Future Bodies and Gendered Prophecy: Henrik Olesen

by Luigi Fassi


Henrik Olesen’s recent work explores the kaleidoscopic sphere of identity and its changes within the realm of culture and history. His extensive investigation of forgotten biographies and queer subcultures shows the extent to which bodies can mutate and transform, opening up an unexpected range of hybrid possibilities. His art is a challenge to any hegemonic biological categorization, as well as to the master narrative embedded in heterosexual writing of history. Like a journey into the past that touches on death, torture and redemption, Olesen’s work aims for a new representation of sex and homosexuality, delivered from the constraints imposed by modernity.


LUIGI FASSI: I’d like to start our conversation by talking about your concept of democracy and authority, since the representation of minority groups in the realm of history and social institutions is at the core of your work. Moreover, you edited an entire book on these themes: What Is Authority (2002). You were searching for the origins of the criminalization of homosexuality, questioning the legitimacy of Western democracy as the result of a hegemonic formation. I’m wondering how your opinions about this have developed and changed in recent years.

HENRIK OLESEN: What Is Authority is a compilation of work I did over the period from 1995 to 2001. And honestly, it seems like the world has changed a lot. Today, I would be somewhat more discreet about claiming this or that headline. When I started doing art, the whole art world thing seemed extremely straight to me and I knew very few gays and lesbian working in the same field. Much of these old work, I guess, was about the possibility of establishing a homosexual conversation, reflecting on issues about bodies, reproduction, democracy, norms, etc. Like everyone else, I was dealing with a situation established as the result of a hegemonic formation, as you put it, things coming from the outside world. In many of the older pieces, like Lack of Information or Authority, my intention was to send a message about homophobia and racism, showing how they are a part of the patriarchal logic of European democracy. As European laws about homosexuality have noticeably changed over the last ten years – for better and for worse – the pieces shown in the book look quite different than they did when I made it. It seems to me that these projects are more statements about a specific time in history than attempts to establish a discourse about democracy.

LF: In your recent first solo show in New York at Ludlow 38, you presented a fragmented portrait of Alan Turing, the English mathematician who was criminally prosecuted for homosexuality. His life seems to be a inextricable conundrum of different events ranging from the historical to the personal, such as science, Nazism, the Cold War, segregation. It’s like a portrait of the 20th century. How did you want to approach his figure?

HO: What interests me about the Turing biography is not only the way it illustrates the boundaries and histories of the 20th century, but that it also seems almost like a gendered prophecy. In a horrifying way, Turing’s body was injured by the violence of modern ideology, he lost his own body, in a way, but he also made a new one. In 1936, he published a theoretical model of a machine that was to constitute the basis of all post-war computing, making him the father of all modern computer science. And this part of his biography is a futuristic tale about thinking machines, artificial intelligence and the appearance of possible future bodies. And to me, this is a long-needed escape from biological, heterosexual reproduction. Turing is also interesting because of his position as a servant of society. During the Second World War, he worked for the British government deciphering German military codes, and later in life, he was employed in other departments for the British government. He was working in a very bureaucratic, patriarchal society where the only way to survive was to be apolitical. What interested me very much about this story was the strange phenomenon that whenever we encounter homosexuals in history, it is mainly as suffering and victimized geniuses. It seems like certain kind of words and bodies are fetishized and turned into literal authenticity. Like Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp, for instance, would appear to be suffering outlaws within certain highly rigid classifications that are both disempowering and desexualizing. And this process of desexualization of homosexuality is a part of how history works, it seems like the only way for homosexuals to be included in patriarchal/ heterosexual history writing.

LF: The narrative of the project seems to focus on the changes to which Turing’s body was subjugated, up to the point where it completely disappeared…

HO: Turing’s body is taken so much to the extreme that it goes beyond any representation and standard. When he was criminally prosecuted, he was given female hormone injections as “treatment” for his homosexuality, with very negative effects; he became impotent and his breasts grew larger. And he finally appears to us in the history books without a sex. So the fact is that due to the extremely rigid concept of bodies in the 1950s, Turing did lose his body. Central to the story is not only the disappearance of Turing’s body, but at the same time the arrival of the computer body, the thinking machine, or, as I like to think of it: concepts of “the possible body”. And so this project turned into being about the “making of new bodies”, suggesting a variety of associations.

LF: It seems like a statement about identities and how they change all the time in the realm of history, culture and politics.

HO: Yes, identities seem contradictory, they are not frozen moments, and in this project both of Turing’s two bodies encounter a gender and body discourse that was to appear much later than the story itself!

