DINH Q. LÊErasure, 2011, Mixed-media installation: boat wood fragments, rocks, thousands of found photographs, desk and chair, table lamp, computer, scanner, internet connection, raw wood walkway and video: 7 min. Photo by René Mastrup. Courtesy the artist and Trapholt Museum of Modern Art & Design, Kolding. 

When Things Fall apart – Critical Voices on the Radars

Denmark Indonesia Vietnam Korea, South
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Far away from the cosmopolitan metropolis, in the serene landscape of a Danish fjord, artworks by 12 artists from across the globe were gathered in critical dialogue over the state of society today. This international and critical contemporary art exhibition at Trapholt Museum of Modern Art & Design shook things up at an institution that is better known for its display of Danish design and crafts.

The exhibition, “When Things Fall Apart –Critical Voices on the Radars,” comprises narratives from such diverse places as Cameroon, Vietnam, Indonesia and Guatemala, portrayed through installations, sculptures, photography and visual storytelling. Its title is inspired by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed novel Things Fall Apart (1958), which depicts the power games and cultural irreconcilabilities that played out between British colonizers and the Ibo people of Nigeria in the 1800s—where each side saw the other’s differences as a threat to their respective identities. The exhibition’s Senegalese curator, N’Goné Fall, believes that the central issue of Achebe’s novel—the unwillingness to adapt to, and the lack of compassion for, others—is still highly relevant to societies across the contemporary world.

In Denmark there is growing support for political parties who use exclusion and segregation as tools to solve the various refugee-related problems currently facing Europe. The fear of unknown cultures, and their supposed threat to local values, has a strong hold in Danish society, as in other countries, where walls are being built—both literally and metaphorically—to restrict foreign migration. The artists in the Trapholt exhibition were, however, objecting to this unwillingness to change and raising their artistic voices to spread awareness and hope.

The exhibition was organized under three themes. “Justice for All” dealt with issues regarding gender, race and sexuality, “Social Change” explored democracy, politics and human development, and “Empathy” challenged notions of solidarity, hope and differences. Among the artworks in “Justice for All” was Indonesian artist Arahmaiani Feisal’s installation Do Not Prevent the Fertility of the Mind (1997–2014). Centered on a wall covered with perfectly aligned sanitary pads was Feisal’s self-portrait, which shows her dressed as a nurse holding scissors and a red rope fashioned into a question mark, as if ready to work some medical magic. In front of the wall, Feisal had placed a small glass of red blood on a stool. In a local context, the artwork was relevant for its connection to a topical debate in Danish media concerning menstruation, which many in the country consider a major taboo subject. When standing in front of this artwork, however, there was no hiding from the issue—the blood was so close and fresh that one could almost smell it.

Appropriately situated in the “Empathy” segment was Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê’s installation Erasure (2011). This compelling artwork consists of a life-size boat wreck, a video of a burning vessel and thousands of scattered portraits of numerous people and families that together tell a visual and sensorial history of trauma surrounding Vietnam, reestablishing a narrative that has often been repressed and attempted to be erased in the past decades. “Forgetting is not an option,” emphasizes an introductory quote in the exhibition’s catalog. Lê’s artwork, moreover, insists on sharing personal knowledge and experiences in order to connect with viewers through the exploration of mutual sociopolitical issues.

In the “Social Change” section, A Perfect Leader (2010), a cynical short film by South African artist Zen Marie, dissects the image of political leaders by addressing the flawed human beings that hide behind their facade. The work questions whether we as a society are capable of identifying good or bad leaders and whether “a perfect leader” even exists.

It was clear from the strong artistic expressions in this exhibition that artists are powerful voices that have a vital place in society. The fact that this exhibition is showing in a small town rather than a metropolis was vital. It means that these personal stories and critical perspectives from around the world are not only reaching cosmopolitan art enthusiasts, but also, and more importantly, a regional community who most probably finds this a new and challenging type of exhibition.