Wednesday Art Idol

SUPERFLEX: the Danish public art collective re-drawing lines of civic power
By Finn Blythe | Art | 4 August 2021
Above:

Still image from The Mærsk Opera, 2017. Photo: SUPERFLEX

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
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SUPERFLEX is the Danish public art collective who always think big. Founded in 1993 by artists Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, Jakob Fenger and Rasmus Nielsen, they have spent the best part of three decades producing participative public works across the world that engage directly with communities outside of traditional art spaces. 

Collaborating with architects, designers, scientists and community members, these works are referred to as ‘tools’ by the group’s members for the way in which they facilitate real structural change within society. Be they practical or merely perceptive, these changes are guided by SUPERFLEX’s political philosophy, which warns against consumerism, private ownership and ecocide by demonstrating the practical value of things like cross-cultural learning, community and entrepreneurial spirit.  

The group’s early project, Supergas (1996) underlined their commitment to the democratising potential of public art. Beginning in Tanzania before expanding to Thailand, Cambodia, Zanzibar and Mexico, this simple biogas system allowed people living in rural areas to produce their own energy fuel using human and animal waste. Produced in collaboration with biogas engineer Jan Mallan, the portable gas unit produced between three-four cubic meters of gas per day, enough to cover the energy demands of feeding an extended family for one night’s cooking. The project succeeded in alleviating the pressure on deforestation (wood being a more accessible fuel), while providing families with the means to support themselves. 

Guaraná Power Corner, 2006. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

Building on the idea of strengthening at grass-roots and equipping local communities with the means to resist corporate aggression was Guaraná Power. Created in 2003 in collaboration with a guaraná farmers’ cooperative from Maués in the Brasilian Amazon, the group created their own drink from this ancient native crop, which is often used as an additive in energy drinks owing to its high concentration of caffeine. This has led to an enormous monopoly on the purchase of guaraná seeds among multinationals, driving down its price by around 80 percent for local farmers while increasing the cost of their products to consumers. SUPERFLEX’s project could not hope to dismantle such a well-established monopoly but it succeeded in demonstrating an alternative, a small means of resistance that reclaimed power on behalf of the people. 

More recently, SUPERFLEX produced Superkilen, an expansive public park in their native Copenhagen which remains one of their best-known works. The area of central Copenhagen chosen for the project is among the most culturally diverse in all of Denmark, with around 50 different nationalities living in the close vicinity. For the project, people from the area were asked to nominate specific objects of street furniture, be they benches, neon signs, manhole covers, bins or fountains either from their country of origin or somewhere they encountered through travel. A dentist’s neon sign from Qatar, swings from Iraq, benches from Brazil – the result was a beguiling safari of street vernacular, a kind of show-and-tell between different cultures and nationalities with an overarching emphasis on tolerance and unity. 

Neon signs at the red square. Superkilen, 2012. Photo: Torben Eskerod

Flooded McDonald's, 2009

Combining their rejection of corporate greed with warnings against ecological breakdown, Flooded McDonald’s brought together many of SUPERFLEX’s central motifs as well as their signature streak of humour. For this 21-minute film, the collective worked with a host of international institutions to build a life-size replica of a McDonald’s restaurant which they then gradually flooded.

Big Mac’s bob on the surface of the water, trays float like life-rafts and the iconic red and gold cardboard packaging is reduced to a soggy clump of jetsam. Arriving just one year after the 2008 financial crisis, the film’s staging of a Genesis-esque apocalyptic breakdown could not have arrived at a more apt moment. More than ten years on and the message has only crystallised.

Still image from Flooded McDonald’s, 2009. Photo: SUPERFLEX

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