The Lone Dinosaur of Danish Art

By Erik Meistrup



Jens Galschiot (Odense), is a paradox on the Danish Art Scene: he doesn’t receive recognition from the established institutions of art in Denmark and is ignored and suppressed by the most influential Danish media; on the other hand he is among the best-known Danish artists abroad. His reputation extends from Hong Kong, and Mexico to Germany, Spain, and the USA. Internationally, Galschiot could be characterized as a Danish pioneer of late modernism (after 1980).

His artistic production covers a wide field of expression; from jewellery and small, dainty figures, to gigantic, politically emphatic sculptures. Undoubtedly, the ‘political’ sculptures and Galschiot’s humanita­rian approach have excluded him from the ‘distinguished’ art establishment. Artists who persist in maintaining a social perspective in their artistic expression are considered grudgingly, if at all. In order to ‘be somebody’ in the Danish world of art, and receive public grants and subsidies one must be part of the jet-set surrounding The Academy of Fine Arts and, preferably, a media celebrity. You can cause a scandal by exhibiting smashed cars on the King’s square, burn down a hot-dog stand or shout slogans against consumer society, but this merely means becoming part of a marketing strategy. Galschiot has a consistent ethical and moral attitude in his choice of projects and sculptures and this is often too much for those who see the world of art as an opportunity to make a career or provide sophisticated background entertainment. In fact, for more than 10 years the foundations of Galschiot’s commitment has been a synthesis of societal conditions and cultural/artistic expression in a strategy of globalisation.

In the magazine ‘Art’ (no.5. 2000) Galschiot wrote: “One cannot be for or against globalisation. The fact, however, is that cultural globalisation isn’t a new phenomena, it has always been in existence…… The difference from before is probably the speed at which it is taking place.”  He continues the interview by discussing what high-art is and who is to define it. The elitist art-connosieurs have decided that no matter where in the world one goes to an art exibition, one sees works that are created – practically - within the same parameters.  “It`s like visiting McDonalds all over the world: Everything is recognizable and safe and ........boring.” Regarding this fact, Galschiot says: “….it contributes to the destruction and marginalisation of important cultures, whose status is then reduced”. Their artefacts are reduced to cheap tourist gadgets, their original cultures to mere entertainment. Although it was from the very same local, and so-called ‘primitive’ cultures that many modern high class artists, with Picasso in the lead, found new inspiration, creativity and vitality in the first half of the 20th century.

On the Danish scene it was Asger Jorn who worked with the incorporation of ‘primitive’ and historical signs of culture in abstract expressionism, which was his trademark.

Galschiot’s aim is to turn the development of culture and art away from Macdonaldisation towards a recognition of variety in order: “to maintain Humanity`s cultural diversity.”  One expression of this attitude is Jens Galschiot`s cooperation with broad local movements and organisations, which are striving to improve social conditions, when he exhibits abroad.

In many ways the attitude and work of Jens Galschiot is a direct extension of the German artist Joseph Beuys` (1921–86) request for a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, which implies that art functions in a social context where: “the audience contribute with their own thoughts.”. In this manner the artist, audience, institutions, and critics are involved in a process in which “the work of art transforms emotional energy into a conscious form.”




Between Horror and Beauty

The Political Sculptures  (Art In Defence Of Humanism)

In his creation of a new idiom Jens Galschiot meets some of the greatest challenges of the basic conditions of life and human rights, such as oppression, degradation, homicide, genocide, dishonesty, exploitation and destruction. This is reminiscent of Berry McGuire’s old hit from the 60`s: (“You do not believe what we are.”)  We are constantly on the verge of destruction the very nature both of our mortality and of our attempts to control nature and other human beings by means of technological power.

Throughout his career Galschiot has taken our 20th century human-heritage (from World wars to Human-rights) seriously, and hence depicted horror as well as beauty in his line of work.

One main line was initiated with the project: ‘My inner Beast’ from 1993, when the sculpture was erected in 20 European cities. The sculpture was intended as a reminder to us all that Humanism is merely a thin coating which covers the potential brutality within us. In 1995 this happening was followed up by: ‘The Silent Death’, at the U.N social summit in Copenhagen, at which figures of children’s corpses were hung up to focus attention on the horrifyingly high child-mortality rate throughout the none-western world.

In June 1997 the first copy of the sculpture “The Pillar of Shame” was placed in Hong Kong as a protest against China`s assumtion of power over the city, as well as it`s continued oppression of basic human-rights.

In 1999 the second one was placed in Mexico City, and later in the province of Chipas, where the Indians are struggling to regain the right to their land and to social benefits.

The third “Pillar of Shame” was errected in front of the parliament in Brazil,  in memorial of the outrages commited against farmworkers and Indians on the 17th of April 2000. Later it was transported to Belém, where an organisation of landless peasants put it up in memorial of the ‘Eldorado Massacre’.

‘The Pillar of Shame’ is 8 metres tall and consists of 50 distorted human faces and bodies. The intention behind it, Galschiot says: “Is to retain the memory of an infamous deed, committed against humanity, which must never repeat itself.  In this sense “The Pillar of Shame” is the Nobel Prize of oppression.”  It is one of the 1990s most essential works of art, as well as being one of Galschiot’s masterpieces (according to the traditional criterions within art- criticism).  It follows an artistic tradition in which, particularly, Asger Jorn’s painting ‘Stalingrad’ and Svend Wig’s ‘Menneskeridt’ (1956) have been the source of inspiration, artistically as well as politically.

