Bjarne Melgaard: Chaotic Expressionism
The New York-based Norwegian artist is drawn to big subjects – violence, sexuality, destruction, aging, self-expression. His exhibitions are dense installations packed with paintings, sculptures, readymades, photographs, and contributions from friends working with art, design, or literature. Jennifer Krasinski speaks to him about the visual dimension of writing, the death drive in homosexuality, and the irrelevance of cultural relevance.
Alongside your art practice, you’ve written a novel titled, cheekily enough, "A New Novel". Does the "space of literature" offer you something different from the gallery space, the exhibition space, the studio space?
For me, writing is so immediate. If you have a studio setup, you have paint, you have your canvas, and God knows what else. Writing, you basically have pen and paper. You know, I wrote that novel by hand. All five hundred pages.
(Laughs) You might be the only person alive who’s done that.
I know, I know. I write everything by hand. I’ve been very interested in doing things on first impulse – just doing something and leaving it. No editing, no thinking I have to improve it. Sometimes writing can be so refined, and the language becomes so performative that you kind of become more of a spectator of words than a reader. I’m always very interested in simple language that’s immediate, and a little bit banal. With writing, I also like that visuality goes into another dimension. When you have, let’s say, a painting show, you have a visuality that’s represented. The viewers have an image you created in front of them. But in writing, you have visuality that’s outside what you see – it’s like making images in someone’s mind.
I was also thinking about your relationship to literature when I looked back at the "Baton Sinister" installation in the 2011 Venice Biennale.
Yes, Leo Bersani was part of that project. I made a movie with him where we did this kind of fictional interview. We were discussing a lot of issues that were in his essay "Is the Rectum a Grave?" What he wrote about the longing for death in homosexuality was mind-blowing for me when it came out. He’s somebody I’ve been reading for a long time.
Some artists appropriate texts as a kind of conceptual crutch, but you seem to digest, incorporate, even materialize these spaces into your work in a different way. "Is the Rectum a Grave?" came out in 1981, and I wonder what the afterlife of a text like that is, especially for a younger generation.
With a lot of the literature from that time, you can ask how relevant it is today. Things have changed so much, and that whole scene is like ... I mean, we went through Gran Fury and Act Up and all those kinds of things. You have this whole generation of these kind of post-AIDS writers and artists, and there were people who were really just kind of mediocre. For instance, Douglas Crimp. I think he’s a really bad writer. I was at this seminar with him where he was saying something like, "I can’t have sex outside any more, because the piers are so different now." and I said "What do you expect? It was 30 or 40 years ago! Of course the piers are gone, you know? Stop romanticizing the fucking 70s!"
When you presented Bersani’s essay to the students you were teaching and collaborating with in Venice, were they shocked?
The course I taught was about how gay men went from being afraid of getting infected to eroticizing becoming infected – that whole bareback community. Most of the students were very curious, but what was interesting was that the most radical students were the girls.
Why do you think that was?
I don’t know. Maybe because women are more accustomed to letting something into their bodies, you know what I mean?
(Laughs) It’s not necessarily a radical act for us.
It’s a concept that women are confronted with at least. The whole idea of the barebacker was, in a sense, the idea of the stranger invading your body, and I think, although the guys had no problems with it, it was maybe easier for the girls to get it. The idea of being potentially infected is kind of like potentially getting pregnant, especially in Italy where you have this family structure that is so strong and repressive and Catholic. So I think that was part of it, too.
Have you noticed that younger generations have a different relationship to sexual identities in general? They seem to prioritize a kind of fluidity whereas once upon a time, people labeled themselves, and it was a proud political statement.
There used to be this set gay identity that I experienced, and we were all supposed to fight for various rights: the right to be in the military, or to have kids, or whatever. Now we have this new generation that doesn’t even really want to be labeled gay anymore. It’s interesting, but I think it can also be very lazy. It can mean that they never have to take a stand. Sometimes I feel it’s a little bit cowardly to swing through all kinds of sexual identities in a very consumerist, easy going, casual way. I’m more like this neurotic outsider, living a life of sexual nightmares. (Laughs) I think it’s much more interesting that way.
For you, is the death wish Bersani wrote about still at the core of a homosexual identity?
I think desire is so much more than the idea that deep down inside you are longing to die from it. Most people, they want to live from it. Even if you look at bareback culture, I don’t agree with Bersani and Adam Phillips that homosexuals are a community of people who share the same kind of experiences and are coming together to die. I think it really has more to do with the fact that most people prefer to have sex without a condom.
So it has to do with pleasure.
Yes, I think the pleasure principle is much stronger – the need for excitement, the need for …
… Intimacy? Physical contact?
And a feeling of something being special.
