Danish Pavilion


Curator Katerina Gregos focuses on the contemporary and contentious subject of freedom of speech. Speech Matters comes at a time in which we might appear to be free to say or publish what we want, but in reality are extremely restricted. Denmark is known for its liberality, and in 2005 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad were published and caused a global political debate. More recently, Google has been suppressed in China, Facebook used as a tool in North African uprising, Blackberry messaging in English riots, not to mention headlines caused by News of the World phone-tapping and Wikileaks.
Gregos’ exhibition is powerful not because of any revelations of usually suppressed material, but because of its examination of the grey areas around freedom of speech. The exhibition demonstrates the impossibility of programmatic or prescriptive legislation when so much material exists on ‘borderline’ territory that is highly subjective and contextual.

The collective Agency presents an archive of material – text, clothing, logos, music records and currency – each of which has faced trial on the grounds of intellectual property violation. The items are arranged in shelved wooden boxes, which viewers can request to be put on display on one of the tables adjacent. The storage, tables and stainless steel hanging lamps recall Ikea rather than a traditional archive or a contemporary web archive. Overall, this aesthetic is too kitcheny, and the sides of the wooden boxes are frustratingly high, preventing us from seeing much of their contents.
The concept, on the other hand, opens a very worthwhile and complex debate around intellectual property, especially when the items under discussion are folk art – anonymously produced, untitled, and themselves often a melange of other influences. Considered in the context of much contemporary art that appropriates imagery and footage – Christian Marclay’s The Clock being a celebrated example here at the Biennale – Agency’s exploration raises a much needed question about the relevance of copyright laws, and their need of updating.


Chinese artist Zhang Dali has also created an archive, this time framed meticulously on the wall off to the left of Agency. Exploring the fabrication of memory during China’s Mao regime, Dali has collected original press photographs of political events, together with their retouched ‘doubles’. Often the original contains a person erased from the ‘official’ published copy – a person whose ideas or actions contradicted the state’s ideology. Both the large number of doctored images, and the extent to which they are altered makes the game of ‘spot the difference’ that we play very shocking. Of course, what Dali’s piece also provokes is a questioning of our own nation’s media as well as our personal use of Photoshop-style amelioration. To a lesser or greater extent, we all alter our memories.

Zhang Dali

Another interesting artist in Gregos’ show is Taryn Simon, who presents us with images usually suppressed in America. Here are photographs of Playboy in Braille, the contraband room at JFK Airport (a still life of bush meat, pig’s heads, eggs, mangos and African cane rats), and most disturbing of all, an inbred white tiger in Arkansas, his flat nose and pale eyes mad-looking. Indeed, the caption for this last photo explains that selective breeding results in tigers that are mentally retarded and suffer respiratory and joint problems. Through a simple format of image and caption, Simon reveals not only individual case studies but also a wider issue of a nation’s representation and projected self-image. If the uncanny is something usually hidden coming to light, then the appalling tiger seems to epitomise the uncanny in this exhibition. It is an exposition of what others have tried to hide.  

Taryn Simon