“Another Surrealism” at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art

The site of the world’s first international Surrealist exhibition, in 1935, Den Frie currently hosts a group show that revisits this landmark moment in the institution’s history while reflecting on the reappearance of strategies associated with historical surrealism in contemporary artistic production. With works by over twenty Danish and international artists, including several from the original exhibition (see, for example, Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen’s Guardian of Morality, 1935, an array of sinuous, distorted forms that hint at a landscape), “Another Surrealism” avoids the standard historical or iconographic treatment of its subject, conceiving of it instead as an arsenal of conceptual tools and methods responsive to late-capitalist pathologies.  

Tora Schultz’s wooden strap-on dildo (Pinocchio (1940), 2022) divests the fairy-tale figure of the faux innocence that Disney injected into the character, transforming him into a sexually charged fetish object. Desire reappears, this time within a heady mix of manic overconsumption, control, and power, in Isa Genzken’s duo of shop mannequins (Untitled, 2015), naked from the waist down but otherwise sporting an ensemble of police vests, a purple party wig, and headphones. An oversize shiny magenta poodle (Esben Weile Kjaer’s The Poodle’s Core, 2022) gnashes its teeth at Harry Carlsson’s There is Something Rotten in Hollywood, 1937, but takes its name from the latter’s 1936 painting, on view nearby and featuring a solitary lion standing on a desert battlefield strewn with careful arrangements of newly polished shoes.

Art’s deep-rooted affiliation with the commodity form is underscored in a shopping arcade displaying historical pieces, such as a reconstruction of Wilhelm Freddie’s 1947 installation for Copenhagen’s Magasin du Nord (Susanne in the Bath, 1947–2022) and jewellery and accessories attributed to Salvador Dalí. John Miller and Nina Beier’s A True Mirror, 2018–22, presents a row of child mannequins turned away from the visitor and staring at photos of other mannequins and real people. Surrounded by bizarre groupings of found objects—porcelain dogs, suits, and designer bags—these figures suggest an autonomy of things that may no longer even require our presence as spectators and consumers. This self-generating agency finds its apotheosis in the basement, where Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s video I-Be Area, 2007, is screened in a specially constructed environment bathed in blue light—more Lynch-on-speed than lullaby dreamscape. Its manic energy and dark satirical humour aside, the work’s conception of our psychological makeup as a cadavre exquis, in constant flux and without sharply defined boundaries, serves as a reminder of the all-pervasive nature of what curator Anna Weile Kjær, building on the late theorist Mark Fisher, calls capitalist surrealism, her term for the uncanny forms spawned by the mode of production that has colonized the world and the mind.

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