Bankrupt Banks

March 1 – April 21, 2012
at Peter Blum Chelsea

Danish art collective SUPERFLEX takes over New York City one diner bathroom at a time

March 12, 2012

Superflex, the three-man Danish art collective, once tried to hypnotize a million and a half British TV viewers.


They spent six months in the Brazilian Amazon making soda from caffeinated guarana berries. And last fall, as part of Creative Time’s Living as Form exhibition, they installed a replica of the executive bathroom at JPMorgan Chase’s New York office inside a Greek diner on the Lower East Side.

“A lot of people get disappointed that the bathroom isn’t nicer,” Jakob Fenger, a member of the group, said last week at the Peter Blum Gallery in Chelsea, where Superflex's latest exhibition, Bankrupt Banks, is on view through April 14. “But bankers are very busy people. They don’t have time for a lot of fancy faucets.”

Since they formed in 1993, Superflex has gained an international reputation for their good-natured critiques of commercialism and globalization. Copy Light Factory, a workshop in which visitors create their own lamps using photocopied motifs of classic lamp designs, was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, and is now on display as part of the group exhibition Print/Out. In addition to upcoming shows in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Bangladesh, they will represent Denmark at this year’s Venice Biennale.

The members, who include Mr. Fenger and his longtime friends Rasmus Nielsen and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, describe their peculiar projects as “tools,” which they use to question and engage with different economic structures. And while Bankrupt Banks may not have the direct social impact of Guarana Power, in which Superflex collaborated with guarana-berry farmers to combat the corporate monopoly on Brazilian guarana seeds, it offers a knowing wink at the instability of the commercial gallery system within which it is presently flourishing.

The new exhibit features 24 cotton fabric banners hand-painted with the logos of American and European banks (Merrill Lynch, Anglo Irish, Kaupthing) that were declared bankrupt and acquired by other banks, governments, or private entities. Hung from the ceiling like retired jersey numbers at Madison Square Garden, they provide a powerfully ironic symbol of the global financial collapse while also referencing traditions of minimalist painting.

Mr. Christiansen, dressed in a flannel shirt and wearing red New Balance sneakers, was drinking a Yuengling near the front desk.

“The show is about the speculative machine that exists behind the entire financial structure,” he said. “The machine failed and yet it’s being kept alive on a kind of—” he searched for the word in English “—defibrillator?”

Bankrupt Banks is a sequel of sorts to the group’s last economy-minded exhibit at Peter Blum in 2010. That show featured two films: the much blogged about Flooded McDonald’s, for which Superflex meticulously recreated the interior of a McDonald’s, and then flooded it; and The Financial Crisis, a four part series in which a hypnotist guides viewers through different stages of economic disaster. Somehow, the group had convinced British public broadcasters to air the latter on national TV in 2009.

One secret to Superflex's success may lie in the disarmingly friendly dispositions of Fenger, Christiansen, and Nielsen, who are in their early forties and look as if they might belong to a hip Nordic synth-pop band that tours with Sigur Rós. In keeping with their Danish heritage, they also move easily inside foreign cultures, like spies.

“Danes are among the Europeans who travel the most, if you look at statistics,” said Maiken Derno, the Cultural Attaché for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York, which sponsored an expensive dinner at Bottino later that night in honor of Superflex. “I always believed the smallness of Denmark gave us an edge in terms of flexibility and connectedness.”

It’s fitting then that Fenger and Nielsen first met in the former Soviet Union. In 1989, just months before the Berlin Wall fell, Nielsen was working on a Siberian potato farm as part of a Cold War-era peace project for Danish youth. One night, Fenger showed up in town with his high school rock band, Soul Only, who were touring Siberia as part of the same youth project.

“We were treated like The Beatles,” Fenger recalled, sitting beside Nielsen at a Soho coffee shop the day after the opening (Christiansen had left for Copenhagen that morning.) “The whole town came out to see us.”

The two later reunited at the sculpture department of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. By then they had befriended Christiansen, whose offbeat sense of humor and disillusionment with the Royal Academy they shared.

“At that time, art schools in Scandinavia were obsessed with deconstructionist sculpture, which was not exactly a turn-on,” said Nielsen.

In 1993, the three friends retreated to a house in the Swedish forest. Two weeks later, emboldened by what Nielsen called some “psychedelic experiences” that led to a “collective epiphany,” they emerged with the intent to form a company.

“Companies can do anything,” Nielsen explained. “They can fuck up the world if they want to. It seemed like the most flexible structure for a collective to take.”

They named the company after Superflex Bravo, the boat that ferried them back to Copenhagen. The name was appropriate, they felt, because so many other companies are called Superflex. (A quick Google search turns up a Brooklyn manufacturer of flexible hoses; a social thinking curriculum for kids; and a British supplier of polyurethane car-suspension bushes.)

“We’ve had people call us to install their plumbing systems,” said Fenger, adding that the Brooklyn Superflex was regularly invited for art exhibitions during the '90s. “They would respond very politely and say, ‘We would love to show our work at your museum.’ You could see the mind of the curator thinking, ‘Well, Duchamp was very interested in plumbing….’”

Ironically, the collective has since engaged in plumbing-like activities. For sixteen years, they’ve collaborated on and off with European and African engineers to construct small bio-gas units that provide rural families with sufficient gas for lighting and cooking. They became so adept at judging the gaseous potential of animal excrement that a Thai engineering firm once invited them to implement the bio-gas system at a series of pig farms in central Thailand.

“Farmers would hold out pig excrement and ask us, essentially, ‘Is this good shit?’” said Nielsen. “So we would sniff it and tell them.”

How did they know it was good?

“After a while, you just know,” said Nielsen, grinning.

Like a regular company, Superflex has also dabbled in retail. For an ongoing performance piece called Free Shop, they collaborate with the employees of random shops around the world to make the merchandise unaccountably free—for a limited period of time—when customers arrive at the register.

Responses have varied depending on the country. At an AM/PM market in Japan, Nielsen said, business people would slam their money on the counter and say, “Don’t do this to me!” when the cashier informed them that the total amount was “zero.” In Germany, customers tended to gather outside the front door and discuss what this meant for the future of the store. And at a shop in Norway, the employees found it unfair that only customers received free goods. In response, they created a system of equal distribution among themselves. Superflex expects to bring the Free Shop to New York City sometime this year.

In the meantime, the executive bathroom they installed for free at the Olympic Restaurant diner is getting plenty of use.

“My customers love it,” the owner of the restaurant, who gave his name only as “Charlie,” said on a recent visit. “The old bathroom was okay, but this? Forget about it.”

As if to match its chic new lavatory, the restaurant received a full renovation last month, after a Daily News truck crashed into it one night in November. The insurance claim will cover the cost, Charlie said.

“We got the whole place fixed up now,” he added, “and it’s not gonna cost me nothing.”