A view from one extreme of the National Gallery of Denmark’s sculpture corridor. (click to enlarge) (all photos by the author)

While the stately looking Statens Museum for Kunst, or National Gallery of Denmark, has a fantastic (yet, small) early 20th C. French collection featuring a stunning Matisse room, it currently has few other signs that contemporary art has an important role in its collection or mission. History stops abruptly in the middle part of the last century and until the institution finishes off its contemporary wing next year that’s not likely to change.

Though contemporary art visitors to the museum are left with little to see in the high temple of Danish art, fortunately all is not lost. Local artist FOS has been given the opportunity to wrestle with the difficult space that buffers the new and old buildings of the art museum. Called the “sculpture street,” the space is filled with FOS’s One Language Traveller installation that opened last June and continues for a whole year. The space is challenging to say the least and would present problems for the most accomplished sculptor. FOS chops the corridor into three parts and proceeds to create art works — with varying degrees of success — in each segment.

Known for his affection for social design, which appears to be a variation of social sculpture, and for creating art that function in the intersection of art and life, the designated space feels strangely fitting for the artist. Though the problem, if I can call it that, with social design is that unless it is activated (a fancy way of saying being used for the intended purpose) it is hard to enjoy its beauty and the intention of the artist.

A view of the soap making shack (image via Contemporary Art Daily)

Case in point, One of FOS’s earlier works involved an elaborate sculpture/fruit stand painted EU blue and placed in a Baltic republic at the dawn of the country’s entry into the European Union. It was a metaphor for trade, a physical manifestation of the new intermediary role that the EU was going to play in the small nation, and a practical place that was to be used by vendors. It was art injected into life, art as a functional place but also an aesthetic one.

Here, in the art museum, the allocated site is less obviously political and commerce is nowhere to be seen. This is an awkward space born out of an architect’s folly.

Three Pavilions

The pavilion on the east end of the space is designed like something out of the German Expressionist-era, perhaps a lost set for “Dr. Caligari” (1920). The building houses a soap-making workshop. Walking into the space it feels abandoned, and at first it’s hard to decipher what you’re looking at. Yet the space works, like a hipper version of Santa’s workshop, and it feels wondrous. I quickly spotted the neat white-paper packaging placed in a vitrine — they look inviting and handmade. It’s not obvious that the product being created here is soap, I would’ve guessed candles, but a quick glance at the wall text clears up the ambiguity.

Soap is an interesting metaphor for social sculpture or design. It is an object that disappears as it is used. Soap, like social interactions, creates change, even if it is only fleeting.

A view of the central pavilion with the soap making shack in the background (image via Contemporary Art Daily)

The central pavilion is comprised of a large colorful drape that visually stops you from visually enjoying the massive span of the corridor. Only through the cut out (or by peeking around the sides) can you see past the translucent material. The aluminum structure looks like the maquette for a more ambitious work. This is the least successful portion of the tripartite piece. This should be the hinge that spatially pivots the viewer into the works at the ends but it doesn’t do much of anything. It is neither the site of an “action” nor does it visually unify the whole composition.

The most interesting component of One Language Traveller is the largest and most elaborate part. From the central area of the sculpture street you enter a long yellow and orange passageway that leads to room after room, each different from the another. Some contain objects and platforms, others are more minimal. Some are a cool blue, others are electrified by the yellow and orange of their walls and ceiling. It feels like passing through an elaborate tent mansion created by Bauhaus Bedouins.

You snake through the work until you come out the other side to look back and find a cluster of geometric forms that appear like a colorful  and collapsible streetscape supported only by wires and armatures and resembling building blocks. FOS has incorporated lamps he designed into the space but they don’t seem seminal.

When I visited there were school children sprawled on the floor sketching the objects and chatting under the watchful eyes of their teacher. Their presence made the space come alive.

The objects in display cases suggested that this was a museum of some sort, but the objects felt common and perhaps even rotting behind the glass. The life was all around, the artifacts appeared dead. It is a pretty provocative suggestion to make in a museum.

Here is my photo journey through the work.

Entering the space from a long corridor is how most people experience “One Language Traveller.”

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The corridor leads to rooms with artifacts and when we entered the first room, a class of young students were fanned across the floor sketching the artifacts.

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In some corners the space cools into a quiet cave-like space.

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A work by the Austrian-Italian artist group Krüger & Pardeller that looked like a complex anal bead contraption.

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When you exit the colorful geometry on one side of the sculpture corridor, you turn back to see an unexpectedly beautiful arrangement of shapes.

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The central portion of the three-part installation was the weakest link. Unlike the other works it didn’t have a big reveal or surprise. It felts unfinished, like the skeleton of a more ambitious work.

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In the far side, a small fairy tale-like hut invited visitors in.

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Inside, the soap factory has the signs of past production. It feels cozy and well-designed but is hard to discern its purpose without peeking at the wall text.

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FOS’s One Language Traveller with contributions by Krüger & Pardeller will run until June 20, 2012 at the National Gallery of Denmark (Sølvgade 48-50, Copenhagen, Denmark). There are official photos of the installation over at Contemporary Art Daily.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.