Abandon the Parents, the rather more intransigent English translation of Afsked med Forældrene (literally Farewell to the Parents) is the title of Henrik Olesen’s new exhibition at the SMK in Copenhagen; a huge and quite fantastic cabinet of curiosities, numbering more than 250 works and artefacts. The title itself comes from one of Olesen’s own works from 2003: a modified Max Ernst collage from his famous Surrealist novel or ”Genesis in Five Booklets”, Une Semaine de Bonté (1934).
The work hangs like a small, unprepossessing epigram to the entire exhibition right where you enter the door. In Olesen’s version of Ernst a character from a Tom of Finland drawing, complete with a leather cap and seatless chaps, has barged into an already disrupted Victorian scene with a distraught corseted woman and a characteristic birdman who glares viciously at the steely Tom as he reaches out his clenched fist in a vain attempt at taking his farewell of the woman. The couple obviously represent Tom’s agitated and disappointed parents, but apart from this the roles played by the three characters (and the strange head in the corner) are far from clear. As is the case with any other well-chosen epigram, this one little quote encapsulates the entire exhibition without explaining it in advance.
Abandon the Parents can be said to illustrate everything from a personal teenage revolt against one’s childhood home to a sociological or sexual rejection of the father-mother-child triad and of a normative heterosexual reproduction biology. A brief look around the exhibition reveals that it may also be about how adult individuals relate to new parents in the form of role models – for example artistic role models – without simply imitating or reproducing them. Similarly, the three hybrid characters – the birdman, Tom, and the mannered female figure – indicate a merging and dissolution of firmly established identities defined by body, culture, and biology; traits that first emerged in cyborg theories and queer theory in the 1990s.
The point is presumably the very simple one that “family” is a construct that can arise and be defined through a much wider range of relationships than those governed by biology and established sociological norms; including relations between species with no genetic kinship and between organic and non-organic life. Overall, the exhibition with its almost insane proliferation of works, materials, and artefacts can be regarded as the Olesen family album or family tree. Not, that is, of the Olesen family that used to change the artist’s nappies, send him to school and speak at his Confirmation party, but of the new, autogenetic family that Olesen has created for himself on the art scene.
On the Olesen family tree his closest kin include the gallery owners Daniel Buchholz and Christopher Müller, who are co-curators for this exhibition. To extend the metaphor, they have selected a number of the close (spiritual) relations that have had an impact on their particular “gay autobiography”. Right next to the epigram, reading from left to right, are paper cuts by the writer Hans Christian Andersen, who – like many of the other artists exhibited here – left the town where he was born with dreams of becoming an artist and an ambivalent sexuality. Insofar as it was even possible to speak of such a thing in 1819.
Visitors will also find an extraordinary correspondence between the Danish author Herman Bang and his publisher H. E. Hirschsprung. The letters, which came up for auction earlier this year and now have their home in Germany, were sent in a steady succession from Berlin, containing endless requests for money, ostensibly to be used for unforeseen expenses associated with Bang’s alleged need for medical care. Eventually, however, it transpires that the money has been frittered away on a young lover, the actor Fritz Boesen, who was about to leave Bang.
As a link between the Bang affair and Andersen’s paper cuts you will find drawings by Marcus Behmer (1879-1958), who created decadent art nouveau-style frontispieces for Bang’s works, e.g. the German edition of Excentriske Noveller (1885), as well as for a wide range of other gay writers, a prominent example being Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (first published in French in 1891). Wilde’s small tragedy is, of course, also included amongst the many well-preserved and valuable first editions in this exhibition, which is something of a dream set-up for bibliophiles and connoisseurs of artefacts from cultural history.
Behmer was a member of the first-ever organisation for homosexuals from 1903, but was sent to jail under the infamous Section 175 of the German Criminal Code. The provision, which made homosexual acts between males a crime, also plays a prominent part in several other parts of the exhibition. While in prison Behmer drew a small drawing from the barred window towards the freedom outside; a drawing that looks like an illustration from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Tinder Box. This drawing is in turn placed next to an early Behmer cartoon of Jugend-style princes and princesses. Und so weiter und so fort.
The entire exhibition is structured like that, as an immensely sophisticated web of associations, digressions, metonymies, and apophanies that allows the curators to create genetic kinships – whether closely or distantly related – between entities as disparate as e.g. Marcel Broodthaers, Yvonne Rainer, Donna Haraway, a Jean Genet perfume, the first-ever male-to- female gender reassignment operation in the world, which turned Einar Wegener from Vejle in Denmark into the Berlin trans icon Lili Elbe, indirect references to the sexological underground study Velvet Underground (via the artist Tony Conrad, the “outsider artist” Judith Scott, and new, young German and Danish artists such as Ann Imhof and Anders Clausen), to present just a fairly arbitrary selection. It is glorious.
The exhibition’s farewell to traditional family structures is a metaphor for “a farewell to conventional thinking”, the museum’s presentation claims. While it is true that Abandon the Parents is of a calibre that is almost unheard-of in Denmark, it may be going too far to claim that as an exhibition it has been based on unconventional thinking. For example, the staging of the works is stringent, tasteful, and well adjusted to an aesthetic that is widely accepted amongst museum presentations of contemporary art, and similarly the selection of artists, thinkers, and various gay idols is fascinating, but fairly safe.
