Art / Fashion

Gay Shame Is In Fashion At Bjarne Melgaard’s “The Casual Pleasure Of Disappointment”

Bjarne Melgaard and Babak Radboy, Goodbye To Love (Video Still), 2017.
Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York. © Bjarne Melgaard

You can’t argue with the immediate shock of a video depicting a burning rainbow flag. Or, for that matter, a sign that reads “Never Trust A Gay Man” and “Every Gay Man Is A Disappointment,” which echoes a self-loathing but (at least I read) tongue-in-cheek sentiment aired by Milo Yiannopoulos on Real Time With Bill Maher (“You can’t trust them to show up to work on time. Too much drugs, too much sex, they never show up to work, always making excuses, no no no. I mean not as bad as women, but no, I don’t hire gays.”)

Why it’s almost enough to make a good progressive art viewer clutch their pearls! Which seems to be precisely Bjarne Melgaard’s intent in his half-art installation, half-fashion line The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Arts. Melgaard’s nihilistic installation, like much of his previous work, not only revels in and aestheticizes the antisocial, but here, it offers it up as a commodity to be bought and sold.

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Studios (photo by author)

This is deliciously subversive. Melgaard doesn’t just directly confront the superficial consumerist pride served up to the gay community in the form of gay-friendly fashion lines, Absolut ads and mega-chain parade floats. Rather than insist on authenticity and anticapitalist queer radicalism, he throws his hat in the corporate fashion ring by, instead, marketing gay shame as a purchasable and branded commodity. I mean, it’s even located in an art space owned by an energy drink. The joke isn’t just on the mainstream gays, it’s on the radical queers too.

The installation, launched with creative director Babak Radboy, in Red Bull Arts has a certain haunted house quality. The top floor is harshly lit with fluorescent lights reminiscent of awful suburban malls, while the bottom floor, connected by a useless broken escalator, is covered from floor to ceiling in a hideous maroon carpet. Scattered around both floors are copious mannequins, resembling overblown, plumped and silicone-injected Isa Genzken installations. Rather than idealistic Jenners, though, these mannequins, created by Avena Gallagher, look botched.

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Studios (photo by author)

In one corner, the mannequins are posed as if sitting in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, while in another, they’re standing in clear peep show-esque booths. The sheer amount of mannequins creates an eerily uncanny viewing experience. After spending time within the nearly empty space, I couldn’t tell the difference between a mannequin and a fellow viewer/shopper. The only people I could tell apart were the beefy security guards patrolling the installation.

And, well, if you find yourself turned on, giant Cosco-sized bottles of lube are attached randomly to the walls just in case of emergency fisting. I’m glad Bjarne has all the bases covered.

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Studios (photo by author)

As for the fashion, well, it’s a little dark. Actually, much of it resembles the Derelicte line from Zoolander. But, this isn’t an insult–the ripped, tattered and trashy outfits look like uniforms for our not-too-distant apocalyptic future. Fuck those Mad Max clothes–I want to wear sweats that have “Relapse” emblazoned on the sides. Other items include a hoodie that features a pointed gun and the line “I’m not your gay friend,” a T-shirt peppered with the word “Hate” and a jacket that reads “I love dick.” Now this could either be a reference to Chris Kraus’ seminal book or it might just be a statement of fact.

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Studios (photo by author)

There’s even a ready-to-wear line that includes a “I hate Rihanna” shirt. That’ll be sure to piss off some local Chelsea queens! But, you know what they say (or what another one of Melgaard’s shirts say): “The more you pay, the less they care.”

Buying Gay Shame

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Studios (photo by author)

In the introduction to their Frieze Magazine review of The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment, Jeppe Ugelvig writes, “Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard is driven by a destructive desire. His embodiment of the nihilistic, ‘bad dad’ persona is reminiscent of a kind of death-drive.” My previous post about Melgaard’s dick pillow and sex doll –covered installation at the Whitney’s 2014 Biennial linked Melgaard’s death-drive impulse with queer academic Lee Edelman’s polemic No Future.

This installation is not much different, featuring a complete turn against the social, as well as the togetherness of community. It’s hard to get more antisocial than a tribute to Andrew P. Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered Gianni Versace.  Serial killing worship and death-drives do make up an unlikely brand.

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Studios (photo by author)

Beyond just the clothing itself, the installation also features a new video that presents a Muppet version of daddy Bjarne. Yes, it was actually created by Jim Henson Studios. In the video, Muppet Melgaard meanders aimlessly through (what looks like) New York streets, scrolls sadly through his Instagram feed, smokes meth and caterwauls The Carpenter’s tune “Goodbye To Love.” We’ve all been there.

The video, also titled Goodbye To Love, is a representation of contemporary alienation in which most people, or people’s branded social media personas, connect solely via their smartphones and other devices. Melgaard’s puppet doppelgänger seems to completely embrace the antisocial in a fit of exaggerated self-loathing. It’s as depressing as it is campy.

