There I Belong, Vilhelm Hammershøi in Statens Museum for Kunst by Elmgreen and Dragset.
The leading idea of the exhibition is ingrained in SMK’s project called “SMK Plus”. Statens Museum is going to invite (starting from “There I Belong”) contemporary artists to create a fresh narrative to the museum’s collection. The new take on the museum’s art collection is going to be created without regard for chronological or traditional art history topic classifications. As SMK puts it in its leaflet the point is to “allow new voices, new outlooks and new stories to enter the very heart of the museum”.
I didn’t know Vilhelm Hammershøi before coming to Denmark and to be honest before coming to that exhibition. I was happy to find out he is one of the most regarded Danish painters or artists in general. I consider myself lucky because through Michael Elmgreen’s and Ingar Dragset’s curatorship I had the chance to truly understand the many possible readings of his work. The artistic duo has created new narratives through paring Hammershoi’s paintings with works of contemporary artists and I must say the result is powerful and felt perfectly thought through.
Vilhelm Hammershøi's paintings depict majorly various interiors that are often described as psychological spaces. The painter has successfully used primal tools of building a painting like color which in most of his pieces is muted and pale, closed and static composition and dispersed dim light to transmit a feeling of unease, anxiety, and melancholy. A viewer might feel drawn into the painting and overwhelmed emotionally by the deep feeling of entrapment and a lack of “real”.
My viewing started from Francesca Woodman’s photos, which I always put into importance because she is one of my father’s favorite artists. Woodman’s work is often leaving me with a feeling of being “unfinished”, not feeling like a whole as a person, depending on the viewer to confirm one’s existence which is always very elusive in her photographs. The uncanny similarity of abandonment present in both hers and Hammershøi’s work, and one of the key elements of Hammershøi's reality – the symbolism of the door (present also in Woodman’s work) as a promise of passage. Of the ability to become, transforming but also leaving.
The pairing up with Elmgreen and Dragset’s Powerless Structures door installation - could transform the multiple sets of doors into symbols of dogmas that one assimilates with their personality to make sense of the reality. Metaphorically a dogma may open a possibility of understanding intangible mechanisms that we have seen as closed (like a key to unsolvable dilemma) but keeps us in a space excluded from all other alternative resolutions. When we immerse ourselves in a viewpoint that seems to explain everything it may leave us entangled in a dependence network. As shown in artistic duo’s installation – where we have doors that cannot be opened without opening the parallel set of doors, or doors connected by chain eventually impossible to open or ones with two sets of hinges.
Another powerful link found in the exhibition is a seemingly inconspicuous theme of a woman’s role in society and family structure. In many of Hammershøi’s paintings, the artist has presented his wife amid home chores alone in the rooms of their apartment. One could just view this depiction as a generic family life scene, but the empty interiors and the figure of Ida Hammershøi seen only from the back gives a feeling of transcendence. The curatorial duo has beautifully connected this motive with Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison from 1990 and Monica Bonvicini’s Hausfrau Swinging from 1997. Both modern artworks are also in deep conversation with each other, disputing the role of a housewife and her identity which is constructed within the house life but also defines the reality of a housewife. Repeating after the curators the questions that one can ask are: “Is she trapped in the house? Or protected by it?”.Both of the female figures are a body-house chimera, in Bourgeois’s work the female is half a house and in Bonvicini’s video sculpture installation a head is replaced with a house in which the main actor is trying to force on a wall repeatedly banging on it from two sides.
All the mentioned works tackle the inseparable relation – body and environment, body and space, space and habitus that one absorbs through living practice. In Bonvicini’s take on the topic, there is an expression of the utter frustration with a limitation that a certain way of living imposes on people. Frustration with a given form that is suffocating one’s existence. Bourgeois depiction is more like a late medieval anatomical sketch, showing the passive acceptance of a housewife’s role and letting it become one’s reality.
In all possible readings of Emgreen and Dragsets’s exhibition draws attention to the complex world of Danish upper class and Hammershøi’s attempts of divorce from the rich lifestyle of the merchant’s son. His ascetic spaces are the reverse of the ideal interior in his time. The artist's psychological spaces show desolation caused by the feeling of incompatibility. A regular association of home is family, and spaces that evoke family time in Hammershøi´s paintings are marked with gloomy and dark atmosphere. They could be read as the manifestation of unease connected with growing up in a rigid reality of protestant life.
The openness of readings of his work is possible because of his ‘outsider’ approach, he was locked in a position which was generating a feeling of unease and suffering. All artists chosen by Emgreen and Dragset are representative of a point of view of entrapment in the environment that they were born into, they were put into. They are the ones who view their position critically. The motif of a window or a door that is not serving its function omnipresent in the exhibition signifies the passage between inside and outside and building up frustration of not being able to surpass the structure in which they are placed.
In this way, one can read this curatorial work as a mark of struggle but a very melancholic and defeated side of the struggle to transform oneself. Elmgreen and Dragset’s work shows a story true to Hammershøi’s work, a narration led by a character which takes apart his hope for transgression and views it through lenses full of dim, dark thoughts and a pessimistic conviction of impossibility.