Malou Solfjeld with conversation Rasmus Rosengren Nielsen from Danish artist group SUPERFLEX.
On the 3rd of August 2021, I meet up with Rasmus Rosengren Nielsen, who carries two out of six legs belonging to the artist called SUPERFLEX. We meet at SixtyEight Art Institute in Copenhagen and after a brief chit chat about vacations and vaccinations, my first question to him is not really a question, but it sounds like this:
“Europa is an Arab Woman and Time is a Mother“
Time is a recurring theme in the works of SUPERFLEX, from their Flooded McDonalds which plays out in slow motion reminiscing Tarkovsky and Bill Viola; to It is not the end of the world, an exhibition that implies a continuation of time within the title itself.
Time is a mother is meanwhile the title of the Vietnamese bestseller author Ocean Vuong’s upcoming book, and Rasmus says that he’s looking forward to reading it, after having read on Earth we’re briefly gorgeous from 2019. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Vietnam, so I can relate to what he’s describing from what my friends there have told me… Returnees with similar stories.”
I ask him what has brought him to Vietnam and as it is with Rasmus, his answer unfolds to an extended serpentine road of many stories weaving into one: “We were teaching at the art school CalArts in California between 2003 and 2004. Around the same time, we wanted to go to Brazil and make a commercial for Guarana Power. None of us knew anything about filming or video production, but luckily one of our students studied both arts and film, so he could help us out, and we invited him to join us in the Amazon. Tuan Andrew Nguyen is his name and we really enjoyed working with him.”
I think it’s important to notice the fact that these world-famous artists who teaches at one of the best art schools in the US, and are invited to participate in the Venice Biennial, are not at all too proud of themselves to ask a student for his help. Neither are they hesitant with inviting him to come along and join in on their project. As Rasmus points out, later in our conversation, it is not like SUPERFLEX is the only artist who works like this. “Everyone does it,” he says, “everyone has assistants and collaborating partners in addition to their studio members. The only difference is that we are being very honest and transparent about it”. And I must say, another difference is, that SUPERFLEX also embraces collaboration and has always used this openminded and curious method of working participatory in their projects, as a conscious decision to distance themselves from the outdated idea of the single artist genius. Rasmus also elaborates on this by sharing the background story of how the three core SUPERFLEX members originally met and knew each other long before they began studying at the academy.
“Jakob and I met in Siberia when we were quite young during the time of the Soviet Union. We were participating in a peace camp where youth from the East would meet youth from the West and in that way collaborate for a peaceful way of engagement, interaction and exchange between cultures. Bjørnstjerne and I went to school together close to Møn (a small Danish Island, where lots of artists have always resided), and later the three of us lived in the same house for many years, before SUPERFLEX came into being. We did different things together, and I was studying Tibetan at the University, but at some point, Jakob says: ‘Come on guys, it would be so much easier if we all studied at the academy.’ But at that time, you could not apply as a group, so we each had to apply individually. We did help each other, however, since I had no idea how to do my own application, and I had never made an artwork as such, by myself before; everything we did was collectively created. I never made a drawing or a painting for example.”
At the academy, the three artists Jakob Fenger, Bjørnstjerne Christiansen and Rasmus Rosengren Nielsen, were also trained to think individually, but they always refused. “It’s also because we are kids of our time. We grew up in the 70’s in where collective thinking was encouraged from how families lived to how you should solve tasks in schools… Everything was about sharing and including, so that is of course also how we’re programmed to be and behave.”
Guarana Power, Burning Cars and Climate Collapse
The ground up decision making and participatory method of creating art can also be seen in the foundations of Guarana Power.
In 2003, SUPERFLEX initiated a collaboration with a guaraná farmers‘ cooperative from Maués in the Brasilian Amazon. Through an extended dialog aimed at self-organisation, SUPERFLEX and the farmers decided to work toward creating their own guaraná drink, called “Guaraná Power”. The project was a political response to the activities of the multinational corporations Xxxxx and XxxxxXx — a corporate cartel whose monopoly on the purchase of guaraná seeds has driven the price paid for the raw material down by 80%, while the cost of their products to the consumer has risen.
