“Make Yourself at Home”

“Make Yourself at Home” set out to explore notions of hospitality in a world marked by globalization, mass displacement, and growing xenophobia. Curators Charlotte Bagger Brandt and Koyo Kouoh invoked everything from the writings of Jacques Derrida to the Danish term hygge, a word akin to “coziness,” in the text accompanying their exhibition of ten artists’ work, which included painting, video, photography, installation, and performance. Unexpectedly, the most incisive works on view often included aspects of either monumentality or social experiment. One of the more imposing pieces, Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Home Sweet Home, 2010, projects both overt jubilance and subtle heartache with its massive jumble of concatenated birdcages held aloft by stakes on top of a straw pallet. Spindly African wood carvings of figures in Western attire dangle upside down like bats from the structure’s underbelly. Occupying a room nearby was Kader Attia’s installation Conversations Relocated as Reappropriation of the Public Space, 2010, in which boots and sneakers—alongside flipflops crafted from crushed beer cans and plastic bottles—spill down an incline to the floor, as if the teeming masses have been sent marching down a hill. In this exhibition, Attia—whose Untitled (Ghardaïa), 2009, a crumbling city of couscous recently acquired by Tate Modern, was also on view—seemed interested in the grandeur of decay, the tail end of epic histories. His sea of footwear emerged as a sort of earthbound foil to Tayou’s piece. Where Home Sweet Home straightforwardly turns objects into symbols, Attia’s Conversations is about negative space—about the invisible participants in the procession. An audio recording of birdcalls accompanies Tayou’s work, while Attia’s piece mutely evokes unheard sounds: the crackle of discarded containers being flattened.

Several of the works on view were just ambiguous enough to induce the unease that a new immigrant might experience. When tentatively traversing The Taste of a Stone, 2010, Otobong Nkanga’s Zen-gardenlike installation of magnetite rocks, viewers might have struggled with the sense that they could be trespassing. Encountering documentation of various participatory pieces staged beyond the museum’s walls—such as New Life Copenhagen, 2009–, in which online art community Wooloo matched international visitors with Danish host families during the 2009 United Nations climate change conference—they might have felt altogether left out. The Danish collective A Kassen formalizes these very frustrations: For the site-specific installation Dropped Ceiling, 2010, the group removed the frosted glass panes from underneath one of the museum’s skylights. In theory, this granted access to a glass-roofed attic space; in reality, the area remained several stories too high to be viewable. Meanwhile, Kenneth A. Balfelt’s installation and video projections in Alcoholics sunbathe too—Guidelines for better cityspaces with marginalised people, 2010, examine what it means to be a host when the guests are one’s compatriots. After municipal construction in Copenhagen forced a long-standing, informal group of beer drinkers to abandon the square that had been their regular meeting place, Balfelt documented their needs and suggestions (via videos, photographs, and drawings), while collaborating with architects and local organizations to envisage a new, more inclusive public space where the group could convene.

“Make Yourself at Home” doubtless took on a pressing topic (perhaps even a meme, if the independently planned “Hostipitality” at Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland, this fall was any indicator). But what of hosts who are too eager, perhaps even desperate, to inhabit their role, for all the validation, status, and cultural capital it can yield? Certainly, Olaf Breuning’s video Home 2, 2007, which parodies an oblivious, excitable European tourist, alludes in part to this question, as does Nigerian photographer George Osodi’s “Transactional Analysis,” 2010, a series of images documenting the artist’s stay with three Danish families. Given that individuals and nations, as hosts, often congratulate themselves on being open-minded and cosmopolitan, the exhibition could have more fully interrogated the motives that drive hospitality alongside the fears that curtail it.

Dawn Chan