The Naked Truths

Since the mid-1990s, Henrik Olesen has taken apart clichés about gay identity and turned the pieces into visceral installations, sculptures and collages

Henrik Olesen, Some illustrations to the life of Alan Turing (detail), 2008. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne

Henrik Olesen, Some illustrations to the life of Alan Turing (detail), 2008. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne

Stop believing in: hard-working/lazy, woman/man, homo/hetero, father-mother-child, me-you-he-she-it, law and punishment. Instead: Search for the gaps in concepts and clauses, and view these gaps (sculpturally, conceptually, physically) as places where something can be inserted with pleasure, pushed in so far that a gulf opens up between what’s supposed to be and what is, cracking the foundations of supposedly inviolable authorities (knowledge, gender, history…).

This is one way of describing the points Henrik Olesen targets in his work: the fault lines along which social categories connect with objects and bodies, doing so in such a concrete material way that it becomes possible to intervene sculpturally in the connection and break it open. He strips away so much from the normal look of sculptures and installations that only an object, printed texts, image panels and sections of bare wall remain. And their presentation in the space is laconic, sober, understated: a clear rejection of any belief in work as good in and of itself, for Olesen rejects the obligation to accomplish God knows what in the gallery space. But the result of this attitude is not just pure negation; instead, it creates a focus on what makes sculpture, in the best Surrealist tradition, so powerful: its ability to stand in the space as an object whose identity can never be clearly defined. The stark-naked objectivity of Olesen’s handling of materials reflects the Surrealists’ pleasure in seeing how something will doubt its identity when confronted with its own bare physicality. It’s like the feeling in a communal changing room, when you and a stranger remove your underwear simultaneously and for a moment you don’t know if your body belongs to you, or whether any body in the room belongs to anyone in particular at all. Olesen forces materials into such a state: ownerless, physically exposed. And this is intense, incredibly funny in a way, but also aggressive, because it says: stop believing that we are by nature individuals with one property or another (clever, stupid, homo, hetero, female, male …). Property is a lie. Remove it, and the pain appears – and the pleasure begins. Which brings us from Karl Marx via Antonin Artaud to Olesen’s critical sexual materialism.

Olesen has been consistently developing this form of politics, art and humour since the mid-1990s. For example take the installation Zwischenstufe (nach Magnus Hirschfeld) (Intermediate stages, after Magnus Hirschfeld, 1999): In the entrance of the OTTO apartment gallery in Copenhagen, he inserted a second doorframe made of planks: lower than the door at the top and held in place at the bottom right side with only a crushed cigarette packet jammed into the gap between the new threshold and the frame. In the exhibition spaces, there were minimal interventions with baseboards, including one where two lengths met at an angle on the floor, as if they marked the outlines of a second room (a phantom presence in the given architecture). On the long wall, a relatively small gap separated the new from the old baseboard. A crumpled milk carton from ‘Harmony Dairy’ was stuck into this gap. By minimal sculptural means, Olesen manifests the tension experienced by volumes when pressed between planes. And in so doing, he evokes all that is associated, philosophically and sexually, with the cleft, verge, slit and crack.

The title gives the work a specific edge: sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) was a pioneer in the struggle for the decriminalization of homosexuality and advocated a notion of ‘intermediate(s)’ that opposed the simple binary model of gender with a range of possible graduations and shadings in descriptions of sexual identity and preference. Olesen’s insertion of alternative constellations into the existing architecture thus symbolically pays tribute to Hirschfeld’s endeavours. But the symbolism is so specific that it also directly raises the question: How does it feel when you live differently, between frameworks, instead of wishing to satisfy norm X or norm Y? The answers are spatially and physically palpable: the improvisation of constructing other spaces; the pain of being under pressure from outside; the pleasure of insertion. All this is thought through and realised here in material terms.

