By Neil Karbank
On September 6, 2016, the New York Times carried a front-page story entitled “’I’ve Become A Racist’: Migrant Wave Unleashes Tensions Over Danish Identity”. In essence, the story asserts that the current wave of immigrants from Muslim countries is causing Danes to re-think their generally-welcoming attitude towards immigrants and Denmark’s custom of incorporating, into Danish society, all immigrants (including Muslims). The story suggested that this re-thinking, and this questioning of what it means to be a Dane, is something new.
But in fact, this questioning has been going on within Danish society for years, yet rarely do we hear the immigrants’ point of view. But at the Statens Museum for Kunst – the National Gallery of Denmark – there is now on display a poster, from 2002, made by the Danish avant-garte artistic cooperative Superflex (and designed by Superflex member Rasmus Koch) which presented exactly that: it approached the problem from the migrant’s point of view . . . and it does so with great humor and biting irony. According to Superflex’s website (www.superflex.net, and all quotations in this blog are from that website):
The poster with the wording ‘Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes’ was put up in the streets as a comment on the increasing harsh climate in Denmark with regards to public debate on immigrants and issues on integration.
These posters were hung on streets in 2002 Copenhagen and in Malmö, Sweden. It was a perfect setup: instead of expressing Danes’ anger or frustration, Superflex’s poster stated – no, shouted out – the migrants’ point of view: they feel insecure, vulnerable and scared and they beg, from “foreigners” (ironically, non-Danes, just like them – foreigners), for protection. It’s all said dramatically in day-glow orange with black all-caps – it implores action. It is both visually arresting and enormously entertaining – but it also encapsulates, in a highly serious way, the day-to-day uncertainty in the life of an immigrant in Denmark.
Frank Zappa once famously asked “Does humor belong in music?” . . . and of course his answer was yes. Likewise, humor definitely belongs in art, Superflex has built a reputation for making strident political and artistic statements with bold conceptual and performance art pieces that raise serious political and philosophical questions through irony, sarcasm and sharp humor. Superflex sometime accomplishes this by appropriating commercial symbols or signage and changing the text in order to alter the symbol’s meaning. Superflex views these projects as “tools” (that’s what it calls them) of communication and social commentary (and perhaps social and political change). Among its projects – realized or proposed – have been:
Bankrupt Banks (2012), a group of banners bearing the symbols, of banks that failed in the 2008 financial crisis: “Originally designed to convey strength, authority and confidence, these now defunct symbols become portraits of failed power structures”;
Iraq Oil Truck (2006, with Jens Haaning) “The idea was to fill up an oil truck with oil in Iraq, drive it to Denmark and park it in front of the National Gallery. Without any warning or even a meeting concerning the idea of the project, Iraqi Oil Truck was censored by museum director Allis Helleland because of ‘the potential symbolic fire’ that the work might create. After this, the museum stopped all further discussion with the artists”
Iraq Oil Truck (2006)
Mjølnerparken (2006) “The Mjølnerparken neon sign was SUPERFLEX’s contribution to Sid Ned!, a public art exhibition in Copenhagen, 2006. The sign was placed pointing in the direction of a large social housing area in Copenhagen, Mjølnerparken, often referred to in the media as a ‘bad’ neighbourhood”.
Rebranding Denmark (2007 (animation showing, in eight steps, the burning of the Danish flag, in response to the 2006 political crisis arising from the publication of a cartoon showing Mohammed’s turban containing a bomb);
I Copy, Therefore I Am (2011) (appropriating and modifying a Barbara Kruger painting entitled I Shop, Therefor I Am);
Cockroach Tour of the Science Museum (2011) (visiting science museums dressed as a cockroach and seeing the museum from the insect’s point of view)
Modern Times Forever (2011) (a 240-hour film about “what would happen to the Stora Enso building [in Helsinki] as an architectural and ideological symbol over the next few thousands of years, if only time would affect the building”)
Burning Car (2005) (an 11-minute film of a car being set on fire and burning completely: “No longer only an image of protest and revolt in war-torn regions and dictatorships far beyond our shores, the burning car has become an image from the suburbs of ‘civilised’ Europe – a symbol of the difficult relationship between Western societies and their changing populations”)
But Foreigners, Don’t Leave Us Alone With The Danes! is an overt plea for help. It seems to imply that from the immigrants’ point of view, the Danes are all-powerful, potentially threatening (and maybe even merciless) and always capable of making immigrants’ lives miserable. And the migrants are looking not to Danes but to the rest of the world – foreigners, that is, non-Danes, any non-Danes – to help out.
And now it’s an art exhibit, that actually seems very funny despite its dead seriousness, in a museum. . . proving, among other things, that some art is timeless.
POSTSCRIPT: On July 12, 2013, Superflex issued a press release entitled “Letter to Superflex, 14 January 2008” that quoted in full an anonymous, eleven-word letter delivered on that date to Superflex, in response to “Foreigners, Please Don’t Leave Us Alone With The Danes!”, that said simply “If you don’t like Danmark. Goodbye. Fuck off. Go home . . . .” and the press release announced that the letter’s text, arranged and set by Superflex in a striking blue neon, would be exhibited at the Danish newspaper Politken.
See, e.g., such classics as Status Back Baby; Elvis Has Just Left The Building; Valley Girl; Dinah-Moe Hum; Brown Shoes Don’t Make It; My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama; Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow; Montana.