Esben Weile Kjær’s zany tribute to 1990s teenage rebellion

Artist Esben While Kjær, a rapidly rising star in the Danish art world, unveils a radically curated show of the Arken Museum for Modern Art’s collection

BUTTERFLY! ARKEN’s collection curated by Esben Weile Kjær. Sophie Calle, Mother, 1990
Esben Weile Kjær holds Sophie Calle’s ‘Mother’, 1990. The show ‘BUTTERFLY!’ is his curation of the collection at Arken Museum for Modern Art
(Image credit: Lasse Dearman)

Esben Weile Kjær is brimming with excitement. The Danish artist, who graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen just one year ago, has been given free rein over the collection at Arken Museum for Modern Art. And he has big plans. When we meet to discuss the show, titled 'BUTTERFLY!', and his extraordinary rise to art-world stardom, the opening is still a few weeks away, but for Kjær, ‘there is a lot going on!’

Kjær, who is from Aarhus on the Danish peninsula of Jutland, began his love affair with Arken as a teenager. Having the opportunity to curate the collection is ‘a crazy gig for me. I’m obsessed with so many of these works.’ Kjær approaches the opportunity as an artist, the curation as a performance and the museum as a stage. Focusing on artists of the 1990s, Kjær honours Wolfgang Tillmans, Sarah Lucas, Elmgreen & Dragset, Tal R, amongst others, that are drenched in nostalgia from his youth, alongside his own sculpture.

Esben Weile Kjær with his Butterfly sculpture, Tinkerbell 

(Image credit: Lasse Dearman)

The show is deeply personal, inspired by three scenarios from his adolescence: a Cold War bunker where Kjær hung out with friends, an amusement park he broke into, and a skatepark. ‘I see all the exhibitions I do as creating film sets or sets for a social interaction,’ Kjær explains. Moving from night to the glow of dawn to bright sunlight, the exhibition traces a day in the life of a teenager. Poul Cadovius’ cigarette-scarred bus shelters from the 1990s, which were used as meet-up spots by teens, speak to Kjær’s instinct to challenge ‘how we take over something and see it in another way’.

Overseeing the show is a monument to teenage rebellion – a grinning, kitschy butterfly sculpture painted in black and white Kiss make-up. Again, the inspiration is personal: the ‘stupid emo butterfly’ keyring attached to Kjær’s keys to his parents’ house. ‘It’s a really big part of my practice to work with these strategies,’ Kjær explains. ‘To take elements from popular culture and also make something turn into popular culture.’ Kjær is fascinated by the seductive powers of pop.

Esben Weile Kjær, BUTTERFLY!, 2023 Håndmalet bronze / Hand painted bronze

Esben Weile Kjær, BUTTERFLY!, 2023, Hand painted bronze 

(Image credit: Courtesy Esben Weile Kjær & Andersen’s Contemporary. Photography: Frida Gregersen)

Installation view of Esben Weile Kjaer at Arken

Left: Anders Brinch, Corrosion of Perception, 2006, mixed media; right: Micha Klein, Crystal Powder from God, 2000, C-print. Installation view at the Arken Museum of Modern Art

(Image credit: Frida Gregersen)

Tinkerbell was the mascot for the artist’s show HARDCORE FREEDOM at Copenhagen Contemporary in 2020, when a convulsive, sensual release took place on a mirrored dance floor – part rave, part riot. A projected video of revelries from the day before and continual photography tested the performative nature of the club for a generation used to being caught on camera and posted online.

Kjær holds up a mirror to a generation that has grown up with social media: ‘We are performing in front of a gaze. We are performing in front of cameras all the time.’ In the performance BURN! at the Centre Pompidou in 2022, the ticket hall screen was replaced by a livestream of the performers in the macho guise of firefighters. ‘I never really think of my performances as detached from society,’ Kjær explains. ‘I see them as a part of it somehow.’ Kjær is aware of the utopian possibilities of the internet, as well as its darker commercialisation and potentially harmful effects.

Esben Weile Kjær at Arken

Left: Wolfgang Tillmans, Adam, Vest & Cat, 1991, C-print; floor: Elmgreen & Dragset, Go Go Go, 2005, Mixed media. Torben Christensen, Ecstatic Melancholy, 1998, Digital airbrush, acrylic on canvas. Installation view at Arken Museum of Modern Art

(Image credit: Frida Gregersen)

Scrolling and reposting images on Tumblr shaped Kjær’s practice of harnessing, staging, and reframing: ‘I don’t believe in authenticity or originality. I look at what already exists.’ For his graduation show, Kjær presented a stained-glass window depicting the 1518 Dance Plague in Strasbourg, when people danced themselves to death, and developed the series with images of dance marathons in 1920s and 1930s America.

Since he graduated, life has been a whirlwind for Kjær, with the performance HYPER! at the Museum Tinguely, Basel in 2022, later turning heads at Miami Art Week 2022. Giant inflatable plants threatened to consume the performers at the Fontainebleau Hotel with their snapping jaws, digesting their youth and coolness before spitting them back out again.

Esben Weile Kjær at Arken

Floor: Jes Brinch & Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, Syringe, 1996, Mixed media; back: Jouko Lehtola, Young Heroes, 1995-1996 C-print; right: Emil Westman Hertz, Coffin, 2008-11, Mixed media. Installation view at Arken Museum of Modern Art

(Image credit: Frida Gregersen)

After the opening at Arken, Kjær is heading to Los Angeles to show a series of sculptures made with the Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury. In August, he’ll take up an International Studio & Curatorial Program residency in New York and prepare for a major show at the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art Aalborg in 2024, harnessing TikTok algorithms to map the movements of mechanical sculptures. 

Kjær’s infectious optimism is entirely understandable; in his captivating world at least, there is a lot to feel excited about. 

'BUTTERFLY!', Arken’s collection, curated by Esben Weile Kjær is on view until 31 December 2023 at Arken, Denmark.