Before entering the gallery, most of the visitors on the opening night knew more or less what they were going to see. And there it was, in the first room to your right, on the back wall: a row of black capital letters spelling out the word ‘DANMARK’ (Danmark, Denmark, 2005) at eye-level, more than a metre high and almost covering a seven-metre-long wall.
The letters had the same effect a mirror would have had; after you’ve taken a look at yourself, adjusted your clothes, given yourself a flattering or disparaging remark on your appearance, you rapidly direct your gaze at something else. You don’t want to appear vain. When another visitor entered the room and I could see that the work triggered the same reaction, I was convinced: had Jens Haaning made this work, say, seven years ago, it would not have received much attention. This must be a potent moment to write ‘DANMARK’ on a wall. Come to think of it, I can’t think of a more poignant one. The once relaxed, liberal country where there was always time for another beer is gone; in its place is a neo-liberal state where a relaxed approach to life is considered bad for economic productivity. In 2004 Haaning wrote ‘Deutschland’ on the wall of a barn in the small town of Tewel-Moor in Germany (Deutschland, Germany, 2004). Although the strategy here is the same, the works trigger different reactions based on the respective countries’ relationship to history. Germany’s name automatically conjures up the past; in the case of Denmark the associations are more connected to the here and now.
Like much of Haaning’s work, ‘DANMARK’ can be labelled ‘political’, but not in the sense that it involves a direct statement, opinion or critique; the artist is not addressing us directly or trying to argue a case. Looking at the name of my country in front of me, I am unsure whether I am communicating with the artist or with myself. Haaning confronts me with myself and the country where I live, but he is open to rejection and misreading, and to the use of context to create tension within the work. If, say, he had written ‘DANMARK’ on the wall of a more ‘activist’ art space, it would have been a fairly simple gesture gathering support on behalf of an assumed shared political position. Here he has trapped us in our own good behaviour; since this is no political rally but a successful commercial gallery, our opinions are less likely to be commonly held. The experience at Galerie Nicolai Wallner reminded me of Haaning’s work Trap (1994), in which the door closed behind you for 45 seconds after you entered the room. Only this time the claustrophobia was of another kind – that of a clinical environment where viewers are reduced to subjects to be observed as they responded to the stimuli of ‘DANMARK’.