Billed as a retrospective, Kunsthal Charlottenborg’s recent exhibition of works by Danish collective Superflex – Bjørnstjerne Reuter Christiansen, Jakob Fenger and Rasmus Nielsen – took an unconventional form. The full title of the exhibition on the press release and posters read: ‘Working Title: A Retrospective Curated by XXXXXXXXX’, with the name of the group redacted, as prior to the exhibition they asked the institution to sign a contract prohibiting the inclusion of their name in any promotional material. In collaboration with Charlottenborg director, Jacob Fabricius, Superflex determined that the curatorial work would be delegated to seven individuals and a duo who would each create independent exhibitions of the collective’s many projects between 1994 and 2013. This resulted in the repeated appearance of certain works and the absence of others, in an a-chronological presentation divided by themes such as value-escalation (Lisa Rosendahl & Daniel McClean), censorship (Rirkrit Tiravanija) and branding (Toke Lykkeberg). One outlier, a series of video interviews with past Superflex collaborators by Augustin Pérez Rubio, infiltrated the gallery’s remaining spaces and the ‘Free Beer Garden’ at the centre of the exhibition.
This resistance to the traditional retrospective format reflects the group’s beginnings in the mid-1990s, when they uncompromisingly embraced a corporate model of production, rather than a traditional artistic one. Commissioning a corporate logo and a design identity, wearing matching uniforms and attending meetings with potential business partners about fictive products are now well-worn gestures, but in 1994, before the terminology of relational aesthetics and tactical media were established, the three Royal Danish Academy of Art students had convinced many of their ge nuine commitment to work within the realms of business and science.
Lykkeberg’s section of the exhibition highlighted their early transition from an anti-art stance to a practice intending to have real, micro-level effects on economies and social relations. The presentation featured works from The Meetings (1994) and Superflex Logo (1995) to the launch in 1996–7 of Supergas – their low-cost, single household biogas system for transforming human and animal waste into gas for cooking and lighting. In line with Superflex’s corporate aesthetics, Supergas was framed as a means of redirecting cultural resources (such as money and publicity) to the development of a utility. Presented as a commercial product directed at the African market, Supergas provocatively tested the prospect of ‘ethical capitalism’ against the expectation of art activism.
The more recent video works Burning Car (2008) and Flooded McDonald’s (2009) featured in three sections of the exhibition. This repetition seemed to testify to the enigma of these slick productions within the group’s practice. The films, respectively, show a vintage luxury car set ablaze and an ultra-realistic, life-size replica of a McDonald’s restaurant being flooded with water. In both, the slow progress of destruction is depicted with an almost fetishistic attention to detail. Instead of lamenting destruction, the close-ups of the car’s boiling silver metallic paint and the rising water’s soft caress of half-eaten Happy Meals picture the desirability of waste. In that sense, Burning Car and Flooded McDonald’s mark a shift in Superflex’s work from strategic devaluation through infringement of copyright and intellectual property to its opposite: a strategic inversion of devaluation, as such. The former position was represented across the exhibition by iconic projects like Guaraná Power (2003), in which Superflex developed a prototype copy-product in collaboration with Brazilian guaraná farmers whose crop was being price-dumped by the guaraná soft-drink conglomerate dominating the market. In Hilde Teerlinck’s section, Burning Car and Flooded McDonald’s book-ended a presentation of earlier copyright-themed works that included Copy Right (2006–07), in which Superflex manually modified knock-offs of designer chairs to look more like the originals.
In a section titled ‘Superflex / RESUME’, Eungie Joo returned to an idea – conceived during her first encounter with the group at Tiravanija’s Land Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2002 – of travelling to Pyongyang to explore the possibility of launching Supergas in North Korea. In the exhibition, five photographs documenting the final realization of the trip in 2013 hung next to an official invitation from a North Korean trading company in 2004, when the trip was first attempted but fell through. As the project was completed on the occasion of the retrospective, it provided Joo with an opportunity to sum up her collaboration with Superflex. Her catalogue statement recounts the spectrum of exchanges between herself and the group over the project’s 11-year gestation period. These range from professional transactions to stories of co-habitation and friendship. They illuminate the soft tissue of social relations that determine Superflex’s mode of production. The tales of shared meals, car accidents and past encounters bespeak the challenges of the exhibition. Defined by their ability to re-invent themselves according to the context in a seemingly continuous metamorphosis between art and activism, Superflex emerges from this retrospective as impervious to assessment by the standards of either practice.