LF: Besides the Alan Turing project, your recent research focuses on collecting images and material depicting the representation of homosexual imagery in art and culture from the 18th century on. This project, Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture I-VII, which you presented at Daniel Buchholz in Cologne in 2007, seems to be informed by an attempt at partly rewriting the cultural history of modern European culture, bringing to the surface certain stories and manifestations which didn’t find a place in the official master narrative. Did you conceive it like that, as a kind of counterwriting of modernity?

HO: Basically, this project is a study of the representation of homosexuality and same-sex culture as related to traditional art history, to visual culture, to folklore, to any kind of imagery, really. The project was developed over several years, and during that time I collected a huge amount of images and information that describe a variety of diverse subcultures, artists, images, gestures, codes. I then categorized this material in a variety of subgroups. My research stops around the time when the word “homosexuality” was invented, in the late 19th century. Meaning it is not a rewriting of modernity; rather, it stops at the beginning of modern sexual discourse. It stops with Freud, with Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and with Magnus Hirschfeld. This project is first and foremost about desire, love, and sex. As a starting point, I wanted to focus on a more positive aspect of sexuality and cultural patterns, if you can put it that way. I was interested in homosexual artists and subcultures as such, and less concerned about the structures that have criminalized and oppressed them.

LF: It’s intriguing that you stopped your study at the beginning of modern sexual discourse, because that links the invention of the word “homosexual” to the word “race”, which is also a totally modern concept. It was invented out of the needs of modernity and didn’t exist before.

HO: That is a very important point. I don’t know much about the appearance of the word “race”, but it certainly seems almost as if no homosexual culture existed before the invention of the word “homosexual”, before it was needed as a category of culture, as you say. There is a brilliant text by Whitney Davis that was very inspiring. He talks about how the historical record itself has been constructed, managed, and published in such a way that material of direct interest to gay and lesbian studies has often literally dropped out of immediate view or has completely disappeared. Meaning that most researchers of non-dominant social groups and sub-cultural practices must, as a matter of principle, interpret what cannot be found.

LF: So did you manage to get access to lots of sources? And how did you organize it all?

HO: Yes, I did still find a lot of material. A big part of the project is about art history and based on artist biographies. It is documented that many artists were homosexual, or lived at least partially in same-sex relationships. It is important to note that it’s about artists that we know from museums, as parts of the canonized history of art. Another category I draw attention to is about subculture and spaces that were taken into use by homosexuals. In this category, one part is about the lesbian group of American artists that settled down in Rome around the 1850s. Another part is about the Molly subculture in London, a homosexual network that functioned much like nowadays, and documented from around year 1700. I also did research on legal cases, including, for instance, specific examples or moments where criminal history intersected with the careers of artists. For example, when the Flemish artist Jérôme Duquesnoy was executed on sodomy charges in 1654. Also many Italian artists were accused of sodomy, e.g., Benvenuto Cellini, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci.

LF: Did you find visual materials about this gender criminalization?

HO: No, in art history it is almost impossible to find any illustrations of the organized criminalization of homosexuality. I was able to find a very small amount of visual material that included, for instance, an illustrations showing the execution of gays in Zurich in 1482 and in Amsterdam in 1730.

LF: I’m interested in the way you present these documents according to a precise conceptual taxonomy, a kind of encyclopedism that generates meaning by the juxtaposition of the elements you draw on. Did Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas play a role when you were envisioning the project?

HO: Yes, and I did not only make a formal reference to Aby Warburg. In his Mnemosyne Atlas from the 1920’s, he constructed his own grammar of pathos formulas, a compendium of gestures, and also an atlas of titles. The major part of my project exists as a collection of imagery that would not normally be grouped together in traditional, academic art history. I am talking about illustrations of paintings, drawings, watercolours, graphics, etc. that depict effeminate men, masculine women, moustaches, coded clothing, carefully placed genitals—and there are quite a few images referring more directly to modern homosexual iconography. In the grouping of these images, it was important to focus on new systems and categories in order to demonstrate a spectrum of possibilities—to create a kind of body atlas consisting of space, signs, and codes. In this respect, Aby Warburg was a pioneer, mainly due to his grammar of signs in the Mnemosyne Atlas, which was an advance in our concept of categorization.


Originally published on Mousse 18 (April–May 2009)


Related Articles
Extended Stage: Monica Bonvicini
(Read more)
Ulterior Space: WangShui at Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin
(Read more)
Mathieu Copeland and Stewart Home on “Shit and Doom – NO!art” at Cell Project Space, London
(Read more)
System Warning: Josh Kline
(Read more)
Is Wow the Same as Great?: Hanne Lippard
(Read more)
Reckoner: Patrick Fabian Panetta
(Read more)