A special feature of Olesen’s materialist method is the way he displays texts just as nakedly as objects. A prototype of this approach is Autorität (Authority, 2000), consisting of three piles of text printouts for visitors to take away with information about the legal situation in countries around the world: where homosexual love is legal and where it is punishable (in some cases by death). On the floor nearby there’s a men’s black shoe with a text on the insole: ‘Authority’. Standing there unadorned, the piles of paper covered with words say: No comment. Olesen distributes the information, but at the same time he makes space for the feeling of speechlessness which the sheer facticity of the brutality of ongoing discrimination must produce. These text sheets, with information about rights and persecution, have become part of Olesen’s repertoire and are regularly included in installations – updated and/or adjusted to the situation in the host country – like an insistent ceterum censeo.

Henrik Olesen, Autorität, 2000. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne 

Henrik Olesen, Autorität, 2000. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne 

But factuality doesn’t mean hopelessness here. Sometimes, the mood in Olesen’s installations can switch in an instant. Some Faggy Gestures (2010) is a work using text and visual material attached to archive panels. There are panels with information about gay and lesbian biographies, discrimination, strategies for survival and triumphs; then panels with colourful examples of all the things which, according to Christianity, await sodomites in hell, painted by Old Masters; then reproductions of classical portraits of majestic men, some with an astonishingly lascivious looks in their eyes and exceptionally limp wrists; and finally, panels with examples from art history conveying sheer delight in all the things tight trousers have allowed us to learn about their wearers since the 16th century: an archive that appeals unreservedly for libidinous immersion in the Warburgian craze of searching for the basic formulas of our feelings in the form of our gestures, yet accompanied by laughter at the notion that such a formula might actually exist. Some Faggy Gestures offers so many specific answers to the question ‘What do you mean, gay?’ that the image of homosexuality is both drawn and obliterated by multiplicity. And this is no mere exercise in academic deconstruction. The experiences articulated by these pictures – from violence and fear to pride and pleasure – can be just as strongly felt as the reluctance to see these experiences discussed in terms of one (socially imposed) category.

This resistance to homogenization is manifest in the content and composition of the texts and images in a given installation, but also always in the way Olesen handles the material. In the case of Some Faggy Gestures, there is a sense of irony in the passionate overburdening of the archive format, whereas in more recent works the disassembly of equipment exudes a sober aggressiveness. 17” Powerbook G4 (2010) is, as the title says, an Apple Macintosh laptop, but broken down into its component parts and then attached in neatly and clearly ordered form – circuit board for circuit board, screw for screw – to several Perspex panels and hung on the wall. At the 6th Berlin Biennale, Olesen showed this work alongside Canon K 104389 (2010), a printer treated in the same way, and Wall Label (2010), a piece of paper folded down the middle with ink blots and the partly crookedly printed text: ‘I do not go to work today. I don’t think I go tomorrow / Machine-Assemblage I-II 2010 Canon K 104389, 17” Powerbook G4, Plexiglas, chipboard’. Connecting the dots, you realize that the printed sheet of paper is the last product jointly brought into the world by the computer and the printer before their demise.

Henrik Olesen, Some illustrations to the life of Alan Turing (detail), 2008. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne 

Henrik Olesen, Some illustrations to the life of Alan Turing (detail), 2008. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne 

The critical gesture of disclosing the means of production is taken literally by Olesen here, and it involves their destruction. As the label states: the work says no to the work of tomorrow. But this is only one level of the piece’s irony, because this no to production involves a yes to multiplication and distribution. The machines for distributing content, computers and printers, experience their own logic, they multiply, one object becoming a thousand parts, and they spread themselves out over the surface of the glass in an orgy of mechanical self-obliteration: I distributes itself. Physically.

