She’s there, you see, and when you sleep she’s awake

Marte Gunnufsen’s exhibition at Noplace lulls you into a deceptive feeling of security.

Marte Gunnufsen, Metamorphosis, 2018. Videostill.

To my darling: the restless little girl who lives inside me asks wildly for the bewildered boy in you.
To the rest of you: You don’t know until you’ve tried – I’ll say no more. The rest will be in parentheses. For now.

(Some things are more important than others. Subculture, for example, is far more important than culture. Much like poetry is more important than Morgan Kane. This does not mean that Kjell Hallbing’s fictional cowboy is unimportant, or that mainstream culture is meaningless, but that that’s not the place where anything is truly created. That’s not where any progress is made, really. Everyone who writes knows why poetry is valuable, and why the far too few who care to read it are touched by the hand of God. And everyone knows how a subculture can quickly become a tribal community for the initiated. As I write these lines, I am in my 58th year on this ravaged planet, and have long since lost count of the number of more or less strange contexts I have clocked up time in, as it were. But I do think I know a bit about what I’m talking about now.

It’s an old, tired, and accepted “truth” that mainstream culture will sooner or later annex the subculture, empty it of all its original meaning and significance, and recirculate it as a comfortable commodity or lifestyle package. But is that the whole truth? Also, is there a single example of the exploited subculture that has actually been gobbled up altogether – the carcass picked clean, ceasing entirely to exist as a result of the grabbing hands and gentrification of commercial interests? I’m not saying that there might not be some dead subculture that disappeared entirely for that very reason, but I don’t know of any. And this, to get more specific and get to the point, is about something that in any case won’t disappear until the last one to leave switches off the light. Perhaps the first, possibly the largest, and certainly the one subculture to have the largest global impact is the glamorous glide across genders we know as drag.

Quite often, Marte Gunnufsen’s video works address themes that lean towards partly hidden sub-discourses within more or less established infrastructures for those of us who have, shall we say, particular interests. They delve into things not everyone knows or cares about. In the actual underground, things happen regardless of whether there’s a video camera around or not – and where I come from, there usually isn’t. And with good reason. Some people just want to be left the hell alone, and believe me, there will be more and more of us in the years to come. In Gunnufsen’s art, people and scenes that might have been wet dreams for documentary filmmakers in search of solid street cred and predictable sensations appear instead as partners in an equal, ongoing conversation within the framework of a far more personal vision.

Marte Gunnufsen, Queen, 2018. Videostill.

It just so happens that one of the works on display here is quite uncharacteristically direct: an out-and-out piece of documentary film shot on location outside the drag club Queen in Chicago. On the one hand, the scene is reminiscent of Brattørgate in Trondheim back in the early 1990s whenever Café 3B had sounded its last call. On the other hand, the scenario is of course far more vividly brilliant in its drastic contrasts. As if a spaceship filled with über-glamorous fairy-tale creatures had crash-landed in a rather rough part of town, only to completely ignore their surroundings and focus on what really matters: smoking cigarettes and making out. Or, imagine an opening at Fotogalleriet in Oslo, where even the non-smokers have to go out to take a breath after two minutes, only to stay like that for the rest of the evening, interrupted only by short breaks to fetch more beer and possibly to pee. In fact, it’s just like that, only with a hell of a lot of makeup, glitter, and platform shoes.

And you know the moment you see it that this is a regular occurrence, and that for some this constitutes the mainstay of their life. It’s Pride Month all year, in a way. In fact, this seems to me to be something to actually strive for – the idea of ​​an enduring Pride Festival without end makes far more sense than any contemporary navy-blue market-force talent hunts, insanely costly briefings on synergies between increasingly tired part-time municipal zombies conducted over Zoom, or user support for the lost souls who desperately try to find their way through the ugly labyrinth of sadistic inventions known as Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration, only to end up with a message telling them to borrow a fucking barbecue when they don’t have enough for the electricity bill. In a functioning society, it would damn well be for the common good to have a permanent state of Pride Festival. Just imagine that: me, a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist since I learned to walk, growing so terribly old that I feel a longing for a functioning society! But! That’s not what I’m here to say! I know! Relax! Let go of me!!! I’ve got this!!!

Marte Gunnufsen, Metamorphosis, 2018. Videostill.

The main work of the show is an approximately half-hour video called Metamorphosis [2018], and this is where I lose myself in about the same way I once, half a lifetime ago, lost myself in reveries over the films of Kenneth Anger. There are several similarities: nods to old Hollywood, slow motion, double exposures, the observations of light and shadow. And the sheer musicality of the editing, where all cuts are to some extent motivated by shifts in the soundtrack [which is, fittingly enough, the 1945 composition Metamorphosen, study for 23 strings by Richard Strauss, and I remind you once again that I wear the number 23 tattooed on my back, really and truly, and that this is, as ever, an entirely random occurrence because you can’t find a number more random than this]. The timing, where I am admitted to Noplace long after its usual opening hours [at 23:00, in fact], and with an eight-hour drive behind me, possibly plays its part in steering what is left of my perceptive faculties towards the grey zone that sometimes arises when you wake up before your dream is really over, and you spend a couple of confused seconds getting hold of where and when you really are.

Metamorphosis follows the actual transformation of two drag queens, from the first dash of eye shadow in front of the mirror in the back room, to the complete and emphatic feminisation that unfolds on stage in the gaudy glare of coloured lights and stroboscopic flickering. On the surface, it’s no more complicated than that, but the music lulls you into a deceptive and cinematic sense of security. As a good friend of mine once wrote as the first lines of his first novel: “Now I am a grown man, but I used to be a little girl.”

Marte Gunnufsen, Metamorphosis, 2018. Videostill.

Life is a dream, you know, but sometimes I’m rudely awakened by her slapping me silly before she sits on my face and tells me I’m her bitch. There is no point in protesting, and, really, why would I? I love my job, even though I have to write art criticism in my spare time to get it done. Once upon a time, I was reprimanded in public for using allegedly outdated terminology when I wrote that someone was “trans,” and immediately after that I was told off for using the term “white trash.” I couldn’t be bothered to reply any of them. You get bored with things. You can’t be arsed. People sometimes misunderstand things on purpose just to score points. But you know what, since this is a fitting occasion: I have never actually said anything condescending about a defined group of people to make another group, and certainly not my own humble, goddamn self, look better by comparison. My agenda is far more wicked than that. The woman in me was always bloody angry at the man I had to become. He was shit-faced and she was Muslim.)

Marte Gunnufsen, This is Queen, 2021. Installation view from Noplace. Photo: Luca Sørheim.