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Tue Greenfort There isn’t a frog, a fowl, a fish 2009
Privatising the air we breathe – or rather its future – this economic model attempts to imagine and shape our future social relations. In other words, it attempts to enclose, for private profit, the public space of dreams, promises, hopes and desires. Politics entered here upon the terrain of aesthetics and it was unsurprising that, during the two weeks of the summit, the public effervescence around it extended far beyond explicitly political institutions and ultimately reached deep into the city’s cultural life. Copenhagen’s cultural institutions attempted to engage directly with the democratic process, as a number of visual and artistic projects explicitly stated their intention to also engage – and build – a public sphere around the issue of climate change. But as they did so, they revealed another crisis in contemporary art’s ability to engage with issues of social change.
Institutions, from NGOs to corporations, had been quick to turn to art for the same ends. The former were the most bluntly propagandist. The WWF opted for two melting ice sculptures of polar bears. Oxfam did the same, adding a performance with a native of the Maldives suspended up to his neck in dirty water. Greenpeace, meanwhile, installed a photography exhibition on the effects of climate change at the Bella Centre. The most visible project, however, was the inescapable and cringingly titled ‘Hopenhagen’. This project was located in City Hall Square in the centre of Copenhagen, and produced using a combination of private commercial and public city finance which pulled together corporate practices of ambient advertising and public art. Huge advertising hoardings from Siemens and Coca-Cola offered ‘a bottle of hope’, while a series of clear glass ‘cabins’ lit with green neon strips hosted sundry exhibitions: showcases for, variously, new green technologies, unrelated commercial products and public art projects. This corporate impulse to capitalise on the swell of public enthusiasm about climate change was no different for the marketing departments of the city’s galleries,
which similarly sought to feed on public feeling with a series of themed shows. The exhibition ‘RETHINK: Contemporary Art and Climate Change’, was staged across four spaces, whose titles, such as ‘Rethink Relations and Rethink Kakatopia’, specifically sought to engage the public sphere.
Staged in Gallery Nikolaj, a church converted internally into a white cube, the sense of quiet contemplation of ‘Rethink Kakatopia’ was twofold. This was in great contrast to the archetypal emphasis on open-air city crowds, noise, urgency and bright light of ‘Hopenhagen’. The exhibitions were marked by a lack of urgency and contemporary context compared with the more results-driven initiatives of governments, NGOs and corporations. Rather than offering critical distance, the institutional arts’ response appeared less relevant. Perhaps this was partly due to this different institutional frame, but ‘Hopenhagen’ was also unafraid of at least appearing to make direct comment and intervention. By contrast, the affects presented by the art institutions were more commonly not those of hope, but of passivity and despair. The curatorial statements were conspicuous by their tentativeness: ‘The artists do not offer actual solutions to these problems – but they present us with images that may serve as tools for reflection, debate, awareness – and possibly action.’
Like the corporate interventions, the ‘RETHINK’ gallery programmes fed on public enthusiasm for social change, yet withdrew in apparent horror at the prospect of actually effecting, or even discussing any. The works selected provided little in the way of social context. Bill Burns contributed an amusing series of tiny examples of safety clothing for animals, while the Iceland Love Corporation presented a video of three women in full makeup and fur coats obliviously enjoying fine consumer goods in an icy wasteland. As a debate on climate change, the terms these works set were nebulous and ahistorical. The works concerned themselves with the
333 / ART MONTHLY / 2.10