Tranen 14.03.2024 - 09.06.2024

My Heart Breaks Every Day... ...Until I Run Away 
Subtitle #3 Can’t seem to get out of my bed.. out my head..

Documentation by David Stjernholm

My Heart Breaks Every Day.. ...Until I Run Away
Subtitle #3: Can’t seem to get out of my bed.. out of my head..
TC2 jacquard woven tapestry, burned and stained wood, hay and collected flora

Thank you: Laura Hjort for assitance with the installation, carpenter Claus Hvass for the help on making the wood mount, and weaver Corrie Van Eijk for mentoring in TC2 weaving and letting me use the TC2-loom in your house.

The (series of) work is made with support from Dansk Tennis fond and Statens Kunstfond

About the show:

Frederik Exner (DK), Olivia Rode Hvass (DK), Ava Samii (DK/IR), Theo Triantafyllidis (GR)

A decade ago, the Nobel Laureate and author, Salman Rushdie stated: “We live in an age of invented, alternate worlds. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts, the dystopic universe of The Hunger Games.”

Today, that trend is even more pronounced. Fantasy and the traditions it draws on makes its bold mark on literature, films, TV series, all sorts of games and now contemporary art as well. Today fantasy is subculture, mass culture and incipient highbrow culture. Rushdie, though, is short of praise. Like many others, both predecessors and successors, he believes that fantasy does not deploy the power of imagination to “enrich reality”, but to “escape from it.”

Ever since the debut of that instigator of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, the genre has been dismissed as childish, apolitical escapism. Critics are correct in their claim that unadulterated fantasy may seem immune to the concerns of present-day society. This is due to the fact that a great deal of fantasy is also immersed in that nature which society has marginalised – and is now gradually starting to feel the consequences. This is most likely a major reason why fantasy is now not just a colossal success story for the culture industry. The genre is also leaving increasingly profound marks on fiction and the young art scene. It is for this occasion that Tranen aims at presenting fantasy in a different light with the exhibition project ECO-FAN.

‘Eco-fan’ is an abbreviation of ecological fantasy in a broad sense. Rooted in the work of young Danish artists Frederik Exner, Olivia Rode Hvass and Ava Samii, and Greek artist Theo Triantafyllidis, the project focuses on the ecological trend in fantasy. All these artists grew up in a culture where fantasy played a major role in their formative years. Now they are in position to explore it further or to keep it at arm’s length. While their works bring enchanting creatures and worlds to life, at the same time their existence seems threatened. The current, disenchanting climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction, in which an ever increasing number of species either adapt or perish, feature strongly in the exhibition.

In her hanging tapestry from the series My Heart Breaks Everyday…Until I Run Away, Olivia Rode Hvass reinterprets The Hunt of the Unicorn, a famous series of tapestries made around 1500. In Rode Hvass’s version, the protagonist is no longer the hunter but the hunted, and the captive unicorn no longer has a horn. While the animal is now ‘merely’ a horse, it has been re-enchanted with all the colourful trappings of the US media franchise, My Little Pony. Frederik Exner’s Upstreamer, a painted epoxy sculpture, also features a creature in a state of transformation – half-human, half-frog. Across cultures and epochs, we have mirrored ourselves in frogs whose transformative power fascinates. Today, their ability to breathe through their skin in close metabolism with a changing world is perhaps something to be coveted. But their dependence on the environment, which humankind is changing at high speed, makes them vulnerable – just like humankind. Mass extinction also resonates in Ava Samii’s new work – a memorial plaque titled Walk With Me. The artist rituallistically plunges organic material such as sloughed-off snakeskin, human hair and amber into resin as if these objects, arranged in a specific constellation, open a portal to other feelings or another time. Theo Triantafyllidis’s live simulation Ork Haus follows a family of orcs. Like all the homeless animal species in the world, a mother, a father and their two children have set up home in an unfamiliar setting – a detached house that is razed by a raging storm. Triantafyllidis depicts the evil orcs of Tolkien’s universe as sensitive creatures. They come across as clumsy in modern, high-tech life, where Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of “working from home” in the metaverse has become a nightmare.

In their works, these four artists rework themes such as transformation – with which we are familiar from various mythologies and fairy tales – in the light of a changing world, where loss of habitat requires both escape and adaptation.

In this age of climate and biodiversity crisis, when many people are seeking ways to bypass the dead ends of progress, the cultivation of alternate realities, worldviews and life forms is probably an escape, yet nonetheless necessary. As the author Ursula K. Le Guin put it, paraphrasing Tolkien: “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?”

Tolkien and Le Guin both had to defend their fantastic tales of supernatural creatures in the depths of forests and wizards on tempestuous waves in fictitious archipelagos. As the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh has explained, since the mid-19th century the literary canon put realism on a pedestal. In the industrialised, urbanised world, in which our natural environment has been mapped out, explored and exploited, ‘good literature’ has been more about cultural changes rather than about nature: “It was exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centred on the human form. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.”

