Why hello there! Have a Bloody Mary, Mary! I know I needed one after attending the sprawling 2014 Biennial at the Whitney Museum last week. What’s that? Oh, I’m so glad you asked. Welcome, dear reader (and you’re becoming ever dearer to me with each day), to our new series: Whitney Biennial Solos.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking, one is the loneliest number. Well, I felt with the enormous amount of artists on three floors, each with a different curator, that it would be more interesting to take an in-depth look at a few individual artworks. Enough of that simplistic “I liked this/I hated that” brand of art criticism. B-O-R-I-N-G if you ask me. I don’t want to even read that and I’m the one writing it! So, in response, I’m going to focus on the queer artists in the Biennial, one artwork at a time, giving these pieces the attention (and semi-drunken…oh, who are we kidding…wasted gushing) they deserve.
Well, kween, take a sip because you’ll need it for our first filthy focus: Bjarne Melgaard.
In his influential Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Jose Munoz asserts that queer utopia can be found within the aesthetic. As Munoz notes in his introduction, “Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic” (1).
Well, if queer utopia can be glimpsed within the aesthetic, so can queer dystopia, as proved by Bjarne Melgaard’s utterly terrifying, yet, oddly satisfying and engrossing installation on the third floor of the Whitney Biennial.
An unwaveringly taboo-mining artist who certainly consistently invites controversy as seen recently with the uproar over his, as termed in the press, “racist chair,” Australian-born, Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard plumbs the bottom of queer culture from BDSM to fetish subcultures to pipe-smoking, drug-taking Pink Panthers and installations that feel distinctly like an acid flashback–and not necessarily a good one.
Part of MoMA curator Stuart Comer’s section of the Biennial, which was consequently my favorite floor of the show, Melgaard transforms a room of the Upper East Side museum into a surreal, hallucinatory environment that looks alternately like an unending k-hole and PeeWee’s Playhouse if PeeWee’s address was in hell. Entering a doorway covered in vibrant day-glo wigs and penises, as well as randomly sewn images such as a masturbating man and a man peeing in a coffee pot, the viewer enters into Melgaard’s dystopian world, surrounded by masturbating RealDolls, penis pillows and couches upholstered with fetish images, including, yes, furries.
As an additional bonus to this disturbing detrius-filled art installation, you can also gather some demented decorating tips for your depraved apartment. Finally, you’ll never have a problem with guests staying too long anymore!
Adding to the existential horror, Melgaard projects videos on the walls of the installation sourced from the deep web, which seems to contain society’s id, featuring videos of war, the Boston Marathon bombing, mass suicide, animals having sexy-times and cults. On the back wall of the installation, Melgaard places a video of banging chimpanzees with a gay porn-like film made by Melgaard, creating a completely unsettling comparison.
Portraying, as the wall text indicates, the effects of the Anthropocene, a new geological age ushered in by global warming and other human activity, Melgaard’s installation already unsurprisingly seems to be the most controversial piece in the Biennial with certain critics whining about its immaturity. Well, as our role model Buddy Cole says, I have a great respect for filth.
The wall text seems to depict this dystopian installation as a warning of the detrimental effects of our moral and societal decay. However, in my view, not only is Melgaard shoving society’s ruin into the faces of the Whitney attendees, but he is also celebrating this dissolution of society into a violently sexual hellscape, viewing this rejection of the social as a powerful, subversive tool much like Lee Edelman’s infamous polemic No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive.
Using Freud’s idea of the death drive, Edelman’s Sex Pistols-titled No Future suggests that queerness is not so much an identity, but a complete turn against the social, the future and the figure of “The Child” that is heralded by dominant heteronormative and even, homonormative culture. As Edelman states, “Far from partaking of this narrative movement toward a viable political future, far from perpetuating the fantasy of meaning’s eventual realization, the queer comes to figure the bar to every realization of futurity, the resistance, internal to the social, to every social structure or form” (4).
Rather than trying to “fight for the children” and enter into dominant culture, Edelman poses that a transgressive play, or jouissance, may lie within accepting this anti-relational aspect of queerness. Edelman quotes that horrible homophobic American Family Association monster Donald Wildmon, saying “Acceptance or indifference to the homosexual movement will result in society’s destruction by allowing civil order to be redefined and by plummeting ourselves, our children and grandchildren into an age of godlessness. Indeed, the very foundation of Western Civilization is at stake” (16).
Controversially, Edelman responds, “Before the self-righteous bromides of liberal pluralism spill from our lips, before we supply once more the assurance that ours is another kind of love but a love like his nonetheless, before we piously invoke the litany of our glorious contributions to the civilizations of the East and West alike, dare we pause for a moment to acknowledge that Mr. Wildmon might be right–or, more important, that he ought to be right: that queerness should and must redefine such notions as civil order through a rupturing of our foundational faith in the reproduction of futurity” (16).
Sound familiar to some RealDoll-strewn installation? Not only is Melgaard’s installation revealing the “very foundation of Western Civilization” at stake in his fetishistic world, but he actively employs this threat as a tool, ripe with subversive possibility. If we embrace this hideous chaos, what jouissance can occur?
Melgaard’s belief in the potential power of societal decay is even further cemented with the knowledge that a major influence on his installation was the French libertine novel The Sofa: A Moral Tale by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. Considering this legacy, Melgaard’s installation begins to participate in a genealogy of erotically transgressive culture from libertine novels to decadence .
From rampant sexuality to bizarre fetish scenes, Melgaard enacts Edelman’s rejection of society and futurity, as well as the embrace of the negative views of queerness and its civilization destroying potential. While Melgaard’s installation certainly feels like some sort of hell, there was also an indescribable sense of freedom within the installation–a rupture of the dominant order within the Whitney Museum.
As Edelman writes, “Queers must respond to the violent force of such constant provocations, not only by insisting on our equal right to the social order’s prerogatives, not only by avowing our capacity to promote that order’s coherence and integrity, but also by saying explicitly what Law and the Pope and the whole of the Symbolic order for which they stand hear anyway in each and every expression or manifestation of queer sexuality: Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital L’s and with small; fuck the whole network of symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop” (29).
With a similar “Fuck the future” mentality as Edelman’s polemic, Melgaard’s installation represents a complete turn against the social order, not as a warning sign but as a brightly-colored room of nihilistic possibility. While Jose Munoz has, rightly, criticized Edelman’s anti-relational queer theory as being largely inaccessible to queers of color, creating his own theory of queer utopia, which is contained nearby in Jacolby Satterwhite’s video Reifying Desire, Melgaard’s installation is perhaps the first artwork I have seen that completely accepts, embodies and revels in the negative turn in queer theory.
Terrifying in its prospects and yet, exhilarating and electrifying in its subversion, Melgaard’s installation answers Edelman’s call, “And so what is queerest about us, queerest within us, and queerest despite us is this willingness to insist intransitively—to insist that the future stop here” (31).