PRINT October 2009



IMAGINE A PECULIAR, ERSATZ VERSION of the censoriously right-wing British newspaper the Daily Mail: Alongside pedestrian stories on pension funds and gossip items about Jude Law, one finds conspicuously incongruous features on Édouard Manet’s lesbian muse and cross-dressing in colonial America. In fact, Berlin-based artist Henrik Olesen has shown us just what such a cheek-by-jowl pastiche would look like. Called Manipulating Media, 2002, the work also defaced headlines with agitprop statistics such as “The USA currently imprisons two million of its citizens,” lifted from sources including Noam Chomsky and Zygmunt Bauman. Such tactics of seditious insertion have now become Olesen’s calling card. Take 1935 1922 and Anthologie de l’amour sublime, both 2003, for which the artist shoehorned photographs of sadomasochistic gay sex and drawings by Tom of Finland into Max Ernst’s already subversively collaged pictorial novels La Femme 100 têtes (1929) and Une Semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness, 1934). The nineteenth-century parlors and bourgeois boudoirs of Ernst’s source material now played host to images of men being strung up, spanked, and ostentatiously subjugated. Olesen pulled off this double perversion of Ernst’s collages simply by inviting a series of emphatically uninvited queer intruders to join the party of Surrealism’s avowedly heterosexual brotherhood.

The artist’s camp détournements also apply to his writing. His 2006 essay “Pre Post: Speaking Backwards” cast a queer eye over some of the most staunchly heterosexual holy cows of Conceptualism. For example, charting a history of London’s invisible homosexual subcultures from the nineteenth century, Olesen mapped these modes of behavior onto Vito Acconci’s Untitled (Project for Pier 17), 1971, transposing Acconci’s recorded confessions (whispered to passersby at an abandoned pier in Manhattan) into an act of cruising.

Indeed, had the art historian Aby Warburg ever acquired an interest in queer politics, his famously encyclopedic and eccentric Mnemosyne Atlas (1925–29) might well have taken on the appearance of much of Olesen’s output. Warburg’s “atlas” obsessively plotted what he called Pathosformel (“pathos formula”), a kind of typological study of emotion, via a vast montage of bodies in motion from antiquity onward. Olesen picked up Warburg’s mantle for his project Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists Relevant to Homo-social Culture Born Between c. 1300–1870, 2007, to tease out fissures and ambiguities within the predominantly heterosexual figures and representations of Western art history. Conceived during two years of research, the piece charted across seven large black panels images arrayed in taxonomies including “Some Faggy Gestures” and “American Dykes in Rome.” In Olesen’s sly rereading, the princely postures and courtly sprezzatura of old-master painters from Bronzino to van Dyck are radically and anachronistically recoded as fauxmoerotic poses.

Like Warburg's atlas, Olesen's new project, opening at Studio Voltaire in London this month, pivots around the body and its reproduction. The artist takes as a starting point his 2008 project How Do I Make Myself a Body? which centered on the life and death of Alan Turing, the pioneer of artificial intelligence and modern computing who was subsequently tried for sexual perversion and forced to undergo a series of female hormone treatments to “cure” his homosexuality. Turing's traumatized body was made impotent and grew female breasts; he was found dead in 1954 after apparently poisoning himself with a cyanide-laced apple. Olesen's latest piece will extend this investigation of deformed figures and codes, of the natural and the synthetic. Here, as in his previous work, the artists produces a series of pointed conflation, entanglements, and interpenetrations of images and text: flagrantly showing off invisible heterodoxies, excavating the hidden, and interrogating the normative.

Nicholas Culinan


WHEN I MOVED TO GERMANY from Denmark some fifteen years ago, I lost my language. I did not understand German well enough even to read the newspaper or converse. I was, however, inspired by all the ensuing misunderstandings, misreadings, and confused codes. I began to focus on dislocating and manipulating existing images and texts via collage, taking only what I liked and leaving the rest. In my practice, I bring a lot of things together in order to occlude who is doing the talking, producing a fragmented voice or body. I understand things through contradictions; I like to argue with myself.