Galschiot`s connections in Mexico led to an exhibition in Odense (2001), of paintings by Indian children in contrast to those of Danish children which illustrated their entirely different visions of life. In August the same year Galschiot invited the Mexican mural painter Gustavo Chávez Pavón to Denmark in connection with the festival: ‘Images of the World’. Here Pavón created a 13 square meter painting as a gift to Odense and Aarhus - the second and third largest cities in Denmark.

At the Jubilee 2000 campaign Galschiot delivered ‘The Messenger’, (a 5 metre tall bronze sculpture representing a monumental Messenger from from the South. An archetypal woman with a Masai-like stature, equipped with a cloack and staff. Two digital displays showed the flow of money from North to South and vice-versa. Contrary to the beliefs of most people, the South to North flow is dominant: for every dollar transferred from North to South 12 dollars flow the opposite way. (These figures are based on the World Bank`s own statistics.) The sculpture was intended to incite an awareness of the fathomless debt, which inhibits ecconomic and social development among the most impoverished development countries. The sculpture was later the center-piece for the NGO`s activities at the Social Summit in Geneve.

In September that year the ‘Messenger’ participated in a demonstration pleading for the cancellation of the development-countries’ debt to IMF and the World Bank at their Top- Summit   meeting in Prag.

In September 2000, another happening: ‘Hands of Stone’, was arranged in the Town Hall square in Odense, in cooperation with Amnesty International and 2500 school-children, whose hands (modelled in stone) covered the square, under the motto : “Children’s Rights are are the Grown-Ups` Responsibility”.

It is characteristic - for the Danish media - that the art-event which caused most comment and dispute, at the time of ‘The Messenger’ happening, was Denmark’s official contribution in Venice the year before: an installation named ‘Snowball’, which took place in The State Museum of Art. Here one witnessed two male artists exhibit their narcissistic lack of ethical sense by motor racing against each other. The contrast between serious art and kitsch has seldomly been more apparent.

It seems that lack of subject matter in content and form leads to the path of canonization in the art- institutions` Heaven, whereas the dedication one finds in Beuys’ sculptures is not worth paying attention to: it isn’t sufficiently entertaining.



The Sculptures of Beauty

There is another side to Jens Galschiot’ life and work, (as we all have a dark and light side in our character): his work with beauty as a form of artistic expression. Jens Galschiot has for several years focused on our clothing as a major part of our outer identity. He has a strong sensuous perceptiveness, which registers the slightest movements of, or wrinkles in our garments. Out of his sensuality Jens Galschiot has created some amazingly beautiful, almost meditative sculptures. He sees basic forms and movements and converts them into a sculptural language, whether it is a knitted sweater, a sweeping dress or a pair of crumpled jeans. Galschiot has succeeded in transforming the vividness of textiles into the solid form of bronze, in a way, which provides his sculptures with a sense of life and movement.

Galschiot is in charge of the entire process: from the initial idea and sketches, the forming of wax-models to the final casting process. Galschiot’s social engagement is an integrated part of his workshop, an example of this is that young people have been given the opportunity to participate in artistic and social projects, locally as well as internationally. Thus the workshop was officially chosen to decorate the Danish exhibition-stand at the 1992 Expo in Spain. The decoration consisted of a long row of faces pressing through a stone -wall.

Galschiot’s fascination of objects of clothing led to a joint-venture with the late Erik Mortensen and Jean Voigt, together they created ‘The Ringwearers` Jacket’, a sculpture in oxidized copper 50 x 60 cm., a present to Queen Margaret II on her 50th year birthday in 1990.  It was commissioned by the Clothing Industry’s Union of Denmark and inspired by “Lord of the Rings” (J.R.R. Tolkien), which the Queen has illustrated. It is placed in the park surrounding Marselisborg Castle to which the public have free access, when Her Majesty is not residing there.

During his cooperation with Jens Galschiot the couturier Erik Mortensen (1926-`98) chose a dress (from his time in the Fashion House ‘Scherrer’), which he asked Galschiot to make into a bronze sculpture. ‘The Octopus Dress’, as it was titled, was placed in a square in Odense in 1999. The “Octopus Dress” underwent several changes and adaptations before Galschiot accepted it - Erik Mortensen didn’t live to see the final result. In order for the transformation from an elegant haute couture robe to a dynamic and living sculpture to be successful a ‘real’ model was used. A caste of her female figure was made and emphasized in order that one could perceive the folds through the cloth, Galschiot and Erik Mortensen shared a profound understanding and interpretation of the connection between body, clothing, and movement. The result has become a sort of hesitant graciousness that unfolds itself in outdoor surroundings, where the light and weather constantly change the character of the sculpture. To enhance the mobility of the sculpture it is placed on a large rock - the rawness of which is balanced by the artistic frailty of the robe.                                                   

Galschiot’s work with the expression of Beauty reveals the other side of his deeply rooted humanistic attitude to life: there is no beauty without horror, no darkness without light.

We need to be reminded of both to prevent us from becoming fossilized in insipidness and consumerism. Therefore we are lucky that living dinosaurs, like Jens Galschiot, still exist.


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Related Persons and Entities: Erik Meistrup