In the work of Danish artist Henrik Olesen, born 1967, the concept of ‘information’ is not merely central, it has a twofold operating mode. Many of his works appear to be a harsh and cutting examination of the interaction between powers, sexual genre and access to legitimisation—thus in some way working towards the production of information, or disinformation. Olesen seems to place the spectator in a zone that is much more viscous and opaque than the information itself, within a diorama of exclusion and privilege. Better yet, his installations, sculptures and textual interventions, appear to reproduce the effects of the uptake of an information that is normative, exclusive and dominant in the very position of the spectator; they seem to dramatise the condition that they appear to have just denounced, even make it performative.
And it is in this ambivalence that his work wedges itself into the conscience as an aesthetic disturbance and a cause for political unease. Olesen’s analytical methods mostly resort to the dense and punctual memory of the vocabulary used in conceptual art and appropriation art, particularly in the equation between display, visibility and power that artists such as Jenny Holzer, Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine have centered on in their research concerning genres. I believe that the concept of ‘visibility’ is key to this artist’s work, and that it is precisely what enables this twofold experience of information.
In his frequent use of display methods such as the showcase or synoptic panels, Olesen seems to proceed to surgically dissect history and accounts, to their removals and their idiosyncrasies. In these cases he attacks visibility head-on, but in reality he uses the same weapon, division and typological classification, as he did in his more recent solo exhibitions in 2007 at the Migros Museum in Zurich and at Daniel Buchholz, respectively called Some gay-lesbian artists and/or artists relevant to homo-social culture born between c. 1300-1870 and Some gay-lesbian artists and/or artists relevant to homo-social culture I-VII. Olesen takes the research and comparison method developed by Aby M Warburg in his Mnemosyne-Atlas and makes an adaptation of homosexual representation in an archeological key. In this atlas of images in which ambiguity and exhibitionism, secrets and obliging manners alternate, Olesen divides his iconographic sources according to criteria such as ‘The Appearance of Sodomites in Visual Culture’, ‘Anti-Homosexual Trials’, ‘Fathers/Masculinity/Dominance’, ‘Some Faggy Gestures’, ‘The Effeminate Son’, ‘Melancholy’, ‘Female Societies’ or ‘Lesbian Visibility’.
In this—his—working method within obscure areas and in the ganglions consigned to oblivion by the official art history, Olesen reproduces and modifies the marks of the instrument of extreme visibility that produced the conscious state he appears to want to undermine from within.
But despite this apparent attempt we might define as ‘didactic’, in other works he takes a different direction—that is nearly the opposite—in an attempt to identify himself with the spectator in the condition of hypervisibility into which history, politics, systems of knowledge and truth have dropped homosexual identity over the centuries.
In order to do this he adopts not the devices used for analytical, descriptive, direct presentation, but rather a strategy of concealment, spatial disruption, linguistic and expressive discomfort. This is particularly true for environmental sculptures and installations in which the exhibition space is changed almost imperceptibly through the creation of tight spaces, narrow passageways and small rooms so that they seem to live like dysfunctional and parasitic organisms within the broader space dedicated to art.
This is true for his solo exhibition in 2004 at the Vienna Secession, where such modifications were not only difficult to recognise as such, but were unable to express a clear function, resulting in undesirable and incongruous appearance. The ambiguity of this constricting and artificial architecture was the setting for presenting other works that also made use of the insertion technique, this time in the form of collages and display cases.
As a narrative background, the collages utilised two pictorial novels, La femme des 100 têtes, 1929, and Une semaine de bonté, 1934, published by the surrealist Max Ernst. Olesen introduced depictions of sadomasochistic gay sex scenes, drawings by Tom of Finland and photographic images of violence, domination and abuse into Ernst’s bourgeois interiors. Meanwhile, the exhibition case at the entry to the drawing gallery held a series of illustrations of the same building that hosted the Secession at the beginning of the 20th century together with photos of medical inspections and police actions, and references to the sanctions previously included in Austria’s Penal Code and referring to the act of sodomy.
The exhibition at the Secession was probably one of the most successful examples of this type of ‘dramatisation’ of the condition of constraining homosexual identity within a spatial experience that is rendered to the visitor through the twofold mode of architectonic ‘corruption’ in a coercive key and the other form of corruption depicted in the collages and the cases as a further confirmation of his policy of spurious insertion. It is as if Olesen’s artistic production, alongside the apparatus of information offered by some of his works, also provided for another type of aesthetic experience characterised by empathetic identification.
The continuously reasserted use of insertion in Olesen’s work, its centrality as an operative technique of the eccentric, of that which cannot be normalised and of the off-the-record, allows it to proceed along three main fields of action: the architectural, as seen in Vienna and also in 2007 at Frankfurt’s Portikus for the exhibition Türen (Doors) in collaboration with Judith Hopf: the iconographic, as in his Anthologie de l’Amour Sublime, published on the occasion of his solo exhibition at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover in 2003: and finally, the ‘bibliographic’, which expresses itself in the form of texts elaborated through a montage of different sources, as in his intervention entitled ‘Pre Post: Speaking Backwards’ within the publication Art After Conceptual Art, edited by Sabine Breitwieser for the Generali Foundation Collection Series. In this case, which is Olesen’s typical approach for inserts that produce an estranging and dense mimesis of compensations with respect to censored and hushed stories, he produced a text that also required navigation as if it were an Atlas with its multiple and cross-references, and in which certain historical examples of performance art, such as the works of Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman, are sexualised within a tale told through fragments and correspondences concerning the emergence of secret recognition codes within London’s homosexual population in the mid-19th century.
The topography of the public baths as meeting places and arenas for casual sex in this case functioned as the background for a sea-roving narrative about the eroticisation of the public space and the colonisation of the body and intimacy by social and legislative standards, that acted as the counter-melody to the discourse on the practices of appropriation within the context of conceptual art.
The charm that this textual intervention emanates is infinite, as are the doors that it opens onto the history of the artistic avant-garde and the archeology of queer sexual grammar. It is a compilation that strings together the grammar of colours within the language of sexual fetishisms and John Cage, the first whimpers of the gay subculture as a secret society and action painting, the underground cinema and Jonas Mekas.
The fascination of this intervention—and, I believe, also its fundamental importance for understanding the nature of Olesen’s approach—probably lies precisely in this precarious balance between compilation and introjection of the collective experience, between analytic rigor, political indignation and an extreme form of combinatory subjectivism. The fusion of individual passion and information, of study and intimacy is the ethical heart of didactics, the ultimate sense and the motor behind the transmission of knowledge.
For an artist like Henrik Olesen, for whom the discourse on the normalisation of heteronymous identities is so important, the discourse on education can only be intensely meditated. ‘A Hierarchical Structure of Identity Norms Makes up the Backdrop for a Surface Appearance of Normality in Its Idealized Dimensions’, 2005, exemplary in this regard, is a series of computer printings in which a group of people is intent on writing on a chalkboard: while the words that appear inside and outside the images evoke the concepts of citizenship, subjectivity and national identity, the relational dynamics and the postures of the persons portrayed suggest, instead, states of coercion, constriction, indoctrination and violence.
A long history that covers the modernist avant-garde is embodied in the Beuysian illusion of the chalkboard. It is a history made of idealism, doctrine and creativity, a history that artists such as Olesen revisit in a critical manner, analysing like a productive contradiction that they reposition within their own practices as an object of problematic love.
The ambivalent nature and the happy enigma of information in Olesen’s work, his sabotage of the directness of teaching just when he seems to comply with it, offers an oblique vision and a generative doubt.
Alessandro Rabottini is curator at GAMeC—Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo