Join in on a golden journey and discover how artists have always used gold to wield power and magic.

22 April to 8 August 2021


Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (detail), 2010. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Deposit from The Frahm Collection.

Gold has always fascinated us humans. In contemporary art and for the people of antiquity alike, the glittering material is associated with light, embodying hope of an afterlife. But gold can also represent an abyss we are lured into by our own vanity, revealing darker aspects of man such as greed and a lust for power.

Fascination and seduction

Humanity’s fascination with gold can be traced all the way up through art history and human culture. We desire, carry and use gold in our everyday lives – for example to showcase our beauty or power in flashy ways. We express our deepest love with a gold ring and create religious objects out of the precious and beautiful material. Gold is also an important part of popular culture – from kitsch to bling.


We express our deepest love with a gold ring and create religious objects out of the precious and beautiful material.


In the exhibition Gold and Magic, treasures from the National Museum of Denmark are juxtaposed with works of art by some of the greatest artists of our time. The National Museum’s Golden Horns meets Damien Hirst’s fascinating gold figures, and Subodh Gupta’s sculpture 1 KG WAR is weighed up against Christian V’s impressive gold medal from the battle of Køge Bay.

Gold and Magic takes audiences on a journey through millennia to explore the power and magic embedded in gold, a subject as vividly present in art today as ever.


Marc Quinn, Sirene, 2008. Private collection, Verona, Italy. Photo: David Stjernholm

The eternal light of gold

Arrayed in the exhibition rooms at ARKEN, the radiance of National Museum’s golden treasures is answered by glittering contemporary works of art. In art history and cultural history alike, gold is closely linked to the sun and the heavenly realm, and our present-day science of astronomy confirms the celestial origins of gold: this precious, heavy, insoluble metal is believed to originate from the energy discharges of dying stars.

Throughout the ages, humankind has perceived gold as a sacred material, and we have used gold in our efforts to connect with the supernatural and in our searches for a deeper meaning to life. In the Iron Age, the National Museum’s Woman from Himlingøje was buried with a small piece of gold in her mouth so she could pay the ferryman in the realm of the dead – and up through antiquity, golden bowls and spiral gold rings were sacrificed in bogs or buried with the dead.


Two golden finger rings from the grave of the woman of Himlingøje. Nationalmuseet. Photo: John Lee

The bloody history of gold

Despite its beautiful lustre, gold is a material with a dark history. Gold is often mined under problematic conditions, and gold objects are stolen or taken by force. Throughout history, power has shifted as gold and other resources have been shipped across continents. Gold played a major role in the colonial era – and gold and power are still intimately connected. The precious material is expensive because it is rare, and through the ages the same gold has been melted down many times over. In South America, religious objects created by indigenous cultures have been looted and melted to make gold coins. Gold has the potential to uphold, parade and break down power structures, and in Gold and Magic, contemporary artists take a critical look at the history of gold and retell it in new ways.


Gold played a major role in the colonial era – and gold and power are still intimately connected.


Golden pendant from the Tairona culture in Columbia. Nationalmuseet. Photo: Kit Weiss

Lorna Simpson, Momentum, 2011. © Lorna Simpson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Exploring gold in contemporary art

In our present day and age, art’s fascination with gold is particularly strong. All over the world, artists are engaging with the precious metal, using it to tell us something about ourselves and our society. Some artists are preoccupied with the magical and religious aspects of gold, while others use gold to show how issues of value, identity and the exercise of power are closely intertwined.

For the video work Momentum, American artist Lorna Simpson drew inspiration from her stage debut as an 11-year-old ballet dancer, dressed in gold from head to toe. Simpson describes how, during her performance, she thought more about how she looked than about the dance itself. While the artist is not present in the work herself, it is based on something deeply personal. By having dancers with golden afro hairstyles and body paint reenact her childhood memory, Simpson explores her experiences as an African American woman.

The exhibition presents works by Marina Abramovic, El Anatsui, Chris Burden, James Lee Byars, Eva Steen Christensen, Zhang Ding, Sylvie Fleury, Subodh Gupta, Louis Henderson, Damien Hirst, Alicja Kwade, Runo Lagomarsino, Mercedes Lara, Klara Lilja, Grayson Perry , Thomas J. Price, Marc Quinn, Ugo Rondinone, Lorna Simpson, Alexander Tovborg, Bill Viola and Ai Weiwei.