LAZNIA 2 2015 - Drifting - Hanne Nielsen & Birgit Johnsen
Hanne Nielsen & Birgit Johnsen
10.10 – 22.11.2015
Opening: 9 October 2015, 6 pm
Curator: Aleksandra Księżopolska
On 21 April 2006, a Norwegian tanker picked up a man drifting on a primitive wooden raft. The castaway was found in the Skagerrak strait, which lies between Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The media speculated about the identity of the “mysterious man,”[1] yet he never came clear about it or revealed his country of origin. He had no documents and claimed, among others, to come from California, USA and to have been dumped in open sea two or three days before by the crew of an English ship aboard which he was travelling.[2]
The exhibition Drifting by the Danish duo Nielsen & Johnsen focuses on the topic of the Other, expelled beyond the borders of the system. A person functioning on the margin, on the limits of generally accepted norms and rules. Western countries are building ever tighter borders, while millions of people embark on a journey to Europe in search of a safe life. Referring to the above-mentioned event from 2006, the artists ask a number of existential questions, which seem extremely topical today – almost 10 years later. The story of the rescued castaway highlights the situation of person who form part of the system and yet remain on the periphery, of their objectification and the lack of representation of those who do not have the right to have their say. What is the significance of national identity and origin when faced with the need to escape. What’s all the more symptomatic is that the only man who does not have a voice in the film is the title castaway drifting on the raft. He becomes a mute witness of his own history, while viewers may read his version of events on one of the screens.
Hanne Nielsen and Birgit Johnsen also emphasise alternative manners of constructing histories, the methods of structuring public discourse, the official versus the private. They are intrigued by the value of a piece of “news”, which may only be topical here and now. It only exists in the present. The installation “Drifting”, composed of several screens, is a re-enactment of the 2006 event. Shots of the actor playing the found man are combined with documentary statements made by representatives of Norwegian and Swedish institutions which took an active part in rescuing the castaway. The artists wanted to distort the linear, official narrative of the story. The images, interspersed with contemplative shots, are not in chronological order; they reveal certain traces, but it is up to the viewer to create his/her own version of events. This is perhaps best illustrated by the artists themselves: “Sometimes reality is much more surprising than fiction but actually the field of exploration between the two is our material …”.[3]
“Drifting” does not offer a clear-cut answer, and today – almost ten years after the event – the story is supplemented by current developments. Suffice it to broaden our perspective in order to see the tragedy of thousands of others, who – like the title castaway – are drifting on the sea of hatred, despair and insecurity. Their story is the sum of problems and questions of the day: history, geopolitics, violence, private interests. British writer and feminist, Jeanette Winterson, wrote: “An old Jewish friend of mine says we carry two bags for our problems – one bag is time and money, the other is the life‑and‑death struggle. That’s where the world is now.”[4]
Two other works that form an important part of Hanne Nielsen and Birgit Johnsen’s oeuvre will also be shown as part of the “Drifting” exhibition: „Camp Kitchen”, one of the latest and most politically involved artworks and an early work entitled „Grinding Onions”.
Camp Kitchen
“You Can Depend on Me” by American pop singer Brenda Lee seduces the viewers from the very beginning of the film. We are watching two neatly dressed women performing household chores in a kitchen. The meditative and nostalgic images transport us to a world which is innocent at first sight and filled with familiar kitchen attributes, equipment and flowers. This scenery will soon turn into a battlefield, literally and metaphorically, as subsequent lines sung by Brenda Lee will be replaced by images from the world. On the TV screen we see pictures we know from daily news broadcasts. An approaching helicopter, whose crew will soon experience a tragedy, seems to encroach on the safe space of the two women. It invades the peaceful interior of the kitchen, wreaking havoc and crushing the prepared products into dust. Kitchen utensils and equipment, such as the unnaturally large knife, steam-belching dishwasher or cans exploding like grenades intensify the sense of danger and emergency. The return of Brenda Lee’s soothing music brings hope, yet it is at the same time a harbinger of catastrophes to come – again starring familiar everyday objects, such as a kettle or kitchen robot. Images from global newspaper headlines reappear in the background. This time, we see a group of women dressed in pink saris who established the Gulabi Gang in order to combat the violent domination of men in India.
“Camp Kitchen” is divided into several episodes based on the same format. The female figures gradually approach us, their faces are shown in close-up, while the depicted images provoke their responses and actions. This is also what happens when they refer to the famous “kitchen debate”[5] that took place in 1959 between Nixon and Khrushchev and went down in history as one of the more famous episodes of the Cold War. It took place in front of a model kitchen which formed part of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, showcasing the latest technological discoveries, such as dishwashers or juice extractors. “In America, we like to make life easier for women…,” said Nixon. In response, Khrushchev stated: “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism.”    
Grinding Onions
This is one of the artists’ early works, realised in 1995, thanks to which they asserted their place in Danish art history. The work by the Nielsen & Johnsen duo refers to the stereotypical role of women with regard to household chores.
The setting is a rather indefinite room, in which we see two women dressed in black and sat uncomfortably on low stools. The two figures perform the simple, ordinary act of peeling onions. The viewer is faced with a monotonous, rhythmical movement of removing layer after layer of the ripe vegetables, which gradually turn into a pile of gooey peels. Tears flowing down the cheeks of both women and their contorted faces reveal the psychological and physical pain they experience.
Biographical note:
The Nielsen & Johnsen duo began their collaboration in 1993. The artists are among the forerunners of Danish video art. In their works, they take up political subjects, often with gender undertones. Their works are usually presented in the form of video installations, while the authors oscillate between fiction and documentary. They have exhibited in the most important galleries in Denmark (AroS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, National Gallery Denmark / Copenhagen, Den Frie, Centre of Contemporary ART, Copenhagen, Nikolaj – Copenhagen Contemporary Art Centre) and the whole world. “Drifting” will be the first presentation of Nielsen and Johnsen’s works in Poland.
Project realised with the help of the Danish Cultural Institute in Warsaw and the Culture Fund of the Municipality of Aarhus.
The partner of the project is “Krytyka Polityczna”.

[3] Interview with Hanne Nielsen and Birgit Johnsen, Nikolaj Kunsthal, conducted by Louise Steiwer, Fotografisk Center, 2014.
[5] English transcript of the “kitchen debate” is available at:
Municipal Institution of Culture