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Issue 210

Filmmaker Steve Reinke’s Poetry of Perversity

Steven Zultanski on the Chicago-based cult video artist

BY Steven Zultanski in Features , Film | 20 APR 20

In Steve Reinke’s video A Boy Needs a Friend (2016), the voice-over drolly states that poetry is untrustworthy: not because it wallows in fiction, nor because it imitates life, but because it ‘pretends to be your friend’. Poetry’s implication of hushed person-to-person conversation creates a false familiarity that, once you see through it, can feel manipulative. According to the video, the only poet who avoids this cynical posture is Emily Dickinson, presumably because she didn’t write with anyone in mind (at least according to the popular myths about her life) and her writing never deigns to acknowledge the audience’s existence, much less pretends to be its friend.

Reinke’s videos, on the other hand, revel in addressing viewers as if they were confidantes. This – more than the obsession with sex, death and decay – is what’s perverse about his work: it playfully bats the viewer around, toying with address. The artist’s voice-overs – recorded close to the microphone so all the squishy mouth sounds are audible – are written in a casual, conversational style, as if expressing something personal. Even lofty philosophical speculations are delivered in an inviting tone.

James Richards and Steve Reinke, What Weakens the Flesh Is the Flesh Itself, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin

From 1989 to 1996, Reinke – who was then living in his native Canada and is now based in Chicago – devoted himself to one large-scale project that he declared would ‘constitute my work as a young artist’. The Hundred Videos, true to its name, consists of 100 short videos, ranging from a few seconds to ten minutes in length, in which the artist developed his style: collages of found footage, cheaply shot home movies and oblique voice-overs musing on intimacy and longing.

It’s an intimate project, though not all of the videos feature the artist or his voice. Andy (1996) stars a man lazily posing and playing with his cock in his living room, while an overdubbed monologue explains, in meticulous detail, his interior decorating decisions. Box (1994) features three minutes of an interview between US chat-show host Oprah Winfrey and the father of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who raped and murdered 17 men and boys, with text overlays that supposedly expose the interview’s homophobic undertones. When Winfrey asks if Dahmer was ‘exhibiting unusual behaviour’, text on the screen decodes this as ‘exhibiting unusual behaviour: homosexual’, and when Dahmer’s father deflects Winfrey’s leading question, explaining that he simply thought of his son as ‘very, very shy’, the text informs us ‘very, very shy: queer’. Box uncomfortably (and comically) uses interpretative strategies familiar from cultural studies to frame a serial killer as a misunderstood queer youth, only to reveal in its final moments that the interview is about Dahmer hiding a severed head in a box. The audience’s sympathies are not so much tested as teased.

Steve Reinke, ‘Butter’, installation view, 2020, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, photograph: Stephan Wyckoff, ©mumok

Reinke’s 1990s work set a tone that he’s consistently upheld: warm humanism undercut by a slippery irony. In conversation, he explained to me that irony is central to his work, that he sees it as ‘the main way one can maintain or reflect the fecundity of the world, the richness of the world, without flattening things’. Pushing this idea further, he argues that it’s an indispensable tool for representing complexity: ‘People think about irony in distinction to sincerity, which is wrong; it should be irony in distinction to simplicity. I hope that my irony is not insincere.’ 

In recent critical usage, irony tends to be equated with trollish provocation, but Reinke’s understanding is more akin to romantic conceptions of the term. A self-described ‘Queer Nietzschean’, the artist self-consciously calls back to a tradition that sees irony as foundational to philosophy and aesthetics: Søren Kierkegaard’s argument in On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (1841) that irony is a pedagogical tool for eliciting doubt and subjectivity, for instance, or Friedrich Schlegel’s claim in Critical Fragments (1797) that ‘irony is the form of paradox’. If Reinke revives such ideas in the service of expressing something about sexuality, he’s decidedly not interested in simply increasing cultural visibility: he’s more concerned with affirming the elusiveness of desire.

Steve Reinke, The Hundred Videos, 1989–96, video still. All images courtesy: the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin

His work is not diametrically opposed to a politics of representation; the many sweet scenes of intimacy suggest that he has a very real stake in the positive representation of queer life. His collaboration with James Richards, for instance, What Weakens the Flesh Is the Flesh Itself (2017, and shown during that year's Venice Biennale), beautifully – delicately – depicts an older man covered in tattoos and piercings, showing off his body. Reinke’s work rather insists that such representation must be oblique, or else it risks becoming static and generalizing.

As such, irony is Reinke’s favoured method of evading perspicuity, because it thrives on contradictions. And when contradictions are expressed with warmth, or at least feigned warmth, they can become both more disarming and more unsettling. Since 2007, Reinke has been undertaking a second long-term project, Final Thoughts – a series of videos that will only be complete when the artist dies. Each entry functions as a potential epilogue to his work, and thus his words take on a comically weighty meaning. 

Steve Reinke, An Arrow Pointing to a Hole, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin

Final Thoughts is characterized by essayistic voice-overs, but Reinke’s latest video, An Arrow Pointing to a Hole (2019) – which is being screened for the first time in his exhibition ‘Butter’, currently at Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien – is unique in that it prominently features his face. Sitting shirtless in a dark, nondescript room, the artist shows off his tattoos and muses on psychology (‘empathy is sharing in the infinite sadness of the swamp’; ‘sorrow is universal and anxiety is personal, subjective’) and bio-materiality (‘We are not post-human; we’ve gone past the post-human and are now pre-microbiome’; ‘Worm Throne’ is tattooed across his arms).

The main through line in An Arrow Pointing to a Hole is the story of the narrator losing his subconscious. As a young boy playing in the sun, letting its warmth wash over him, his subconscious suddenly detached from his consciousness and preconscious and ‘fell away’. Teasingly, this story is illustrated by grainy black and white footage of a young man dropping a basketball in slow motion. It’s unclear whether the image is of Reinke (probably not) or how the basketball is supposed to relate to the subconscious (it probably doesn’t), but it suggests that the subconscious is external, easily disposed of. We can exit the game of  psychoanalytic meaning – or choose not to play.

Steve Reinke, Semen is the Piss of Dreams, 2019, silkscreen print, 76 × 56 cm. Courtesy: the artist, gallery Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin and Western Exhibitions, Chicago, © James Prinz

Reinke goes on to explain that his subconscious was immediately replaced with ‘a particularly robust florescence of my microbiome: my guts were humming. They’ve been humming ever since, and I mostly do whatever they say.’ This idea is playful and charming, but it also resonates with recent feminist theory (such as Elisabeth A. Wilson’s 2015 Gut Feminism and Deboleena Roy’s 2018 Molecular Feminisms) that partially rejects traditional psychoanalytic formulations of subjectivity and repression, focusing instead on how unconscious biological processes relate to consciousness. As Wilson writes: ‘The gut is an organ of mind: it ruminates, deliberates, comprehends.’ These thinkers imply that psychology cannot be intellectually captured by the analyst or theorist: consciousness, insofar as it is partially determined by microscopic biological forces, evades order. It must be theorized as a movement, not as a system.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 210 with the headline ‘Satanic Verses’.

‘Butter runs at Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien until 21 June 2020.

Main Image: James Richards and Steve Reinke, What Weakens the Flesh Is the Flesh Itself, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin

Steven Zultanski is the author of several books of poetry, including On the Literary Means of Representing the Powerful as Powerless (2018) and Honestly (2018). He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.