A pixel animation featuring a building with windows illuminated with colored lights that form letters.

Irene Suosalo, Virtual Horizons: Copenhagen, 2023.

Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab, © Irene Suosalo.

Our recurring column Virtual Horizons examines how a city’s history connects with the contemporary art scene of today, and how artists imagine the future. In Copenhagen, we take a bike ride through town to reveal the built and imagined environment—from art as advertising, to planetary architecture.

This Fourth of July I traded New York’s fireworks and hotdogs for Copenhagen—a city of much better hotdogs. It wasn’t for a holiday. It was for Virtual Horizons, our column that follows the art world on its annual journey around the sun. So far we’ve talked tar pits and technology in Los Angeles, stalked Nam June Paik through the streets of New York, and chatted with a curator behind this year’s Gwangju Biennale Symposium. Now we’re in Denmark to explore the overlap of art, architecture, and nature. And to ask: where do we fit in?

Just as important as what we do in each city is how we get around. In Los Angeles, we sat in traffic. In New York, we hit the streets, and the elevated High Line. In Copenhagen: you’re going to want a bicycle. My trip started outside the Central Station, where I set out on a treasure hunt for advertisements by artists. Specifically, I wanted to check out Public Structures, a biennial put on by the local Kunsthal Charlottenborg that this year takes place in advertising structures all over Denmark.

I found an advertisement for the Biennial, at a bus stop outside the station, partially obscured by a woman taking shelter from the drizzle. The biennial usually takes place in the Royal Danish Academy of the Arts, a building from 1754 overlooking one of the city’s boat-lined canals. This edition, however, curated by Jeppe Ugelvig and Hans Ulrich Obrist, leaves the historic galleries behind to take to the streets, partnering with ad company AFA JCDecaux to insert artworks all over the country.

What would it mean for an artwork to be mistaken for an ad?, the exhibition text reads: a simple prompt designed to get us to look closely at the optical foliage outside the windows of trains, buses, and cars. Collaborating with artists and collectives like Martine Syms, CATPC, and SUPERFLEX, Public Structures is sort of state-sponsored guerilla marketing—a top-down blur of critique and commerce. Or as participant Rasheed Araeen puts it: “art that goes beyond art.”

I was heading into the station to see the work as a train disembarked, and a sea of travelers flooded throughout the station, hurrying past the works on their way to wherever they were going. Here it was: art as advertising. Also wanting to see art as advertising as art, I decided to head to the Kunsthal itself, where the pieces were also on display in the courtyard.

As the rain picked up I typed and retyped my credit card into the Lime App, hoping to hear the fateful chime as the e-bike unlocked. Eventually I did, and I joined the stream of Danish commuters. I headed down to the water, where I passed BLOX, the OMA-designed home of the Danish Architecture Center, as well as the Schmidt Hammer Lassen-designed Black Diamond Library, before arriving at the Kunsthal.

In the museum’s courtyard, the posters stood clustered in black aluminum armatures, as if they were waiting for admittance to the galleries. They borrowed the language of ad campaigns—snappy slogans, strong graphics—to grab attention, tease meaning, and provoke reaction from passersby.

Migration Is Natural read one by Minerva Cuervas, the text superimposed over an image of a tropical forest. SUPERFLEX’s presentation was an image of a 1994 piece, Spoons. The image was simple: a glistening halo of cutlery, floating in a pristine blue sky. Unsurprisingly, the artworks took naturally to the framework of consumer capitalism, elegantly embellishing its logic—selling us, what? The act of selling I suppose. But also, the vision of another world. If you took all the square footage devoted globally to depicting handbags and smartphones, and then broke off even a little portion, and gave it to artists, what could your cities look like? At first, it would seem like a series of disjunctures, glitches in the unexpected—such as Akeem Smith’s photo of a woman with blazing yellow hair, atop a ski slope, beckoning with open arms on a hot summer day. But then, I bet, the art would naturalize, creep out of any frame (as it previously did the gallery) and spread like foliage.

A small vertical billboard featuring an image of a person with yellow hair on skis.

Akeem Smith, The Sundance 95, 2023. Installation view, Public Structures, Kunsthal Charlottenborg Biennale, all over Denmark, 2023.

Photo by Marlene Anne Lough.

Later that afternoon I found myself in the city’s actual foliage. I was in the Banegarden, a lush, overgrown collection of repurposed barns near an old bus depot, for Greenhouse Sessions—a conversation series put on by re:arc institute, a new organization supporting architectures of planetary well-being. Over the next few days I’d return for conversations from architects and writers from South America to Africa to Eastern Europe and South Asia, as they discussed climate justice, new materials, participatory design, and, as re:arc’s Alice Grandoit-Sûtka put it: “ways to shift from a global mindset to one that considers the planetary.”

Several folding wooden chairs neatly arranged in rows inside a spacious, naturally lit greenhouse space.

Interior/Exterior of the Greenhouse in Banegaarden during re:arc institute’s Greenhouse Sessions, Copenhagen.

