BY Hans-Christian Dany in Frieze | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25

Discipline and Punish

Peter Land

BY Hans-Christian Dany in Frieze | 11 SEP 95

Pushing off from a wall, one man kicks another's bare bottom. The recipient is naked apart from a shirt and is kneeling on all fours. He falls forward, his face ramming into a pile of stiffly whipped cream on the floor. With a groan he pulls himself up to his original position. Clown eyes, attached to his glasses, stick in the cream, stretching the springs on which they are mounted. Cut like an action film, the video consists of this activity repeated over several minutes, as the wall grows filthy with boot marks. The kicker remains anonymous, the camera showing only his legs and thighs; as the action continues, we recognise the bruised man as the artist.

In a story by the Marquis de Sade, a gentleman writes to a woman he admires, 'Make me a gift of your wonderful eyes, dear lady'. She takes him at his word, pulling out one of her eyes and sending it to him. In de Sade's story the power of language overcomes that of human self-preservation. The woman mutilates herself because that is what the law of meaning decrees. Similarly, the protagonists in Peter Land's kick-ass ritual seem to be blindly acting out a logic encoded in the work's title, Whipped Cream Works like Acid on your Self-Esteem (1994).

The second scene in the video is played out in the Tivoli, a Copenhagen pleasure park. A group of young people amuse themselves by throwing balls into a booth occupied by Land, sitting on a post three metres above the ground. Land's repeated humiliation creates an almost medieval atmosphere, like a marketplace in a costume drama where passersby can spit at the reprobate in the stocks. Our delight in witnessing this extravagant physical injury, like that in slapstick films, is embarassingly mindless.

In the final part of the tape, Land sits against a white wall. Plates of whipped cream are thrown in his face, one after another. A hand shoves a joke cigar into his mouth, and shortly afterwards it explodes. A kind of cod-realism pervades each film until the atmosphere is broken with the repetition of a specific action. Like de Sade's stories and much sado-masochism, this rather theatrical reiteration transgresses our everyday rule system, revealing its absurdity. Searching for an identity he can call his own, Land imposes a bizarre order on a chaotic world.

The fall from the chair is part of the clown's classical repertoire; the prank acknowledges that enjoyment at the expense of others - Schadenfreude - is the best kind of fun. Land turns the tables: the one who laughs is shown his own shabbiness. In the video Pink Space (1995), Land is dressed as a tacky entertainer, complete with bow tie and shimmering blue jacket, lit by a spotlight. He tries to sit down on a bar-stool, but the seat collapses underneath him. He repeats the process in all kinds of variations. We end up with a tragi-comic TV image of an entertainer collapsing before he can even get round to introducing himself, who cannot even co-ordinate the beginning of his own performance. In turn, an almost manic sense of order is invoked through the denial of any progression in the narrative.

In 1994 Land visited a Copenhagen suburb to use the services of a sex film production company which rents out its actresses to amateur photographers and video film-makers. The company's set, with its fireplace and couch, is your average middle-class living room. In the windowless atmosphere, Land filmed two young women stripping to the unrelenting sound of Euro-disco. The video Peter Land d. 6.Februar 1994 (1994) simply shows the 25-minute striptease - exactly what was paid for. Harshly lit, the women touch their erogenous zones with deep disinterest. From time to time they stop dancing to make sure they've grasped Land's instructions. Despite this dialogue with the man behind the camera, their performance does not seem to be aimed at anyone. Avoiding any edits and camera movements, the film feels like the kind of monotonous image taken by a surveillance camera. The circumstances around its production are evident - Land walks into the picture a number of times, a small-ad peeping Tom. It is this, alongside the lack of any narrative or external reference that makes the video so obscene.

In a video filmed some months later, Peter Land d. 4.maj 1994, Land appears on the other side of the camera. Like the previous work, the name and date in the title suggest a kind of video diary. Dancing clumsily and comically in front of the camera, the artist gradually takes off his grey underpants. The running time, form and clichéd poses emulate those of the video featuring the women, but unlike pornography, the film provides no unrealisable erotic promises. Completely self-absorbed, Land dances wildly in the corner of the cell-like room - watching him feels like an invasion of his personal space. The video works both as a document of spontaneity when alone and a self-portrait devoid of narcissism.

The 4.maj film bears curious similarities to the turn-of-the-century medical 'hysteria' film. In the tradition of Muybridge and Marey, psychiatrists with an enthusiasm for technology tried to capture ecstatic desire, the 'great arch of the hysterical woman', first by animating photographs and later with film. 1 Land's recording of his sweaty efforts to achieve happiness in dance proposes the camcorder as the contemporary counterpart to therapy, exploring the limits of video as a tool for self-analysis. Despite their humour and clichés, Land's film roles seem to be the result of a struggle - their subject racked with doubt, constantly turning his failure outwards, transforming his humiliation into a weapon.

Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

1. The 'great arch of the hysterical woman', showing a woman with an arched back, was a popular Jugendstil motif. Michel Foucault found a similar figure in the archive of a Paris 'madhouse', where, in 1877, doctors had invented a technique of provoking 'hysterical crises'. Through the inhalation of amyl nitrate and the touching of the ovaries with a 'sex stick', a remote-control 'hysteria' could be played out in front of the medical students. These stagings were captured in sequences of photographs.