BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

Jørgen Michaelsen

BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 04 MAR 97

Jørgen Michaelsen makes you wrestle with your mind and your language like Laocoön. The installation REFORMATION MONAD is the most recent offspring of a continuing project which, with an understated wit, presents interwoven historical discourses in a form that could be the illegitimate child of Art & Language and the old Russian avant-garde. The 'monad' is a central term from the 17th-century philosopher Leibniz' cosmology. In short, it is the smallest indivisible entity, a kind of conceptual atom. A monad has no extent, form or possible divisibility, because it has no parts. It is an independent, autonomous entity ­ a cell without windows or doors. Thus, any change the monad undergoes must be contained within itself. Using the idea of the monad as a parodic and critical perspective, REFORMATION MONAD discusses the Reformed Church's creation of the Nordic Protestant subject, though in Michaelsen's work there are always passages into something else through twisted relationships and successive reversals.

For the show, the whole space was painted unigrey and held in a slick, rigid aestheticism, mimicking the 'inside' of a monad and serving as a backdrop for the photographs and a photocopied text (available as a separate sheet) 'explaining' the problematics of the exhibition. The text was obviously not placed on the wall to be read (it would take hours to go through 20 pages of totally hermetic discourse). It was thus performative in function and essentially a simulation of a linear theory where there is a structural equivocality in the chain of reasoning.

Essentially, Michaelsen's work is about language and its parasitic exchange with the presence of form; it is art with a high readability index for an informed beholder who is prone to playful intellectualism. For instance, in the most visually satisfying part of REFORMATION MONAD, the viewer was presented with a number of small photographs of various arrangements of boxes and cans bearing labels with reproductions of, for instance, Hans Holbein's The Dead Christ or old portraits of the great reformers of the Danish church. One arrangement of several cans stacked on top of each other was titled DANISH PROTESTANT BIO-TRIUMPHALIST STRUCTURE (all works 1996) ­ which basically means that the arrangement looks like an erect penis with a picture label of the great reformers stuck on it.

First and foremost, the cans, boxes and photographs are metaphors for the archive. The work revolves primarily around different notions of reformation as a metaphor for Modernity, an idea that seems, in the main, to be a reworking of the relationship between art and Modernism ('The social is essentially influenced by the aesthetic', as the text states.) In REFORMATION MONAD there is a maximising exchange between etymology and iconography and as much signification as possible is stuffed into both. For instance, the Protestant theme has a strong subtext of a revolutionary Socialism, an ironic twist that exposes the structural similarity between the Churches that defended another world, and the parties of the left, which since the 19th century have promised another future.

REFORMATION MONAD (the text) follows this deformation of ideological content, where a social structure is left intact. A formal point that the exhibition makes in the face of this is the authoritative, cell-like frame of the gallery space, which instead of the white cube now becomes the grey monad of the monk's cell or an ironic tribute to Stalinist aesthetics. A body of dogma has always made itself believed by claiming to speak in the name of a reality which is assumed to be inaccessible, and by the ability of a discourse authorised by such a reality to distribute itself in the form of articles of faith. In this respect, REFORMATION MONAD performs the role of a deficit in the referential economy of a dogmatic discourse by incarcerating the beholder in an artwork of more or less self-referential production and signification.

With claustrophobic interiority in the space as well as in the hermetic text, you feel thrown back upon yourself, completely at a loss as to whether you are on the inside or the outside of the monad, or what your own status as a cultural subject might be. The overwhelming conceptual apparatus of the text communicates relentlessly with the physical presentation, inveigling you into the necessity of a slightly paranoid questioning of how to signify and communicate things, juxtaposing consciousness of language with autonomous subjectivity.

So, is the whole thing an intricate joke or a complex social and aesthetic critique? Both. With art like this the old saying applies: 'He that hath ears to hear, let him hear'. Michaelsen does not exactly make it easy for us, which is also perfectly in order, because the work has complete integrity ­ there is no attempt made to curry favour with trends of any kind and there is a huge engagement with the way the work is conceived and executed. It is not as if the Danish Reformation of 1536 is a particularly hot subject in the art world right now, and in an age of the art-world-goes-techno and proliferating clichés about networking and social critique, it is great to see an exhibition that is way off the beaten track.

Lars Bang Larsen is a writer, curator and director of artistic research at Art Hub Copenhagen, Denmark.