BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 10 OCT 03
Featured in
Issue 78

John Davidsen

The Danish Postermuseum, Arhus, Denmark

BY Lars Bang Larsen in Reviews | 10 OCT 03

What would it be like if Hugh Hefner stopped time? Something like John Davidsen's works, perhaps: in his world a young woman is always clinging to the arm of your tuxedo while the bartender pours another Manhattan. But sooner or later this fantasy masculinity will be exhausted. Who or what is really inside that tuxedo - a man or a cipher?

Davidsen was a member of the Experimental Art School (1961-9), a Danish extra-academic workshop that explored Fluxus and Pop and counted among its members artists such as Per Kirkeby and Poul Gernes. Davidsen's Rose Campaign (1968-9), the exhibition's main piece, is typical of the activity of the late 1960s, when big visions and ephemeral activities - created alone or collectively - went together in a life-art continuum. As always, the poster is advertising something: taking his cue from an early product placement scandal (caused by the TV chefs Konrad and Axel), Davidsen began a one-year artistic advertising campaign for a non-existing product, signified by a long-stemmed red rose. The campaign had at least six different manifestations, of which it is mainly the related printed matter that is on show at this retrospective.

Davidsen's opening move was participation in a group show, with a headless dummy that - inspired by James Bond - wore a black and white tuxedo with a red rose in the buttonhole. Then in May 1969 Davidsen sent out gold printed invitations to a soirée at the Cinema Imperial, where ten silkscreen prints of roses in different colours were revealed, while the bartender Bif mixed cocktails for the guests. In June the campaign moved on to the anarchist Festival 200, where every day of the exhibition the artist would add another pedestal with a vase of long-stemmed, roses to the gallery space. With the fresh bouquets alongside the older ones, now withered to varying degrees, and with the rose as an open-ended symbol, the space accommodated its own celebration and funeral. Other significant stages of the campaign included the infiltration of Hotel Østerport, where rose jam would be served at breakfast, and, in the late summer of 1969, a citywide poster campaign on advertising pillars in central Copenhagen. This time a silver rose was overlaid by a yellow ribbon carrying the artist's name; at the bottom of the poster was his address.

The rose campaign played with the idea of autonomy, with the artist becoming a product or a style - the Gentleman of Roses - and both the product and the author's body being kept in abeyance. Not a critical gesture - as when André Breton proposed that objects seen in dreams should be manufactured and put on sale to cause a slump in 'the esteem attached to the objects that infest the so-called real world' - but an affirmative project where urban desires and new media in themselves became a new horizon for dreaming. The media conjugations of the rose campaign are redolent of much contemporary art, in the way they evoked the body in space through the project's transformations in time.

Davidsen's self-staging of his own joie de vivre erased the divide between artist and artwork. You could also say that he made explicit the bohemianism of the all-male Experimental Art School and the incipient culture of the artist as a celebrity. In an early take on Body art, this time inspired by Playboy magazine, Davidsen turned himself into Playmate's Playboy of the Month (1969). On a flimsy pink poster mimicking a glossy magazine spread, 'Mr January' poses with a book substituting for a fig leaf. Playmates don't mince their words: 'John Davidsen is a regular heartthrob, you know. Born 12/9/44, his measurements are the following: Chest 88, waist 73, hips 88, and weight 67 kg. He is broad-shouldered and his dark hair falls casually on his forehead [...] As you will have gathered, John Davidsen is a fascinating personality, and an enthusiastic and very advanced patron of women, art, poetry and music.' However, the photos of the artist in what is described as his swanky bachelor pad - actually a draughty loft - suggest that there may be a gap between representation and reality.

Curator Lars Morell has written an introduction to Davidsen's poster works and deserves credit for the thoroughness of his research. This retrospective does much to emphasize important aspects of Davidsen's fleeting work and to validate his unacknowledged place in local art history. However, it is open to discussion whether, as Morell claims, Pop art was a form of Realism, and whether Davidsen's stagings were devoid of irony. Isn't the whole premise of Pop's indulgence in the pleasure of self-loss ironic? If it is indeed a form of Realism, it will at least have to be acknowledged as 'Capitalist Realism', as Gerhard Richter put it, indicating that any claim to know reality is politically dubious. Similar to Warhol's 'Skulls' and melancholy displacements of the motif, the most strikingly Pop art dimension of Davidsen's work is that its vanitas theme becomes increasingly apparent with the passage of time.

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