An Introduction to Tina Maria Nielsen’s Exhibition Salon des Refusés by curator Kit Leunbach, Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art

What do we choose to keep, and what stories lie behind the choices we make? What do we want to say with what we keep, and what stories do we want others to hear if and when they find what we have kept? Salon des Refusés is about rejects and looking into the darkness, where not everything is entirely black. Based on the concept of the cellar as place and metaphor, the artist Tina Maria Nielsen explores the hidden potential of the dark and the ways we use collecting, keeping and rejecting to construct our identities.

The objective and unsentimental investigation of everyday objects forms the basis of Tina Maria Nielsen’s conceptual practise as a sculptor, where things that surround us but that we rarely notice are painstakingly recreated in bronze, plaster, paraffin, concrete and other materials. In Salon des Refusés it is the accumulation of things that are – perhaps shamefully – hidden away yet could hold some future potential that act as catalysts for the narratives of the exhibition. The sculptural elements – mobile phones, a Venetian blind, ostrich eggs an umbrella cast in bronze, silver spiders, whale vertebrae of plaster and paraffin, cardboard boxes in powdery plaster, as well as heavily symbolic figures like the Danish sculpture Thorvaldsen’s Jesus, carefully yet hopelessly glued together and reassembled – are all lodged in the archival system of the cellar or singled out in in a dramatic gesture by metal constructions illuminated by sparse, stark sources of light. 

Tina Maria Nielsen’s exploration of des refusés – the rejects – is equivocally dark yet full of possibilities. Based on the essence of place, on the literal seclusion of the exhibition space in an underground cellar in a cellar deprived of natural light, Tina Maria Nielsen’s exhibition conjures associations with the cabinets of curiosities or Wunderkammer of the past. The Wunderkammer was an encyclopaedic collection of rarities in Renaissance Europe, of (sometimes fake) objects of natural historical, ethnographical or religious interest, or of historical relics, artworks and antiquities. The Wunderkammer was seen as a microcosm or theatre in which ordering and collecting objects was used to construct narratives as a way of understanding the world. 

The cellar is simultaneously forbidding and fascinating. Its depths contain something suppressed and hidden. It is where we keep or even hide what does not fit the stories we tell about ourselves: things from the past we are attached to and therefore cannot part with because we fantasise about a future home or role for them. But the cellar is also a place of passion, a refuge, an intimate and private space for melancholy musing, a place to withdraw, and a place of invention where ideas, collector’s mania and fetishism unfold in a realm where no rules apply. 

The cellar is the symbolic locus of the unconscious and repressed, and has been used throughout time as a metaphor for states of mind, as in Freud’s structural model of the psyche. Even earlier, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard used the metaphor of a three-storey house to describe the soul as divided into a basement, a first floor and a second floor. In the cellar, according to Kierkegaard, we are at the mercy of our emotions, and are doomed if we do not try to unite all three levels:
“The soulish-bodily synthesis in every man is planned with a view to being spirit, such is the building; but the man prefers to dwell in the cellar; no, he loves that to such a degree that he becomes furious if anyone would propose to him to occupy the best floor which stands empty at his disposition …”. A more recent example of the cellar as the darkest recess of the subconscious is the 2014 documentary In the Basement by the Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, who depicts the secrets and passions lived out in cellars, albeit at the more demeaning and eccentric end of the scale.

The exhibition Salon des Refusés is in a very different place and has a very different point. Like Kierkegaard’s basement dweller, Tina Maria Nielsen delves into the recesses of the cellar where new answers may await. In an interview, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has said: “I have to go down into the underground to find my own stories. To where nothing is clear, where everything lives in darkness and fog. But once you get used to the dark, shapes and figures start to emerge.” In the same way, Tina Maria Nielsen draws our attention to the many nuances of black and grey. The disorientation or suspension of physical space that darkness brings offers the opportunity to revisit or rediscover what has been forgotten in our own personal archive. She challenges us to enter the cellar and explore the darkness, to embark on a process of introspection or what she calls ‘the necessary probing of despair”. 

The exhibition is different to previous shows by Tina Maria Nielsen in revealing a more private, intimate space, yet without the artist baring her soul or giving herself away. She continues to use everyday items or what we take for granted, casting them in bronze and other age-old materials associated with classical sculpture. But here the individual parts of the piece are less invisible and apparently coincidentally placed than previously. Here, as always, her works make us curious about the basis for the selection of objects and readymades, and curious about how an object earns the right to be cast in precious metal. In Salon des Refusés the selected objects are more symbolic, and the theatricality of the setting is also new. Bold and insistent yet vulnerable, the objects are put on parade: the artist’s hidden and rejected objects literally exposed. 

