Contributed by Loren Britton / On the occasion of “A Strong Desire,” a sprawling summer group at PS120 in Berlin that explores sexual identity, the body, and their commodification in capitalist society, Loren Britton interviews curators Aleksandr Blanar and Justin Polera. In the curatorial statement, Christina Gigliotti writes that the exhibition, on view through August 26, “sets out to challenge heteronormativity and toxic masculinity by presenting artworks that examine a kind of deterritorialization from this – through reevaluating power structures, slipping through the cracks of gender constructs, and for some, ultimately escaping the material body altogether through dreams, fantasy, and altered states of mind.”
Loren Britton: How did you come up with the title A Strong Desire?
Aleksandr Blanar and Justin Polera: We began the curatorial process by looking back on the work of Tom of Finland who is considered one of the inventors of what can be called “the gay imaginary.” Only recently have art historians simultaneously with blue chip commercial art galleries taken these drawings as very serious art. For decades they were seen as pornographic erotica of gay subculture as well as kitsch (importantly they have not been seen as camp which strongly tied to post-modern discourse). We still see them through the lens of the kitsch or popular images but with relation to other forms of post-modernist art. Tom of Finland began making these images of extremely muscular or “macho” and “butch” openly gay men in 1940‘s. Biographically he himself came out of the closet before World War II. He worked in advertising in Helsinki (for most of his life) and was simultaneously exposed the gay underground which had a strong presence of military uniforms and lonely men who sought sex with other men. It’s also no accident that the images relate to Nazi uniforms transmogrified into a new kind of gay fetish language of leather men. To put this into art historical context the American Pop artist and the German “Capitalist Realism” both came into prominence Post-War and both were highly influenced by advertising images. Post-War saw a lot of intellectual exiles continuing the work of 1930s sexual studies, which had an important epicenter in Berlin near PS120. We think of Magnus Hirschfeld, for instance, a figure we reference in the exhibition, he lived down the street from the project space.
At the time gay men were seen through two important mediators: psychoanalysis coming out of Freud and the system of state laws against profanity and sodomy. Gay men in particular were seen as mentally ill and “inverse dominant.” This term “inverse dominant” meant gay men were seen as sissies that could only take the macho heterosexual male phallus but secretly and silently. Tom of Finland created liberated images of masculine gay men that counter the image of effeminate disenfranchised powerlessness. He used the language of advertising to sell gay men an image of what it means to be a man. This came to a peak in the 1970‘s around gay liberation and huge amounts of sexual freedom in the gay community. Yet being gay was still seen as a mental disability. The term “A Strong Desire” comes from the diagnostic manual on abnormal psychology. A symptom of gender and sexual dysfunction is “A Strong Desire” to change ones gender or a strong desire to have sex with someone of the same gender. So this term is still used medically against the transsexual and gay community. The title also referred to Tom of Finland making images that said you can become what you desire. Gay men could be the dominant and the receptive. Now we see how capitalism utilizes this desire to sell a whole community on body image obsession. To counter the shame of being gay, the marketing campaigns targeted at the gay community promised that you could buy your way into a gym membership and body building supplements. It led to the kind of toxic muscularity that many of the artists in the exhibition address or play with. The fear of ageing in the gay community. One artist Dante Buu made a mirror that says “Like an aging gay dancing in the club shirtless“ and a lot of viewers of all ages take selfies in it. There are images of figures that defy gender norms, like Andrzej Steinbach. There are trailblazers of gender in art like EVA & ADELE who we were so honored to exhibit. Many of the artists addressed the current state of the AIDS Epidemic like the legendary artists Elmgreen and Dragset, other artist like Constantin Hartenstein use the medication Truvada by crushing the pills into ink for his drawings. Taken everyday it is a type of “PrEP” (pre-exposure prophalatic) a kind of pharmaceutical that promises to make you immune to the HIV virus. Finally many of the female artists in the show highlight how capitalism almost neglected lesbians. Of course that too changed because everything can be commodified. One artist Christa Joo Hyun D‘Angelo hilariously makes the typical Carl Andre minimalist sculpture into a mirrored (discoball like) floor with silver casting of hand gestures of female desire without any reference at all to the phallus.