Before the 27th São Paulo Biennial in 2006, the president of the biennial foundation censored SUPERFLEX by forbidding the curators from displaying Guaraná Power. To bring attention to the struggle of the guaraná farmers, SUPERFLEX responded by further self-censoring the label. As a result, the hyper-censored versions of the drink and art works were created and exhibited.
Let’s return back to SUPERFLEX’ relation to Vietnam:
“During the late 2000’s, people started to burn cars all over, following the global financial crisis in 2007-08. From Paris to Nørrebro (the neighborhood where SUPERFLEX had their studio at the time), the burning car became a symbol of protest and almost functioned as the ‘logo’ or the ‘brand’ of political rioting. We wanted to capture that image of those times, at one hand signifying the destruction of the American dream, burning down financial stability and mobility, while on the other hand visualizing the energy which fire ignites, trying to show the power of a global protest spreading, rapidly as fire.”
(I cannot help thinking about the Arab Spring, fueled by Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire at the Tahrir square in 2010. More recently, the BLM movement all over the world, has also been using the tool of burning cars in the streets to bring attention to the structural racism that allowed American police officers to kill George Floyd. And the same year, we witnessed the Trump-supporters civil-war-like invasion of the Capitol Hill… When it is said that the world is on fire, it is not only due to global warming, but indeed also literally translating into the turmoil and dangerous clashes between political beliefs and rotten systems sustaining an unequal society.) “So, we wanted to show a video of a car burning in real time. But again, we didn’t know how to make a film. So we asked ourselves: Who do we know, who can do this? Then one of us said: Why don’t we call Tuan? And so we did.”
We are reaching closer and closer to Vietnam with SUPERFLEX’ on-and-off, but yet ongoing, collaboration with Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who at this time had now returned to Vietnam and started his own artist collective called The Propeller Group who made everything from music videos to artworks. The Propeller Group produced the 11 minute film work Burning Car.
In 2009, SUPERFLEX creates what I would call their first post-apocalyptic work displaying a scene of collapse within a way too familiar setting; the fast-food chain McDonalds, combining consumerism, climate crisis and capitalism. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the work questions with whom the responsibility lies – from the individual consumer to the multinational companies polluting the world in much more than one way. The uncanny Ronald McDonald is floating next to burgers and sodas in the flooded restaurant which ends up being completely submerged. This project was also produced by Tuans Propeller Group and shot in a hangar outside of Bangkok. By now, I get the impression that Tuan has become more than just a good business partner; he also seems like a close friend to the group.
Boat builders, bulls and human smuggling; a European border in the Indian Ocean
“In 2015 we are invited to develop a site-specific work in France, integrated within three new hospitals under construction. I like the idea, since then I can visit my brother who lives in Paris while we’re in the country anyways.” Rasmus starts out. “until they tell me that the hospitals are in not just “some French islands” but the French islands located 8000 kilometers from Europe, making it EU’s outermost region.”
Before you continue reading, I suggest you look up the island Mayotte on a map:
Located in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar, Mayotte is one of the four Comoros Islands, a previous French Colony. The Union of the Comoros is a sovereign island nation, which gained independence in 1975. Mayotte, however, chose to reaffirm its ties with France through a series of referendums. In 2011, Mayotte became a French overseas department, and in 2014 the EU acknowledged Mayotte as a part of the union.
When SUPERFLEX came to the island for their initial research trip, they were overwhelmed and emotionally touched by three aspects of the island:
First of all, after having spent 15 hours on a plane far up in the air, crossing the Mediterranean Sea, arriving in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the first thing that met them in the airport was a huge “Welcome to Europe” sign. Meanwhile, their phones were buzzing with notifications about the EU-prices of texting, calling etc.
Second of all, the artists were struck by the richness of the vegetation and by the strong presence of traditional plant and herb medicine in the daily life of the inhabitants, contrasting with the Western culture, relying mostly on chemically manufactured medicine.
