The visual artist Anja Franke’s (b. 1962) exhibition Abroad and at Home at Gammelgaard Kunst og Kulturcenter takes an object as well known as porcelain service (i.e. dinnerware) as a form of cultural relay. This is something everyone uses in daily life, when we put our lips to cups and drink from them or when we consume our meals from plates. But Anja Franke is not interested in the stylistic or aesthetic differences in service sets made by Meissen, Pillivyut, Kähler, Royal Copenhagen – or for that matter Bing and Grøndal – although these porcelains may sometimes form a part of her interventional art project Waste Service. However, if this is the case, this is due to coincidence, because as an innovative-thinking conceptual artist that almost always works with site specificity, Anja Franke doesn’t care so much about the intrinsic qualities of objects. Rather she examines – with her close companions, curiosity and critical sense – the ascriptions of meaning that occur when objects engage a new context or when they are transformed during the process.
According to Gyldendal’s Store Danske Ordbog the word porcelain entered the Danish and English language via French, inheriting the word from the Italian language used to name a snail species called porcellana. Its shell resembles very much the smooth surface of porcelain. Anja Franke has traveled to Berlin, Calcutta, Mexico City and Copenhagen with recycled waste porcelain. Here her work has developed as a cultural relay, like in a race, where an object or cultural practice shifts hands in a long series of exchanges; across borders; through various countries and continents; and always in dialogue with audiences. Fortunately, we will now be able to experience all of this in the community of Herlev, where the artist works and lives. Usually she acquires the waste service when she arrives at the destinations but she didn’t succeed in doing so in Kolkata where her workshop was organized in a so-called palki – a street kitchen (this palki was designed by Danish architect Gitte Juul). Where all the used waste in India is recycled at once. In such cases, she buys used porcelain on location at flea markets or participants bring it to her. In this respect you may call it a global waste service with patterns in ultramarine, which here in Denmark are well known and ranging from the Royal Copenhagen Blue Fluted Plain to the Blue Flower patterns.
In these temporary installations, Anja Franke invites the public to enter her small workshops, whether they are placed inside or outside on the street, she encourages them to paint on snow-white secondhand or waste porcelain. Initially she gives people a pencil and a paper so that they first could exercise a little on the pattern, which Anja Franke has designed in advance. Then people are welcome to invest more or less time in painting the pattern. Some of the participants get into a special zen mode, which occasionally happens when you concentrate deeply in solving a well defined assignment. These people, if it could be said, waste their time in a creative way. Afterwards Anja Franke burns the decorated porcelain in an oven. When participants finish their work they are invited to make a cup of tea as a reward. The tea is served in cups painted by other people at previous workshops around the world. Curiously, tea contains the substance thiamine that is proven to increase the ability to learn and concentrate and which at the same time minimizes stress. Furthermore tea drinking stimulates the intercultural dialogue and underlines the global community in the name of peace and at the same time it reminds us about the long tradition of tea drinking which originally spread from China and today is enjoyed all over the world.
And as such, with her Waste Service project Anja Franke is joining a new, interactive and socially engaged tradition in contemporary art involving the public actively and bringing people together. We could also mention the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija (b. 1961) who generally rejects art objects and instead cooks and serves food for visitors. Another example is the Danish artist Group Superflex’ (founded in 1993) that in cooperation with the Brazilian Amazon farmers produced the soft drink Guarana Power in addition to other cooperation projects.
Nevertheless Anja Franke’s Waste Service project is something very special. As a part of her total installation Abroad and at Home it shows that she’s not only interested in a critical approach to the postmodern through away culture. Although Anja Franke is a critical and socially conscious artist who among other things is driven by the feminist endeavor to make the personal life political she’s more engaged by the idea of the service having been circulated in various environments and places — from big cities to the intimate spheres of people’s homes — than of a critique of over-consumption. She considers the fact that the porcelain service has shifted hands – often several times, when the next generation inherits it – as something that is endowed with poetry. In this sense, a table arrangement resembles a business card which reveals your identity to other people and tells where you belong in the social hierarchy: Whether we inherit it from our rich family or have enough money to buy luxurious service ourselves or we just buy cheap service from the global furniture shop IKEA. Everyone knows the pleasure of sitting at a well-set table. Old traditions and rituals underlie the way to set at table with a precise placement of the single components in relation to one another so that we feel at home and comfortable no matter where we dine. The crowning achievement is the service, porcelain or china that often has a great sentimental value in families which makes it difficult to discard.
