Inverted celebrations. A new series of works by Nikolaj Recke

By Jacob Lillemose


“The [fourth] day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

– John Adams, July 1776


“Born of the age / Flagged hopes / Censored rage / The black clad box /Bombs bursting in air / Bleed white red and blue / Cried dawn's early light / For the hope / Oh where has it gone / Brothers sisters stand firmly and try / Reaching the spacious ski-ies / Fourth of July”

– “4th of July” by Beach Boys


Nikolaj Recke’s new series of works is entitled 4th of July referring to the date when the photos and the video were shot. The 4th of July is no ordinary day, at least not in the US, where Recke made this series in the summer of 2007. Known as Independence Day, it is the day when Congress ratified the official statement declaring that the thirteen American Colonies were no longer part of the British Empire but a nation of its own, the United States. A new empire was born and ever since the day has been celebrated all across the country, with pomp, parades and all the paraphernalia Adams mentioned.

One of the most spectacular and grandiose celebrations are the fireworks over New York City’s East River. It is a literal explosion of colours and patterns that testifies to the greatness of the nation. 4th of July is a documentation of the fireworks but with the colours inverted so that (night) sky is turned white and the patriotic reds, blues and whites are turned into nuances of purple, turquoise, brown and black.

Recke’s inversion of this celebration of the nation is a conceptual gesture manifested through visual effects. With simple, subtle means he distorts the familiar imagery of fireworks to make us reflect on what we see. Instead of icons of identification the imagery become figures of ambiguity that pose complex questions. What kind of nation do these images refer to? And, what’s more, what kind of celebration?


The inversion suggests an underlying irony in that the US is celebrating its independence at a time when it is at war in Iraq, a country that the US invaded and made dependent on the US. And that the celebration takes place in New York City that was itself “bombed” in 2001, an event that led to the decision to go to war in Iraq, only adds to the irony.


Although Recke makes a very conscious use of aesthetic effects, 4th of July is not a spectacular documentation, like the ones presented by most media, be the subject matter 4th of July celebrations or the war in Iraq. The effects are not about beauty in the popular sense but are connected with notions of distortion, alienation, and ambiguity and thus serve to encourage reflection on what is being celebrated and what we are going to war for. Instead of inducing in us emotional or political sentiment these effects serve to reorient our visual senses and to create new spaces for thinking that are beyond the reach of the ongoing bombing raids showering us with media imagery.