The exhibition poster shows Tina Maria Nielsen emerging from a dark stairwell carrying a heavy whale vertebra in her arms. The vertebra is the original – if such a term can even be used – or basis for the work Fragments of Ancient Poetry, where it has been cast in plaster and paraffin. The whale originally stranded on the west coast of Denmark, generating a lot of media attention. But on asking what Tina Maria Nielsen wants to tell us with the work, we receive no clear answer. If there are references to the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, or hints that whales live in the depths of the ocean – the cellar of the universe – or whether there are more formal issue at stake is not key. In the context of the exhibition the whale vertebra forms one of the many narrative threads that the artist has chosen to partly disclose. Just as the Danish poet Søren Ulrik Thomsen in his collection of essays Repremiere i mit indre mørke (‘A Re-Premiere in My Inner Darkness’) hopes that revisiting old texts that originally related to the present or the past will grant them renewed relevance in the present or the future, in Salon des Refusés Tina Maria Nielsen opens cracks of light onto her inner darkness.

The first thing we encounter at the end of the staircase down to the exhibition is the back of a wall – the reverse side, underlining the privacy of the space. In the almost blacked-out cellar our eyes have to adjust to the dark and the inner darkness that unfolds. Within moments our attention focuses, directed by the light sources in the room. In the work Blind, a Venetian blind with the everyday function of separating the public and the private hangs like an archaeological find. In Seeds of all Life, ostrich eggs are exhibited on a flimsy table alongside bronze casts that could, in principle, have been used to cast the eggs themselves like an outer shell enclosing the actual eggshell, dislocating and inverting meaning. Usually these casting moulds would be invisible tools, but here they are exhibited as laden symbols. Similarly, in the work Protection a staged bronze cast of a broken, wind-twisted umbrella can no longer offer the protection and shelter that were its original purpose.

The shiny mobile phones with the title Generations are randomly piled on the floor like a mass of data, cast and fixed in bronze. An inconceivable number of stories are hidden within these discarded, outmoded phones – from our own generation and the next.

The installation is also framed by the work Vacuum, a papered wall where more or less identifiable everyday objects have been ‘mistakenly’ papered over, sticking exasperatingly out of the surface. We feel an uncontrollable urge to scratch the surface and release the hidden objects – or to satisfy the undeniable curiosity provoked by encountering the work. 

Rejection is part of the exhibition’s theme and title, but it does not have a strict, didactic hold on all the objects and narratives within it. Instead it forms a loose web that joins the stories and extends them at numerous levels. The title Salon des Refusés is also the name of the 1863 exhibition of artworks that had been rejected by the jury of Paris Salon, the official, annual showcase for French art. The title thus refers to the history of Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, which was founded by Danish artists as an alternative to juried exhibitions. A further link to the history of Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art can be found in the work Re-stored, which consists of cardboard boxes cast in a mix of plaster and clay (the material used to cast bronze), creating powdery surfaces systematically inserted in the metal construction that frames them. Between the boxes there is a cracked memorial stone carved with the name of the Danish sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, who was also among the founding artists of Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art. Due to a spelling mistake, the stone was discarded and has now found its place among the other discards and rejects. Tina Maria Nielsen thus poetically connects the history of the exhibition space with an exploration of rejection as a universal human condition. 

Rejection in a broader sense also links to current refugee policies in Europe, and thereby the potential that lies within the rejected and that may only be discovered too late, if at all. Or the things convention rejects and that can only exist in the underworld of subcultures hidden from the mainstream until they becomes comme il faut. Not to mention all the artists whose are not recognised until after their death. In the work Spiders from Mars small spiders have been cast in silver. In Tina Maria Nielsen’s universe they are both upgraded and pay discrete tribute to David Bowie.

When choosing what to keep and what to reject we make a selection – conscious or otherwise – as individuals, but also as cultural institutions entrusted with the task of storing objects as evidence of the past for the future. Every time we tell a story it is one of thousands that may never be told. As Mia Christerdotter Norman puts it in the foreword to the catalogue of the Gothenburg Biennale: ”There is always another story hiding within the one having just been told”. The actual act of selection, of choosing one thing above another, takes place at several levels in Tina Maria Nielsen’s exhibition Salon des Refusés, which addresses the conscious and more random choices we make and the connotations of the things and stories we use consciously and unconsciously to construct and present our identities.
Speculatively and physically, stringently and generously, rejection, darkness, the cellar and the act of selection unfold in the exhibition Salon Des Refusés.

Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art would like to extend our warm thanks to Tina Maria Nielsen for her courage, her tireless engagement, and for helping us all explore the depths to see the potential of the what has been put aside.