LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: THE MÆSK OPERA by SUPERFLEX screened at BFI Southbank – 05 OCT 2017. Here’s our writeup.
THE MÆRSK OPERA (2017, Denmark, 69min)
THE MÆRSK OPERA – part documentary, part music video – is a recording of an opera written by SUPERFLEX and their collaborators as a gift to the people of Denmark. It contemplates the opening of a new landmark opera house in Copenhagen funded by the eponymous businessman and philanthropist, Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller. (Polite) moral outrage is everywhere.
Festival programmer Kate Taylor introduced our afternoon at the opera, praising SUPERFLEX for their “exciting approach to institutional critique” (more on this later…). Jakob Fenger and Rasmus Nielsen – two of the SUPERFLEX trio – thanked us for abandoning a sunny London afternoon to come into “a dark cave and watch an even darker Scandinavian story”. And then it was time for their film.
“BUT I KNOW NOTHING OF GIANTS AND HONOUR”
The opera is divided into four main voices. The prologue/epilogue is of a stonemason responsible for making the late philanthropist’s tomb. Act one belongs to the opera house architect and builders, act two to a visiting politician and his adviser, and the third is of the people.
Each section is accompanied by its own visual language from a ship in stormy seas to ants (art cinema’s enduring metaphor for industrious humanity), the restless hands of a businessman, rocks jiggling on speaker diaphragms and cliff divers leaping from a platform. A spinning meteor acts as the ‘elephant in the room’ for Mærsk’s pervasive influence on Danish culture. More joyously, a dog on a beach plays with a stick to which – presumably – the artists have attached a camera. Momentarily, everything is plunged underwater.
Intercut with these leitmotifs are shots of the opera being recorded as well as glimpses of the building and its surrounding urban environment. Acts are introduced by static shots high up in the mountains, text titles summarising content and critique. The music is similarly eclectic with synths and slide guitars playing alongside the more obviously classical elements. The solo voices are mostly male.
“It looks like a bank of the cheap sort
But the lamps are beautiful”
“And what about the young people?
Who knows what they are doing?”
“MY HAMMER BUILT THE STAGE FOR HIS DEATH”
Taylor starts post-screening discussion by asking how the opera became a film. SUPERFLEX wanted to mirror the gift of an opera house by donating their satirical piece to the public. Subsequent efforts to get it staged – initially by the opera house and then by a festival – faltered. Film was their final chance to have the opera elevated from the page.
Participants in the saga are criticised for “bending to Mærsk” and this is clearly the central message of the film. It raises centuries old questions about arts patronage and public engagement – who gets to decide and who gets to benefit? An audience member asks whether or not SUPERFLEX see any worth in the new opera house and, most pointedly, if the music was recorded in any one of its acoustically excellent rooms? The duo sidestep the question with a response about how the vanity project – “this fist of Mærsk” – is too big and expensive to run, relying on musical DIRTY DANCING to fill its vast auditorium. Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller is revealed to have preferred Nana Mouskouri to opera, making his monument appear even more anomalous.
“WE LIKE A DEBATE ABOUT ART
AND MASTERFUL, POWERFUL MEN”
Fenger and Nielsen reference artist anxiety about biting the funding hand that feeds, but a more accurate metaphor is of a snake eating its own tail. The infinite mirror maze of gallery/artist introspection makes this work feel semi-skimmed when we really want our opera to be full fat. The lush visuals and sincere performances are excellent but the original prank of handing in an opera to an opera house about its dubious origins – like a certain hand-delivered P45 – is the killer concept here. The film itself feels more like a reputation being utilised to square the circle than a fully fledged roar in its own right.
ONE TWO THREE SWING!
After the film, we wandered along the Southbank to SUPERFLEX’s Hyundai Commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Like THE MÆRSK OPERA, it’s a work in three sections. Entering down the now carpeted ramp, there’s a great swinging ball overhead. This is APATHY. Then there are the three-seat swings on giant grey and orange metal structures that weave throughout the building. This is MOVEMENT. PRODUCTION is where the swings are made – a launch pad for technology to harvest the energy of collaboration.
There’s a small sideshow room about the origins of SUPERFLEX’s ideas. Reference is made to previous works in the Turbine Hall including Olafur Eliasson’s weather and Carsten Höller’s slides. At first glance, SUPERFLEX’s commission appears merely to be these two ideas welded together as one.
The moment the work comes into wider focus is when you head outside (which makes less sense if you approach from Southwark…) and discover the (still-being-installed?*) outdoor sections. ONE TWO THREE SWING! extends out from the gallery, seeking to join forces with other energy creators (collaborators) far beyond its walls. The optimistic orange of Southwark’s existing street furniture seems to take the installation into the infinite distance.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- THE MÆRSK OPERA screened in the EXPERIMENTA strand at the 61st London Film Festival: “Films and videos by artists who transform our experience of seeing moving images.”
- Read our BFI London Film Festival preview here and our daily writeups here.
- ONE TWO THREE SWING! is at Tate Modern until 02 APR 2018.
Featured images are from THE MÆRSK OPERA by SUPERFLEX. Photographs of ONE TWO THREE SWING! are by RADIANT CIRCUS.
* At time of posting.