end up stark naked and absurd, be we knave or king.