For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the fourth installment of this 10-part journey.
III. He Wants to See You Again, and Just Be Two Fags Who Kill
Since his emergence in the mid-1990s, Bjarne Melgaard (Norwegian, born 1967 in Australia; lives and works in New York) has situated his entire career as a mode of subjective excess, a dedication to an expressionistic self-realization through art, a belief that art presents a total freedom unbounded from imperatives to “correct” expression. He attempts to represent reality as it is rather than as we pretend it to be, de-sublimating the netherworld of human experience. Citing influences ranging from Edward Munch to New York–based writer Kathy Acker, Melgaard also performs a kind of fictional self-biography. His life experiences, desires, and thoughts permeate his work in such a way that the viewer walking through one of his installations or reading his writing experiences a state akin to an aghast voyeurism: where does this person end and the fiction and projection begin?
I first encountered an installation of his work in 2010 at Greene Neftali Gallery in New York, where the artist had recently moved after a peripatetic journey through Europe over the previous decade, culminating in some mythic bust-up in Barcelona. Titled The Synthetic Slut: A New Novel, the exhibition was designed by Melgaard as one mutating narrative: opening with typographic vinyl sentences on the floor, extending to large, graffitied texts—everywhere language excessive and shifting from floor to sculpture to painting to wall. Luxury readymades— from Maison Martin Margiela suits to couches— were cast around the space, torn, wrecked, and splattered.1 Paintings on view displayed a host of styles—scatological and gloopy impastoed near-abstract works beside over-painted photorealist portraits of the hulking and muscular bearded artist opposite the buttocks of naked boys captured from vintage NAMBLA (North American Boy Love Association) photographs. Much of the text-related exchanges were of an explicit and aggressive sexual nature, men fucking and getting fucked, caught in a highly racialized power-play of abuser and abused, aggressive top and submissive bottom, generally with the black male embracing an enslaved subjugation to the figure of the powerful and frequently explicitly infected white cock. Neoclassical busts, elaborate aquariums with exotic fish, marble pillars, tacky and tawdry kitsch interior design memorabilia, nature photos of a duck-billed platypus—all were conditioned and made somehow palatable by the hypnotic and sensual soundtrack aNYway, the disco dance mix by American-Canadian DJs Duck Sauce.2 The music came from a video playing on a large flat-screen television propped on a king size bed with lush duvet and pillows. About three minutes long, it showed homemade footage of soldiers in the countryside somewhere, pulling masked and bound men from the back of a truck, lining them up on the side of a road facing into the brush, and slaughtering them one by one in a hail of bullets—allowing the fear to sink in before moving to the next shaking figure. It cut to the soldiers laughing and drinking, gathered around a roasting pig on a spit. The video was overlaid with primitive vision-mixed graphic squares in primary colors, throbbing rhythmically to the beat of the music, offering up the material as so much affect: as a coolly distant transformation of content into style. The video depicted Serbian militia slaughtering Bosniaks, but within the context of the power plays thematized throughout the exhibition, it was hard to divorce it from the specters of Abu Ghraib, the sexualized humiliation of another group of Muslim men—here Iraqi—by grinning and titillated American soldiers. Indeed, two hyper-masculine mustached figures made of cut felt—one black, one white—lay on the bed wearing Serbian soldier uniforms and looking faintly comical. Around them were strewn materials from some kind of crystal-meth pig party: bottles of poppers, syringes, and a notepaper in hand-drawn cursive that read, “He wants to see you again, and just be two fags who kill.”
Melgaard likes to ridicule any overt political read to his work, insisting on the artwork’s freedom from ethical responsibility. And while of course he is free to express these views, his insistence on the artwork’s autonomy tempts me to claim the autonomy of the critic from the intentions of the artist. Melgaard’s work displays a keen politics that deliberately opposes itself to that of consensus, propriety, and representation that simplifies, essentializes, purifies, or sublimates the messy factitude of human experience. He is obsessed with identification in a bizarre feedback loop between reality and fiction that maps onto the well-worn debates arising from postmodern discourse by way of queer, feminist, and postcolonialist theory. The perennial realization is that the subject is a figure constructed in language, by society, conditioned to certain behaviors and experiences, some dominant, others marginalized. And the retort that while all this is true, that we are constructed as human beings, it does not mean we can escape that construction in our lived lives: we are inevitably embedded in the material conditions of race, class, gender, and sexuality into which we are born, though of course we can somehow shape, distort, upset, and transform aspects of these inheritances. So, if the subject is somehow a fiction, while also being a tangible concrete reality, where does that leave the fictionalism of Melgaard?