Third of all, they were shocked by the sight of the boat cemetery at the beach, full of boats appearing as stranded whales, either confiscated by the border police or left behind by boat refugees coming from the neighboring island, which despite its short distance of 70 km. from Mayotte, is not part of the EU. It is first and foremost the beneficial health care system, that makes people take the dangerous journey overseas, but this is just one aspect of the many differences between the two islands, with the same people, however, belonging to very different governments.
So what did you do there? I ask Rasmus curiously.
“Well, first we did the commissioned work for the hospital. To recognize the ancient knowledge of natural medicine, transmitted between generations on the islands, we decided to build a plant nursery at the hospital. We invited the inhabitants to donate a plant and tell the story associated with it. It’s healing qualities, its origin, when and how to use it. In that way we intended to create a dialogue between cultures of western medicine and the local, traditional plant medicine. Furthermore, it allowed the practitioners to show patients the plant elements used in a treatment, to sort of lessen the abstract character of modern medicine, through an inclusive gesture appealing to different senses.”
“Hereafter, we wanted to work more freely with this almost unbelievable story of an EU island, located so far away from everything we had hitherto thought of as the European Union. While we were there, the so-called “refugee-crisis” reached northern Europe and we saw TV-broadcasts from home, where Syrian refugees were walking on the Danish highways to get from Germany to Sweden. With our awareness that a similar journey was taking place in the Indian Ocean, we felt an urge to investigate the image of Europe, the history of Europa and the borders of the EU.”
In the video work Kwassa Kwassa – produced in collaboration with Tuan of course – we follow the hand manufacturing process of the boatbuilders in their creation of the vessel that is meant to transport refugees to the other side, to the island belonging to the EU.
The film’s title, Kwassa Kwassa, means “an unstable boat” in the local language of the Comorian Islands. These “unstable boats” are the fragile vessels carrying dreams of reaching a better life on the other shore — where arbitrary lines on a map decide the fate of the boats’ passengers. Many people have lost their lives in the journey to reach Mayotte, and thereby also the EU.
In the film we learn that Europa was the name of a woman from what today is known as Lebanon, who washed ashore onto the beaches of Greece. Soon after, Zeus falls in love with her (as he usually does) and turns himself into a white bull to carry her on his back across the sea to the island of Crete. According to this myth, the white bull became the first passage provider and the whole continent was named after the Arab woman Europa. In the documentary about this project called You Cant Eat Identity made by Louisiana Channel, the boatbuilders are compared to the myth, as contemporary passage providers or white bulls.
“but here is a thought… we wonder… if there had been border police and radar surveillance, at the time when Zeus took the Arab woman, Europa, to the shores of Greece, they would probably not have landed, and there would be no Europa!”
This is actually the title of a newer work by SUPERFLEX, from 2018: The commercial signage inspired LED work acts as a reminder of our shared responsibilities in particularly when it comes to the consequences of the current climate crisis and rising sea levels. It will affect us all, but the question is where it hits first, and who it hurts the hardest. I tell Rasmus, that I never really liked that work, because I honestly do not agree that we’re all in the same boat. We witnessed this clearly during the pandemic, where the rich were self-isolating in the Bahamas, the upper class went to their summerhouses near the sea and the working class had to continue living their lives and work in the service or health care sector. I know a lot of teachers, for instance, who have been extremely scared of going to work within the past year, fearing the virus would reach their classroom next. Rasmus reminds me, that the LED letters that constitute the sentence are presented as flickering, almost as if the light is about to go out. The purpose of this instability is of course to let the statement question itself as well as to make us as spectators question ourselves, whether we are equally equipped to face what is yet to come. At the end of the day – we are all in the same sea, but to contain us all, the boat still needs to be built and I honestly wonder if that ship has sailed…
The artist group has almost 30 years of experience in working collaboratively with various partners and citizens, particularly in their public art works such as Superkilen where they integrated the whole neighborhood in the design and development process of a new public space in Nørrebro, Copenhagen. Within the past few years, the group has extended their artistic collective to also include other species than human beings:
“In 2018, we were invited to become expedition leaders aboard the M/Y Dardanella Research Vessel, to carry out our project Deep Sea Minding commissioned by TBA21- Academy. We sailed the South Pacific and visited the Tonga islands together with a marine ecologist, a space architect, a biomimicry designer, a Max Planck Institute researcher and several other people. We tried to invite Astrida Neimanis (author of Hydrofeminism) but unfortunately she didn’t have time to come with us.”