LB: How do you understand the artworks in this show as presenting a kind of deterritorialisation as you have mentioned in your statement? Is this in line with Deleuze & Guattari‘s ideas around the schizophrenic nature of human subjectivity in capitalism and Deterritorialisation?
AB & JP: It is exactly in this line of thinking, we wanted to open the term “desire” up to spaces and philosophy outside of the limited terms of sexual desire. The great twist is that sexual desire itself opens up into terms outside itself- it is has a limitless element. Ultimately, desire is much bigger than sex. The text written by Christina Gigliotti is a poetic reflection on desire (it also mentions queerness as an aside) but from her personal perspective as a heterosexual but not heteronormative female was a fresh take on the way capitalism colonizes our self-image. It was essential to also have this point of view as the exhibition is not limited to self-identified gay or lesbian artists. One of the key artist in the exhibition is Gordon Hall, Hall defies the binary of gender but resist categories including a rejection of the term queer. Although Hall’s work is extremely difficult and requires a lot of work from the viewer it is also free for the taking, it challenged almost all our preconceived notions. Hall’s work also takes on a form used by artist like Felix Gonzalez-Torres of the stack of printed posters free for the taking- who Gordon is simultaneously critical of and indebted to.
LB: What do you think the political stakes of desire are? In what ways, in which artworks is desire explored in this exhibition?
AB & JP: Luki von der Gracht is an incredible emerging artist whose work in performance and visual poems (what he calls his photo collages) take on a kind of politics of the body without being overtly political. He works in collaboration with many other artists and stands for a kind of collectiveness. At the same time his poems are very sensitive and personal. Florian Hetz on the other hand makes hugely strong statements with a new kind of photography that challenges racial stereotypes, looks at sportswear and logos in the gay community in a new way and revisits the daringness of Tom of Finland to show the male cock in art. He said that art history is populated with the male gaze directed to the nude female body, he wanted to push back against that with a celebration of the male nude in all its glory. One cannot sum of the political stance of the diversity of artists in the exhibition. This is why the text is intentionally personal and open ended. The writer and researcher Ben Miller said in his opening remarks “let’s perform a ritual to cast off what no longer serves us.
He went on to say “all of us have learned our sex under duress” pointing to the work of Larusson & Pyszczek he said these are paintings that remove the figures from Tom of Finland leaving only the ambiguous background that any of us can place ourselves in.
We want to make explicitly clear that we do not think art has the role to be political and the best art does not set out to alter or change politics – that is strictly the role of political activism. However art can expand our imaginary making new possibilities for the political imagination. We included many queer zines, both for sale and historical on display from the collection of the amazing art collector Phil Aarons. Zines have a huge history tied to the communes in the 60s. They included as many female voices as male and addressed gender and racial stereotypes. The critiqued white male privilege with the necessity of DIY and cut-up techniques that came out of the beat generation. We included really radical historic zines from the Schwules Museum in Berlin which has an enormous archive. A lot of the zines are punk, anarchist, written by comrades, non-conformist, full of aesthetic terrorism.
LB: How do artworks in this exhibition challenge heteronormativity? Do you have specific examples?
The obvious example is the huge project of Karol Radziszewski called Fag Fighters. Radziszewski recreated a world with this body of work that comes out of the video into real life. There is a fictitious urban gorilla warfare gay gang with pink balaclavas as their trademark which were made by the artist’s grandmother and worn by these fighters. They terrorize heterosexual men, bashing them in an inversion of gay bashing.
Members of the gang roam the streets and wreak fear on the city, marking their territory with graffiti and committing acts of violence, including sexual abuse. The gang is simultaneously fictional and real as it challenges the increasing homophobic, sexist, conservative government of Poland.
LB: How do we undo a capitalist regime that we are living under, while simultaneously operating within art spaces that still have desires around “productivity”?
