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The artist and musician talks humour, tragedy and his exhibition, ‘Shitty Heartbreaker’, at Overgaden, Copenhagen

About 10 years ago, a friend told me about a vocal performance by Adam Christensen, accompanied by Viki Steiti on the cello: ‘It was amazing. His voice is so beautiful… Everyone cried.’ This was during Christensen’s studies at Goldsmiths College in London, and was one of his first forays into singing as part of his practice. Six years later, I saw him perform at Borealis Festival in Bergen, Norway. This time, it was a solo vocal performance with an accordion, and again, it made everyone cry, or at least it felt like that. With a stage presence as preternaturally comic as it was melodramatic, Christensen’s songs mourned love lost, shocking through his cathartic cries.  

Christensen was born in the UK, in 1979, but grew up in Denmark before returning to study in London, where he now lives and works. ‘Shitty Heartbreaker’, his new show at Overgaden Institute for Contemporary Art in Copenhagen, encompasses all of his creative output. From music and performance documentation to textiles to writing and installation: this is work that matter-of-factly details moments of violence and sex, as dramatically concentrated and confrontational as his performances feel.

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Adam Christensen, ‘Shitty Heartbreaker’, performance documentation, Overgaden Institute for Contemporary Art, Copenhagen. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Toke Martins

Nathaniel Budzinski  After I saw your performance at the Borealis Festival, everyone seemed emotionally overwhelmed by your singing but, at the same time, there was a feeling of great humour that stemmed from your onstage presence. Tell me more about that wide sway between feelings.

Adam Christensen  I’ve always known how to make people laugh. On stage, things come out of my mouth that just fit, but I could never plan it. Sometimes people laugh, sometimes they don’t: people laugh at different things, but with pain, it’s quite unanimous. Borealis was particularly intense. I had recently broken up with my ex-boyfriend, en route to Denmark to meet my parents. We were stuck on a ferry together, fallen out of love ...  

NB  Does it hurt if you present something that you have found profoundly emotionally distressing to an audience and then they find it funny?

AC  No, it’s wonderful. It’s best when they laugh, and it’s fun to be the clown. I mean, I am the clown. I am the funny one. And the best stories are tragic, but with an absolutely hilarious twist. 

NB  What differences are there between a music crowd and an art crowd?

AC  With a music audience there’s a schedule, and they come and see something in very specific stages, so you just focus on that narrative.Whereas when it’s an art thing, you run around, hang out, drink, get a little tipsy and then, at some point, you say: ‘Ok, I’m kind of ready, let’s do it’. You have to say: ‘excuse me, this is my space, and now I’m going to be the funny one.’ You have to make your space. 

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Adam Christensen, ‘Shitty Heartbreaker’, installation view, Overgaden Institute for Contemporary Art, Copenhagen. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Anders Sune Berg

NB  How do you think ‘Shitty Heartbreaker’ works without your performance?

AC  I went back and saw the show after the opening, without all the people, the hype or the adrenaline, and found it quiet, romantic. People said later that they felt like they walked into a very personal space, that they can feel a privateness in the text, the hand-sewn textiles. It’s very gentle, in a way. I get a bit shocked about that, because when I’m right there making it, I’m very messy and noisy. 

NB  One of the textile pieces features a Hole t-shirt. Besides Courtney Love, you seem to return to 1990s music quite a lot. Where does that interest come from?

AC  That was when I was a teenager. I don’t think anybody escapes it, that period where you suddenly become your own little grown up. It’s quite a fast period and you get very influenced by lots of things, and as I went to a Danish boarding school that was kind of hippyish, I settled on grunge – that theatre of ‘I’m not feeling so good, oh fuck off’. Growing my hair long; walking around in denim skirts: Every time I did something that was a bit weirder, it was noticed. ‘I'm really performing now’, I thought. ‘I’ve got long hair, nobody knows if I'm a girl or a boy.’And then also the music industry was just really fun at that point. People got rich from just getting one single out. There was this kind of ‘I'm fucking poor living in a warehouse’ attitude. It was super inventive. The music awards were like the Oscars. 

NB Has your musical taste since changed?

AC  The music I’m inspired by now is probably more 1980s: Tuxedomoon, Coil, Psychic TV, Cosey Fanni Tutti. They are just bonkers as people. The music itself is quite entertaining, but what I like about it is its sinister nature. You kind of want to dance to it, but it’s super hard, so you just sway! All of that came a bit late for me. Where I grew up, there was only one record shop, and it only had Danish pop bands and Whitney Houston. It’s great when you realise there’s other music out there, but when it comes a bit too late, you’re like: ‘Fuck, why didn’t I know this as a teenager?’

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Adam Christensen, ‘Shitty Heartbreaker’, installation view, Overgaden Institute for Contemporary Art, Copenhagen. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Anders Sune Berg

NB  The narrative texts that you wrote for ‘Shitty Heartbreaker’ were performed, but also presented on the walls and in audio recordings. They seem autobiographical and much like your music, they’re concentrated, emotional events. Do you see them as confrontational?

AC  At first, I saw them as romantic texts. For the past several years, I’ve been collaborating the artist Sidsel Christensen on a film script called Eyes of Blood, which was the beginning of an erotic thriller. I shared it with the curator and they liked it and suggested I write something for the show. So, I ended up writing short stories about gay cruising, because that was a newfound excitement for me.

The narratives are mostly confessional. But some of them are also dreams. For example, having an orgy with my sister … Of course, that never happened. It was just a crazy dream that I woke up from – although, when I did wake up, I was in a house where we had actually had an orgy …

The show’s title, ‘Shitty Heartbreak’, alludes to these more aggressive short stories and how maudlin they are. Of course, there’s my real breakup, and then there are shitty experiences that I had with a guy with a machete on a scooter who tried to steal my bag, and a chemsex party where you get a little bit of drugs slipped into your drink, maybe. They are, of course, really negative narratives, but when you write them into the short story format, they become a little bit funny – also sad, also aggressive. You don’t know what’s true or not. But isn’t that the exciting thing sometimes?

Adam Christensen, 'Shitty Heartbreaker’ at Overgarden, Copenhagen, runs until 21 October 2018. 

Main image: Adam Christensen, ‘Shitty Heartbreaker’, performance documentation, Overgaden Institute for Contemporary Art in Copenhagen. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Toke Martins