Bjarne Melgaard

Has the vulgarly provocative Norwegian artist been infected by good taste?

By David Everitt Howe

BJARNE MELGAARD AND RICHARD LAU, Untitled, 2012, oil on canvas,178x279x5cm. Photo: Jason Mandella, New York. Courtesy the artist BJARNE MELGAARD, The Synthetic Slut: A Novel, 2010 (installation view). Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York BJARNE MELGAARD AND JOEL SALADINO, Untitled, 2012, oil on canvas, 178 x 279 x 5 cm. Photo: Jason Mandella, New York. Courtesy the artist BJARNE MELGAARD, The Synthetic Slut: A Novel, 2010 (installation view). Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York. BJARNE MELGAARD AND SNØHETTA, the artist’s drawings on the architect’s plans for the exhibition A House to Die In, 2012, ICA, London. Courtesy the artist BJARNE MELGAARD AND SNØHETTA, the artist’s drawings on the architect’s plans for the exhibition A House to Die In, 2012, ICA, London. Courtesy the artist

Bjarne Melgaard and I have something in common: we both love dick. In fact, writing on Melgaard is a very convenient excuse to write about my favourite male member as well as one of my favourite pastimes, gay sex; the artist is perhaps the enfant terrible purveyor of both. Since his bravura institutional outing in 1997 at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Melgaard’s forté has been crass, crudely drawn, graffiti-like images of, and writings about, bareback and interracial gay sex – ‘hate fucking,’ ‘gay terrorism,’ ‘white Daddy dick,’ ‘big fat black dick,’ ‘straight cock,’ and other delightful variations on the theme, all layered and scrawled on paintings, old beds, couches spilling over with posters, and other messy piles of carefully amalgamated bric-a-brac.

A sexy, hairy, Australian-born Norwegian gay guy hellbent, in the abject tradition of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, on figuratively shitting all over mainstream culture

Melgaard’s schizophrenic accumulations of vulgar ephemera might evoke the installations of Thomas Hirschhorn – that is, if Hirschhorn’s papery images of war-ravaged, blown-apart bodies and Hellraiser-like mannequins were replaced by cum-dripping penises and self-fisting platypuses; that is, if Hirschhorn were in fact not a heterosexual Swiss man but a sexy, hairy, Australian-born Norwegian gay guy hell-bent, in the abject tradition of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, on figuratively shitting all over mainstream culture. In this instance, though, it’s mainstream gay culture, or rather the mainstreaming of gay culture, that draws Melgaard’s ire.

In the wake of recent victories to legalise gay marriage in the US and the continued normalisation of gay men and women in the media, the military and other sectors of everyday life, Melgaard has sought, in the most excessive way possible, to turn back the clock. Bluntly evoking a time when homosexuality was viewed as a deviant, frightening infection, Melgaard espouses a militant gayness fatalistically marked by an AIDS-induced death drive – a self-destructive, sexual jouissance that indulges in the ‘extraordinary narcissistic enjoyment’, as Jacques Lacan would say, of aggressive sex, violence and consumerism.

Take Melgaard’s 2010 exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, The Synthetic Slut: A Novel: walls and floors were covered with fictional pornographic writing about a hypersexual gay NY lifestyle – Grindr, sex parties and all. Variously sized and coloured vinyl lettering read ‘Feel cool. Wanna fuck,’ and ‘Who doesn’t want to fuck their brother?’ alongside other explicit sexual musings. Above the text, and partially obscuring it, hung a large group of paintings featuring the recurring figure of the platypus and other human-animal hybrids. In one untitled work from 2010, a gruesome, monster-like figure in thick black outline, jerking off with a stretched-out anus over a faded image of an antique couch and puppies, is surrounded by scratchy black text declaiming, among other things, ‘Come on nigger whore, just admit we want each other’ and ‘bug chaser.’ Another painting features the same figure fucking another, and on yet another canvas he’s laying on his stomach, spreadeagled, over bowed colour fields. In distinction to these gestural, expressive works, Melgaard’s other works were nearly photorealistic, such as the two black-and-white canvases portraying very young naked men either spreadeagled on a bed or, if their shy countenances are any indication, reluctantly exposed to the viewer. A third painting somewhat incongruously depicts two Algerian youths holding machine guns.

A gruesome, monsterlike figure in thick black outline, jerking off with a stretchedout anus over a faded image of an antique couch and puppies, is surrounded by scratchy black text declaiming, among other things, ‘Come on nigger whore, just admit we want each other’ and ‘Bug chaser’

Further conflating sex, violence and commodity culture, the sculptural assemblages littering the space offered a dizzying array of disparate objects and source material, from crude figurative sculptures made of marble surrounded by Diet Coke cans and used coffee cups, to a rack of wrinkled Maison Martin Margiela suits. In addition to furniture from his own home, which Melgaard cut up and repurposed for the exhibition, this ‘multifunctional novel,’ which is partly inspired by the postmodern, unpredictable fiction of Kathy Acker and Jane DeLynn, raises the stakes on the legacy of the readymade. In lieu of the cheap consumer goods favoured by Marcel Duchamp, such as bottle racks or typewriter covers, Melgaard’s soiled and beaten objects are conspicuously luxurious. By assimilating them into narratives of late-night hook-ups and other erotic adventures, Melgaard seems to correlate the male body with Hästens Beds and Louis Vuitton goods, bringing the inevitable question of what, exactly, is commodifiable to its seemingly natural and by now familiar end: pretty much anyone and anything, from rotting bananas to a pair of spread ass cheeks.

