Hesselholdt & Mejlvang: ‘We want to reach people that don’t go to art institutions’

On January 13, the Danish artistic duo Hesselholdt & Mejlvang (Sofie Hesselholdt and Vibeke Mejlvang), in collaboration with IZOLYATSIA. Platform for Cultural Initiatives (Kyiv) and BigMedia, the largest outdoor advertising house in Ukraine, presented the project ‘Points of Unity’ in the public space of Kyiv. From January 5, 2018, the works of the artists have been decorating 50 billboards within the city. The artists talk the project, optimistic art and artistic practices in the public space.


How have your cooperation with Izolyatsia and Big Media started?


Vibeke: I met Kateryna from Izolyatsia in 2014 when we both were in residency in South Korea and we have stayed connected since then. Later on we started talking more directly about making a project here in Kyiv or Ukraine. We had discussed different possibilities and the last one, that we had been talking about for two years maybe, ended up with this billboard project.


Sofie: We have been in the residency at Izolyatsia to find out more about the local context for the project. We were invited by Kateryna, who said ‘We have this billboard project in collaboration with Big Media’ and suggested that we come to Kyiv to make a research.


V: And to meet up with Big Media as well to talk about the possibilities and how we could work it out together.


What is the concept behind ‘Points of Unity’?


S: We have been working with flags for many-many years, all different kinds of flags. So it was natural for us to look at the Ukrainian flag, the blue and yellow flag, and try to see if we can work with those colours somehow. Our interest is focused on nationality and national feelings and many of our projects have been investigating subjects like this. Our starting point was the flag and then we read a lot about Ukraine, it’s history and, you know, everything on the war, the annexation and all these things going on. We come from Denmark which is a very quiet Scandinavian country so for us it was about finding a way to look at Ukraine from our point of view and trying to make a project that would make sense. Why would we come from Scandinavia to say something about Ukraine? Our task was to find that out.


Project ‘Points of Unity’ on the streets of Kyiv

Courtesy of the artists


Why did you choose flags to be those recurring symbols in your artistic practice? And also the colours, what meaning do they carry within your artistic language? Particularly, talking about the colours of the Ukrainian flag: what was that thing that caught your eye and inspired you to develop this concept?


V: Flags say a lot about who we are or how we feel in a specific country. In Denmark we use the Danish flag in so many ways: we put it on our Christmas tree, we have a lot of flags at every birthday party and on national days as well and we are really proud and happy about our flags. When we came to Ukraine, we just noticed that the colours of your flag are all over the Maidan square (the central square of Kyiv – ed.), you can see the small bracelets that people try to sell as souvenirs and streets and buildings are painted blue and yellow in many ways. So I think that studying a flag is a way to understand a country.


S: Maybe it is because we do it all the time, we are very focused on flags and the way we use the national colours in our daily life. And on this billboards the two colours kind of blend into green in between. So it is the flag that’s transforming itself into something new. A lot of symbolism is going on. Also if you mix yellow and blue, you get green, the colour representing hope and for us a better future as well, maybe ecology and a lot of other positive things. So for us it was a way to see what is within this nation: something boiling, something interesting and new can emerge from the mixing of the two colours. The symbolic is very simple, because when we work in the public space, it is important for us that the meaning is clear. You have to get it like this (snaps her fingers), because you may be in a hurry or driving a car, it has to be very simple for people to actually get the point.


V: Also because when we were here having a meeting with Izolyatsia and Big Media, they told us that you don’t see that much art in the streets here. We are very used to that in our part of Europe, there have been so many projects in the street for many-many-many years. For us it’s just a natural thing that people express themselves in the street in a lot of ways, but here it is not considered that normal. That’s why for me it was important for symbolic to be simple, so that a child could get it or people that are not interested in art. And they could come up with something like ‘Okay, it’s a kind of rainbow, colourful things are going on, we mix the blue and yellow and we get the green.’ Maybe they will, in a way, try to understand that something new is happening.


Project ‘Points of Unity’ on the streets of Kyiv

Courtesy of the artists


And also what about the statements that you added to those backgrounds later on?


S: We divided the project into two phases. The first phase lasted for five weeks, when only the backgrounds were placed in public space around Kyiv. For me they are like holes in the city. I mean, you see a lot of commercials everywhere in Kyiv but our billboards don’t have any commercial meaning so suddenly you see something different that’s opening up your fantasy, your reflections. And after those five weeks we put on the statements. They are hand-written, as well as the backgrounds are our hand-painted aquarells. It was important for us that it looked like a pearson had actually wrote it. And the messages are very positive. These are the statements that try to make people stay together, to think of a better future, a good future. Like, how can we imagine a nice future together, find the unity instead of being diverse. Maybe it’s very naive or something, but it’s a call for action, for people to stay together and do something good and positive for their country.


