Aarhus: European Capital of Culture 2017

Aarhus and Hull have next to nothing in common. Sure, both are ports, and they have similar-sized populations — in the 260,000s — and industrial pasts. But Hull has an industrial present, too, whereas Aarhus is very post-industrial.

Denmark’s second city is now primarily white-collar, with a large population of the young and the smart, and a university with 45,000 students. In its industrial age, the sea was invisible to its inhabitants. Now that the huge port has moved and only a few industrial sites on the waterfront are active, Aarhus is obviously a coastal city, the sea visible from its centre.

For one year only, however, these places have one big thing in common. Both are cities of culture. Aarhus is the European Capital of Culture (along with Paphos, in Cyprus), Hull the UK City of Culture. The Euro CoC scheme began with Athens in 1985 and has included two UK cities, Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool in 2008. The latter was so successful that, in 2009, the then culture secretary, Andy Burnham, announced a UK version that would be awarded to one city every four years. Derry/Londonderry was chosen for 2013, Hull for 2017.

Aarhus museum
Inside the Aarhus museum

It’s a weird idea, but does it work? Both cities have been clinging to the title with a degree of defiance, Aarhus because it got the gig and Copenhagen didn’t. Being “second city” is, in Denmark as in the UK, a mug’s game. Copenhagen has virtually all of the big institutions and museums. Aarhus, with a quarter of the capital’s population, has an identity problem. Hull’s defiance is harsher: it has such a long tradition of being overlooked that the locals now celebrate the fact. “You’re only here for the culture,” fans of Hull City chant at opposing supporters.

The figures, meanwhile, are impressive. Hull wins on opening-ceremony attendance — 300,000 against Aarhus’s 70,000 — but can’t compete with Aarhus’s cruise-ship calls, up from 12 in 2015 to 37 this year, because it hasn’t yet got a cruise terminal. Tourist visits to Aarhus are expected to reach 1.2m, up from 964,000 last year. Polls show that 98% of locals know what’s going on, compared to 76% of all Danes. Hull, meanwhile, claims nine out of 10 residents took part in cultural events in the first three months of the year, a doubling of the pre-CoC bid rate.

On balance, the Hull figures look better at half-time. I suspect this is because it is coming from a low base compared with white-collar Aarhus. In addition, Aarhus (pronounced Orhoos) was already a significant arts centre, not least because of its status as the hub of the Scandinavian postwar design movement.

The great Arne Jacobsen (with Erik Moller) built the city hall, completed under German occupation in 1941. That building and many others gave Aarhus a reputation as a centre of the Scandi design that swamped Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and fuelled the mythology that Scandinavia was a calm, beautiful place where people had great sex all the time.

Aarhus now has the highest cultural consumption per capita in Denmark. The city’s art museum, ARoS, attracts 820,000 visitors a year. Even though 250,000 of those don’t pay — they go for the cafe or the shop — it’s still an enormous figure for a smallish city. In fact, ARoS is the most important place there this year, not least because of Erlend G Hoyersten.

Long-haired, bearded, Norwegian and 6ft 5in tall, he could be a Viking, but is in fact the director of ARoS and a compulsive aphorist: “Seventeen is not about 17, it is about 18 and 19,” he says. “Looking at art is very much like standing on a trampoline.”

Or: “Art is not the sprinkle on the cake, it is the cake.”

About his museum, he becomes very Viking. “We want to be,” he announces, “among the 20 most important art museums in the world. Why? Because we know we are on that level. We think art institutions should play a bigger role in the shaping of society.”

ARoS is a great block of a building, though, in its way, elegant. On top is a “circular skywalk”, Your Rainbow Panorama, by Olafur Eliasson: a multicoloured transparent corridor round which you can walk and see the city and beyond. Installed in 2011, it seems to have played a huge part in the leap in visitors to ARoS, from 220,000 in 2010 to 551,000 two years later.

Hoyersten has launched a triennial, with the first part opening this year. It expands imperiously all over the city. This explains his first aphorism: it’s not just about this triennial, it’s about the next. This year’s theme is The Garden, and it is divided into The Past, The Present and The Future. The theme is in part inspired by the intransigence of middle-aged Danish men.

