May 4th, 2008


Haunted by a horse

I was haunted on my trip to Denmark. Not by the ghost of a murdered king on the ramparts of Elsinore, but by some of the most mournful air conditioning systems I've ever heard. The bathroom in my room at the Cabin Hotel in Aarhus was filled with spine-tinglingly creepy sighing, as if a spirit were trapped under the shower drain. Later, the same spook seemed to follow me on the train to Fredericia.

Danish TV is already creepy enough, filled with the subtitled ghosts of old 80s American TV shows. I sought something more specifically Danish at the reconstructed village called Den Gamle By (The Old Town) and in the Aarhus art gallery, where I found the windswept 1930s canvases of Jens Sondergaard and Nils Lergaard satisfying, in a harrowing, windswept way. But the spookiest, most fascinating thing was the song that accompanied a 1970 Super 8 film of a horse being sacrificed out on the pack ice. I got obsessed with the mourning song about the horse, returning time and again to try and record bits of its strange open chords, its mournful shamanic singing, part Nico, part Bjork. And of course the wind, keening in the background.

Fluxus seems to have had tentacles everywhere -- the Danish wing was represented by people like Bjorn Norgaard, Lene Adler Petersen -- who made the horse film -- and the composer Henning Christiansen (right) who made the song that accompanies it. They came to Scotland with Joseph Beuys in the early 70s, invited by Richard Demarco, and you can hear the results (someone -- possibly Beuys himself -- tuning a piano in the courtyard of the Edinburgh Art College, for instance) on the Henning Christiansen page at There's nothing quite like the Horse Song there, though perhaps Abschiedssymphonie comes closest; field recordings and vocal gestures mixed with piano composition and primitive scratching noises.

The Fluxus Danes killed a horse out on the ice partly as a protest against the pointless human sacrifice then going on in Vietnam, partly to "comment on the way in which museums accumulated our common heritage". You can actually see clips of the Super 8 film "Hesteofringen" -- warning: it's rather disturbing -- here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). I've made an mp3 of the song so that it can haunt you as it now haunts me:

The Horse Sacrifice, Henning Christiansen (stereo mp3 file)

I'd never heard of Henning Christiansen before, but you can read about him on this page -- how he attended the Darmstadt summer school in 1962, then hooked up with George Maciunas' crew in Wiesbaden and joined Fluxus, "embracing a multitude of disciplines verging on the political, including performance, painting and making music with stones, buckets of water, glass bowls, sheep, birds and tape delay". And here's a glimpse of a 2007 show he mounted. He's an old troll now with green ears, but still making music more haunting than the Danish air conditioning.

As for the horse, its spirit lives on; we don't need to look far to find new pointless wars for the poor beast to symbolize.