A brief look at The Horse Sacrifice

The scene is almost mythical in nature: We are in a field near Kirke Hyllinge on Zealand, a horse – called ”Røde Fane”, literally “Red Flag” – is sacrificed, its red blood seeping into the pure, white snow. Ritual acts are being performed: A woman is singing, a man is playing, while a cleric/shaman/artist is dissecting the animal and carrying out symbolic actions. All are garbed in ritual costumes.

Several of the earlier actions staged by Lene Adler Petersen and Bjørn Nørgaard dealt with myths and religion. With the slaughtering of a horse Bjørn Nørgaard draws on myths and rituals from prehistoric and Viking times, when horses were associated with fertility and death.

The background behind The Horse Sacrifice

In 1970 Nørgaard took part in the group exhibition Tabernacle at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The original concept was to have the horse sacrifice take place here. However, the local police authorities did not allow the horse to be stabled at the museum, and so the action was relocated to a field in Hornsherred. The tabloid newspaper Ekstra Bladet was, rather strategically, invited to attend the action; the reason being that the newspaper represented a different take on a “social institution” which could replace the museum as a framework and setting for the action.

A watershed horse sacrifice
The responses from the newspaper’s readers – and soon from the audiences of other newspapers and media, too – were forceful. Bjørn Nørgaard and Lene Adler Petersen had done what they thought was necessary and did not expect the shock this would cause in the general public. Some were appalled by such hideous cruelty to animals (in fact, the ageing horse was safely put down by a veterinarian); others at the audacity involved in calling this art!

Nørgaard withdrew from the exhibition at Louisiana without having the chance to exhibit his 199 jars of preserved horse remnants left behind by the sacrifice.

Slaughter as a protest against war
The horse killing was intended as a protest against the Danish population’s uncaring attitude towards the horrors of the Vietnam War. The criticism attracted by the work, and the charges of alleged cruelty to animals, contrast sharply with the widespread indifference to the inhumanity of the war.

Bjørn Nørgaard about the action
In the journal ”A+B” Bjørn Nørgaard made the following statement about the action in 1970: ”When the State exercises violence and when science dissects, they do so on the basis of rational reasoning and objective methods. My sacrifice and dissection were irrationally founded; the method was my action. I pointed out how the horse was not just bones, blood, and muscle. The horse triggered a response.” “As long as the artist observes the norms imposed on his role … he is harmless … but the moment he incorporates new areas of reality, areas to which other social groups have exclusive rights, he transgresses against a taboo; he becomes dangerous in political, ethical and moral terms, and then a response is triggered, particularly if he does it in public (in Ekstra Bladet) without hiding, as if he had the right to act freely … the State has acquired a monopoly on the right to exercise violence and kill; the institutional violence we accept is a million times worse and more dangerous that the pleasure-seeking violence we punish.”

Here, Nørgaard offers a glimpse of his reasons for carrying out the action and analyses aspects of the strong response evoked by the action.   

Nørgaard later commented on the action in these terms: ”The fact that The Horse Sacrifice was so shocking to people presumably resided in the fact that it introduced death into the reality of modern people – deliberately and brutally. And by the fact that if anything evokes pity when it involves human beings, it always evokes more pity when it involves animals. But we can only live if we recognise death”.

The debate continues
The action, originally entitled A Ritual Dissection of a Horse, can still appear transgressive and still sparks debate, but it was not originally conceived of as a provocation; rather, it was intended as an investigation. Art historian Troels Andersen has described the heart of the matter in the following terms: ”Bjørn Nørgaard’s early works often seemed provocative. Provocation was not his primary objective; rather, his thoughts were quite simply so opposed to the basic mores and notions of the time that his artistic statements had a much stronger impact that the artist himself predicted.”


Troels Andersen in: "Bjørn Nørgaard", Dansk Nutidskunst 5, 1990, ps.3
Malin Lindgren "Det der blev Danmark", Politiken 22.3.1992

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