COPENHAGEN — With a roster of artists brimming with potential energy, Welcome Too Late, now on view at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, imagines an alien future full of dystopian sci-fi and digital life. Curated by Toke Lykkeberg, the exhibition features seven artists wrestling with what the press release calls “extemporary art” — questioning what’s contemporary — and “larger time perspectives”; I was especially excited to see Parker Ito and Eduardo Terrazas, who come from different generations, in the same show. Though some excellent individual works captured my imagination, flaws in presentation broke the spell multiple times.
One of the exhibition’s biggest difficulties is with light. Ito’s floor-to-ceiling sculptures with snaking lights, ropes, and plastic cast the first gallery in blue, overpowering Tue Greenfort’s quiet “EQUILIBRIUM” (2011–17), a sculpture of books pressed between Plexiglas. In the next space, Iain Ball’s video, part of his “(Rare Earth Sculptures) Terbium” (2015) installation, is washed out by sunlight spilling in through the doorway. In terms of formal exhibition design and curating, these lighting problems are an annoying and amateur oversight that takes attention away from the work. As a critic, one could see the frays as a metaphor for the unknown edges of the show’s conceptual framework. In Terrazas’s “Exponential Growth” (2014) — one of my favorite iterations to date of the played-out “infinity room” concept, originally conceived by Yayoi Kusama and reinvented by others like Doug Aitken — the illusion of unlimited space created by the mirrored room is broken by the rough border of a poorly adjusted keystone on the projector hidden behind the screen. The exponential multiplication of lines in Terrazas’s animation is skewed and awkward, just as the works in the exhibition exist in a tenuous relationship, suggesting an unstable grasp on space and time.
But, if we’re being honest, the rough edges of Welcome Too Late aren’t intentional. Neither the artists nor the curator meant for the works to be washed out or distorted. This is evident in the way individual pieces seek a sort of objectivity or glossy finish. Ito’s “Western Exterminator” (2013–15), for instance, includes his recurring cartoon figure with a hammer and top hat in a set of sculptures and video. The work mimics and appropriates music videos by the likes of Kanye West in a meditation on pop and digital culture, suggesting an algorithm of entertainment, maybe even brainwashing at the hands of machine overlords. With cascading light tubes, colorful plastic chains, celebrity-infused video production, and a cartoon character, the aesthetic of Ito’s installation tends toward industrial theme park — there’s no subtleness of imperfection or revelation of the artist’s hand.
Katja Novitskova’s “Neolithic Potential (fire worship, yellow horns)” (2016) also has an overtly mechanical finish, but upon closer investigation, it disintegrates into a pixelated hell: the sculpture functions as a sort of set for a play in the fiery underworld, complete with six-foot-tall devil’s horns flanked by flames. Following the lead of Terrazas — who, in his work “Parteaguas (Turning Point)” (1975–2013), illustrates the nuclear bomb as the beginning of the Anthropocene (the geological era characterized by humans’ transformation of the Earth) — the other artists in the show delve into what looks like the post-Anthropocene, suggesting an unknown future of robots and sleek techno-chaos, rather than order and development. The singularity is imagined as a blackout in Terrazas’s “Exponential Growth,” as the lines multiply into a monochrome mass. Marguerite Humeau’s “Gisant 1” (2016) looks like a multitentacled life-form somewhere between animal and machine — the future as highly evolved hybrid alien.
The machine dystopia is at interesting odds with life in Copenhagen, where everything is digitized and runs like clockwork. I didn’t use cash or coins once during my time in the city, which is one of the most expensive places to live in the world; money flows in a healthy and technology-centered economy. There’s practically no obesity and very little poverty in Denmark. But this is all set against a backdrop of heavy government surveillance and widespread social conformity, which, in my opinion, can make expressiveness akin to dissent. In a poignant curatorial move, Lykkeberg has brought together a group of artists together who present alternatives to the romantic narrative of progress that exists on the surface.
Welcome too Late continues at Kunsthal Charlottenborg (Nyhavn 2, 1051 København K, Denmark) through May 28.