September/October 2006

more feature articles:

Militant Ironies:
Art as a Strategic Weapon in Israelās Culture Wars

No Matter What:

SIMONE AABERG KÆRN LandS a Micro-Global Performance


Retreat, depression, and decadence have crept into the halls of some contemporary art institutions. Witness the 4th Berlin Biennale: Of Mice and Men, which managed nothing more than to scratch surfaces and stir reactions. In such times of political, moral, and ethical disengagement, it is very refreshing to literally see things, not at a distance, but from above. In Danish artist Simone Aaberg Kærnās ten-year retrospective Open Sky [Malmö Konsthall; May 25öAugust 20, 2006], the realization of her micro-global performance project becomes an argumentation for the renegotiation of concepts and consensus.

still from Smiling in a War Zone, 2005, documentary film, 78 minutes (Simone Aaberg Kærn & Magnus Bejmar; courtesy of Flying Enterprise Production and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

There are insistent art works. Then again, there are persistent people who produce art. These two types often enlist very different modes of production. Insistent works can materialize as conceptual objects whose logic challenges the perceived norms of our life world, twisting logic inside out. Works by persisting people can provide a totally different experience. Open Sky presents the work of a persistent artist. Kærnās practice is shaped by her determination to reach her goal, which always, somehow, extends beyond the production of art or the resolution of æsthetic and representational problems, to pose cultural and political questions. Whether the goal has been simply to fly or to fly a two-seater from Copenhagen to Kabul, she has succeeded.

still from The Sisters from Mazar, 2004, two-channel video installation, 10 minutes and 1 minute respectively (photo: Simone Aaberg Kærn; courtesy of the artist and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

This is what the exhibition Open Sky is all about. Kærn flies. Not only does she fly the open skies over politically  sensitive territories, but she also manages to navigate customs and cultural minefields, and pull off negotiations of near military character÷and she gets her way. Still, there are many æsthetic aspects to Open Sky. Yet, these are only accessible if one is willing to join Kærn on her mission and, finding within oneself the same urge to fly, to flee the way things are usually determined. This mission entails the confrontation of the limits of our knowledge. It requires our willingness to face the fact that our knowledge of the landscape of Afghanistan, now seemingly so familiar, is nevertheless merely a by-product of smart missiles on anti-terrorist missions. It also means resisting the normative assignment of cultural difference÷by now, a global enterprise of political and economic management÷which museums and art venues are entrusted to disseminate in such a way that visitors will only encounter difference on a moral, abstract level.

from the series The Burka Flying School, 2006, photograph (photo: Laura Beldiman; courtesy of the artist and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

The exhibition purposely enlists numerous clichés. Amongst them is its call to visitors to join Kærn in her struggles here on the ground in order to help her take off to places where dreams can be realized. The dialectical opposition of freedom and warfare is yet another. Conflict and war are indeed presented as parallels throughout the show, which includes earlier pieces such as Sisters in the Sky, a series of painted portraits of women who were fighter pilots in the Second World War. Micro-Global Performance, 2002-2003, connects distant places in (and despite) times of exception, when the military is solely entrusted to re-negotiate territories, identity, and power relations. In this sense, it is a political project. Yet, Kærnās project is only political insofar as it rejects normative codes of conduct and literally reaches beyond accepted political terms.

in collaboration with Magnus Bejmar, Freedom Fighters Esra, 2002-2006, c-print, dimensions variable (courtesy of the artist and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

Flying is now one of the most controlled human activities. A pilotās every single move has to be planned in detail, communicated in advance; every decision is negotiated and surveilled. Art is Kærnās argument, a forty-year-old single engine Piper Colt her material weapon. Armed with these light weapons, Kærn enters a zone of military conflict. The freedom she strives for requires a great deal of control and discipline. Consequently, the project reveals that freedom itself is a notion defined, to a large extent, by the military. To underscore the gravity of her impossible mission, the airplane hangs from the ceiling in Malmö Konsthall÷a material comment and a measure of her argumentĪs proportions.

still from Smiling in a War Zone, 2005, documentary film, 78 minutes (Simone Aaberg Kærn & Magnus Bejmar; courtesy of Flying Enterprise Production and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

One of the aims of the Micro-Global Performance project was to create an air bridge÷a reference to the Luftbrücke of the Berlin Crisis in 1948-1949. In the post-war situation, the air bridge made it possible for supplies to be delivered to the western part of the yet-again German capital, Berlin, which had been isolated by the Soviets. In this sense, an air bridge literally bridges the gap between disproportioned opportunities in zones of conflict.

from the series The Burka Flying School, 2006, photograph (photo: Magnus Bejnar; courtesy of the artist and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

At the beginning of the so-called ćwar on terror,ä Kærn read about Farial, a seventeen-year-old Afghan girl who dreamed of flying, in an article published in a Danish newspaper. This was the trigger. An adventure was set in motion. Kærn initially conceptualized her endeavour as a way to fulfill Farialās dream and desires. Yet, after her return to Denmark, she realized that the project may have had more to do with the fulfilment of her own desires. A video sequence shows her on the phone talking with Farial. They are in their respective cultural contexts, after their encounter, which has levelled the ground somewhat. Kærn asks whether Farial thinks that her project had more to do with the artistās own desires than Farialās dreams. Farial answers affirmatively. Yet, the experience has pushed her to reach for goals that exceed the expectations and wishes of both her culture and family. Ultimately, a brick in the sisterhood of women has been laid, despite all odds÷one stopover in the air bridge that traverses skies not always open and accessible. Sisterhood is indeed one of Open SkyĪs narrative strands. Another chapter in this story lies in Turkey.