Unlike other household items — such as strainers, measuring cups, funnels etc. – ‘fine china’ is an aesthetic and occasionally artistic product. From being a white cup or plate without any identity i.e. without any individual blue pattern, an ascription of significance will occur when it beings to be painted by the audience. So the painted china is becoming an intercultural relay between the big, global space and the private sphere – according to the title of the exhibition – but at the same time it is a medium to connect to the art world. Moreover, there is a side effect to Anja Franke’s generous and poetic interactive project: the audience changes its role from being passive spectators to becoming active performers. They actively waste their time under the pretext of painting a pattern after the specific rules that Anja Franke has established. Of course they’re not becoming artists by simply swinging the brush on some service but when the cups and the plates are integrated in the larger framework conceived by Anja Franke they gain importance as a part of a bigger story. Anja Franke has created a work of art that functions aesthetically and has obtained its own autonomy thanks to her intelligent formal approach.
Cognitive science has proven that it’s very important for human beings to waste time. When we’re folding laundry or just looking out of the window whilst our thoughts disappear in daydreams our brains are set in another gear and regenerate. It’s extremely healthy to waste time although the growth rationale of the Western society contradicts this and demands higher productivity, determination and adaptability. So Abroad and at Home is also an offer to the public to gear down for a while, and to gather and be present in the moment.
The exhibition’s installed in the three buildings in Gammelgaard’s Art and Culture Center. In the new barn the audience can experience an eight-meter long table with the already decorated service. Although the participants have being handed the same pattern as a starting point you notice significant differences between the patterns depending on the culture the audience were brought up with. Furthermore, there is a tea table and a table to serve the audience, where service painting happens, whenever Anja Franke is present. On the walls some empty, specially designed, shelves are hanging. They’re gradually being filled with the decorated service. The citizens of Herlev have collected the white porcelain service.
On the walls you experience a number of photos all measuring 30 x 40 centimeters. They derive from the Waste Service-project from the time it has been on the road. Besides there are three silk screen prints with some of the patterns produced by the audience that Anja Franke has elaborated and now signs as authoritative works of art. Furthermore she has printed the same pattern in a series with motives from previous interventions. In the main house there are forty close-up photos, also measuring 30 x 40 centimeters with motifs of cups and plates that persons from various countries have decorated before. In the café, and also in the main house, she has placed a carpet from the Ege Factory also with a motif of a plate decorated with a Waste pattern and signed by a person from Mexico City. In the other room she has stacked a large cube-shaped woodpile. The guests are invited to fetch a log and feed the fireplace in the room next door. When the audience has finished their work in the workshop and have poured the well deserved tea in the new barn they might walk over to the main building and get warmed at the fireplace. Here once again they can waste their time sinking into a meditative dwelling and musing while looking into the fire. In the old barn school children are invited to join the workshop. In other words Anja Franke has worked in many scales, media and materials on her exhibition Abroad and at Home, but the recurring theme is the patterns made by the audience during her interventions and workshops.
Waste Service is related to many other earlier works of art made by the artist. They often thematise the relationship between the intimate sphere and the public space – and the white colour runs through her works. However, she has never before involved the audience so directly as in her new work. It’s just one out of many works and activities, which Anja Franke has made during her long career. She’s educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (1985 – 92) and was the co-founder of the feministic art project Roomservice (1991). Furthermore she was exhibiting artist and co-founder of the exhibition space and video archive Max Mundus (1994 – 96), co-founder and co-editor of the art magazine Månedsskrift for Kunst og Kunstrelateret materiale (1994 – 99) and co-founder of the exhibition space Mfkokm (1998 – 2000. From 2004 and with a starting point in her home, a small house at 28 Byskovvej in Herlev, she has for more than ten years curated a number of exhibitions with site specific art produced by Danish and international artists under the title IHI- InstantHERLEVInstitute, which has gained recognition both here and abroad. Throughout the summer 2014, she marked the ten years anniversary with the group exhibition By Invitation Only . Here she focused on themes such as hospitality, borders and the control of borders, which are used in order to keep some people out and invite other people in — it might be a state, an exhibition space or a private home. Here, she cleared her living room in order to make space for works of art made by some of the other exhibiting artists. Corresponding with the theme she had handed the curating tasks to the Mexican curator Lucía Sanromán.
Currently she’s about to finish a permanent public artwork for a public park at Skovlunde Bypark. The title is Day & Night. Once again she works with the single-family house focusing on the terrace as a boundary zone between the inner part of the house and its surroundings. Here the residents meet in order to contemplate, to sunbathe, make picnics and socialize in a relaxed atmosphere. At the same time the terrace refers to the cultural habits of many new citizens, especially those who have migrated from the Middle East – who use public spaces in new ways, gathering on carpets and having picnics.
And as such, Anja Franke has managed to put Herlev on the map of international contemporary art.
Lisbeth Bonde is an art critic and author based in Copenhagen.