Yet Melgaard’s work isn’t as nihilistic as it appears. There is real critical agency in his dystopic settings, and it pushes back forcefully against cultural convention. In his Baton Sinister exhibition as part of the Norwegian pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, a video interview between Melgaard and queer cultural critic Leo Bersani featured prominently and has had a lasting afterlife (the video was the later centrepiece of a screening and panel discussion at The Kitchen, among other venues).

Bersani may be best known for his 1987 essay ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’, which pinpoints how strangely close gay culture hews to its heteronormative other, even appropriating straight male behaviour and terminology in ways that doesn’t so much undermine it as bolster it; the macho style of gay men in the 1970s, for instance, was seen by many cultural commentators as threatening to the sensibilities of straight men. Rather than posing a threat, Bersani, argues, heterosexual males saw in this stylistic adoption a ‘yearning towards machismo’, even an attraction to, their style and behaviour. Subsequent essays by Bersani, including ‘Shame on You’ and ‘The Power of Evil and The Power of Love’ (both 2008), develop this line of thinking further, most notoriously through the topic of gay barebacking, which post-AIDS became a taboo topic and practice in the gay community: it was, and is, unprotected sex, often revolving around the potential transmission and reception of the HIV virus. Like the strategic adoption of hypermasculine behaviours, barebacking is defined in terms of conventional gender roles, such as the designation ‘breeder’ given to the inserter, a strangely heterosexual label applied to sex between men. Quoting a study by Tim Dean on the practice, Bersani notes in ‘Shame on You’ that ‘bareback culture would be ethically troubling less for its radical departure from mainstream values than for its perpetuation of them’.

Gangbangs where one man receives 20 or more loads of semen

In its most freewheeling and promiscuous form, however, such as gangbangs where one man receives 20 or more loads of semen (this admirable bottom is called the King of Loads), Bersani – while not advocating this dangerous practice – sees in barebacking something startlingly dissimilar to any heterosexual convention: a selfless, radically liberating form of relation that, nodding to both Lacan and Gilles Deleuze, divests one of the selfish ego. In a word, he sees in it a kind of intimate and private ‘pure love’ suggestive of an entirely new, unique and individual form of behaviour decidedly outside the mainstream, where such behaviour is the stuff of pornographic broadcast.

In Untitled (Bjarne Melgaard Interviews Leo Bersani) (2011), Bersani sits opposite Melgaard and discusses how these theories can liberate queer culture. Wearing suits, they both talk in grave tones. The video would be very staid were it not for Melgaard’s humorously crass intercuts of cowboy porn, salacious intertitles and overlays of digital animations. As Bersani discusses the differences between ‘legitimate’ gays – ie those successfully assimilated into society, as through marriage – and ‘illegitimate’ ones – ie sluts and whores – a huge digital dick sprouts from Bersani’s lap and ejaculates crudely drawn semen on Melgaard’s face. In other moments, the studio background is replaced by a pride rainbow flag, stars circle around Bersani’s head like an injured cartoon character, and the infamous sewn-up face of David Wojnarowicz flashes intermittently on screen. These and other interjections cast an air of mockery over the proceedings. One gets the distinct impression that while Bersani, ACT UP, and other icons of the gay rights movement are touchstones for Melgaard, they’re not nearly radical enough. If his work is any indication, nothing short of a gay army stuffing the mouths of its critics with large, swollen dicks will do, if that helps the cause. While this is gross fantasy, it speaks to the gross fantasies buried deep within the collective gay ego, of liberating an identity always seen in relation to another and doing it with abandon.

While this is gross fantasy, it speaks to the gross fantasies buried deep within the collective gay ego

As provocative as Melgaard may be, his solo exhibition at the ICA perhaps signals a new, more muted direction. With the progressive Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, Melgaard is working on plans for a ‘house to die in’, as the press release states, including models and furniture designs which he will ultimately build in Oslo in 2014. With the structure looking very clean and elegant, perhaps the artist is becoming more sombre, more serious. Lacking the almost infantile aggressiveness of his earlier work, perhaps A House to Die In is a more adult effort. Or perhaps not. Either way, Melgaard seems to be planning for a future in ways that look strangely tasteful. This is a dubious aesthetic sea change for a man with little regard for good taste. What fun is good taste, anyway? If his outrageous history is any indication, the bad is much more interesting than the good.

This article was first published in the October 2012 issue.