“The thing that has always puzzled me,” says Jakob Vengberg Sevel, one of the curators, “is that males don’t use museums.” He means, specifically, men of about 50. Hoyersten says he was listening to a radio programme that said middle-aged Danish men preferred to work in the garden. “That is why I was arguing for this topic.” The idea is to get middle-aged Danes out of the garden and into The Garden. “Gardening is a serious business in Denmark,” Sevel says. “We have that in common with the British.”

What the content of the triennial makes clear is that Hoyersten and his curator lieutenants are moving far away from Danish “quiet modernist” good taste and are out to produce something bigger, meatier and brighter than perfect chairs and tables.

One asset of their post-industrial city is its supply of that feature much loved by contemporary artists: the abandoned industrial shed. The American Doug Aitken has taken over one to install his own “garden”. In a dark room misted with water vapour, jungle-dense planting surrounds a white box filled with furniture. Daily, a lucky few are allowed into the box to destroy all the furniture. It is all replaced the next day.

“New furniture will go into it every day,” says Marie Nipper, another curator, “and every day it will be smashed, but by different people. In the morning it will look crisp and new again. It is inspired by American anger rooms.”

The Aitken is a big gesture, one of many. A 4,000 sq metre painting by Katharina Grosse is going to be spread across the coast road. Land art is a central preoccupation of the exhibition, including a meta-“sound art” piece in which Britain’s Tacita Dean provides an installation recording her journey to find Robert Smithson’s now sunken Spiral Jetty, the supreme ground-art piece, in the Great Salt Lake, Utah.

If that isn’t big enough for you, the permanent collection at ARoS includes the lobby-filling, 50-metre Valkyrie Ran by Joana Vasconcelos. Sewn and inflated, it is river goddess as show-stopper and child-fascinator.

All this scale and colour is evidently a reaction to the modernist past. There used to be a quiet modernist sculpture show along the coast. Such works are international, unrooted. “It was more traditional modernist sculpture that could be shown anywhere in the world,” Nipper says. Hoyersten grants it was a great success, “but not in a way we wanted. It had something like half a million visitors, but it didn’t have any impact outside here. So we took it down and forced the triennial through.” Like I said: Viking.

This is not art to be quietly contemplated in quiet spaces: it is in-your-face, look-at-me, be-engaged stuff. Hoyersten is aware of the tensions between bringing in the visitors and keeping up quality. You need to do both.

“If you only strive to be popular, it would be a sort of death, but if you only try to have integrity, that would be certain death. People wouldn’t understand what you were doing.

“We expect there to be more than half a million visitors to this exhibition, and our audience is not the traditional middle-class academics, highly interested in art. We’re trying to develop an audience. This is also a political statement — I am trying to force the art to have a natural role within society.”

Which brings in the third aphorism: art is the cake, not the sprinkle. Hoyersten is critical of the internationalisation of art. “Within the art world, people say they want international quality. I don’t know what that means, actually. And museums tend to look the same because they have the same kind of content, because the people are thinking about importing things. What we are saying is, first we become international, then we start exporting — ideas, a way of doing things.”

Hoyersten is also pretty brutal about “nerdy” curators’ obsession with the contemporary. “A lot of curators have no knowledge of art history. They’re not interested in anything but what happened after the Second World War.”

Contemporary art, though, brings in bigger crowds: look at Tate Modern. Yet ARoS generates 70% of its budget from ticket sales, its cafe and shop: a formidable figure. Twenty-eight per cent comes from the city and central government, the remainder from sponsorships, donors and the like.

And the other aphorism, “Looking at art is very much like standing on a trampoline”? The Viking explains. “Nothing happens unless you put some energy into it. Then you start bouncing. You don’t see the whole world, but you do see a little more of your neighbour’s garden.”

Maritime Museum
An installation, We Are Hull by artist Zolst Balogh, is projected onto the city’s Maritime Museum

Hull’s celebrations continue, ranging from the Floating Cinema showing art films at Hull Marina (August 7-10) to a free exhibition about Philip Larkin in the university where he was librarian (ends October 1). The Royal Ballet reopens the remodelled New Theatre with a mixed bill that will be screened live to 5,000 people in Queen’s Gardens (September 16). All details at hull2017.co.uk.

Aarhus’s offerings include the Eutopia festival of circus acts and musicians (July 26-30); Anohni: Future Feminism, a restaging of the NYC performances created by the singer and four other artists in 2014 (August 11-September 3); and Daniel Bjarnason’s new opera Brothers, directed by the former ROH chief Kasper Holten (August 16-22). Details at aarhus2017.dk.