It seems to me that he profoundly identifies with the power dynamics within certain roles, but only if they are self-consciously acknowledged as that, as constructions. And so the highly racialized sexual play apparent in many of the paintings is derived from a consensual interchange of sexual fantasy, much of the language drawn from that actually exchanged between Melgaard and his online hookups from Manhunt and similar sites. Yes, it’s true that these fantasies are derived from real-life taboos that emerge out of, for example, the historical subjugation of African Americans, or for that matter the manner with which homosexuals (of every race) historically came to view their own body: something aberrant and always already diseased. Theorist Tim Dean has described the exchange of cum in barebacking (often attended by a desire to infect others or exchange the HIV virus) as motivated by a form of “radical intimacy.”3 Still others have sought to redeem it as a profound will to self-harm experienced by gay men holding up a mirror to a society that will accept them only if they conform to its normalizations: either an emancipatory rejection of mainstream culture’s sense of correctly assimilationist behavior, using the body as an ultimate instrument of reclamation and power; or a nihilistic—albeit pleasurable for some—surrender to self-abnegation and obliteration. Whatever the case, Melgaard’s strong thematic identification with a barebacking subculture relates acts that are entered into with consent, in profound distinction, say, to the fate of the children in the NAMBLA images, the Bosniaks in the video, or the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It’s where identifications occur without a sense of their essential and essentializing problematics that Melgaard is at his most belligerent. Take, as a shallow poll, the following series of his quotes taken from interviews in 2006 and 2010:
And anyone who wants to call himself a “bear” from my point of view is a complete idiot! I think it’s just a gay excuse for being fat! They could also call themselves reindeer or ponies or whatever, but I just don’t like the fact that they refuse the more general feminine traits of homosexuality. I like guys when they are really “homo” and not just “whatever.” I like men who are not just into ANY men, but into GAY men.4
The notion of class is something I never thought about before I entered art school. I’m absolutely not interested in any kind of sentimentality or belief that the working class has a more pure take on art. In the art world you have a lot of upper middle-class kids, especially in Europe. I think it’s really weird, these ideas of Marxism that you learn that are filtered through art theory. I don’t understand how people can believe in that today.5
On the Art World:
If you look at the art world, you find so many art works about the “power structures” but very few works about the REAL power structures in the art world itself, which would be the most natural starting point for most artists! But, nobody seems to have problems with that! Still, galleries take 50% of an artist’s income for doing nothing except for hanging a picture on a wall! Or how curators really corrupt the art and the artist. I mean, when Wolfgang Tillmans ends up taking pictures of Tony Blair it’s just something really constitutionally wrong. All respect to Tillmans, but maybe we need to see also where stuff develops and not just where it started? What does it mean when gay men so easily portray figures of power and end up giving interviews about how “nice” they are?6
Sentimentality and hypocritical assertions of purity based on the authenticity of the other (class); the identification with tropes of hyper-masculinity offered by a homophobic mainstream culture (bears); or the bland assumption of “criticality” in artists even as they assert conditions of power (Tillmans): all of these positions steadfastly refuse to float Bjarne’s boat. As can be seen from the above quote on bears, however, he is not opposed to identification per se, so long as it is entered into consciously with an understanding of its implications. He likes gay guys who reject men who are not gay, who are into gay men—in other words, men who take a political position toward non-assimilation. That quote comes from eight years ago, and no doubt his position has evolved, especially given that his work is characterized by a radically shifting contextual and relational set of values opposed to any new manifestation of a self-satisfied inhabitation of a position. Yet as I say, it is an example of a self-motivated identification entered into with eyes wide open. In contrast, take the two soldiers on the bed: first, they are soldiers, the ultimate symbol of the erosion of individual autonomy in the cause of a “greater good,” most likely the nation state (the “army of the individuals,” after all, is deliberately oxymoronic). Next, they are gay men, or men who have sex with men, and do so within a rigidly adhered-to version of masculinity (the soldier). They are the embodiments of how society structures and naturalizes violence within conformity to given ideals. The “soldier who kills” can be the hyper-masculinized gay warrior pozzing his comrade; the Appalachian soldier leading her prisoner around on a leash; or the militiaman chewing on pork. Sexual expression and violence can be seen as a byproduct of a sublimation of the self in the service of idealizations and forms of purity.
The focus of mainstream gay politics in the United States over the last two decades has been on the question of rights, the ability of gays and lesbians to participate in the institutions of the state, to openly serve their country as soldiers, to enter into the marriage contract just like their straight neighbors. To achieve these goals, there has been an increasing tendency toward assimilation. The narrative goes something like this: gay soldiers can be just as ruthless as straight soldiers and can refrain from trying to suck their comrades off in the shower; that lesbian couple who has just been denied a marriage license has been in a monogamous relationship for forty years, they have proven themselves. Derivations from an aping of the values of hetero-normative society, from the conventional modes of intimacy declared as paramount by that world, are condemned, ignored, or ridiculed. Homosexuality as a political position that demands at least an antagonistic relationship to mainstream values has been transformed as gays and lesbians scramble to be accepted and tolerated. So rather than actually reinvent society, gay liberation has become subsumed by the norms of that society, or is dependent for its continued “freedom” on its conformity to those norms. It is probably fairly obvious at this stage that Melgaard holds such a position in contempt, something he elaborated further in his 2011 exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Baton Sinister, in which he worked with students at a local university to imagine the palazzo in which they were exhibiting as the headquarters of a gay terrorist separatist group dedicated to overthrowing all sedimented and assimilationist tendencies within gay rights discourse.7
It should be said that Melgaard’s presence as a body and person with a real biography and history is an undeniable aspect of the work and its mediation, as I’ve mentioned. It’s always impossible to decide where the fiction ends and the subject begins (as if such a determination is ever possible), but he has explored a diverse range of sexual activities, has struggled with addiction to methamphetamines, steroids, and sex. It’s easy enough to burlesque him, to turn him into a figure so excessive that he can be both lionized and ridiculed, but his work rewards strong concentration and has evolved with a rigor and sensitivity that is deserving of more careful attention. His most recent novel is a complex, disturbing, and transformative work that continues the difficult play between modes of sexual freedom, biography, and fictional asides so traumatic and visceral that it is difficult to not assume Melgaard lives life in a very difficult personal terrain, albeit with some generosity in his insistence on laying himself bare.8 He has been condemned for his work and exhibitions have been censored, and meanwhile his activities have been spun into a web of half myths and conjectures, some of which he certainly contributes to in his own statements, writings, and work. His production is voracious, ranging from group shows that he curates to solo exhibitions at galleries or institutions, writing books, conducting classes, industrial design, or managing his website.