Photo by Mishael Phillip.

For me, sitting on a wooden bench as Danish late-evening sunlight passed through the greenhouse: that distinction goes as follows: globes are geometric abstractions; planets—at least our own—contain and support life. The globalized and the planetary extend from that simple distinction.

The architectural practices that came together in that greenhouse, designed by the Danish firm Forma, privileged the local, the sustainable, humble materials, and community participation. I listened to organizers of a community land trust in San Juan, based around Caño Martín Peña. I listened to Arhipera, who designed modular housing for the rural poor, and proposed a redevelopment of Ceaușescu People’s Palace in Bucharest into housing for the displaced. Or Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first female architect, who forsook her monumental architectural projects of the 1980s to focus on bamboo structures that could be constructed by untrained climate refugees for only a handful of dollars.

The phrase I heard again and again was ancestral knowledge—the idea that we, especially those of us in the global north or in megacities around the world, have become estranged from the land and the life it supports (read: ourselves). Knowledge needs a conduit, communication needs a platform. As I walked out of the Banegarden, I wondered if the screens and surfaces currently devoted to advertisements could, as Public Structures suggests, help to mend this estrangement.

At the old shipyards at the edge of the city, where Bjarke Ingels Group’s ski slope-recycling plant CopenHill rises in the background with its white plume of smoke, you find Copenhagen Contemporary. In a hangar-sized gallery on the first floor played data-verse, a massive three-channel work by Japanese artist and composer Ryoji Ikeda. “Everything we know about the world and the universe we live in,” the wall text pronounces, “is based on data.”

Sure, that checks out. I check the weather on my phone instead of looking out the window.

Three massive screens displaying astronomical art with people observing.

Ryoji Ikeda, data-verse 1/2/3 (2019-20). Commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary. Installation view Yet, It Moves!, Copenhagen Contemporary (2023)

Photo: David Stjernholm

Ikeda created multi-media compositions data publicly available from CERN, NASA, the Human Genome Project, and elsewhere. Three giant projections in the gallery depict a constantly developing worldview—scaling from DNA to satellite traffic, evolving faster than we can understand. The project nods to the meta-verse, it nods to AI, it depicts, with the whirring palette of a Turner sunset, a symphonic techno-sublime trance. I left overwhelmed. I wanted to get back on the bicycle. I wanted to get back in the drizzle. I wanted to find a hot dog. As I left the gallery I asked myself: is Ikeda’s work the opposite of the ancestral knowledge the architects had been discussing? Or does it exist in the same continuum? Is it the memories, the dream static, of some future generation?

The following day I found a synthesis of these two directions of human contemplation: the futurist and the ancestral excavation. I traveled north of the city to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, easily one of my favorite places on the planet. Overlooking a tranquil sound across which you stare at Sweden, the museum would be worth the whole day, even if the galleries were empty. They’re not. Among its current shows was Cave_bureau’s The Anthropocene Museum.

Cave_bureau is a Nairobi-based studio founded by Kabage Karanja and Stella Mutegi. Using cutting edge technology, they map the cultural and geographical landscape of their local Kenya. Effectively using the future as a means to interrogate the past. You’ve heard of Afro-futurism. This is “reverse futurism.” Central to the exhibition was a giant woven structure—a suspended basket, woven out of reeds. It was strange, interactive. Parents and children went in to take selfies of themselves. The space had weight, but also levity. It was organic and geological. It felt alive—no doubt partially due to the children playing within—but also seemed like an enlarged relic, something taken out of context, transposed elsewhere. Its referent, when Cave_bureau explained it later, came as a shock. The sculpture was a model created from the scan of the Shimoni Slave Caves in Southeastern Kenya, used to store enslaved people from the 1750s.

And yet, the practice looks to the cave as humanity’s original shelter. That which came first. Cave_bureau’s reclamation of the mute geography, its rescuing of a subterranean site of trauma, gave me pause, then hope. What if ancestral knowledge is something we’ll only truly understand by moving forward, reimagining what has come before as we’re flung relentlessly forward?

On the final day I got up early and took another e-bike. Determined to make sense of the trip, to see the Public Structures works in the wild—SUPERFLEX’s spoons floating in space; Eric Andersen’s “FOR THE TIME BEING,” which features a compass and the evocative text ∞ KM AROUND, I pedal-assisted up along the water up and around Kastellet, a citadel first started in 1626 by Denmark’s King Christian IV.

The fortress, one of Europe’s only remaining, looks like a cookie cutter star on Google maps. On bike, it’s a serene escape from the city’s busy historic center. A kernel of early Copenhagen, surrounded by field and moat, swallowed by modernity and then, finally, water. A nesting of history within the future, of architecture within nature. Over the course of this column we’ve thought about where to find art: museum, gallery, fair, biennial. Bus stop. In Copenhagen I learned that whatever you want to find, always look around, and look closely. What could first read as a simple advertisement could contain ancestral knowledge, or be the dream of some reverse-future.

Take a Closer Look

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