Sinking of King Frederik V – art happening, years in prison or bit of everything

By Nada Prlja, Copenhagen, November 2020

While the potential development of COVID-20 in the northern region of Jutland, where the majority of Denmark’s 17 million minks are bred (almost three times the country’s human population) is frightening and horrifying the world, this is not the only news that currently troubles the Kingdom of Denmark. Alongside the political turmoil related to the culling of these (in any respect) unfortunate animals, the cultural and artistic community in Denmark has recently been fired up by another event which, like a molotov cocktail contains elements of history, heritage, politics, identity crisis and art. 

On the frozen screen-grab from a video, an 18C white plaster bust leans downwards, heading toward the dark blue sea water of a Copenhagen canal. On first impression, the image appears like a scene from a mystical, avantguard movie by T.J. Wilcox, Bruce Conner or Hollis Frampton, but by playing the video – posted on idoart.dk website, described as “an open and inclusive platform, dedicated to actors within the art scene” in Denmark – one finds that the video has nothing to do with the motion picture experimentation.

The video starts with an image of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, housed in the Charlottenborg Palace in central Copenhagen, The shaky image produced by the hand-held camera, then leads the viewer to the Assembly Hall (Festhalen), where the plaster bust of the Academy’s founder King Frederik V is displayed on a pedestal. These first few frames of the video do not reveal a great deal. A surprise comes, however, with the moment when the bust’s head is shown covered with a plastic bin bag, where the folds on the white plaster cast which imitate those of the king’s garments, are in visual juxtaposition with the shiny and creased folds of the black bin bag. At this moment, the art-loving viewer is somehow relieved in expectation that the video will be of an artistic nature, while at the same time, the scene, which recalls torture scenes from Abu Ghraib’s prison, with images of its hooded prisoners deeply engraved in our memory, makes the viewer both anxious and nauseous.

The rest of the video unfolds within a single minute, as it shows the removal of the king’s bust, a copy of a sculpture made by the French sculptor Jacques Saly (1717-1776) from its plinth and its subsequent demise, as it is unceremoniously thrown into the waters of the canal. The video ends, just as it started, with a frozen screen-grab, but now with an image of the sculpture deeply submerged in the peaceful waters of the harbour, not far from the Academy’s Charlottenborg Palace.

Replaying the video is a must, in order to comprehend the text superimposed over the images, and for the shocking action documented in the video to be fully grasped. A group of artists called ‘Anonymous Visual Artists’ which ‘anonymously’ takes authorship for the action, writes: By sinking Frederik V into the canal, we want to articulate the ways in which the colonial era is invisible, but still has direct consequences for minority people inside and outside the Academy”. Unsurprisingly, those words have subsequently been quoted in numerous news entries that have appeared in the Danish media, where the act has been seen as an act of pure vandalism, and not as an artistic happening, as claimed by the ‘Anonymous’. 

It is very rare that art-related events attract so much media attention here in recent times. The Academy’s Council, as legal owners of the work in question, reported the case to the police, as a form of theft from a public art collection. “The art collection represents, for Danish culture, a centrally common artistic reservoir of historical knowledge about the artistic expression and meanings of changing times…if we try to erase the past, by e.g. destroying its art, we find it only more difficult to understand it and thus also to learn from it”, quotes the Council.

Why was Frederik V “sunken”? 

Some basic historical comprehension of the situation is required. Denmark was one of the seven major colonial superpowers. Slavery was abolished in the Danish colonies in 1803. For someone like me, born and raised in a country where royalty was swept away in 1941, it is hard to relate to and comprehend the continued role played by royalty within contemporary society. Even after having lived in London for 15 years and now in Copenhagen, the confusion remains, as these are both places where the presence of the Imperial past is interwoven into all aspects of life. The use of the symbol of the Royal Crown on the logos and the use of the term Royal within the titles of institutions – such as the Royal College of Art in London (from where I graduated) and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art (discussed here) are only some examples of this.

The Anonymous Visual Artists group provides its own interpretation of selected historical facts: Charlottenborg was built in the 1670s by U.F. Gyldenløve. Gyldenløve’s ship Friderich, is believed to be among the first Danish-Norwegian ships to transport enslaved Africans across the Atlantic…. In 1754, … Frederik V donated Charlottenborg’s premises to The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.”

Relying heavily on the historical circumstances within Imperial-era Denmark, the text in the video addresses Danish nobles as the beneficiaries of slavery, while condemning the strategic establishment of the Academy and the subsequent engagement of its graduates, whose artistic production was geared towards the ‘servitude of the elites’. The brick and mortar of the Academy building at Charlottenborg, is also condemned as having been owned by U.F. Gyldenløve – the owner of ships used for the transportation of the ‘socially dead’ (as Orlando Patterson would call the slaves). At the same time, King Frederik V is condemned as being one of the representatives of structural violence committed by colonial powers over centuries and for his initiation of the Academy of ‘servitude’, or at least that is how one could read the statements by the Anonymous Visual Artists group.

