Some interesting manoeuvres in the dark room

“I am addicted to koldskål. I know all the brands. The best one is the orange box with the flowers on it,” confesses American performance artist Mary Coble. Since moving to Denmark in 2010, Coble marks the seasons with food: æbleskiver in winter, koldskål in summer. Koldskål, the buttermilk dessert sweetened with sugar and vanilla and served with cookies, has become Mary’s favourite summer treat. “I have tried to embrace opportunities I have had in Denmark. I will try anything here.” Though she still has her mom mail her favourite foods from her childhood in the southern United States, like country ham, Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, or grits, Coble has enjoyed learning about Danish food traditions. “Surprisingly, I have grown to love rye bread.”

“But I don’t want this to all be about food!” laughs Coble. Her first solo-exhibition in Copenhagen, Maneuvering, opens at Overgaden on June 16. It will predominately feature new photography, video and performance pieces. “I am excited about sharing this work with my adopted city,” says the artist.

The idea for the central pieces in this exhibition came from a visit to the small shipping town of Nakskov, Denmark. There, the beauty of an old shipbuilding warehouse struck Coble’s imagination. Though the warehouse was no longer in use, visitors could see the layers upon layers of drawings – plans for building ships –covering the floor. Coble, whose background is in photography, began her project by photographing the shipyard floor. She then developed a performance and a sound piece based on the visual research conducted in the town. Coble will present the live performance on the opening night of her exhibition at Overgaden.

“For the performance, I will be hanging flags from the ceiling of the exhibition space,” explains Coble. The flags she is using are based on the flags typically used in the International Code of Signals, the flag code used to communicate between ships at sea. “I am interested in using the flag code signals to talk about miscommunication and misunderstanding,”

Coble’s previous artwork has explored communication codes. For example, in her performance piece from 2008, Blood Script, she collected offensive words, such as ‘slut’ or ‘dyke’, along with racial slurs and then had the words tattooed, without ink, on her body in a performance at New York City’s PULSE art fair. This painful performance addressed how harsh communication through vulgar words can cause pain.

Coble is interested in using her artwork to talk about intolerance in society. Through her performance and photography work, she hopes to present marginalised communities to her audience, creating space for difference in the larger public.  Her work most often deals with issues associated with LBGT communities, but she also works with environmental issues and racism, exploring social injustice in all forms.

The artist received her master’s in fine art from George Washington University in 2004, and she began teaching directly after graduate school. She taught for nine years at both an art academy and a university in the United States. Now, she is an associate professor at Funen Art Academy in Odense. For Coble, teaching in Denmark is different than teaching in the US. “I am not standing in front of the classroom feeding information to the students. We are looking to learn from each other,” she explains.

Teaching at the Funen Art Academy, Coble develops her curriculum based on her interests.  The school is modelled on a workshop-based teaching system, and Coble has lead workshops on photography and the history of performance art, among other topics.  “My teaching feeds my art and my art feeds my teaching. It seems like a perfect collaboration,” says Coble.  

“I moved to Denmark for my job, but I feel like I have found a different way of life,” comments Coble. The career-centred life she led in Washington, DC, shuttling between teaching requirements and other work left little time for relaxing. In Denmark, Coble has readily adopted the Danish attention to life work balance.  She loves how the pace of professional life in Denmark gives her more time for family and travel. Coble notes that the occasion to leave work early, grab a bottle of wine, and sit in the park, if the weather is nice, arises more often than not in her new Copenhagen home. “I just wouldn’t take the time to sit in the park and enjoy the sun, when I lived in the US,” she says.

Being in Scandinavia isn’t all about relaxing in the sun, however. Recently, Coble spent a month in Umeå Sweden, at the Iaspis Artist Residency. There along with her collaborative partner, Blithe Riley, she developed a series of performances for video. The performances feature Coble dressed in a black snowsuit engaged in challenging outdoor activities such as climbing huge snowdrifts, or drilling holes in the frozen sea.  “It was so cold there. We weren’t sure why we were pushing ourselves in that landscape, but we wanted to get a good shot,” the artist explains. The dramatic imagery from this Nordic video project will be another part of her upcoming Overgaden exhibition.

As an artist, social codes and miscommunication are a source of inspiration in her creative work. Of course, as an international living in Copenhagen she finds opportunities for miscommunication on a daily basis. “I often have to repeat words several times before people understand me – maybe it’s my Southern accent,” she laments. Despite the confusion of being misunderstood on occasion, she says there are more things to like in her Danish hometown than not. “There are many things I don’t miss about the US. I have more time here and I really enjoy that,” says Coble.

Overgaden, Neden Vandet 17, Cph K; starts June 16, ends Aug 5; Free Adm; open Tue-Sun 13:00-17:00, Thu 13:00-20:00;