A story from the ‘90s

Mette Winckelmann’s exhibition at Den Frie is about bodily and artistic emancipation, but misses out on its opportunity to contribute to the current queer-debate.

Mette Winckelmann, Close to and nearby, flesh, bone, seafoam etc., 2011. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

We Have a Body is the title of Mette Winckelmann’s imposing solo exhibition at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art. And indeed we do! The question of the meaning and significance of the body in relation to art and the formation of identity has sparked an ongoing discussion that is every bit as energetic as the body itself. On the Danish art scene, however, the debate has long been rather more dead than alive, and so it is interesting to witness how an artist like Winckelmann (b.1971) – who has worked with queer theory and approaches ever since she graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts – will place body and gender within a contemporary perspective.

Winckelmann has drawn two diagonal axes through Den Frie’s exhibition venue; one axis refers to Den Frie’s own history, the other to the history of female emancipation. The incisions are laid down partly by means of a row of rubble on the floor – the rubble being source from the Dannerhuset, a refuge for women in need – and partly by means of flags suspended from the ceiling to form lines across the round rooms. In addition to this the exhibition consists of monumental paintings executed in primary colours and featuring geometrical figures; soft-coloured flags as light as feathers; patchwork pieces encompassing many layers of textiles, and a large, rough wooden structure similar to a bed loft, one that requires visitors to take big steps in order to climb the ladder and end up below the dome in the round room.

As regards the queer themes presented as the framework for the exhibition (in the opening speeches, the press release, the titles of exhibits, and in the upcoming seminar), it seems rather as if this sense of historical awareness got stuck somewhere in the mid-1990s. The artistic approach to the subject and the use of terms such as “deconstruction”, “categorisation”, etc. is in many ways identical to the use of the queer concept that took its point of departure in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from 1990.

Mette Winckelmann, Used in Denmark, 2011. Photo: Anders Sune Berg

The press release asks: “Does the way we view gender and sexuality affect our view of art and history writing?” That question could easily be reversed, which would make it a more accurate description of what you actually see at the exhibition: How does history writing affect our view of art and gender? This is what you will actually find in Winckelmann’s exhibition: histories of emancipation dating from two different late ‘90s: the 1890s (the history of Den Frie) and the 1990s (the history of queer theory).

However, today, queer discourse no longer restricts itself to looking at the performative construction of the subject, but also considers other perspectives such as supra-individual structures in state and society (as is seen in Butler’s most recent books) or chemistry and biology (as in e.g. Anne Fausto-Sterling). The ideas behind the exhibition are not passé, but, like “the avant-garde”, queer is a concept than cannot be used without reflecting on its current relevance.  Failing to do so is to run the risk of, as Peter Bürger says about the avant-garde (Theorie der Avantgarde, 1974), repeating an approach that has been emptied of its original, acute relevance and hence of the shocking effect that originally made the approach meaningful. Butler’s Gender Trouble brought about a change in attitudes towards what had hitherto been regarded as “natural” categorisations. But in her subsequent work Bodies that Matter (1993) Butler refuted many somewhat hasty interpretations of her theory. Queer theory is, then, a concept in a state of ongoing development, and as the discussion is still of the utmost importance – and quite rarely arises on the Danish scene – one would wish that the gender-critical approach was discussed in relation to the most recent studies and analyses.

Mette Winckelmann, Devil’s puzzle, 2011. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

In Winckelmann’s exhibition the body is engaged in artistic exploration in very concrete ways; it can lounge lazily in a multi-coloured sofa, warm its behind on a mosaic sculpture in the middle of the room (complete with built-in heating element), or get splinters in its hands as it climbs the wooden ladder to the loft. Integrating the body in the sensory experience of the exhibition makes the show come to life. Yet the primary subversive strategy employed here seems to be that Winckelmann, a woman, continues what has hitherto been a male-dominated modernist tradition of painting – and does so on a large scale – even as she also places traditionally female crafts, such as patchwork, on a par with these monumental paintings. The question is whether this is an adequate gender-critical practice today? Perhaps it is. But the discourse surrounding the exhibition is mostly an iterative echo of a discussion that dates back a decade and a half, and so the exhibition misses out on the opportunity for truly contributing to a further discussion of a concept and an approach that still holds transformative potential.

Translation from the Danish by Rene Lauritsen.