The Future is Sky, 2006, various media (photo: Simone Aaberg Kærn; courtesy of the artist and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

The orphan Sabhia Gökchen was adopted by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey and its first president (1923-38). Atatürkās will and power enabled his daughter Sabhia to become a fighter pilot in the Turkish army÷the first of Turkeyās many female Freedom Fighters. Gökchenās prelude yields yet another of the exhibitionās narrative axes, which is developed by the flying Freedom Fighters, a group of women who have rejected cultural norms by becoming fighter pilots. The portrait of Atatürk, a bronze sculpture lent by the Turkish embassy in Sweden, is on display next to video footage of Freedom Fighters telling stories of hope and tragedy. The statue adds a kitschy dimension that underlines the contradictions confronted on Kærnās mission.

Freedom Fighters, 2002-2006, carpet print, diameter: 2 meters (courtesy of the artist and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

From the WWII pilots encountered in the painted portraits, to the video documenting Kærnās airborne adventure across the United States to meet some of these aging lady-pilots, to the Turkish armyās Freedom Fighters, to Afghan women pilots met in Kærnās search for Farial, Open Sky reveals Simone Aaberg Kærnās practice as a continuous, single-minded, and determined project. This persistence is conveyed by every object, photograph, and video sequence on view, as well as in a documentary produced by national Danish television.

still from Smiling in a War Zone, 2005, documentary film, 78 minutes (Simone Aaberg Kærn & Magnus Bejmar; courtesy of Flying Enterprise Production and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

Very early pieces, dating almost as far back as Kærnās student days, further contribute to the exhibitionās conceptualization of the practice of a persistent artist. Itās no mere matter of including more interesting work. The early pieces are both ungainly attempts to fly and more or less clumsy efforts to create artworks that materialize this urge. They are looped, jerky video sequences of the artist who, jumping mechanically up and down, uses her arms as wings in an attempt to take off. This action, shot on green screen, is also superimposed over footage of the cool landscapes of Greenland÷a self-governing nation that was formerly a Danish colony. While the artist ćfliesä through formerly occupied territories, historically defined power relations are left behind in images that enable her to realize her personal desire.

Open Sky emphasizes the long-term, continuous nature of art practice. It calls on the viewerās empathy to guide her through Kærnās foreign lands. While Kærnās goals may be personal, her inner urge, stubbornness, and persistence show that desire can be a bridge, that dreams can guide us through situations of contradictory logic, beyond outdated norms.

in collaboration with Magnus Bejmar, installation view of A micro-global performance, 1001 nights, 2002, mixed media: aircraft used in the performance; looped projection of Crossing the Mountains, 2002, video, 3 minutes; on monitor: 1001 nights, 2002, video document, 10 minutes (photo: Anders Jiraas; Göteborg International Biennale for Contemporary Art 2003, Göteborg Museum of Art, Göteborg, Sweden) (courtesy of the artist and Galeri Asbæk, Copenhagen)

Feminismās challenging and inherent multiplicity provides yet another of the dominant axes of the exhibition. It may, in fact, be the most interesting compass with which to navigate the exhibition, and to assess Kærnās practice. Armed with knowledge of the histories and strategies of gender and minority struggle, the artist manages to use and release them in places where oppression of women and cultural, ethnic, or religious minorities still govern, unimpeded or simply forgotten. This perspective inflects the project, and the concept of freedom that is its object, with questions of freedom of expression. Often recorded in the long periods of waiting for permissions to continue her journey, the video footage introduces people freeing themselves from the censorship of the Taliban dictorship.

Barriers are never simply spatial or geographical. Time is, in fact, amongst the many barriers crossed in Kærnās work. Time crossing stretches beyond the recording of otherwise forgotten histories. It also entails encounters and the sharing of experiences across generations. Open Skyās twin perspective on time and gender dares to look to the future, because the future is crystallized in the hopes of the visitors who dare to witness this adventure. It is a classic fairytale of exploration. Territories occupied by friends, foes, and heroes are its geography; its goal is to identify freedom. To Kærn, art is a legitimate weapon in a battlefield whose rules, normally unquestioned by civilians, she continually negotiates. Distinctions between national policies and personal desires crumble. So do differences between military strategy and an artistic project. No matter what.

Kristina Ask is an artist based in Copenhagen. Her work includes texts, visual work, and activism, and is positioned between theory and practice with a critical focus on the production of knowledge.


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