Tolkien already articulated similar thoughts in his essays and novels. In a 1939 programmatic essay, he described everything from mythologies to folk tales as alternatives to “anthropocentric”, i.e. human-centred, art. The British writer, who was also a professor of philology at the University of Oxford, was very interested in the work of one of his colleagues at Oxford. Professor Arthur Tansley, a botanist, who also coined the term ‘ecosystem’, was also an advocate for nature reserves and the first chairman of Britain’s Nature Conservancy. Their shared interest is evident in Tolkien’s major work, The Lord of the Rings. The story can be read as a protracted trek through a number of overlapping ecosystems, in which the protagonists are non-human. So-called hobbits and seditious trees fight the powers of industrialization and deforestation which the evil sorcerer Sauron spearheads.

What makes Tolkien arguably the gold standard of fantasy is the tradition – as ancient as literature itself – that he studied in his research and encapsulated in his novels. His sources of inspiration hark back through history to Victorian novelists such as William Morris and George MacDonald, who was up to his eyes in German Romanticism; to the medievalism of Rennaisance writer William Shakespeare; to the medieval Beowulf; to Norse mythology; and to the Roman poet Ovid and the Greek myths he recounted. The tradition can be traced all the way back to the very first epic of world literature from Mesopotamia in present-day Iraq. This is the tale of the tragic hero and legendary king Gilgamesh, who wants to provide wood for his people, to kill the keeper of the forest, the monster Humbaba, and to fell the Cedar Forest, but ends up arousing the wrath of the gods. The rise of fantasy is also a rediscovery and updating of the indispensable history of literature and culture, which addressed ecological issues long before they became a scientific discipline.

Throughout history, supernatural creatures – from the monster Humbaba and fire-breathing dragons to trolls and elves – have not only provided entertainment for children. For one thing, they are also indigenous to an animistic conception of nature, in which humans are confronted by alien, non-human consciousness, will and agency. However, we no longer regard animism merely as a perception of the world permeated by spirit and life: we also see it as a mark of respect for the environment. Consequently, countries from New Zealand to Ecuador have adopted natural rights that are rather aligned with an indigenous worldview than, for example, the modern Western idea of nature.

As the fiction writer and MA in folklore, Charlotte Weitze pointed out in her collection of essays Klimaet og kunstneren from 2022: “Many ancient stories are about the relationship between humans and nature, personified in the encounter with a supernatural being. Sometimes the creatures are friendly; sometimes punitive. It depends on how the person treats nature. Demons appear when people exceed a limit. The boundary of a field or forest, or on the bridge over the river.” In other words, superstition harbors an awareness of the limitations of human beings – and today, one might add, a doubt as to whether we even notice these limits.

Contemporary eco-fan reflects not only a scientific interpretation of climate and the earth system, but also the pursuit of supernatural phenomena, which that very science has been instrumental in phasing out. According to the young author Rasmus Daugbjerg, his novel about deforestation – Trold (2022) – with a cover by Frederik Exner, was the result of reading a mixture of climate reports and folk tales. That may seem paradoxical. But it is not much different from the coexistence of belief in climate science and distrust of technological science as a trouble-shooter.

The group exhibition ECO-FAN launches a new genre term for art and culture, putting into perspective the contemporary destruction of nature. The term is a variation on the new subcategory of science fiction – cli-fi, short for ‘climate fiction’ – which has received a great deal of attention. But cli-fi has also overshadowed some fantastical new trends within the same area: trends that deserve illumination.

While sci-fi draws on the advances of techno-science since the Enlightenment, modern fantasy is rooted in a pre-modern – medieval, for example – worldview, in which humankind is still subject to the uncontrollable forces of animated nature, and thus partly aware of its own omnipotence. With this historical awareness of fantasy in mind, Tranen is introducing ‘eco-fan’ as a genre term: not with the intention of ghettoising the art, but to open it up to world literature and art and culture in general.

ECO-FAN is not just the result of reflections on, what is happening within art and culture nationally and internationally. The articulation of the theme is also indebted to conversations with some of the artists and writers with whom Tranen have collaborated, particularly Rasmus Myrup, Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Lito Kattou, Charlotte Weitze and Emilie Imàn. Special thanks to them.

by Toke Lykkeberg
Director of Tranen

The exhibition ECO-FAN is accompanied by curated material from the library, not least an extensive reading list of literature from the -4000-year old Epic of Gilgamesh to contemporary Danish writers such as Charlotte Weitze and Rasmus Daugbjerg. Events will be announced later.

The exhibition is supported by Danish Arts Foundation.