But still, people refer to the »death impulse« in your work, although it seems perhaps darker than that, because what you’re dealing in isn’t as noble as death. There is paralysis and numbness, especially where consumption is involved …
Yes, it’s maybe about a more painful process than death. It’s something else that you have to suffer through – something that isn’t an end. It’s like the problem with suicide. People commit suicide, because they think that the pain will end, but how do you know you won’t end up somewhere worse. (Laughs)
Walking through your show "Ignorant Transparencies" at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise last fall, I was thinking that there is a particular dynamic to your work that’s pointing to some »other« space where art happens. Do you have a firm idea of what that space is?
Well, I think that show also wanted to reach out of the context itself – to present different contexts within the given framework, and at the same time create an exit from them. For instance, the wall paintings were from Michael Haneke’s movie "Amour", which depicted old age as hell. It was the opposite of what the rest of the show was about, which was excessiveness and popular culture. It was all to say that the way out is just another hell – that we move from one prison to another – and we’re just stuck somewhere between these things.
I heard you say once in an interview that you are not interested in art’s "relevance", and wondered if you could explain that a bit more.
I was talking about the expectation that an artist has to create things that are relevant, and if they’re not considered relevant, then they’re thought to have no value, no discourse. I don’t think things have to be relevant. Art is not a court case. You are making things out of the need to express yourself, the need to create something, destroy something, react to something. A lot of people act like there’s a jury, and they’re all drowning in a very moral and dry way of viewing art. You have so-called offensive images, images of violence, but they’re also very captivating. They stay with you, and the more you can look at them, the more they tell you about other realities. If you give these images time, you get over that "this is so horrible and we can’t look at this" thing. Our whole society is permeated by violence. There is so much violence that it’s incredible that more artists aren’t working with these ideas. It’s so prissy.
Do you think it’s too uncomfortable for other artists?
I can’t really say. Maybe it’s also a lack of interest in the subject? I don’t know. Also, if you work with the subject of violence, people think that you’re just doing it because you want attention. It’s hard, because no matter how you explain your work, people just say you do it because …
… it’s shocking.
Yeah, it’s shocking, but that doesn’t mean it’s shocking for the artist. I’m not doing it, because it’s shocking or transgressive – it’s more like part of life around me.
Speaking of which, I wanted to ask about the response to the photograph of Dasha Zhukova sitting on one of your "Allen Jones Remakes" (2013) chairs. Why do you think it caused such an uproar?
A photo like that gives a voice to a lot of people who actually don’t have that much to say. They can feel morally outraged. They may not particularly be involved in other racist issues – when sixteen-year-olds are sent to Riker’s Island for smoking a joint, for instance. They don’t care about that. So it was an opportunity for a bunch of losers online to feel self-important, and come across as people who want the best for society. I showed those pieces three times; in New York, in Rome, and in Paris, nobody said a word.
So why now, do you think?
I would say that it’s unfortunate this woman placed herself on that chair. You’re the most privileged person in the world, and that’s what you decide to sit on? But you know what I thought was interesting too? The chair is a portrayal of a female in a submissive role – a black female in a submissive role. Do people assume that all people of color have no sexual fantasies, no interests in fetish gear? Somehow you’re not supposed to depict a person of color in a sexual position that maybe most people don’t like. It’s interesting to see how a piece of art changes simply because of who’s sitting on it.
You’re taking part in the Whitney Biennial this year – what will you be showing there?
The installation will be in part a collaboration with Travis Jeppesen. I’m making a little stage so he can lie down, because he’ll be reading from his novel for twelve hours. I also wrote three screenplays for films that will also include found footage of different cult massacres, because Travis’s novel is about a cult. And I’ve been reading the novel "Le Divan" by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon; it’s about a man who turns into a sofa. I thought that was very interesting, so I’m building furniture with cushions that have different images printed on them, which I sourced from the deep web.
What do you think about the Biennial as a space to show work?
I think you can show anywhere. It isn’t the space that’s important. Nowadays in New York, I feel people have stopped making art and instead they do shows. They prepare for their shows and then they have their shows, and for them it’s very important that the exhibition space is validated by a certain crowd. For me, that’s all just a fiction. In the end, what you place in the rooms is all that really matters.
Bjarne Melgaard, born/geboren 1967 in Sydney, lives/lebt in New York. Recent exhibitions include Whitney Biennial, New York (2014); "9 Artists", Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; "Ignorant Transparencies", Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York (solo); Lyon Biennial (2013); "A New Novel" by Bjarne Melgaard, Luxembourg & Dayan, New York (solo); "A House to Die In", Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (solo) (2012); Venice Biennial (2011); "Super Normal", de Appel, Amsterdam; "Bjarne Melgaard – Jealous", Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo / Bergen Kunstmuseum (solo). Represented by / Vertreten von Galerie Ursula Krinzinger, Wien; Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin; Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York; Lars Bohman Gallery, Stockholm
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer living in New York and Los Angeles / ist Autorin und lebt in New York und Los Angeles.