New Voices in the Nordics: Esben Weile Kjær

An interview between the visual artist Esben Weile Kjær and curator, writer and researcher, Tawanda Appiah

Portrait of Esben Weile Kjær

Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Casper Sejersen

Artist Esben Weile Kjær has made a name for himself just two years after graduating from his alma mater: The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He has earned the title of rising star due to his deeply resonant practice, which intertwines pop culture and art history. Additionally, Weile Kjær curated the highly acclaimed exhibition 'BUTTERFLY!' at ARKEN Museum for Contemporary Art in 2023, featuring artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Sarah Lucas, and Sophie Calle.

Weile Kjær and I met last year in Paris during the height of summer and recently attended the preview opening of the 60th Venice Biennale: 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere,' curated by Adriano Pedrosa. In our conversation, we revisit these moments as he delves into his practice, ranging from earlier exhibitions, like 'HARDCORE FREEDOM' at Copenhagen Contemporary (2020), to his connection with nightclub culture and the societal angst reflected in his sublime sculptures and performances.

Weile Kjær also offers a glimpse into his upcoming shows, including his biggest solo exhibition to date, 'Solar System,' scheduled to open in October at Kunsten Museum of Modern Art.

Esben Weile Kjær, 'HARDCORE FREEDOM', installation view, 2020

Courtesy of the artist and Copenhagen Contemporary. Photo by David Stjernholm

In your artistic practice, you often blur the boundaries between sites, mediums and temporalities. One exhibition that comes to mind is 'HARDCORE FREEDOM' at Copenhagen Contemporary. Why is this important to you?

It is somehow the core of my work, the aim of wanting different methods and aesthetics to collide. I never signed off to one method or look. I like to play around with hierarchies of taste. For me it’s all about experimenting with and dissecting contemporary culture. When I work in-between music, sculpture, light, and performance, I feel my work is somehow whole and open.

Esben Weile Kjær, 'BUTTERFLY!', 2023

Courtesy of the artist and ARKEN Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by Frida Gregersen

I deeply admire the way you work with form. Your sculptures exude an unsettling allure and are often large-scale, meticulously crafted, and whimsy, such as 'BUTTRFLY!' (2023). How do you position yourself within the history of sculpture?

Thank you so much. My sculptures always have pretty direct references to art history. It is often already pre-existing sculptures that I’m fascinated by and then my work begins from there. I often take an existing work, it could be a sculpture from a Baroque castle, and then I mix it with something from contemporary pop culture.

I just met you in Venice for the preview of the 60th Venice Biennale: 'Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere,' curated by Adriano Pedrosa. I believe that city embodies many of the contrasts and qualities I'm interested in. When I walked through San Marco there were these lions with wings in bronze lying on top of columns. Around these sculptures you have extremely exclusive fashion stores and their fronts are decorated with big colourful flowers and shoes. Then you also have these weird galleries where you can buy a small Jeff Koons sculpture and a horrible small Donald Duck sculpture with graffiti on it.

There are a lot of similarities in these three places even though they are so different. They are all part of the same scenario. They are all surreal. I hate it, I love it, I get so confused, and try to show that confusion in my sculptures. I use painted bronze, steel and glass to make objects that looks like plastic. They are so conflicted in their own existence.

Esben Weile Kjær, 'HYPER!', Miami, Florida, 2022

Courtesy of the artist and Andersen's

In your performances, such as 'HYPER!' (2022), the body is always placed in relation to other bodies in a fluid and ever-changing setting. What is your relationship with performance and its unfolding in real-time?

The setting of 'HYPER!' (2022) consists of these giant inflatable silver flowers that are made of the same material found on the surface of reflector boards you normally use in photo shoots. The performance is like a fashion show that is deconstructing itself from within.

The big meat eating flowers bounce around and the bodies become small and silly somehow. Fighting, kissing, falling, posing. Trying to create the perfect image but somehow getting eaten by the set itself. In my performances the bodies and the special effects are aligned. They perform together but not with the body as the main act.

Esben Weile Kjær, performance for the opening of 'BUTTERFLY!' at ARKEN Museum of Contemporary Art

Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Betty Krag

The nightclub seemingly appears as a character, method, and experience in your work. What does it represent to you, and how does sound affect your work?

I think parties and gatherings in general have always interested me. I’m very interested in these rituals that exist and the architecture that facilitates them. The nightclub is one institution and the festival could be another. The casinos, the bars, the churches all host an exchange of money and pleasure. The nightclub does it too. All my teen years, I was DJing at clubs. My art practice evolved from that space.

Desire and angst frequently permeate through your practice. Why have you chosen to dedicate significant attention to these themes, particularly within the realm of pop culture?

I’m interested in the psychological impact of post-globalized pop culture. I’m trying to understand what this constant mediation I grew up with as the first generation ever does to us. Desire creates angst, I guess...

Esben Weile Kjær, 'Mirror', 2022, Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Courtesy of the artist and Andersen's. Photo by David Stjernholm

As we wrap up this conversation, could you offer the readers a glimpse into what lies ahead for you this year?

I’m working on a new body of work that will unfold over the summer and fall. I’m starting to rehearse a new performance piece tomorrow that I will show at The Museum der Moderne in Austria in July and at MMCA in South Korea in September.

My biggest solo show to date will open at Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark, in October. The title is ‘Solar System’, and the exhibition will feature a landscape of concrete sculptures that resemble buildings or monuments. Above these fragments, a large neon sun will shine, and in between, giant diamonds and shiny insects will live. I have been working on it for two years now, and I’m super excited about this show; I can’t wait to see all the elements come together.

My solo show at Trauma Bar und Kino in Berlin, opening during Berlin Art Week in September, will introduce some of these elements. I think people will recognise some of the methods I’m using here but will also be surprised by the new direction in the work.

"For me it’s all about experimenting with and dissecting contemporary culture."

Esben Weile Kjær


Spanning sculpture, video and performance, Esben Weile Kjær’s work draws on the history of pop culture and pop music to investigate themes of nostalgia, authenticity, and generational anxiety. In an attentive though reckless visual language, he investigates today’s event economy, often focusing on marketing tactics and the aesthetics of the entertainment industry - mainly to consider art’s relationship to its surrounding cultural industries. As such, his work not only attempts to mimic other cultural modes of performance, but to become a form of performative pop culture in itself.

Esben Weile Kjær (b. 1992, Aarhus; DK) lives and works in Copenhagen. He graduated from the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Music Management, Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2015 and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2022.

Photo by Lasse Dearman

Tawanda Appiah is a Zimbabwean curator, writer and researcher based in Malmö, Sweden. His research-centred practice often revisits history to make sense of the contemporary milieu. He is the curator at Skånes konstförening, alongside his independent practice, and previously held the position of Curator of Education & Public Programming at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Appiah has curated several exhibitions, public programmes and interventions including 'FLIGHT' (Malmö Konsthall, 2023) which featured works by Kudzanai Chiurai, Frida Orupabo and Eric Magassa. He was part of the 2024 jury for the Liljevalchs konsthall vårsalong. Appiah sits on various boards including Paletten Art Journal.

Photo by Ikram Abdulkadir