A Guide to Denmark’s Contemporary Art Scene, and the Danish Artists to Look Out For

Olafur Eliassons Your Rainbow Panorama is an incredible rainbow-like walkway inside ARoS Art Museum in Aarhus
Olafur Eliasson's 'Your Rainbow Panorama' is an incredible rainbow-like walkway inside ARoS Art Museum in Aarhus | © James D. Morgan / Getty Images
Clare Vooght

In recent years, Denmark’s art scene has flourished. Culture Trip spoke to curator and art director Marie Nipper, who shed light on the contemporary Danish artists to look out for.

Marie Nipper is the director of trailblazing Danish art gallery Copenhagen Contemporary. Housed in a 7,000-square-metre (75,000-sq-ft) former welding hall in the hip, ex-industrial Refshaleøen neighbourhood, the space is vast and high-ceilinged enough for large-scale installations that immerse visitors in the art in a way that traditional gallery settings might not.

Marie Nipper is director of Copenhagen Contemporary

Under Nipper’s direction (she started the role in 2018), an impressive array of innovative installations have been on display at Copenhagen Contemporary. Superflex have encouraged visitors to sit on three-person swings and lie down on a carpet made in the colours of Euro banknotes; people have walked among, climbed on and engraved their names in Claudia Comte’s fallen tree trunks in the gallery hall; and Carsten Höller has encouraged art lovers to play in a retro fairground installation.

Born and raised in Denmark’s second-biggest city, Aarhus, Nipper was exposed to the arts at a young age thanks to her mother’s job as a culture journalist. “I grew up with art in my life,” says Nipper. “And being rather bad at anything artistic myself, I have always admired artists for their creativity and courage.” Despite her modesty, Nipper clearly has an eye for great art: her CV lists stints as chief curator at ARoS Aarhus Art Museum, plus senior curator and interim artistic director of Tate Liverpool. She has lived in Copenhagen on and off over the years, but permanently since 2014 – now on Amager island, known for its beaches and green spaces.

Marie Nipper is originally from Aarhus

Nipper has seen the Danish art scene change, ebb and flourish. While its artists of the 1970s and 1980s were more conceptual, a new generation of artists graduating from the Royal Danish Academy and making international names for themselves in the early 2000s (while Nipper was studying art history at Aarhus University) brought a new popular interest in contemporary art. “The scene is doing really well, of course, because of the big names that came out 15 or 20 years ago, like Olafur Eliasson, Jeppe Hein, Tal R and Jesper Just – some of the Danish artists that have done extremely well internationally,” says Nipper.

“I think that rooted confidence in the Danish art scene. It was very much a national art scene 20 years ago, but it has really become international now in its outlook and its outreach,” she says. “Having these big names in the international art world that were originating from Denmark gave quite a lot of self-esteem to young artists.”

These days, the Danish art scene is diverse and still very much international. There’s no singular aesthetic, but a common theme is the use of craft and tactile materials such as textiles and ceramics, suggests Nipper. “But on the other end of the spectrum you also see artists trying out new digital technologies and VR.”

There’s an interest in looking back at history, too, using contemporary media to bring it into new contexts, and in doing so exploring a range of different media. “They work with sculpture and painting, the traditional media, but they often put them in settings where there’s also a performative element, where they incorporate dance or bodily choreography, music, smell. A lot of artists are testing the boundaries,” says Nipper.

So who better to ask about the best of this boundary-testing crop of artists than the woman at the helm of one of Copenhagen’s most groundbreaking galleries? Here are Nipper’s top five Danish artists.

Olafur Eliasson – The Danish-Icelandic superstar

Olafur Eliasson, ‘Your Rainbow Panorama’

The most widely known artist to have come out of Denmark is, of course, Olafur Eliasson. Born in Copenhagen to Icelandic parents, Eliasson worked in New York and Berlin before he became a big Danish name in 2011 with his revolutionary Your Rainbow Panorama: a massive halo-like rainbow walkway on top of ARoS Art Museum in Aarhus, east Jutland. “That changed a lot for contemporary art in Denmark,” says Nipper. “All of a sudden art was something that you could walk in. It had that quality of being something everybody could experience.”

Superflex – The collective pushing for change

Superflex, ‘One Two Three Swing!’

This trio of artists are most famous for their three-person swings, which are intended to bring people together and have appeared everywhere from London to South Korea. “Superflex have always used artistic practice as a tool. They want to be able to create change with their artwork. It’s always on the verge of being a work of art and a functional object,” says Nipper. See their work at Superkilen, a half-mile-long public park in Nørrebro – with sculptural slides for kids and vibrant red, orange and fuchsia-painted sections – which is designed to unite the inhabitants of this multicultural part of the capital. Although Superflex exhibit around the world, unlike many other big Danish art names, they’ve continued to be based in Copenhagen the whole time.

Esben Weile Kjær – The voice of Denmark’s post-Internet generation

Esben Weile Kjær, 2020

Through sculpture, video and performance art, Esben Weile Kjær explores themes such as generational anxiety and authenticity – and mashes up rave culture with protests, press conferences and ballet. “He sees connections between the way we address rioting on the street and when we’re in a club expressing a different type of freedom, which is this hedonistic freedom,” says Nipper. Fine art also meets with popular culture and social media in his work: “There’s nothing that’s too low-brow.”

Lea Guldditte Hestelund – The creative whose body is art

Lea Guldditte Hestelund, ‘Consumed Future Spewed up as Present’, 2018

Lea Guldditte Hestelund mixes classic, timeless materials with contemporary methods. For her graduate project at the Royal Danish Academy, Guldditte Hestelund worked with a personal trainer for months to whittle her body into the image of an Ancient Greek discus thrower, to shed light on body ideals all the way from Ancient Greece to today. “She took these pictures of herself naked standing in the same position as this Greek sculpture, Discobolus of Myron, and she made these beautiful marble sculptures shaped like kettlebells and fitness equipment. She used her own body as a material as well as working with marble, one of the most classic materials of all time,” says Nipper.

Alexander Tovborg – The renewer of tradition

Alexander Tovborg, ‘Cæcilie Gravid (II)’, 2020

He doesn’t identify with a religion, but Alexander Tovborg’s internationally recognised art is a deep-dive into spirituality. Mixing paint with holy water and embarking on pilgrimages for his work, Tovborg uses historical and religious narratives to re-examine today’s political and social life. “He created a big stained window in [Copenhagen] airport, a huge piece of stained glass that is absolutely amazing. His aesthetic is almost not contemporary, but it is extremely relevant for a modern audience,” says Nipper.

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