BY Ina Blom in Reviews | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

Bjarne Melgaard

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

BY Ina Blom in Reviews | 03 MAR 98

The trouble, but also the pleasure, with Bjarne Melgaard's work, is that it is so full of different propositions, some of them are bound to be taken squarely at face value. In a corner of one of the overfilled rooms of his Stedelijk installation, atop a Louis Vuitton suitcase, stand two smallish bronze statues of a black man and a black woman. Like mannequins, but with distinctly personal features, they have been dressed in conservatively tailored clothes: he wears a pinstripe suit, she a pastel mohair-knit ensemble. Both faces are mutilated: eyes and mouth appear to have been sewn together. In addition, his body is tied with Hermes silk bands with cigars attached here and there, and still in evidence are the remains of the many layers of protective newspaper wrapping used for the transport. Above him, however, there is a yellow Post-it note which warns against any literal readings of this rather troubling image. 'This work is not about black rights, the danger of nicotine or consumption morals', it says, thus closing in on precisely those conceptual limitations it claims to want to avoid.

The question is, should the note itself be taken literally, or are we free to pass beyond the content of this message about what the work is 'not' about? As Melgaard's duplicitous strategy intends, this question cannot quite be decided. And this indecision about the proper status of messages and images in his work is fundamental. The tendency to take his propositions at face value, to see Melgaard as a rabid autobiographical confessionalist or to focus on the 'issues' (whether these issues are the social meaning of petrol sniffing in Australia, disgust with Minimalism, the life of gay porn actor Joey Stefano, Dries van Noten's winter collection, beaches in the South Pacific, black pearls, penguins, ghosts, sex on the grave of Paul Gauguin or the documents of a series of fictional characters...) is simply a measure of the way in which his work cuts and pulls and passes its blows only through very concrete and particular images and objects. The well-dressed, designer-framed and mutilated black couple represents exactly such a blow: painfully familiar but never quite seen or felt this way before, evocative of whole fields of conflicting troubles and desires. Yet, for all their punch, these figures and the little yellow Post-it note may easily be overlooked within the maze of other notes, texts, drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures. And this fact makes the real weight of both figures and text, their final importance, impossible to assess. At the point of capture, they slip away.

Spend some time in Melgaard's spaces, however, and the feeling of slipping away with the issues becomes palpable. It's a slippery place, and the best way to describe its effect is as a transformational operation that produces new surfaces and substances by a sort of folding outwards from a particular point. Melgaard has a knack for tracing formal connections with a sort of lightning speed. His rooms are not simply chaotic, there is never the feeling that they may contain just anything. As if in a flash, the rooms seem permeated with links through which one thing quickly slides into another. The shiny black oval body of a figure called Mr. Black Pearl (1996) returns as the oval black breakouts on the skin of a turtle (bad skin day), then as the wide-set hollows of the eyes of figures in his drawings or as the oblong hollows in the body of the figure called The Lightbulb Man (1996). There are always plenty of holes in Melgaard's spaces, but, significantly, no 'big hole', only more substance.One way to explore the workings of these holes is through two themes that seem to pop up again and again: the theme of confession and the theme of addiction. As it turns out, they share a problem of structure. Addiction is not simply addiction to a substance, but also an addiction to addiction itself ­ a state of affairs that becomes apparent in the inevitable play of forces between addiction and the question of quitting that gives addiction its meaning. The empowering decision to quit ceases to have any value when there is no addiction left to quit from. Unless continually renewed by new addiction, emptiness sets in. Confession is a similar play with the limits of the power of the I: Having told 'all', one feels hollow, emptied-out. Is there any I left to tell about? Only more confession will show. Linking confession and addiction (there are confessions to addiction as well as an obvious addiction to confession), Melgaard charges ahead with a series of madly doubled-up repetitions of holes, which turns meaning inside out, creating a landslide effect of newly connecting surfaces where there were once either issues or losses. Feeling the hurt of the image of the black couple is just the tremble in advance.