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'Ghosthouse', a Group Show at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, Copenhagen


The exhibition Ghosthouse has transformed Den Frie into a ghost train. Ghosthouse is both a traditional exhibition and an immersive performance. The performative anchor of the exhibition is that it is literally structured as a ghost train. The visitors are placed in gigantic head-shaped sculptures on wheels. Performers push the sculptural railcars through the exhibition as part of a time-based, narrative performance. Along the ride, the visitors are presented with everything from mechanical sculptures to a bondage-bound jumping castle, sculptures with floating humans, and gloomy live concerts. Every aspect of the exhibition is shaped by the participating artists and considered works of art. 

Ghosthouse presents artworks in various mediums and artistic disciplines: sculpture, performance, video, installation, clothing, costumes, and concerts. The exhibition bases itself on distinct contemporary practices in the arts and artistic interventions that are not limited by the clearly defined art space. Commercials, social spaces such as the nightclub or the dinner table, streaming services, and fashion are only a few examples of platforms for exhibitions and artistic intervention. Similarly, contemporary artists are stealing motives, strategies, and modi operandi from spheres outside the arts to incorporate them into artworks. The latter especially applies to Ghosthouse in which motives and themes are retrieved from the horror industry and processed in the works and installations.

A common basis for the works in Ghosthouse is that they all revolve around aspects of illusion or horror. They all represent elements of das unheimliche[1], understood as displacements that transform the well-known into something scary or distressing. Although the horror genre, and other things made to thrill and scare, have often been isolated to pop culture and amusement parks, we often come across works throughout art history that adopt the same register of emotion. In particular, an increased artistic interest in exploring and expanding narratives and themes from popular culture's horrific entertainment machines combined with Pop Art and the ever-expanding entertainment industry, which has not yet reached its full potential.

In the entertainment industry, the horror genre is a blend of fear and thrill. It is impossible to know whether a scream, triggered by a horror film or a ghost train in an amusement park, is a sign of pleasure or panic. This addictive contradictory feeling makes us want to pay good money to feel scared. With Ghosthouse, the ambition is to examine this double character of thrill and fear in the realms of the terrifying and indeterminable. In Jacques Lacan’s expansion of the Freudian term  das unheimliche, he describes the experience of das unheimliche as a similar mix of emotions.

In das unheimliche we are not capable of separating evil from good, pleasure from displeasure. Perhaps it is this cocktail of inseparable emotions that unleashes das unheimliche, which is effectively incorporated in horror scenarios of the entertainment industry. In general, Ghosthouse creates an occasion to look further into the emotions and affects connected to the distressing, the scary, and the slightly disturbing, through terms such as das unheimliche, the weird, and the eerie. These terms unfold in the reading of the artworks. Simultaneously, the horror aspects of the exhibition and the artworks stage the fundamentally illusory nature and the unheimliche aspects of the ontology of art.

The exhibition takes its point of departure in phantasmagoria, a term coined by Walter Benjamin. Phantasmagoria is associated with early types of ghost ride or immersive spectacles in which lights and shadows were used to terrify and thrill the paying visitor. These stagings were often found in proximity to markets, shopping centres, and Parisian passages, as described by Benjamin. Expanding on Marx’s statement on the phantasmagorial powers of the commodity, the phantasmagoria becomes a way for Benjamin to imagine the illusions and dreamy visions capitalism creates in architecture and commercial spheres, which further embeds commodities and gives them near-to magical character and increases their attraction.

In Benjamin’s exposés from Paris, Capital of the 19th Century from 1935 and 1939, he elaborates on the term phantasmagoria, as it is introduced in Theodor Adorno’s book on Wagner. The book describes how the audience is seduced by dazzling scenography, the music, and how the orchestra sounds like one instrument and one sonorous. Adorno writes: “It is Richard Wagner’s law that the production disappears behind the surface of the product.”[2]. Both Adorno and Benjamin pass the term phantasmagoria onto the aesthetic field. The term becomes a way to describe aesthetic experiences with a surface so dense and coherent that the mechanical and individual elements of the production disappear behind the illusion of a joint whole. Altogether, Ghosthouse deliberately uses the tricks and strategies of phantasmagoria when the format of the exhibition is melted into to one coherent expression.

Ghosthouse brings together artworks with a disturbing presence and stages them dramatically with lights, smoke machines, and a performative narrative. There is not a single moment in the exhibition that does not belong to this coherent universe, which commences when the visitor arrives at Den Frie at night. For the same reason, this publication will not be handed out until the end of the tour of the exhibition. The publication consists of texts isolating the artworks in their particularity. In the exhibition they are weaved together in the connecting flesh of phantasmagoria.

27.10.20 — 31.10.20

Vitaly Bezpalov, Adam Christensen, DIS, Wilhelm Freddie, Dorota Gawęda & Eglė Kulbokaitė, Wendy Jim, Mette Hammer Juhl & Ruth Angel Edwards, Esben Weile Kjær, Rolf Nowotny, Aske Høier Olsen, Roman Ole, Rikard Thambert, Vaquera

Curated by Anna Weile Kjær

Photo by David Stjernholm

Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art

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