The new exhibition at Studio Voltaire is, appropriately, about bodies and voices turning against themselves. Provisionally titled “Better Sleep with a Sober Cannibal than a Drunken Christian,” it consists of a series of collages, site-specific works, and sculptures—all inexpensively produced and handmade—that revolve around production, reproduction, and self-production. I like these three terms for their implications in both artmaking and sexuality (and all their connotations of desire, politics, psychoanalysis, technology, capitalism).

The collages are each printed on fragile, newsprintlike paper, size A3+. They use selected texts to generate a schizophrenic conversation about bodies, a layered layout of quotations over quotations whose source is never given. In this sense, I interrupt and reactivate the structure of the newspaper: I have overwritten certain sections and marked out new sentences with neon-yellow highlighter, the type you would use in an office. The original newspaper text is partly cut out, partly there, like an annoying neo-liberal noise that never disappears. I’ve also printed the paper on both sides: You cannot see the back when the work is displayed, but it gives the impression that you are missing something. It becomes a strange kind of tissue or membrane.

PERSONALLY SPEAKING, many of these formal and conceptual possibilities were opened up when I discovered that art could be based on texts, information, systems, processes—the materials of everyday life—and that these were all intertwined with the body and sexuality. I found that within the canon of Conceptual art, for example, many works addressed homosexuality—but these all came from straight artists such as Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, and Robert Morris. Conversely, it seems that art history has largely misconstrued the work of gay artists as body-based and not idea-based. (Although, for me, many of Acconci’s works are still decidedly queer statements, and I love, for instance, when he dresses up his penis in doll clothes.) In my essay “Pre Post: Speaking Backwards,” then, I tried to expand and sexualize our understanding of Conceptual art. I wanted to bring homosexual history into a discourse where it is usually not mentioned. I talk about spaces and sites, about secrets and codes—issues that are central to Conceptual art but also to homosexual subcultures. I use descriptions of places that have been co-opted for homosexual use; I quote homosexual artists and artworks, and I claim that a lot of these voices, markings, and statements were—if not overtly conceptual or political—at least an important part of these idea-based discourses. Indeed, I think that we have in many ways emerged from these experiments and proposals: Using examples dating back to the 1690s and jumping through history, I literally make an alternative historical countdown to the appearance of Conceptual art.

I’ve also made references to Max Ernst’s work, but these were about another art-historical conflict. In his early collages, Ernst used images from conventional magazines and publications, and I really admire how he twisted these folkloric images into psychoanalytic statements; he created incredibly beautiful imagery that was also very, very funny. At the same time, however, they seem to stage a particular sexism. My manipulation of Ernst’s collages in Anthologie de l’amour sublime was a direct examination of Surrealism and homophobia. For example, I appropriated quotes from Benjamin Péret—a poet I admire very much, but whom I consider to be deeply homophobic. When Péret writes a poem about André Gide choking on a hammer down his throat, in “André Gide’s Conversion” [1936], it is one of the most extreme statements in Surrealism. But what does it mean that many of the Surrealists were so homophobic? This does not seem to have influenced the way we look at their work or how it is shown. I wanted to visualize the conflict—one that obviously goes much deeper than just Surrealism—inherent in looking at art history from the position of a nonheterosexual male. Such a vantage lies somewhere between fascination and denial—and is infused with masochism.

Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas approximated this perspective on art history: It is a multifaceted, layered array of reproductions of artworks, and I was struck by the way it fragments any sense of linear history. His graphic, figurative methodology was inspiring. My piece on gay and lesbian history [Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists Relevant to Homo-social Culture Born Between c. 1300–1870] begins with reflections about the representation of the homosexual body (and of the spaces around this body); like Warburg’s project, it is very much about bringing large quantities of visual and historical material into various arbitrary systems—creating a meditation on categorization, on the construction of boundaries. For this is precisely what has been defining and hunting the homosexual subject throughout history: boundaries, borders, and laws circumscribing spaces, sites, and bodies. I have adopted Warburg’s graphic strategy—making a replica of an existing genre, a kind of mimicry—throughout my work. The more material I collect, the more it seems to fall apart.