One also senses a somewhat routine connection between a general persecution of homosexuals and a more general artistic critique of institutions and authority. It is a widespread idea, even if it has never been thoroughly investigated, that all patriarchal hegemony (and history writing) is white and heterosexual, including within the art scene. However, if one delves slightly deeper into art history – and that is the whole point of this exhibition – art has given many members of the LGBT community an opportunity to find “a new family”, to paraphrase the press release.
Even though the “discourse of the victim”, as it were called in Olesen’s youth, has made certain things impossible to discuss, it is certainly not historically wrong to state that “homoerotic” networks – ranging from Stefan George’s culturally conservative, pre-modernist circle of poets from the first half of the 20th century to the powerful American art scene of the post-war years with its abstract expressionism, Color Field art and Pop art onwards to the very influential international networks of collectors, galleries, and directors seen today – have had a considerable influence on who had access to what in the art system. Women, perhaps especially those who reproduced and raised a “normal” family, presumably occupied the lowest rungs of this hierarchy.
However, when considered from a much less complicated museum perspective the exhibition does, of course, represent a break away from established rules governing what one may present in a legitimate scientific collection. For example, the curators have not been very particular about discriminating between originals and copies as one would, well, “normally” do. In fact, forgery is quite a theme in its own right here, perhaps most exquisitely represented by Ariane Müller’s fake train tickets which she used to travel around Europe in the early 1990s. Here, the wealth of associations generated is far more crucial to the overall impact and insight than correct footnotes and references.
Overall, Olesen’s concept of “family” is quite conformist in the sense that it is essentially synonymous with “network”. Even though we are returning to a feudal order where a new economic elite will inherit great wealth and privilege from their parents, networks can be said to have largely replaced the biological family throughout the Western world as the entity that gives individuals social and economic security. Of course, far from all such networks are bound together by a particular sexual identity as is the case for Olesen. But as the first lesson of Émile Durkheim’s theory on scapegoating has taught us, all communities are stigmatising at heart, regardless of how alternative, how eager for tolerance they may be. In order to affirm a sense of solidarity and cohesion you need to exclude persons who are not a part of that community. Thus, the tendency evident in Abandon the Parents is that one particular vein of sexuality is depicted in an unreservedly positive light as oppressed, experimental, wild, fluid (queer), and unconventional. One senses that it is implicitly offset by a rigid negative subset, “the parents”, within whose number most of the audience members will be involuntarily be inscribed; i.e. within the straight, normal sexuality – the kind that generates children and bourgeois respectability, and the kind that you must abandon in order to win your true freedom. “The breeders”, as American gay wit has dubbed this “majority” for many years.
Observing communities of which you are not really part can become a little wearisome after a while. However, if spectators at Abandon the Parents should happen to grow somewhat weary of looking at someone else’s family snapshots and feel involuntarily imprisoned in an “outside” sphere, e.g in a boring, heteronormative identity, they can take heart from the fact that fortunately there are other ways of experiencing the exhibition. Perhaps the exhibition’s real victory resides primarily in its charting of the ambivalences of human sexuality and the inscrutable tensions between political ideals and aesthetic fascinations it has trailed in its wake throughout our modern cultural history.
For if we return to our point of departure, the Max Ernst vignette, we find another historic leitmotif that has a lot to do with the other objects presented in the exhibition, but less to do with familial, sexual stigmatisation and identity. Given that the exhibition’s principle is digressive, we will end – as a small homage to the curators’ wild endeavours – with a small digression in that direction:
Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté was created in 1934 as a response to the growing totalitarianism at the time. Power, violence, torture, murder, and disaster are obvious themes in this collage novel, but the heterosexual Ernst obviously supplemented these elements with his favourite subjects, which also interested Olesen: sexuality, a rejection of family and of the upper middle classes, of church and country. Ernst found images of evil, cruelty, suffering, and oppression in newspapers and Victorian novels, but by transforming and combining these pictures with images from fairy tales, genesis myths, and allegories he changed their original meaning, making them more radical. Ultimately, then, violence became a celebration of freedom, the imagination, and by no means least of the sheer enjoyment of spectacle. Here, Tom of Finland now enters this entire history in a rather different capacity. A few years after Ernst published Une Semaine the young Tom of Finland, then known as Touko Laksoonen, was conscripted into the Finnish army to fight during the German occupation. Here he found a visual outlet for his particular fascination with strong men in uniform. He was particularly enthralled by the German Wehrmacht. As he would later state, his drawings were completely apolitical and devoid of ideology. The entire Nazi frame of mind, “the racism and all that” was for obvious reasons hateful to him, but nevertheless he would draw SS officers with great delight … quite simply because “they had the sexiest uniforms”.
The weird and winding ways connecting sexual fantasy and Nazism were thoroughly analysed by Susan Sontag in her seminal 1974 essay Fascinating Fascism. Here she described how one might, in the Western democracies of the 1970s, see sadomasochism and Nazism merge in an increasingly heated aesthetic fetishisation and deeply ambivalent fascination – within the porn industry, the gay scene, and in cinema. Interestingly, then, this trend cut across all forms of sexual orientation. Une Semaine de Bonté with Olesen’s small addition can, then, be regarded as a prelude to a bout of visual S/M for everybody, including those who have no penchant for violence, for pushing back boundaries, and who do not regard themselves as either victims or masters. With this approach in mind visitors can take an entirely different tour through the exhibition’s grand narrative about art and sexuality.