After my first visit with the artist, we got a car from his studio in Bushwick across the Brooklyn Bridge. En route, he showed me a laminated printout from the Internet with step-by-step instructions for how to fuck a dolphin. He was going to add it to some installation, fascinated more by the idea that someone out there would see fit to post these details than by the act itself. Melgaard was on his way to meet Norwegian bankers who wanted him to design the first actual platinum platinum card. I wondered if he was going to show the instructions to the bankers? Suits are different in Europe, I guess.
1 The exhibition titled The Synthetic Slut: A Novel by Bjarne Melgaard was presented at Greene Naftali Gallery, New York, May 14 to June 19, 2010. The press release, in the form of a long stream of consciousness list, conditioned the viewer to the type of material and tenor they could expect from the installation: “YOU WANNA BE A WHITE MANS BLACK BITCH? TWO MINUTES LATER A REPLY COMES: YES; tote bags; duct tape; flat-screen TV; white, pink, and black marble sculptures; Men Without Love; Old Holland oil paint tubes; Krink inks; black Chanel Ballerines; The Synthetic Slut: New York; Smith & Wesson bear claw knives; Winchester Bowie knives; Manhunt portraits; mounted photographs …” For the press release and images of the installation, see the Green Naftali Gallery’s website, accessed June 10, 2013, http://www.greenenaftaligallery.com/exhibition.php?id=3774&jumpTo=images.
2 Duck Sauce (Armand Van Helden and A-Trak), “aNYway” (official video released 2009 by Fool’s Gold Records), YouTube video, posted by “datarecordsuk” on October 9, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWM5D3MwSgA.
3 Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). In this book on the subculture of barebacking, in which gay men, often HIV positive, deliberately have sex without condoms (a process referred to by some as “pozzing”), Dean examines ways that the conscious sharing of the HIV virus creates “a new network of kinship among the infected.”
4 Bjarne Melgaard quoted in Slava Mogutin, “Anabolic Warrior: Interview with Bjarne Melgaard,” Butt Magazine 16 (2006), accessed June 10, 2013, http://slavamogutin.com/bjarne-melgaard/.
5 Bjarne Melgaard quoted in Kayla Guthrie, “Painter as Pig, Painting as Prostitute,” Art in America (June 16, 2010), accessed June 10, 2013, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/conversations/2010-06-16/bjarne-melgaard-the-synthetic-slut/.
6 Bjarne Melgaard quoted in Mogutin, “Anabolic Warrior.”
7 Melgaard’s project was commissioned by the Office of Contemporary Art, Norway. In addition to the exhibition Baton Sinister, which took place in the Palazzo Contarini Corfù, the project was accompanied by a postgraduate seminar given by Melgaard at the University IUAV titled “Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions about AIDS,” which explored militant potentiality of non-assimilationist behaviors, using the discourse of AIDS as a starting point. The exhibition involved the collaboration of the artist’s students, and included as a centerpiece a video titled Bjarne Melgaard interviews Leo Bersani. Bersani, a noted queer theorist radically opposed to assimilationist tendencies in mainstream gay culture, was a guest lecturer at the University at the time. In the conversation titled “Illegitimate Gays: The Loss of Activism,” Melgaard interviews Bersani, Charlie Rose–style, about the continued relevancy of Freud’s theorization of the death drive, the misguided utopianist optimism of some contemporary queer theorists, and contemporary gay activism, among other things. While Bersani resists Melgaard’s gestures toward violent militancy throughout the video, he does suggest that a radical restructuring of intimacy, and therefore society itself, is required. In postproduction, the artist introduced numerous animated disruptions that had the effect either of undermining the discourse, or of heightening it through an almost Brechtian displacement, depending on your point of view. For more on the exhibition and seminar, see John Kelsey, “The Ignorant Schoolmaster,” Artforum International (September 2011): 295–297.
8See Bjarne Melgaard, A New Novel by Bjarne Melgaard (Oslo: Aschehoug, 2012). Too involved to elaborate here, the book is an episodic diary of a character called B, documenting his personal life and journeys through the art world. Critic Ina Blom’s Afterword to the book is a useful analysis of Melgaard’s written oeuvre.