Somewhere around the rainbow

June 25, 2011
Chen Wen Ling’s red boy stands shivering on the beach at Aarhus
Chen Wen Ling’s red boy stands shivering on the beach at Aarhus

All second cities see the capital as a den of iniquity. Listening to a cab driver in Aarhus hold forth on the horrors of Copenhagen, I thought for a minute he was describing Mexico City. Crime, pollution, overcrowding, traffic – apparently Copenhagen has it all. This was news for me, who had always been impressed by the quiet, orderly nature of the place. I also read a crime anthology called Copenhagen Noir (ed. Bo Tao Michaelis) that painted an even bleaker picture of drugs, violence, murder and mayhem. I learned that our hotel had been in a notorious street filled with brothels & sex shops. Maybe it was the other end..

Aarhus, for its part, is a user-friendly size, with abundant fresh air, and – for the second time – Sculpture by the Sea. The city also has aspirations to be European Capital of Culture in the year 2017. That honour will be bestowed next year, so the campaign is steaming ahead under the slogan: “Rethink”. I’m not altogether sure what being European Capital of Culture actually entails, or why anyone would want it so badly, but it seems to be a good thing for Sculpture by the Sea, which is being put forward as one of the city’s selling points.

Having seen this exhibition almost every year since 1997, on the path that leads from Bondi to Tamarama, it’s rather exciting to sample the overseas version. The first time Aarhus took the show, in 2009, SXS pulled in Anthony Caro and Philip King to add some weight. This time, it is a more modest roll call of artists, but still a lively bunch of works. Among 22 Australian contributors there were many SXS regulars, including Orest Keywan, Michael Le Grand, Phil Spelman, Bjorn Godwin, Bruce Radke, and Suzie Bleach & Andy Townsend. The Japanese regulars were a little less prominent, but there was the inevitable marble from Keizo Ushio,  the gleaming metal piece by Koichi Ishino, and a stark, beautiful granite arch by Hiroaki Nakayama. All up, artists from 20 different countries were reoresented from a field of 60 works, with the Danes making a strong showing on their home turf.

I don’t want to give a list of sculptures, or turn this into a review. I’ve already done that for the SMH column, and the SXS website has all the necessary information. One piece that deserves a special mention is Nucleus, an extraordinary kinetic sculpture by Kiwi artist, Phil Price. It consists of a bright red, artfully segmented shape – not quite a disk, not quite a palette – balanced on the tip of a metal tower. The work resembled a Godzilla-sized poppy sprouting on the coast of Jutland, dancing in the air in response to the smallest invisible breezes.

Unlike so many SXS pieces that always need to be bigger to compete with the vistas of sea, sand and sky, Price’s work held its own in the face of Nature. One suspects that Olafur Eliasson would approve. If there’s one thing this fashionable Danish-Icelandic artist understands, it is scale. Eliasson, who is Denmark’s most prominent international art export, has recently completed the installation: Your Rainbow Panorama, which sits on the roof of Aros, the local art museum. It has become an obligatory part of any visit to Aarhus, to climb to the top of the building – an ugly red brick box with a sophisticated interior – and take the 360 degree trek around the panorama, looking down at the city through the changing hues of the spectrum. It’s an ingenious way of adding a little colour to those pale grey Nordic skies. There’ll never be a book called Aarhus Noir.