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Language schools at museums | 13.may.2014

Final rehearsals, rolling cameras, and a dramatic day in Danish politics

”If someone had told me back in November, when I first began studying at the Language Centre, that I would now be standing in Denmark’s leading art museum, presenting a complex work of art in Danish – I would have said: That’s not realistic!”

The words are spoken by Maija Ivanova. As one of the final rehearsals before the cameras start rolling, she has just presented a work of art to a small audience from Thorvaldsens Museum. She, Vahid Abbasi, and Lezel Indal – all of them project employees at the SMK and students at the Copenhagen Language Centre – are busy creating their own films about words and art. The actual shooting day is approaching rapidly. But first there’s the dress rehearsal!

Dress rehearsal

Thorvaldsens Museum is a close partner on this collaborative project, and they too have employed language students to create small films for the museum. This group – four language students and three art educators from Thorvaldsens Museum – are attending the dress rehearsal at the SMK, bringing the total number of our group up to 13. We are here to hear Maija, Vahid, and Lezel’s presentations of their chosen artworks. A chance to test how the artworks may be presented prior to the final shooting, which is scheduled for the following week.

Confident presenters

Lezel goes first. She guides the group confidently, taking us straight to her chosen work, which is housed on the second floor of the museum’s new addition: Arthur Köpcke’s Silver Sculpture. But she is not going to simply speak about the artwork. She wants us to experience it for ourselves. Like a group of school children visiting the museum we are given paper and pencils: Pick three words – any words – that you think describe this work of art! And describe the link between the three words and the work of art.

Vahid, too, gives us a board each, prompting us to note down words about his chosen work: the sculpture Hercules Wrestling with Antaeus. We share the words with each other, and he collects the answers, thereby expanding his research.

Maija asks us difficult questions next to her chosen work of art. She is interested in issues of nationalism, patriotism, and the concept of nation states: “What do you think The Nation means, and how is the question of national identity represented in the works of art displayed at the SMK?” she asks. “Do you think that works of art can construct a specific impression of the world”? Oops. Food for thought! Our small gathering includes representatives for countries as different as China, Syria, Iran, Italy, Great Britain, the Philippines, Latvia, and Denmark. The questions are highly relevant. And the discussions are interesting!

Lezel introducing her chosen work of art, Silver Sculpture by the artist Arthur Köpcke, to the group. She has handed out worksheets and ask us to pick our own words to describe the sculpture – how do we see this work of art?

Vahid and the group standing next to the sculpture Hercules Wrestling with Antaeus (unknown artist), which is housed in the museum collection of older European art from 1300-1800.

Maija by her chosen artwork: a video of a performance called The Nation by the artists’ group J&K. She wants to discuss what the concept of “nation” means to each of us.

Lezel, Maija, and Vahid remain optimistic after their visitors have gone. They have tested a lot of things on their audiences and have made notes of the adjustments they want to make prior to the actual film shooting.  And within the project group our smiles reach from ear to ear: the students are subjecting us to the same exercises we did with them at a workshop in November of 2013! They have incorporated our dialogic way of working with lightning speed – now, they too encourage us to discuss the art and share our experiences with the other people in the group.

A dramatic day within Danish politics

On 30 January we are about to visit Thorvaldsens Museum. The four students currently on short-term project employment there will show us their chosen works and talk about them. This is their dress rehearsal. Just before we leave the SMK, breaking news are announced, prompting many of us to check our mobile phones for more information. The Danish left-wing party SF has left the Danish government. The room is heaving with the news, and we discuss it with great fervour. Vahid asks what it all means. The issue proves quite difficult to explain, but it all prompts several excellent talks about the Danish political system and about political attitudes.

Precisely because the language students are not just visitors, but actually arrive at the SMK every day and have become part of our office setting and our collegial community, not everything is about words and art when we talk. Nor is it about film scripts: We also talk about – Danish politics! And about everyday life, turns of phrase, family, childhood, Danish habits and routines. And about Iranian, Latvian, and Filippino habits. Anything can prompt explanations and wonder. Often, those of us who are ethnically Danish start wondering about things we are used to saying and doing. Why do we do it like that, exactly? Why do we say the things we say? And why can’t you say certain things in certain ways?

We arrive at the dress rehearsal at Thorvaldsens Museum, which is located right next to Christiansborg, the palace that houses the Danish Parliament. It is funny to think how tensions  are running so high in the vast palace right around the same time that we are navigating our way through Thorvaldsen’s marble and plaster sculptures.

The four students at Thorvaldsens Museum have selected three sculptures and a painting. They present their works, and we ask questions and offer comments. These students only have one working day left before shooting commences, so only a few details need adjustment here. We are impressed and relieved that at the SMK we still have three days left before shooting commences.

Dress rehearsal at Thorvaldsens Museum: Kay from England, Jiang from China, Tariq from Syria, and Francesca from Italy present their favourit places and artworks at the museum.  Like Maija, Lezel, and Vahid they are employees at the museum and are currently working on their film scripts about words and art. Kay’s favourite place at the museum is its cellars, where the collection of plaster casts is exhibited.