It appears to me that the message of their action and video is two or three fold: it relates to Denmarks’ historical position of the colonialist past (condemned from today’s perspective); it relates to the direct consequences of colonial times engraved onto the lives of minority people today, as well as relating to the position of artists and cultural workers, who should not be silenced or expected to act as mere providers of services, as declared in the group’s further proclamation: “We want an art world that takes responsibility, not only for the actions of the past, but also for the ways in which colonialism is still active today.” The Academy’s Council responded as follows: “It is also important that we do not impose the norms of our time onto the pastThe bust was not created to pay homage to racism and the slave trade. It is created in a context where it was normal for the king to be autocratic and for the slave trade to exist.” 

Did the message fail to resonate?

We have already heard both sides of this argument, in a number of other similar incidents elsewhere, but it is surprising that the Anonymous groups’ letter and the Academy Council’s two page long answer, were the only two occasions in which the relations between the past and the present were openly discussed, at the outset of this debate. Was the inherent violence of the act so calamitus, that the intended message evaporated as a result? Or is it perhaps possible, that public discussions around these uncomfortable topics are still frowned upon in Denmark, one might ask? 

The situation has become increasingly entangled, in a cacophony of information and opposing arguments, that have been emerging on a daily basis in the Danish press and on social media since the initial event took place on 06.11.2020. It is evident that several parallel arguments have displaced the citizens’ attention away from the problematic issues of the country’s colonial past. In this text, I attempt to untangle some of the related, yet overlapping issues.

-Acceptance of the past

Holger Dahl, the art critic of Berlingske, referred to the action simply as “talentless Talibanism.” Joy Mogensen, the Danish Minister of Culture since 2019, in tune with the Academy’s Council, states it is wrong to destroy artworks portraying individuals whose roles, opinions and positions in society in the past, are today perceived as being reprehensible. Morten Messerschmidt, a Deputy Chairman of the Danish People’s Party, which is part of  EAPN, the populist coalition of far-right parties in Europe, exclaimed: “We must cultivate both the glossy images and the dark sides of our history much more. But we shouldn’t, therefore, be tearing statues down. Instead, we should rather be installing many more.” 

It cannot go unnoticed, however, that political representatives amidst this situation, failed to provide the public with critical comments or constructive solutions to the issues raised by the actions of the artist group. This could have been achieved with an announcement of their intention to investment in new cultural institutes dedicated to post colonial research, for instance (such as the INIVA in London), nor did they comment on the recent decision to cut the budget for the Plaster Cast Collection in Copenhagen (Afstøbningssamlingen), housed in a canal-front warehouse once used for the storage of goods arriving from the colonies in the West Indies, a collection that could have shed some light on the colonial history of Denmark. This particular museum installed in 2018, ‘I AM QUEEN MARY‘ by artists La Vaughn Belle (Virgin Islands) and Jeannette Ehlers (Denmark), a large scale collaborative public art work that “memorializes Denmark’s colonial impact”, which is a first of its kind. Yet in their public statements, the politicians urged for an acceptance and engagement with an open dialogue with the past.

-If it is not “Trumpism”, it might be “left-wing delusionalism”

Merete Jankowski, the former long-term director of Overgaden, a beautiful and centrally located gallery space which predominantly promotes the work of young Danish artists, initially expressed her opinion about the event, via an FB post. Her engagement is to be expected, as Jankowski was also a decision maker within the realm of art education, in her role as Dean of the Funen Art Academy (2009-12). Jankowski sharply condemned the event. “Identity policy, as it is currently being unfolded, including within the artistic environments in Denmark, is to a high degree shaped by American academia’. She further unfolds her opinion in an article for the Nordic art portal Kunstkritikk: “…it annoys me that we cannot talk together, that the dialogue has in advance been cancelled…”. While most will agree that there is a need to engage in a democratic discussion before finite actions are made, it is also worth noting that Ai Weiwei did not discuss or seek permission from anyone with regards to his intention to break and destroy invaluable vases dating from the Han Dynasty. Likewise, neither did Ulay announce apriori, his intention to steal Hitler’s favorite painting from the National Gallery, nor his intentions of leaving it in the custody of a Turkish gastarbeiter family in the city of Berlin. Those works also involve violations of our shared heritage, yet they also shift perspectives.

Jankowski’s allusions to “Americanisation” is not an isolated case, “…We must not end up like in the United States”, Berlingske newspaper titles scream. It would be easy to simply ‘dump’ the whole argument on the generally despised effects of Americanisation in this Nordic country, especially within the cultural sector, but it would not be justifiable. Monuments have been taken down on numerous occasions, in different decades and in various parts of the world. However, if the event is not a reflection of “Trumpism and other scary authoritarian flows” (as Jankowski characterises it), should it instead be defined as an act of ‘Left-wing delusionism’? Ferdinand Ahm Krag, an artist and Professor at the Academy, claims to have witnessed to Berlingske, in recent times an ‘increase of talentless left-wing intellectuals whose political delusions have distorted the minds of an entire generation of students.’

