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Open Sky by Simone Aaberg Kaern, Malmö Konsthal

May 25th – August 20th 2006



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 that 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, yet from above. In Danish artist Simone Aaberg Kaern’s ten-years retrospective Open Sky [Malmö Konsthall; May 25 – August 20, 2006], the realization of her Micro-Global Performance project becomes an argumentation for the renegotiation of concepts and consensus. There art 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 Skypresents the work of a persistent artist. Kaern’s practice is shaped by her determination to reach her goal, which always, somehow, extends beyond the production of art or the resolution of aesthetic 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.

This is what the exhibition Open Sky is all about. Kaern 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 aesthetic aspects to Open Sky. Yet, these are only accessible if one is willing to join Kaern 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 confront 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 and abstract level.

The exhibition purposely enlists numerous clichés. Amongst them is its call to visitors to join Kaern 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, Kaern’s project is only political insofar as it rejects normative codes of conduct and literally acts beyond accepted political terms. Flying is now one of the most controlled human activities. A pilot’s every single move has to be planned in detail, communicated in advance; every decision is negotiated and surveilled. Art is Kaern’s argument, a forty-year-old single engine Piper Colt her material weapon. Armed with these light weapons, Kaern 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 argument‘s proportions.

One of the aims of the Micro-Global Performance project was to create an air bridge—a reference to the Luft Brücke 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. At the beginning of the so-called “war on terror,” Kern 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. Kern initially conceptualized her endeavour as a way to fulfill Farial’s dream and desires. Yet, after her return to Denmark, she realized that the project may have had more to do with the fulfilment 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. Kaern asks whether Farial thinks that her project had more to do with the artist’s own desires than Farial’s dreams. Farial answer 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 a not always open and accessible sky. Sisterhood is indeed one of Open Sky‘s narrative strands. Another chapter in this story lies in Turkey.

The orphan Sabhia Gökchen was adopted by Mustafa Kemal, called Atatürk (meaning “Father” or “Ancestor Turk”), founder of the Republic of Turkey and its first president (1923-38). Atatürk’s will and power enabled his daughter Sabhia to become a fighter pilot in the Turkish army—the first of Turkey’s many female Freedom Fighters. Gökchen’s prelude yields yet another of the exhibition’s 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 from 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 Kaern’s mission.

From the WWII pilots encountered in the painted portraits, to the video documenting Kaern’s airborne adventure across the United States to meet some of these aging lady-pilots, to the Turkish army’s Freedom Fighters, to Afghan women pilots met in Kaern’s search for Farial, Open Sky reveals Simone Aaberg Kaern’s 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. Very early pieces, dating almost as far back as Kaern’s student days, further contributes to the exhibition’s conceptualization of the practice of a persistent artist. It’s no mere matter of including more interesting work. The early pieces are ungainly attempts to fly as well as more or less clumsy attempts 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 “flies” 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 an art practice. It calls on the viewer’s empathy to guide her through Kaern’s foreign lands. While Kaern’s 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. Feminism’s 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 Kaern’s 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 Kaern’s work. Time crossing stretches beyond the recording of otherwise forgotten histories. It also entails encounters and the sharing of experiences across generations. Open Sky’s 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 Kaern, 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.


This review was published in Art Papers Summer 2006

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