BY Lars Bang Larsen in Frieze | 10 OCT 02
Featured in
Issue 70

Natural Justice

Henrik Olesen

BY Lars Bang Larsen in Frieze | 10 OCT 02

At a time when it is difficult to imagine what can topple power (other than hoping for it to die in its sleep) protest needs the kind of loud, radical headiness that can make lead balloons fly. This happens when a crowd, no matter how small, realizes it is a movement.

Henrik Olesen's art is a response from the margins to various forms of repression; 'In order to make life's reified conditions dance once again, one has to play them their own tune', Karl Marx wrote, and Olesen's pieces make a stifled reality dance to the tune of a juridical indignation. They don't dress sexual politics in the costume of a master narrative, but launch their critique in a subversive parody of leaflets from the unemployment office. True, Olesen revamps Sol LeWitt's cubes from polystyrene and milk cartons, and mocks Modernism by adding graffiti to a photo series of Kenneth Noland working on his murals at MIT. But these are more unscripted manipulations from the outside than the result of adopting an idiom in order to subvert its structure from within.

Militancy wins out over mourning or deconstruction in Olesen's work, a point of divergence from much art of the 1990s that explored gay issues and one that brings about unexpected tension. Milk cartons are wedged between the wall and a second piece of skirting board, the way somebody with their back to the wall fights back. Things begin to fall out of context and role reversals take place on the threshold of function and definition; sheets of newspaper lining the floor and walls behind a radiator make an unnoticed part of the gallery space's framework suddenly become obtrusive.

Retrospectively, Lucy Lippard has stated that Conceptual art's fascination with information was first and foremost formal. Olesen's use of Conceptualism, on the other hand, is primarily at the level of content and its collapse. Fascinating transfigurations are opened up in the pieces' pared-down propagandism, where the smallest of acts assumes political significance. A milk carton seems to become a manifesto - and a manifesto a milk carton. This open-ended use of the stuff of everyday life is a study of material change, of how a thing becomes something different, not from a point of 'origin', but from new beginnings that are always themselves and never ideal.

Viewed close up, some of the posters turn out to be dense wads of paper, as if spat out by a jammed photocopier. And what is it with the milk cartons, really: what are they and what do they represent? This very question itself, perhaps? Or, by virtue of the information printed on them, are they specific linguistic markers of the city where you take your morning tea? At any event they are urban debris, rubbish, the manufactured world's primary material, self-identities rather than any drifting off into metaphorical space. You might call them a proletarian version of Felix Gonzalez-Torres' disco Arte Povera: an agit-povera in which narratives of flaws are conjured by a strong ethical identity with the purpose of eradicating moral hallucination. Albert Camus once claimed that revolution as a myth is the definitive revolution. To precipitate change Olesen's pieces do exactly the opposite and become myth-killers.

These architectural interventions address spatial structures as a dreamt-up social reality ignored by consciousness. Olesen's decoding of the spatial symbols underpinning this dream reveals glimpses of its foundations. Lack of Information (2001) is a compilation of atavistic 'sodomy laws' around the world, a testimony to the criminalization of homosexual activity. In approximately 40 countries same-sex relationships are illegal; in a further 40 countries sexual relationships between men only are illegal. And in at least seven countries they carry the death penalty. Listed in alphabetical order, each country's legislation is noted on a yellow slip of paper and accompanied by an image chosen from an Internet search for a stereotype relating to the nation in question, or to queerness. Some of the images are innocuous enough - school photos or what look like tourist snapshots - while others are deadpan shots of drug users, looking destitute and cool, or of teenage boys peeing. There is also a blurry image of Rock Hudson, representing the US. The illicitness discussed by the piece lends a peculiar seediness to all of them.

It has been assumed - and in the age of genetic manipulation it still is - that science can straighten out 'unnatural' sexual proclivities. The argument underlying this is that culture has the authority to be more 'natural' than nature itself. But it is also a form of biological fundamentalism to imagine that sex in any human culture was ever 'natural' (and to imagine that homosexuality never occurs in nature, that is, among animals). It must have something to do with the way the question has been posed. In the early 1920s the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld published his theory of homosexuality as a Zwischenstufe, an intermediate stage between the genders. This notion of an undecided sexual identity awaiting definition is commented on in Olesen's work N. Andry: L'Orthopédie ou l'art de prévenir et de corriger dans les enfants les difformités du corps (N. Andry: Orthopaedics or the Art of Preventing and Correcting Physical Deformities in Children's Bodies, 2002). The piece is a sculptural interpretation of an 18th-century medical illustration of the correction of physical deformity in children, and consists of a naked branch tied to a grubby piece of plywood. But the branch has unevenly outgrown its orthopaedic prop, and the question is which piece of wood supplements the other. In works such as these 'nature' and 'culture' meet as impure categories, and biology is an unstable heterosexual referent.

The Enlightenment impulse in Olesen is no continuation of Conceptualism's self-transparent rationality, but a complex amalgam of anti-consumerism, cute kids, the shit lists of institutional critique and Group Material's trialectics of art, info and politics. Specifically, it runs counter to the gay reform movement, which wishes to adapt to nuclear family lifestyles. Was gay liberation really about becoming an economic factor in society and, from there, an avant-garde lifestyle? Why struggle for a place in majority culture if that merely constitutes an implicit acceptance of the behaviour that prompted the stigma in the first place? What is the point in claiming the right to be different if it comes with demands to clean up one's act? From this perspective freedom is no longer a matter of moving from a closet existence to visibility at peace with society and oneself, but the right to remain a dissident community.

Given the explicitness of its criticisms, you might ask what happens to the work as art if you agree with the critique it levels. Would this pre-empt its dynamics and make viewing it a circular process? Hardly - the pieces are about working through the tools we have for saying, thinking and doing things, and about constantly seeking to secure them anew. Moreover, the work is also located outside the gallery context. Specific spaces are occupied and turned around in ways that do not inflate the aesthetic to a degree where it leaves a political deficit. A4 Flyer to Provide Better Public Information about Gays and Lesbians in Primary Schools (1999) met its audience as a hand-out in local Copenhagen trains. It begins with the ominous line 'Do you know where your kids are right now?' and goes on to ask questions such as 'Did you know that the frequency of attempted suicide among teenagers is far higher in Denmark than in most other European countries?' and 'About 10% of the Danish population are gay men or lesbians. Is it OK that they do not have the same legal rights as others?' before admonishing: 'Be tolerant. My parents were not.' However, the question remains whether mere tolerance is the answer. As Pier Paolo Pasolini said, tolerance is always and purely nominal, a more refined form of condemnation. And, one might add, a commodity more than ever.

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