– Chaos within the Royal Academy

The Minister of Culture redirects the problems at hand, pointing out in her press release that she is aware of internal problems at the Academy, with regards to “identity politics”. Since last year, various issues could be seen as being destabilising for the Academy, the most recent one occurring only days before the Anonymous event. Professors and artists Henriette Heise, Ferdinand Ahm Krag, Simon Dybbroe Møller and Carla Zaccagnini expressed in a letter to the Ministry of Culture, to have “experienced increasingly unhealthy and unproductive working conditions as a result of an authoritarian and unclear leadership.” These issues and conditions have all influenced the dynamic of the educational institution. Anonymous writes: “The event took place in solidarity with all the artists, students and people all over the world who have had to live with the aftermath of Danish colonialism in the US Virgin Islands, India, Ghana, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark”. The burden of so many centuries and people is arguably too large to ‘fit the Academy’s shoes’ – and the attempt to ‘cocoon’ the problem within the management, employees or students of the Academy, seems unreasonable.

The parallel claims: the justification of the value of historical artworks, the relation between art and vandalism, the ‘Americanisation’ of society or the rise of leftist ideology, the identification of internal problems within the Academy, self-promotion through art, artist being seen as arrogant, where taxpayers money go and various other topics that are currently circulating, are all creating a loud noise that could potentially overshadow the essential and core topic related to minorities and their alleged suppression within Danish society today.

“Police, handcuffs, judge and prison”  

The main images of the event that have been circulating in the media are those which showcase the act of pulling the remains of the bust out of the canal, into which it had been plunged. What we see in these images is the dehumanised bust, now deemed to be beyond repair. The statue’s deformed shape is shown covered with a grey felt blanket, positioned on a transport trolley – an image highlighting the violence of the act of vandalism and its direct consequences. Now the sculpture is just a mass of deformed, wet plaster.

The outraged Minister of Culture, Mogensen, writes: “it is a criminal act that needs to be investigated and one that should have consequences for those responsible”. But who to call responsible? New media communication announced: “Students at the Academy of Fine Arts support vandalism against Frederik V-bust: “We are not done”. Shortly thereafter, the press release from Kirsten Langkilde, the Academy’s Dean, calmly recognised that all voices need to be heard, confirming that the Academy will reassess its own culture: “I have the responsibility to ensure that there is room for all opinions – even if we cannot all agree on everything”. 

A week after the happening some clarifications have been offered, nevertheless those new findings did not calmed down the situation: During the afternoon of 13.11.2020, Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, an artist and head of one of the Departments at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts claimed responsibility for the event to the newspaper Politiken. She is claiming sole responsibility for the action which, according to Politiken, involved a group of ten hooded individuals. On the same day, the Minister of Culture publicly condemned KDH’s actions. On the afternoon of 16.11.2020, Politiken published that the bust is less old (made in 1950s) and far less worthy, then was originally being claimed by the Academy’s Council. Police categorised the happening on 21.11.2020 as “serious vandalism”, for which a maximum penalty of six years in prison could be imposed on the responsible (/ritzau/).

Berlingske’s art critic Dahl describes the artistic action as ‘talking baby language and making baby art”. For me however, it appears more like a scream of pain. It is inadequate to be activating only the ‘punishment’ mode here. We must understand and acknowledge that this action demands proper comprehension, calling for a new form of communication and exchange with the Millenials and the youth of Gen Z, who are fully aware of a wide range of both domestic and international issues. When citizens of Copenhagen protested in large numbers this summer, in support of Black Lives Matter cause, it was not referred to as ‘Americanisation’. In Malmo the other day, I witnessed a group of young people protesting in support of abortion rights in Poland. The world is changing and we care about one another, even if the problems arise far away from ourselves. Probably we, the practicing artists, educators at art institutions, ministers of culture and all citizens need to be able to better comprehend the new generations who are rebelling against our generations’ acceptance of the status quo. 

From the rubble of the remains of the recently sunken plaster cast, a discussion slowly emerges within the Danish art circles. The Danish artist and educator Jakob Jakobsen asks, via an FB post: “What would the decolinialization of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts actually entail?”, to which Katya Sander, the established Danish artist and a former employee of the Academy, responds, continuing the dialogue: “That’s a really good question! Both for buildings, artworks, paintings & decorations, but in particular in relation to teaching approaches and curriculum.”  More voices are continuously joining the public debate, including local art legends such as Bjørn Nørgaard and Carsten Juhl. All of those artists, critics and educators show a willingness to discuss one of the most difficult questions of post-colonial nations – how to approach and teach new generations of students and citizens, about our shared political and cultural heritage?

The Nordic pavilion in Venice, representing the countries of Sweden, Norway, and Finland, housed in a renowned and much-loved modernist building by architect Sverre Fehn, announced earlier this year during an exemplary ceremony, the decision to select the culture of the indigenous Sámi people, to represent their shared Pavilion. Consequently, for the upcoming Biennale di Venezia, they have changed the name of the Nordic Pavilion, to that of the Sámi Pavilion. Denmark’s pavilion, physically only a few steps away from the Sámi Pavilion, is one of the first national pavilions one sees upon entering the Giardini in Venice. Whether this pavilion will be at the forefront or the avant-garde in the future, by finding a way to confront its dystopias in order to create its own new utopia, is soon to be revealed.