by Shraddha NairAug 10, 2021
Often the symbols of identity markers are evoked to reclaim the authority of ownership. When the symbols as the points of identity formation are recalled, the image of the national flag as a means to draw affiliation to a particular country is unflinchingly prompted. Besides, the banners bearing national symbols, the display of art collection at the museum also recall a necessity to own a cultural past. The museum as the soft power becomes a living embodiment of the history that thrives on the acknowledgment of the past. Intriguingly, the symbol is a call of unity towards a community while underlining separation from the other. The sense of entitlement laced to these symbols in a way is an indulgence of powers to assert a line of difference. What happens when the icon is exonerated from its heightened meaning to a cultural motif in the hands of the artists? The Danish artists, Sofie Hesselholdt and Vibeke Mejlvang, known as Hesselholdt & Mejlvang, creatively disturb the established meaning of the signs and objects as a way to reconfigure its place in the history of nations. The political subversion of these icons made possible by the tool of irony opens a door to see the world of symbols from the other side.
In an interview with STIR, the artist-duo revisits Danish political history when they started working around the motifs of flags in 2007. “The first flag we showed was Black Flag (2008), which was a black cross flag resembling the Scandinavian (and other) flags that are often based on the cross. The flag was a reaction to the political climate in Denmark at the time, where we experienced a rise of right-wing politics and an atmosphere of xenophobia. It felt like Denmark was fencing itself from the global community. Flags were also on the agenda politically in Denmark. The Muhammad cartoons controversy emerged in 2005 after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten chose to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad. The reactions to this swept over the world and we saw the Danish flag being burnt in the Middle East for the first time.” By having installations around the stereotypical symbols of identity, the artists question the matrix of politics and knowledge to decipher how the meanings are incessantly reproduced in society to emphasise its singularity.
To create flags for the alternative communities, for the artists, was a way to inaugurate a collective space antithetical to the world determined by hierarchy and difference. The presence of diversity was realised with the installation Native, Exotic, Normal / Circle of Flags, where the six flags are on a scale of six skin tones, from black to white, suggesting that everybody can find themselves somewhere in that scale. The artists are not striving for a just world, but keeping a close tab on the reality of social inadequacy. The artists state, “We are trying to talk about this complex situation, the conflicting feelings about identity, where and with whom you feel you belong.” It is visible in the installation where the six skin colours are represented on the flagpoles of varying heights.
For the site-specific installation, This Moment Is The Beginning, at the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen, the artists acutely draw reference to the works of the Danish neo-classicist sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, to create a conversation between the worlds of 19th century and current times. Hesselholdt & Mejlvang declare, “We research a lot about the place, its architecture, history, people and whatever is interesting to create specific exhibition context. This helps us develop the concept of the work. If possible, we always visit the place before deciding what to show. In a similar fashion, For the This Moment Is The Beginning, we were invited to interact with Thorvaldsens’ work – white marble and plaster sculptures - and the museum itself. The project kept growing as we researched the archives, his letters, his plaster casts, the historical and political situation of his time, etc. We ended up making site-specific installations spread all over the two stories of the museum, a huge installation in the atrium yard, a performative intervention on a sculpture on the roof and performance with four actors.”
The performance This Moment Is The Beginning was enacted by four actors in the museum’s entrance hall surrounded by huge neoclassical plaster sculptures by Thorvaldsen. The sculptures became active viewers to the performance, playing an important part as a backdrop to the scene. The actors are washing the floor with enormous white flags and water, and as part of the process, the wet flags catch dirt. At the entry of a trumpeter playing a solemn fanfare, the actors fold the wet flags ceremonially to transform them into folded objects and keep them on the floor. Against the pure white sculptures of the museum that are revered as the high art, the folded and soiled flags, as an installation, reinforce art as a democratic practice not anymore bracketed to a section of society. Towards the end of the performance, the actors shake hands with the audience. This gesture is borrowed from the real-life incident of the sculptor who during a departure from a home of a rich German family shook hands with everybody, including women and servants. In a society with well-defined social structures, the friendly act of shaking hands was perceived as an aberrance. The gesture also, “refers to a law that was introduced in Denmark a month before the exhibition opening that demanded new Danish citizens to shake hands with an official. This is a highly symbolic law, complicating things for people who for religious reasons would refrain from shaking hands.”
The performance work paves the way for active audience participation to fully realise its meaning. The artists expound on this crucial role of the audience, “We always consider the role of the audience in each piece, and whether we want them to interact or participate in the work or not. Making a performance is for us about communicating, so the audience is crucial. We often see people with tears in their eyes, moved. This means a lot to us, as we want to reach people. We want people to engage.”
Frilled with irony and humour, the art practice of Hesselholdt & Mejlvang demystifies the semblance of authority, as personified by symbols, in an effort to bring about a place synonymous with cultural pluralism, not nationalist dominance.