AB & JP: The simple answer is a total revolution. It is not the job of art or art institutions but artist could of course join the forces of the revolution. (many historically have in Russia for example) We would need to completely recreate a new economy (which may beyond our current comprehension) beyond capitalism. In this Marx is still as relevant as ever. There is currently no true socialism just weak form of crumbling social democracy. One can see the kind of social democracy in Germany in particular as a kind of half-way point that attempts to regulate capitalism but the force is too dynamic.
Interestingly, a lot of ‘zines (Queer and otherwise) existed on the margins of the economy and imagined a kind of alternative economy. A way of production and distribution that was not commercial and outside corporate media.
LB: How do relationships become commodified? And how does this exist in the artworks you exhibit here?
AB & JP: This is easily pointed to but impossible to define.
LB: What is your definition of “queer”?
AB & JP: Similar to the commodification of relationships one cannot build a box around queer. The term is more a verb than a noun. You can queer something by making it strange or breaking it. Many of the artists in the exhibition resists this word for exactly that reason, they do not associate with strangeness and otherness.
Yet queering is a powerful act, it is not limited to any gender or sexuality, it is not against or for heterosexuality. However, the great queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick who is quoted in the text and is herself cis-female heterosexual and married to a man is quick to point out the queer would lose all of its power it is were not associated with female-female and male-male sexual acts.
LB: What do you think about the ideas of “reform” and “revolution” and how would you respond to the notion that every time there is a call for a reform, that the new reformed structure is just as oppressive as the previous, just with a different disguise?
This is a question for political scholars and political historians. Anything I say about it as an art curator would fall incredibly short and be tone deaf on too many levels.
LB: What are you both working on right now? Are you artists? How does curation relate to your research or other artistic work?
AB & JP: I (Justin) am working on my next exhibition which is on labor migration and migrant labor. Germany may in fact be in the midst of an enormous labor experiment with all the refugees who have entered the country and must find some way to enter the labor market. We want to see if there are artists who are inspired, think about, respond to or simply reject these ideas. As always PS120 wants to incorporate the work of students (undergraduate) and artists at the end of their long careers. In “A Strong Desire” the work of Kenneth Anger was made in 1952 and remains revolutionary, while the beautiful work of Gerrit Frohne-Brinkmann reveals new forms of art practice.
“A Strong Desire,” co-curated by Aleksandr Blanar and Justin Polera. PS120, Berlin, DE. Through August 26, 2018. Artists include: Kenneth Anger, Trisha Baga, Carrick Bell, Dante Buu, Andrey Bogush, Monica Bonvicini, Guglielmo Castelli, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Kerstin Drechsel, EVA & ADELE, Claude Eigan, Leon Eisermann, Tom of Finland, Gerrit Frohne-Brinkmann, GeoVanna Gonzalez, Monika Grabuschnigg, Luki von der Gracht, Daniel Greenfield-Campoverde, Gordon Hall, Constantin Hartenstein, Florian Hetz, David Hockney, Andrew Holmquist, Karl Holmqvist, Kerstin Honeit, Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo, Maren Karlson, Svenja Kreh, Sholem Krishtalka, Martin Maeller, Anastasia Muna, Kayode Ojo, Przemek Pyszczek, Karol Radziszewski, Jimmy Robert, Aura Rosenberg, Michael Rocco, Oskar Schmidt, Miray Seramet, Dimitri Shabalin, Andrzej Steinbach, Daniel Topka, Anna Uddenberg, Young Boy Dancing Group, Young-jun Tak, Peter Welz, Queer Zines from the collection of Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons co-organized by Dr. Peter Rehberg and Schwules Museum
About the author: Loren Britton is a co-founder of the curatorial projects Improvised Showboat (with Zachary Keeting), lcqueryprojects (with Christie DeNizio), and Queering Space. Britton has a solo show, “Loren Britton: Dear Somebody,” opening at Warte für Kunst in Kassel, Germany, on September 1, 2018.