When I ask Rasmus if he can mention any sources of inspiration when it comes to collaborating with other species, he points out a specific work by the Danish Fluxus artist Henning Christiansen (who is also the father of one of the SUPERFLEX members Bjørnstjerne), called “Symphonie Natura” made in the zoo of Rome, in which the animals are co-creators of the music. “I like that the animals are not just playing a role as extended organs (referring to Joseph Beuys and his dead hare), but that the artist here actually lets them play from their own agency. I also always liked Ant Farm, but I don’t think they fall into the category, we’re talking about here…”
In their project Deep Sea Minding SUPERFLEX goes against the recently developed industry of extracting minerals from the seabed, destroying the biodiversity of marine species and causing fatal consequences for the future of the planet, which are depending on the sea and its creatures. You can learn more about the deep-sea mining by checking out The International Seabed Authority or reading this article here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/01/20000-feet-under-the-sea/603040/
SUPERFLEX, on the other hand, has chosen an approach to accommodate the underwater creatures, since they will also be inhabiting the land of humans in a not-so-distant future. The artists are therefore trying to understand the needs and preferences for fishes in order to build a structure not only meant for humans but also ready to house our wet cousins and ancestors once the sea level reaches our homes and beyond. You can check out their Desert X Dive-In in Coachella Valley, or look forward to their collaboration with ART2030 focusing on the UN Sustainability Development Goals in the near future.
I will finish off by encouraging you all to tune in on The Interspecies Café – a series of podcasts contemplating a non-anthropocentric world view, where you, among others, will meet a hypnotherapist specialized in neuropsychology:
Using the power of guided imagery, he invites you to go deeper into your own mind. In three sessions, Tommy will transport you to an imagined future world, shifting your perspective in an attempt to think more like a coraline algae, fish, or polyp. These short journeys provide insights that can inform our actions in everyday life.
Just remember, that There Are Other Fish In The Sea and as their exhibition in Cisternerne, Copenhagen, in 2019 stated: It is not the end of the world, it is only the end of the world as we know it and probably also the end of humanity. In the dark underground exhibition halls (formerly functioning as water reservoirs for the King of Denmark), the visitors wearing rubber boots encountered a flooded landscape where a former work of theirs, The Power Toilets, were partially submerged in water. The sculpted toilets were exact copies of the executive toilets of the Bonn headquarters of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A toilet resembles something bodily that we all do on a daily base, a UNFCCC toilet resembles a place of power where most of the public are denied access while a flooded toilet is, to me at least, a very strong symbol of water and its inherent qualities of connecting people and places across time and space:
Even while in constant motion, water is also a planetary archive of meaning and matter. To drink a glass of water is to ingest the ghosts of bodies that haunt that water. When “nature calls” sometime later, we return to the cistern and the sea not only our antidepressants, our chemical estrogens, or our more commonplace excretions, but also the meanings that permeate those materialities: disposable culture, medicalized problem-solving, ecological disconnect. Just as the deep oceans harbor particulate records of former geological eras, water retains our more anthropomorphic secrets, even when we would rather forget. Our distant and more immediate pasts are returned to us in both trickles and floods. And that same glass of water will facilitate our movement, growth, thinking, loving.
With these words by hydrofeminist Astrida Neimanis, I will remind myself that Every End is A New Beginning…
Malou Solfjeld is an independent curator based in Copenhagen. She holds an MA in Art History from Copenhagen University and has worked as a curator and residency facilitator at CCA Andratx, Mallorca since 2016.
 ”Hydrofeminism, or on becoming a body of water” by Astrida Neimanis