COPENHAGEN — Twenty or so doves preen, coo, and flap their wings above the heads of visitors exploring the final chamber of the Cisternerne, a converted 19th-century water reservoir that sat empty for more than 60 years before arts programming began in 1996. The subterranean doves are too bright to be real, their iridescent bodies hollow projections on top of the cement arches that provide support to the underground space. This transparent flock serves as the final piece of Danish artist Eva Koch’s installation That Dream of Peace, an exhibition of light projections that attempt to mitigate the oppressive darkness of their subterranean setting: three cavernous rooms 20 feet below Copenhagen’s Søndermarken park.
To enter the exhibition space, you must descend a long set of stairs. Candles are lined up near the bottom of the steps, flames that appear just as the last bits of natural light are lost to the overwhelming expanse of darkness. Despite the cold, the air is humid, and the candles illuminate pools of water beneath salt drips that have gathered from the cement ceiling. As you walk into the Cisternerne, echoes reach your ears: guests navigating their way through the deeper chambers; the soundtracked chatter of a video deeper within. This first room contains two projections of poppies splayed against the far wall — it’s a flower that permeates Koch’s exhibition with an obvious symbolism, a reigning icon of peace similar to the white doves. Unlike the birds at the far end of the exhibition, these first projected images hold something darker. The stagnant water below each projection showcases a reflected set of ghostly flowers, wilting poppies revealing a secondary symbolism of the flower: death.
There is no path, map, or cautionary lighting to help you find your winding way through the exhibition. Each projected element is discovered through brave exploration or sonic understanding, requiring visitors to wander quite blindly to find each successive piece. The largest piece (which can be heard from the entrance) is displayed in the second low-lit space: a 50-foot projection that forces the cave’s plentiful salt drips in front of its wall to collaborate by handing over their shadows. A loop of more colorful poppies (a whole field this time) is cut with black-and-white footage of children playing from both the 1930s and the present — laughter despite the world’s tragedy, blooming despite its agony. The kids are projected so large that their appearance exists as texture, their monochromatic bodies becoming a part of the salt-stained concrete on which they move. The split video’s intention is joy amid chaos, but laughter at such depths seems only desperate and depraved. A possibly beautiful film aboveground; a haunting one below.
I was much more interested in scavenging for Koch’s smaller works than standing before her largest, more engaged with her exhibition when lost in exploration and surprise. Some of the smaller and less-assuming projections on the opposite side of the second chamber seem to hold a bulk of the exhibition’s message: two tiny projections of trees with four images each, looped to show their change throughout each season. Steadily morphing like the poppies’ blooms, these repetitious works displayed nature’s steadfast presence — beauty despite surrounding conflict.
It’s impossible not to consider the context of the exhibition while observing its works, its underground location seeming suppressed, tight, inescapable. With Koch’s penchant for site-specific exhibitions, this cannot be a mistake, this desire to allow a poppy to have life in an impossible place, to give the audience a sense of hope below ground or under duress. The works do not try to exist as something deeper or more complicated than this notion; they simply add a lightness to the dark, illuminating a common dream someplace where the lights are very low.
That Dream of Peace continues at the Cisternerne (Søndermarken, 2000 Frederiksberg, Copenhagen) through November 30.
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