Kay talking about her chosen work of art, Ganymede with Jupiter’s Eagle

Kay, Tariq, Maija, and Lezel in the Thorvaldsens Museum’s collection of paintings. Francesca has chosen a painting that is exhibited here.

Final preparations

It is the day before shooting at the SMK begins. We make a final tour of the three works of art as we rehearse. Maija, Vahid, and Lezel still bring their manuscripts along, but are becoming increasingly independent of them. We try out different locations, time the process, practice how to pronounce particularly difficult passages, shuffle passages within the manuscripts around – and laugh a lot. The intensity is palpable, and nerves are jangling. Rumours begin to circulate: perhaps Vahid will turn up for the actual shoot wearing his wrestling judge’s uniform!


We´re shooting the actual film today! The SMK’s department for digital production is ready. The battle plan has been laid, and if everything goes according to plan we should be able to complete shooting in 4-5 hours. The crew set up lights, adjust balances, and rig the microphones. The films all feature an introduction to the speakers – Vahid, Lezel, and Maija – and to their chosen works of art. The language spoken alternates between Danish and the speaker’s native languages.

The film crew at work at the SMK.

A hospital ward and a silver sculpture

Lezel is a trained nurse, and on one of her first days at the museum she visited an installation by the artists Michael Elmgren &  Ingar Dragset: a hospital ward with beds, patients, and plenty of surprises to stimulate the senses. That is why she chose this site for the first shoot, where she introduces herself.

On this particular day the SMK has attracted an unusually high number of visitors, and the building reverberates with talk. It seems as if absolutely everybody wants to pass through the room featuring the Silver Sculpture that Lezel chose as the subject of her second shoot. Kindergarten children bumble their way down the halls. Teens chat and soak in the reality-TV atmosphere with great curiosity. Through it all Lezel continues to patiently relate how the sculpture reminds her of experiences in the Philippines, where she would dive and help remove garbage from the sea.

Lezel chose the installation Please, keep quiet! from 2003 as the place where her film will begin and where she wants to introduce herself. As a trained nurse she feels right at home in the installation, which is very reminiscent of a hospital ward.

We all attend every shoot. Here we see Vahid, Maija, and Julie in Lezel’s favourite room at the museum, the installation Please, keep quiet!

Lezel and the film crew are getting ready to shoot by Arthur Köpcke’s Silver Sculpture from 1961-62, which is on display in the modern collection in the museum’s new wing.

Lezel and Julie review the script before the cameras start rolling. Lezel knows her presentation by heart, but relies on her cues for comfort.

Vahid and Hercules

The film crew moves on, dragging along their many bags, stands, cables, and lights. Vahid – wearing a wrestling judge’s uniform as promised – seizes a desk as the place he wants to present himself. And his chosen work, from the collection of older European art, is the sculpture showing Hercules wrestling. He fills out the space like a pro, having practised how to walk and present information at the same time. He points to details of the sculptor’s work: The artist knew about teeth. They are anatomically correct. As a dentist with many years of experience from his own dentistry clinic in Iran, Vahid knows what he’s talking about.

Vahid has seated himself at a desk in our office and is ready for his first shoot. He chose to put on his wrestling judge uniform and is all ready and fit for fight!

Sasha and Mathilde from the museum’s department for digital productions are adjusting cameras and talking to Vahid about how he wants to present his work of art.

A close-up of the sculpture Hercules Wrestling with Antaeus from around 1600. One of the reasons why Vahid chose this sculpture resides in his fascination with the figures’ teeth. He himself is a trained dentist and is impressed by the sculptor’s attention to detail.

Vahid after the film shoot. It went well!

Vahid has compiled a file filled with notes and a manuscript. On the front page is a photograph of him, Lezel, and Maija – the SMK team.

Danish Golden Age art with a Latvian, Russian, and English twist

After lunch Maija enters the fray, introducing the Golden Age Room, which focuses on how art played a part in constructing a specific understanding of Danish identity. She tells us about her own background: Born in Latvia, of half-Russian descent, Maija has spent 8 years in London as a project manager – and now almost six months in Denmark. To her it seems an obvious choice to take a questioning approach to the concept of national identity. She has chosen a work called The Nation from 2013, which comprises a video of a performance. It is quite a challenge to film her with a video rolling in the background, but the crew manages to pull it off.

Maija wanted her initial presentation shot to take place in a room filled with art from the Danish Golden Age of art, i.e. early 19th century art.

Maija in front of her work – a video with a performance by the artists’ group J&K, The Nation from 2013.

The film crew collect their gear.  Everyone is happy! And relieved and exhausted.

The day after

The following day, on Friday 7 February 2014, we – and Maija, Lezel, and Vahid – have invited all the language students who have taken part in the project workshops to attend that evening’s SMK Fridays event; one in a series of monthly events that take place in the evening and extend past the museum’s usual opening hours. A flock of students appear, we introduce them to that night’s programme, and then they let themselves be engulfed by art talks, secret concerts, film screenings, street food, bars, and each other’s company.

This event marks a new positive experience at the SMK: a new group of guests have now become familiar with the museum and with the Friday Night events. If the place meets their expectations, they will return for more – bringing even more new visitors with them.

Written by Annette Skov, Julie Maria Johnsen og Nana Bernhardt.

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Updated: 18.nov.2014
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