Mikael Wivel, Art Historian, DPhil

Hanne Lise Thomsen works with staged photography, something she does to a much greater extent beyond the confines of the art world than within them. Her focus is not so much on a dialogue with a primed audience, as with those less prepared – the audience moving around in real life, on its the highways and byways. Which is why she chooses the city as a backdrop for her images, be it Copenhagen, Damascus or New York. Here her photographs are blown up and projected in gigantic formats onto carefully chosen buildings, carefully chosen places, where people come and go.

They are not switched on until darkness falls and the photographs can light up the night. Due to their sheer size nobody can avoid noticing them, and the message is always simple enough to be grasped – even from a passing train. This was the case on International Women’s Day 2003, when Thomsen used the huge silo opposite Nordhavn Station in Copenhagen as the screen for a slide show she called Kvinder for fred (‘Women for Peace’). It ran for one day only – and only for seven hours.

The work was a protest against the many wars and conflicts in the world, and against the arms industry that keeps them going. But also about providing an alternative to the brutal images that are daily fare on the TV news. Portraits of women of different ages and nationalities succeeded each other again and again on the sides of the silo, forming a Greek chorus that insisted on trying to maintain a voice of reason in an insane world. The same idealism guided the project she made in New York in 2005. It was during the run-up to Christmas, and the projections were portraits of the homeless. This time Thomsen used two walls that were close to each other as her screens. One of them showed the portraits, and the other a text in which the homeless wished everyone a very merry Christmas. The irony was biting, because the big, glittering city was full of advertisements in the same colossal format with corporations wishing consumers precisely the same.

In 2006 refugees were Thomsen’s focus, and her projection was shown in six Danish cities. Here the work interchanged close-ups of faces and short text fragments telling why each individual had fled from their home country to Denmark. By focussing in this way on the individuals and their personal stories Thomsen demonstrated that even though the refugees’ stories might be different to each other, they are also related, and that even though their fate was more tragic than that of your average Dane, they are people just like us.

Thomsen’s latest projection project is her largest and most ambitious to date. She called it Inside Out, and it took place over two evenings in August 2009. The location was two narrow streets – Abel Cathrinesgade and Victoriagade – in the Vesterbro neighbourhood of Copenhagen, a more unassuming or intimate urban environment than she had used previously. The projections did not have the same direct, political goal as the ones above either, but can be seen as a more all embracing gesture.

Inside Out consisted of no less than 60 slide projectors and was made in close collaboration with the people living on the two streets. The images that were shown were chosen by the residents themselves from their own family albums, and showed typical scenes of domestic life, as lived by both children and adults. The projections outside thus showed what happened inside – hence the title.

The projectors stood in people’s windows and projected the slides onto the wall on the opposite side of the street, regardless of whether it was a solid wall or had windows. To make the images as sharp as possible, Thomsen persuaded the city council to switch off the streetlights on the nights of the projections, as a result of which the viewer became far more aware than usual of the state of darkness between the buildings. The changing images above cast enough light for people to be able to find their way around, and created a wonderful atmosphere that shifted between the intimate and the epic. The streets were suddenly enchanted, and the spirit of the place made apparent. People felt at home, and also felt a strangely beautiful solidarity with those living their lives and earning their living here.

Hanne Lise Thomsen is an artist touched by life with a strong, social consciousness. She remains convinced that just taking pictures is not enough: that we have to constantly have a mission, constantly seek a truth beyond ourselves.

Here she becomes part of a strong Danish tradition of social art, the humanity of her works linking her to brilliant Danish artists of the past like Peter Hansen, Aksel Jørgensen, John Christensen, Sikker Hansen and Palle Nielsen. Although with a different, more contemporary use of imagery, and an approach in which her many fellow players and the development from the idea to the work form integral parts of her creative process.