For all their material self-reflexivity, these works cannot be viewed as entirely separate from a series of text and image works on Alan Turing which were developed by Olesen at the same time. Turing (1912-1954) is considered the father of modern computer technology. Less well-known is that he was sentenced to hormone treatment after being convicted for homosexuality and finally killed himself with a poisoned apple which was found with a bite taken out of it next to the body. The macabre link to the Macintosh logo is obvious. Olesen doesn’t show Turing exclusively as a victim of his time, however, but also as a Utopian figure. To this end he invokes Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s ideas of liberated body-machines and follows them back to their source, Antonin Artaud.1

In this light, Turing begins to embody an unfulfilled promise: that of a man who sires machines instead of becoming a biological father; and then, in the interplay of zeros and ones, these machines multiply over and over, forming the conglomerations of partial bodies laid out by Olesen in his de-assemblages. In the image/text collages in the series ‘‘Some Illustrations to the Life of Alan Turing’’ (2008), Olesen deliberately blends the distinctions between Turing the individual and his creations, and between the philosophies of Turing and Artaud. In one collage, a photographic portrait of the scientist appears behind a punch card of zeros and ones under the laconic title ‘Head’; in another, the zeros take on a life of their own in the style of visual poetry, forming a verse image out of numbers into which tumbles a key line from Artaud – ‘When you will have made him a body without organs, then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom.’2 – before the zeros continue, settling into the rhythm of a brief 01010101 sequence at the end. In their respective ways the individual works in the series resonate with a question spelled out by Olesen in several of the collages: ‘How do I make myself a body?’ In one, the question appears typeset and then in handwriting underneath the picture of a single screw, the title of the series and the years of Turing’s birth and death. The harsh fact of his suicide contrasts directly with the utopia of a body, not built from organs, but screwed together out of zeros and ones. The result is the computer as a sexual machine assembled from disparate parts.

Henrik Olesen, Some illustrations to the life of Alan Turing (detail), 2008. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne 

Henrik Olesen, Some illustrations to the life of Alan Turing (detail), 2008. Courtesy: Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne 

In ‘‘Papa-Mama-Ich’’ (Papa-Mama-Me, 2009), the dance of multiplication performed by the zeros, ones, screws and circuits boards comes up against a conflict that is personal and political in equal measure. One work in the series features a fragmented newspaper layout with the words ‘Apropos Reproduction’ printed using a Baroque alphabet with drawings of naked people forming the letters with their bodies. Further texts articulate the dream of a body without organs and the polemic against reproducing the father-mother-child constellation in the spirit of Artaud and Deleuze and Guattari’s L’’Anti-ŒOedipe (Anti-Oedipus, 1972). For all their hardness and clarity, the bodies bending back and forth also suggest something else – the difficulty of dealing conclusively with a question that returns with every darn ‘apropos’, from outside or from the back of one’s own mind: after having broken with the tradition of family, how does one cope with no longer wishing, needing or being able to be father and mother?

There is no final conclusion to such reasoning, only the internal and external multiplications of machines, experiences, objects, texts, pictures, stories and numbers, all of which can (but do not have to) be gay in different ways. In this work, sexuality and materiality interlock to form something that is both physical and symbolic, based equally on personal experience and collective imagination: experience of the norm as well as against it and beyond it. Olesen casts all of this in hard terms, but in spite of its concreteness the work has a speculative, throwaway feel to it, and this, without courting sympathy, makes it vulnerable: as if we were all to come to the show’s opening naked from the waist down, not to sort out who’s what, but to expose ourselves to the surreal objectivity that prevails when the organs of reproduction are exhibited just as factually as the machines of multiplications: the art works. As Olesen shows, such a situation makes confrontations inevitable. But it’s funny all the same.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.

1 In their books L’’Anti-ŒOedipe (Anti-Oedipus, 1972) and Mille plateaux (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980), Deleuze and Guattari pursue a basic idea formulated by, among others, Artaud in his radio play Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 1947): The ideal of the human individual perfectly formed in the image of God the Father is an Oedipal straightjacket into which patriarchal society wishes to force us with the help of its modern psychiatry, and which must be abolished by means of the ecstatic multiplication of the body’s material potential for experiencing social pleasure.

2 Antonin Artaud, ‘‘To Have Done with the Judgment of God’’, in Susan Sontag, ed., Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1976 p. 571

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