A lot of your projects are presented on the streets. When you have just started your duo during your years at the university, why have you decided to work with the public space?


S: It has always interested us to try to reach people that don’t go to art institutions. Of course, we want to talk to art historians and artists and people interested in art, but we also want to talk to common people in the streets. We have very optimistic and idealistic concept of art. We actually think that we can change something in the world and for us it is interesting to see if we can change people’s way of thinking just a little bit or give them new thoughts or something so it might change the world just a tiny bit.


You stated that your concept of art is optimistic, but I wouldn’t say that your artistic language is optimistic as well. Your recent project, ‘Points of Unity’, it stands out, compared to your previous works, which are more pessimistic.


V: Yes, that’s true. We would like to continue developing this more optimistic artistic language in one way, but I think we also need the other way. Because when we are back in Denmark or Scandinavia we are more into all kind of issues in society and that is why we are  trying to confront the situations there more. But to come here and try to say anything about Ukrainian people or your feelings or whatever – I don’t think we can do that. In that case we would have to stay here for a really long time to get into the local context.


Project ‘Points of Unity’ on the streets of Kyiv

Courtesy of the artists


Now I see that, because when I was at your website and I saw those projects that you made back in Denmark – they are quite pessimistic sometimes and quite critical. And then here in Ukraine you make such an optimistic project... Like, from my point of view, Denmark looks like a developed country that doesn’t have that much problems and here we have lots of issues to point out, so I was questioning that.


S: Yes, it’s interesting that you say that, but it is also a kind of coincidence. We made a project ‘Hope Not Fear’ in 2016 – a big banner of old communist party ripped flags that we had sewed together. So we wrote this ‘Hope Not Fear’ slogan on it and maybe it was the first time when we made something very constructive or positive and it felt pretty nice. It gave us a kind of new direction, something that we wanted to share instead of being all pessimistic, all critical, all pointing fingers at a lot of different subjects. The world is full of negativity. That’s why for us the question is how to create a better world. That really is our new subject. So it’s not that we don’t do the other things as well, but actually we are writing a book right now called ‘A radically better future’, so it’s not just this Ukrainian project, it’s like a new start for us. We are bringing the older works with us and we are still working in some projects like that, but it’s also ourselves who are changing and trying to influence the world more directly by trying to point at all the good stuff as well.


V: Yeah, but I think we will keep working in both directions and you’ll see both kinds of expression from us in the future. Actually, when we came to Ukraine in November for the first time, the first thing we met at the airport was ‘Stop corruption’ and we thought ‘Oh my God, we’d never ever see that in Denmark.’


S: We are number one country in the world without corruption, so you would never see that in Denmark, because it’s doesn’t existing there, only at a very small level. You would laugh when you hear what cases we bring up in the media in Denmark. Like, right now our prime minister got a week’s holiday in somebody’s summer house. And the media are conspiring whether it influenced his policies towards this official man who actually gave this to him. I mean such cases are very small compared to what’s going on here.


V: Because the amount of money he spent during that week in a summer house is very small.


S: It is ridiculously small (smiles).


V: I think in this project here we could say a lot about war and we have been working a lot on the theme of war and all the sadness coming with that, but I think for us it was too much to put on top of this situation here. Not in the public space. Maybe in an art institution we could do a more critical project, digging deeper in.


Project ‘Points of Unity’ on the streets of Kyiv

Courtesy of the artists


And the message within this project is also clearer, more explicit, compared to your previous projects, even those that were presented in public space: they were still more tricky.


S: For us there is a big difference between working in public space and in an art institution. If art is presented in an institution, you can choose whether to go there and see it or not, but in public space you are kind of forced to do it. For me it is something different. And those three sentences, we have been thinking about working further with them and that we could show them in all big cities in the world, just changing the background to something else. So for me it’s not because it’s Ukraine that the project happened to be different, it’s more like a personal artistic development. Because if Kateryna had invited us five years ago I’m pretty sure it would have looked very different. And while developing this more positive concept we have also came to a simpler expression then earlier. We are trying to cut away everything and try to see how few elements can we actually manage to make a project of. Because earlier on we had like hundreds of things together and it was very complex and now it’s interesting for us to make it as simple as possible.


Did locations of the billboards matter for you? Are they all over Ukraine or just in Kyiv?


