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Issue 38 January-February 1998 RSS

Lukas Duwenhögger

The F-room, Malmö Konst Museum, Malmö, Sweden

When entering the F-room of Malmö Art Museum (putting aside the question of which f-word this may refer to) you enter an aggressive pink cube rather than the white one: the walls have been painted in an outspoken display of homosexuality’s social dissonance.

The shuttle of political difference regarding identity in Lukas Duwenhögger’s show ‘Strangers, When We Meet’ seems to traverse a thematic axis from the out-gay to the ‘discretion’ of the ‘confirmed bachelor’. The latter innuendo-conscious figure persists as a more ambivalent type, thematising the norm- and value-building distinctions of gay visibility: the subject’s exposed position in the ‘glass closet’, as a subject at once transparent and impenetrable, whose tactics are vulnerable to manipulation.

Two of the main installations of ‘Strangers…’ have been run through the artist’s camp, nostalgic-decadent filter. The first, Probleema, is a small, carefully staged, ornamented pavilion, which serves as a welcoming environmental installation. Inside, a small painting exhibition involves the viewer in a cross play of gazes between the figurative canvases on the wall. These include a remake of the Finnish Symbolist and Romantic painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s portrait Probleema (1894). Its male cast ‘stare’ at the viewer and at three smaller canvases on the opposite wall, which depict men variously posed, but all with their backs turned, in the surroundings of Berlin.

The second installation, A Room For a Student Sensible to Beautiful Things (1995) articulates camp or the ‘subversive rococo’ in the realm of the carefully selected Readymade: a reconstruction of a Swiss student’s bed from 1910 - an impressive four-poster. Essentially untouched by the artist’s hand, it occupies its space in a heavy and visually more contained fashion than the pavilion. Bombastic and without circumlocutions, A Room… negotiates the often shrill tone of camp as a subversive metalanguage. The canopy-bed, together with the garish pink of the walls, takes part in a spreading out of camp’s formal idiom, distinguishing it from avant-gardist teleology by a rupture within its own logic.

Inherent in the appropriation of emblematic camp is the desire to transgress class and gender, ultimately conveyed by an iconographic tendency, and to invite thorough reading. You know that every gesture and every gaze of the figures in the paintings means something. The artist wishes to confront what Deleuze described as ‘the indignity of speaking for others’. The viewer is therefore drawn into the work by means of contextual awareness and an elaborate play of visual regimes; as well as directly addressed in the form of a pile of Xeroxed sheets (placed next to the bed) polemically addressing the Swedish state’s prohibition of homosexuals’ right to adopt children.

The alluring aesthetic of gay desire and the codifications of the history of homosexual identity mark out the extremes of Duwenhögger’s artistic practice: on the one hand the aestheticised, subversive undertakings of the fetishistic, flaky and eroticised gaze, and on the other, the addressing of specific cases of homosexual panic, both within historical avant-gardes and Western society as a whole. This artistic (and art historical) itinerary is substantiated by the artist in the gayification of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting: ‘other group portraits of an all-male cast of “the artist’s friends” might come to mind - like Vilhelm Hammershøj’s Five Portraits or those of Henri Fantin-Latour - but the deliberate choice of something equivalent to a painterly national anthem seemed to offer possibilities to move outside the shrine of the aesthetic and into a more violently contested realm of the political…’.

The show’s articulation of different motives and thematic parameters is at once open and hermetic, politically confrontational and plainly thrill-seeking. The question is whether the motivation is as compounded as the levels of enunciation - the frivolous aesthetic is obviously informed by an agenda. However, the aesthetic formulation of the subject matter clearly acknowledges the ambiguity inherent in all antagonistic social and political identities. To surpass ambiguity means that there can be no simple politics of preserving an identity. The dynamic values of ‘Strangers…’ are differentiated and unbalanced, giving the show an atmosphere of the wish to refrain from final closure.

Being German, politically engaged and an artist using painting as a valid means of expression qualifies Duwenhögger’s practice as one cruising for a bruising in the German critical field. The seemingly paradoxical strategy of employing painterly representation as a subversive statement allows both the surface and the polemical content of the work to be maximised: it is disco as much as it is dissent. The question is, which media that once had critical potential hasn’t been bourgeoisified? There are enough artists with trend-factors running amok, who recycle and formalise formerly oppositional cultural practices into tools of conventionalised exchange. Duwenhögger’s gratifying relationship to the media he employs is in his testing of their boundaries from the vantage point of a political will to change. The nostalgic stance of ‘Strangers…’ looks like a deliberate misremberance of things that builds into a faith in the future.

Lars Bang Larsen

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First published in
Issue 38, January-February 1998

by Lars Bang Larsen

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