In an Ambitious Exhibition in Copenhagen, a Danish Artist Tackles the European Refugee Crisis

Feb 22, 2017 5:06PM

Things seems peaceful enough when you first step into “Blue Bedroom,” a new exhibition by John Kørner. White curtains flutter in the breeze, richly patterned blue carpets stretch out across the floor, and in a dormitory-style space furnished with wooden beds, five sleeping figures rest on crisp sheets.

It’s only when you take a few steps further into the gallery—the site-specific exhibition occupies three large exhibition spaces in Copenhagen’s Galleri Bo Bjerggaard—that your initial impression begins to shift. 

It’s freezing in these rooms, you realize, because all the windows are open in the middle of winter. Those sleeping figures, on closer inspection, don’t look like humans at all. Despite the fact that they’re tucked into beds like children, they’re actually abstract sculptures, rotund and cylindrical, rendered in candy-colored shades of red and blue. And the floor isn’t flat. It’s oddly angled, the patterned blue surface rising from one room to the next, like the surface of a rolling wave.

Feeling disoriented? That was Kørner’s objective. The Danish artist calls his new exhibition “a freezing cold, frozen dream.” And the central installation is, indeed, a massive blue wave that builds in the first two rooms and breaks in the third. Displayed haphazardly along its surface are lush acrylic paintings of human figures in peril: a man falling backwards into water, another crawling on hands and knees, men and women bobbing in a body of water like survivors of a shipwreck. 

By now, the connection between current events and “Blue Bedroom” is clear. The exhibition “has a relation to a situation in the southern part of Europe,” Kørner has said. “The situation where refugees are trying to enter Europe, and lots of them are lost in the Mediterranean Ocean.” 

Suddenly, as you’re standing there, shivering, it makes perfect sense that the exhibition space is so cold. It puts you, as the viewer, in an uncomfortable position, and by extension, in closer contact with the subject.

Kørner’s wave breaks in the third room, where his five abstract sculptures appear to sleep in single beds. They’re not humans, but stand-ins for humans, the artist has said—and the fact that they’re resting there, not bothered by the cold because they’re covered by thick duvets, blissfully unaware of imminent disaster, is symbolic. Just as the ocean is both a place for leisure and, for boats full of desperate refugees, a place for death, the bedroom is a place for beautiful dreams and terrifying nightmares.

A wave, like a bad dream, can creep up on you. Don’t be fooled by the first impression you had when you walked in: “Blue Bedroom” is didactic and deeply ominous. “I love the idea that the starting point is like a dream, like a nightmare,” Kørner said. “It’s coming to you.”

—Bridget Gleeson

John Kørner: Blue Bedroom” is on view at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard, Copenhagen, Feb 10th – Apr 1st.

Follow Galleri Bo Bjerggaard on Artsy.