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Studios (photo by author)

This is a complete rejection and criticism of the stereotypical version of the mainstream gay narrative that’s full of gay bar togetherness and rainbow flags. Even the burning rainbow flag at one end of the installation reveals the symbol as a corporate shill rather than an authentic gesture of solidarity. Isolation and shame is also part of the gay experience, as shown in Melgaard’s video.

In many ways, the video, as well as the rest of the installation, reflects the notion of gay shame that has been batted around the academy for over a decade now. While not necessarily started, gay shame became a de facto point of argument in queer theory circles after the Gay Shame conference in 2003, organized by David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub at the University of Michigan. In the book, published after the conference, Halperin and Traub jointly explain why shame is an important point of interest for queer theorists.

Not Your Gay Friend Hoodie from the MELGAARD collection, 2017 (Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York. © Bjarne Melgaard)

“Liberation, legitimacy, dignity, acceptance, and assimilation, as well as the right to be different: The goals of gay pride require nothing less than the complete destigmatization of homosexuality, which means the elimination of both the personal and social shame attached to same-sex eroticism,” write Traub and Halperin in their introduction(3). But, this personal and social shame didn’t go anywhere, did it?! This shame throws a wrench into pride. “Originating as they seem to do in the shame of social rejection,” explains Halperin and Traub, “those inveterate queer tendencies to disassociation and disidentification offer the greatest resistance to group cohesiveness, coalition building, political alliance, emotional and social support, erotic bonding, mutual appreciation and queer solidarity” (4). Therefore, Halperin and Traub encouraged a look at shame as a site of possibility, leading to copious other theorists grabbing onto the shame angle.

Granted, gay shame has had its host of critics, namely Jack Halberstam who writes in their essay “Shame and White Gay Masculinity”: “The idea of gay shame felt anachronistic, even though I knew about the activist groups who organized under this rubric to critique the consumerism of gay pride festivals. The more I thought about the conference and its theme, the more I became convinced that gay shame, if used in an uncritical way, was for, by, and about the white gay men who had rejected feminism and a queer of color critique and for whom, therefore, shame was still an active rubric of identification” (219).

Installation view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment at Red Bull Studios (photo by author)

On one hand, they’re completely on the mark. But, on the other hand, at least someone no matter how white and masculine is keeping up with transgression! For his part, Melgaard transforms gay shame and self-loathing into the latest fashion trend–something so fickle and ever-changing that it could be almost immediately rendered meaningless (hm…kind of like queer theory itself?!)

Fashion! Turn to the Left! Fashion! Fashion!

In their essay “Queer Texts, Bad Habits and the Issue of a Future,” Teresa de Laurentis quotes Tim Dean who suggested that: “‘difficult art’ may be ‘queerer’ than popular art forms in that it is ‘more resistant to [the] normalizing imperatives’ of easily intelligible and consumable texts such as those of the ‘lesbian- and gay-friendly popular culture’.” Melgaard proves this wrong. Instead, he embraces one of the most popular–and vacuous–art forms–fashion and turns it into something unsettlingly difficult while still embracing its superficiality as a critical tool.

Your Loans Your Problem Crewneck from the MELGAARD collection, 2017.
Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York. © Bjarne Melgaard

Almost more than any other medium, fashion has the power to piss off. Just ask our preeminent filth elder John Waters, who has long preached the value of fashion terrorism. Calling it a “uniform of defiance,” Waters suggests in Role Models: “Get on the fashion nerves of your peers, not your parents–that’s the key to fashion leadership.” (101-102). With shirts that say “Your Loans, Your Problem,” Melgaard is surely heeding this call, trolling socially-conscious art viewers.

No one seems to escape Melgaard’s endless commodification. Take, for example, the bomber jacket that says “Bash Back.” He takes the phrase from a 2000s queer anarchist group. Explaining the use of this movement’s logo, Melgaard observed in W Magazine, “I really miss looking at or feeling aggression from gay men about their own situations and life situations that are so poor…And now they’re going to get even poorer, because of the political climate here. So I was researching that kind of lost aggression—kind of dropping the white flags and taking out the gun instead.” Right but…he also essentially converts anarchy into a purchasable object. I wonder what the members think!

Bash Back Bomber from the MELGAARD collection, 2017. Courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York. © Bjarne Melgaard

With this, Melgaard seems to point out that, at the end of the day, all these revolutionary gestures end up a product of some sort. It’s the same dizzying spiral of cooptation by corporations and fashion designers. The press release lays it out quite nicely: “For Melgaard, fashion is a vague nothing at the intersection of a subject and an object — between inadequacy, self-deceit, victimization, ethical compromise, intellectual humiliation, financial/romantic entanglements and corporeal decay — driven by an infinite cycle of disappointment and desire”

As the title The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment suggests, you’re essentially buying revolution, but in that purchase, you have reduced it to nothing. It is no longer radical. It’s just another product amongst an endless amount of products–a disappointment, but at least, a momentarily pleasurable one.

And is there anyway out of this cycle? Nope. All you can do is, like the Melgaard Muppet, embrace it and scroll blankly through your phone.

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