V: Only in Kyiv. But there’s one coming up in another city…


S: ...that we cannot pronounce (laughs). Lvov. I think that for us it has ended up in ideal locations here because we wanted the city center, but we also wanted to have as many billboards as possible, given that we felt it was interesting to kind of make an invasion somehow. For it to be something that really forces upon you, something you actually meet in the streets.


Project ‘Points of Unity’ on the streets of Kyiv

Courtesy of the artists


The more posters you see the more you start questioning them.


V: Exactly, that was what we hoped could happen.


S: Also because it is here in a very long time span, it started in January 5th and it’s going to end some month from now, I guess, people will meet it at different places around the city. Maybe they had already met the empty backgrounds and that kind of started a little thing in their heads and then they will continuously meet them with different messages on. It is a kind of a project that’s working over time so hopefully it will influence people as they meet them more times.


Why have you decided that it’s time to finally give the world some positivity?


S: I think it was all this reading about Ukraine. When you open the news in Denmark, all you hear about Ukraine is war, corruption, annexation of Crimea, conflicts with Putin, a lot of negative messages all the time. You don’t hear all the good stories, because they don’t really reach the media in Denmark. And I think this is true for the other countries as well: when people hear about Denmark these are all the bad stories and never the positive ones. For me it just didn’t feel right to put more war, terror, negativity into Ukraine, it felt like what we could do was to reverse this, instead of focusing on all the bad things, because that is happening all the time. We wanted to do something completely opposite, like ‘yeah, okay, a lot of things are bad, a lot of things are wrong, but there are still humanity and equality and places where we can meet as a diverse nation and we can still insist on trying to develop something good from now.’ I think, we could do the same project in Denmark, because there’s also a lot of negativity going on. The political climate is really-really depressing. The problems are completely different though, it’s more about immigration and how to integrate all the foreigners coming to Denmark.


V: And how to send them back again…


S: The whole political debate is about how we can avoid people to enter our country. How can we preserve our good little country and not help people in need from other countries. It is really intimidating to live in a country that’s driven by hate, so we would like to put in the same project in Denmark. Actually we just had a big Yoko Ono project (exhibition Transmission at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen Denmark – ed.). It’s a little bit similar and all over Denmark. And it was very nice, an artist doing almost the same as we do here, just saying ‘let’s insist on love, feeling, on being together, on equality and whatever, all these nice things instead of giving into all the bad things.’


Project ‘Points of Unity’ on the streets of Kyiv

Courtesy of the artists


This focus on positive things is quite metamodernistic.


S: Metamodernism? I don’t know this expression, but it sounds good!


That’s a new art concept that sees itself as something different from postmodernism and the main point is basically to return to this more optimistic perception of reality that we seem to have lost somehow.


S: That’s a really nice concept!


V: Yes, I think we could agree with that, because we see art as a tool. I mean, it is about aesthetics and visuality, but it is also a tool to actually make a change. That’s really important for us. And maybe it’s failing big time, I don’t know, but hopefully we are capable of making small changes.


How would you define ‘art’?


S: I think, for me art is just a necessity for a dignified life, it is something you cannot live without, if it hadn’t been here the world would have been very poor. Of course, you need water and food and housing and all this, but you also need reflections about the world. So art is extremely important as a tool to understand tiny bits of this very complex world we live in. Being an artist is our own means of showing our protest, having a voice in the public debate, a possibility to direct the world’s development in the way we think is the right one.  


Project ‘Points of Unity’ on the streets of Kyiv

Courtesy of the artists


V: Our interest is focused on the society, the world around us. All of our projects, they always start from something that we meet in the media and they become a discussion between us and the world. We just use art as this complex language. When you hear politicians or discussions in the society, there are always people that choose different directions, but as artists we can be more open, grasp the reality on more different levels and try to…


...bring people together?


V: Yes, hopefully.


S: But we have always clarified that we don’t want to propagate, we have an opinion about things and we want to share it with the world, but we are just making suggestions.


Kateryna, as a curator what caught your interest about this project?


K: I have known the girls for five years now and I knew that they had been working in public space and the direction of their artistic practice in general. In that regard I thought that it could be interesting to invite them to Ukraine. At first we tried another project in Dnipro, but we didn’t get the funding for that one and then this opportunity came up. And next came the most interesting part: we just developed everything and there were a lot of discussions, including those with Big Media, which is the operator of the outdoor advertising that owns the billboards. It was very interesting, looking for those ‘point of unity’ (smiles) or the meeting point between three very different actors: artists, an art institution and a commercial organisation  business that has seemingly nothing to do with art.


Sofie Hesselholdt and Vibeke Mejlvang at the presentation of the project ‘Points of Unity’. Kyiv (Ukraine), IZONE