Entering the first room of Nina Beier’s exhibition at Charlottenborg – the Danish artist’s first solo show at a Scandinavian institution – you encountered a large triptych on the end wall. At a distance, Portrait Mode (all works 2011) appeared to pay homage to the strong Danish tradition of abstract landscape painting, represented by figures such as Per Kirkeby and Kehnet Nielsen. Multiple colour fields of predominantly grey and brownish hues covered the surface in a pattern resembling a rock formation set against a blue sky or water. As you got closer, however, it became apparent that the triptych was, in fact, an assemblage of articles of second-hand clothes featuring exotic (in a Danish context) animal prints flattened under Perspex. The work suggests that the vista Beier is depicting is not the raw and violent landscape of mythological Nordic nature but the otherwise artificial landscape of the prosaic economy of commercial signifiers. There is no latent spirituality to be excavated from this landscape; everything is framed there in its pure superficiality.
The work follows Beier’s long-standing interest in the social and political problematics of representation – more specifically, those involved in ‘translating’ a cultural object from its original context to another one. The world of fashion, where representation is king and animal prints are en vogue, is an obvious target. But alluding to consumer culture so explicitly threatens to send the work down a spiral of empty references towards a semiotic circuit of signifiers without signified. When any symbol can symbolize anything else, it runs the risk of meaning nothing. The exhibition’s accompanying text suggested that Portrait Mode could be read as an attempt to ennoble the clothes and their third-world makers through the form and context of fine art. As such, the work was not convincing. Instead of engaging you in the cultural, social and political implications of the garments, this large-scale triptych returned you to an immediate visual experience. The work had none of the sexy and ironic seduction of Andy Warhol’s appropriation of camouflage patterns, or the subversive politics of Yinka Shonibare’s post-colonial sceneries. The clothes were reduced to lively and colourful patterns fit for wall decoration.
The exhibition also featured a performance entitled Tragedy, in which dogs were encouraged to lie on a Persian rug, while their hair mixed with the pattern of the rug. More prominent was the series ‘The Demonstrators’, comprising found images Beier culled from a digital image bank, printed on paper and hung like posters to dry over radiators, ladders, wooden frames, a conference table and a beach chair, respectively. What exactly they ‘demonstrated’ was unclear. The optical unconscious represented by the image bank? If so, what is that unconscious telling us about our visual desires? The Surrealists famously imagined the shocking effect of the meeting between an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table, but Beier’s juxtaposition of images of broken pieces of rope, light bulbs, a feather, a telephone and a potato, along with their ‘supporting objects’, were too cool and too vague to generate a similarly jarring effect; at best, they offered a crude symbolism about the state of contemporary culture.
Compared to the more conceptually and visually playful work Beier made as Nina Jan Beier when she was part of the Janfamily with artist Maria Lund, this work seemed to try too hard to reference contemporary cultural conditions while exploiting the decorative or ornamental. The result was an unbalanced and unproductive relation between form and content. Whether this is because Beier is still redefining herself as a solo artist, time will tell. In any case, I left the exhibition in a state of Postmodern indifference, numbed by the emptiness of free-floating signs.