Henrik Olesen, I do not go to work today. I don’t think I go tomorrow (detail), 2010, mixed media, 78 3/4 x 59".

Henrik Olesen, I do not go to work today. I don’t think I go tomorrow (detail), 2010, mixed media, 78 3/4 x 59".

Henrik Olesen

Malmö Konsthall

Henrik Olesen, I do not go to work today. I don’t think I go tomorrow (detail), 2010, mixed media, 78 3/4 x 59".

Henrik Olesen’s art is unmarvelous. Unlike the spectacular work of fellow Nordic artists Olafur Eliasson and Elmgreen & Dragset, his is gritty and grounded. There’s no appealing finish—either to his works (collages, posters, sculptures, texts, and three-dimensional architectural interventions), or to his first major exhibition in Scandinavia, at Malmö Konsthall, whose generous, rectangular space has probably never been used this inharmoniously. The far half of the space was packed with material and presented no clear distinction between the different works, while the other half, facing the street, was left almost empty. This rhizomatic installation fit Olesen’s image laboratory in a way that a neatly curated show wouldn’t have.

He is surprisingly little known in his native Denmark, but Olesen, born in 1967, has established himself as a remarkable contemporary artist on the wider scene, for instance with a presentation currently on view in New York in the Museum of Modern Art’s Projects gallery. The retrospective in Malmö (traveling next month to the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel) contains works from the past thirteen years, and what at first glance appeared to be an incoherent accumulation of stuff turned out to be a robust presentation of works tied together by a rough thread.

The first piece one encountered was I do not go to work today. I don’t think I go tomorrow, 2010, a much expanded version of an installation first shown at the Berlin Biennale in 2010. Mounted on Plexiglas panels hanging from the ceiling and on an old dividing wall the artist found in the basement of the Malmö Konsthall, the work displays pieces of electronic hardware disassembled by the artist—for instance, a couple of Apple laptops. The small components are dissected and glued side by side on the panels. This is a witty, straightforward, and paradigmatic example of Olesen’s artistic strategy: Like a surgeon, he opens the surface with a scalpel, revealing the materiality beneath the coded interface.

The next work, a fragmented portrait of British mathematician Alan Turing, also contained images of an apple: the cyanide-laced one that he allegedly used to kill himself in 1954. Turing was the first person to construct a machine that could read and write binary codes. But in 1952 he was arrested and sentenced for homosexual acts. To avoid prison, he agreed to undergo a hormone treatment, in consequence of which he grew breasts and became impotent. Turing didn’t fit a patriarchal, heterosexual society. Through images, texts, and objects, the “Alan Turing Project,” 2008–10, poetically criticizes these conventional power structures and suggests alternative ways to live.

In Some Faggy Gestures, 2010, seemingly modeled on art historian Aby Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas,” 1925–29, Olesen presents an extensive collection of photocopied art images on large black plates. Under categories such as “dominance,” “the feminine son,” “feminine men,” and “sodomites,” he creates a new, more inclusive, and even funny art history, one not dictated by conventional, heterosexual standards. By suggesting this alternative history, he challenges the way society’s complex realities are reduced to what Roland Barthes called the depoliticized speech of myth.

Olesen gives a radical and confusing, sometimes even paranoid, representation of society, and I left the art center with wide-open eyes, suspiciously watching people passing by, wondering what they might be repressing or hiding. And yet I smiled. Despite the rough and revealing character of his work, Olesen is an amusing and often witty artist.

Tom Hermansen