A Copenhagen art critic once wrote, in what he thought were devastating terms, that Danish artist Kristian von Hornsleth's work could have been produced by a prepubescent teenager. It is certainly true that it is aggressive and deliberately offensive, reveling in shocking images. This is its strong point. A provocation? We'll find out at his first show in France, at the Valérie Cuéto gallery in Paris (January 15 to end of March). This exhibition, humorously titled HORN$LETH HURT$ CUETO, will surely demonstrate that if this artist likes to hammer away, it's because he knows how to hit the nail on the head.
First of all there are the canvases, inkjet prints gone over with paint, or more accurately splattered with acrylic, slashed with a knife in various places, as if they had been submitted to a violent attack by some iconoclast. Often they show nude young women in suggestive poses, with undeniably effective sloganeering titles such as Pillow Power, Fuck My Brains Out and Follow the Money Honey. In another painting, an American helicopter fires on full automatic as an explosion of paint forms the word "Friends." Elsewhere three handsome young men busily kiss one another and exchange blowjobs barely hidden behind the words "Art World Politic$." In Hornsleth's revisiting of the Swiss flag, four swaths of yellow paint turn the famous cross into a swastika and the words "Fucking Liars" are emblazoned over it. If you haven't got it yet, just take a glance at his objects—cufflinks engraved with the phrase "Kill the Bitch," or a bikini-top catch that says "Fuck Me Daddy." A real display of testosterone-fuelled machismo.
The Futilistic Revolution
The slogans that adorn his work evoke hip-hop talk as well as Hollywood movies. This is one dimension of Hornsleth's work—some of his collectors are real b-boys, and he works with rapper Alpha Han. But his provocations also extend into the rules governing the world of art. One of his best slogans is obviously the "Fuck You Art Lovers" found in many of his works. The insult appears in a colored neon inscription slightly mocking the cold minimalism of Dan Flavin, and on gilded ceramic sculptures the artist makes in Albisola, Italy. These accumulations of forms evoke religious ex-votos. There are also skulls, flowers, figures and scenes of torture, such as Saint Sebastian, on whose torso is written the word "Curator," while the base says "Kill Me Fast." Another ceramic proclaims, "My Collectors Are Richer Than Yours," as if two artists having a stupid conversation began squabbling like chambermaids over whose boss had the bigger... income. This "disrespect" for art lovers (including collectors) and curators led a New York Times critic to comment that Hornsleth was "nipping the hand that feeds him." All this would seem to indicate that my Copenhagen colleague was right.
The Message Is the Medium
Actually, however, Hornsleth's oeuvre corresponds to a mysterious theory he worked out in the course of the 1990s, called Futilism. He has put out a number of versions of a Futilist Manifest [sic] although every time he has to confess that an exact definition of the concept is impossible. In general terms, the idea of the Futilist method is "to conquer mental areas which we normally conceive as meaningless and to read out new meanings therefrom." This is not at all an aesthetics of the banal—it's closer to Dali's critical paranoia. Hornsleth takes into consideration the void, seeking to draw new ideas from the magma the artist calls "noise." His attitude recalls the trance of Pythia at Delphi.(1) In his preface to the Manifest, Jens Erik Hoverby writes that "Futilism is the philosophy about opening doors to the hidden, to the illegal, and to what is beyond the obvious, the rational and apparent meaningfull aspects of culture. Futilism is Kristian Hornsleth's thoughts on what we normally turn our backs to, either because we are scared of it or because we simply do not see it... Futilism is a clash towards boredom, routine, institutions and traditions, because it questions them." [sic] In fact, more than a provocation, Hornsleth's work invites us to question ourselves about what we call art: What exactly is your definition of subversion? What are your limits? What freedom does the artist have when a generalized political correctness unofficially sets certain forbidden boundaries? Finally, and more generally, what does "being an artist" mean?
To be an artist means first of all—and this is a necessary condition—to give free reign to your megalomania and self-promotion, because if you don't, nobody else will do it for you. Like a logo, Hornsleth's name is prominently featured on all his work. This Dane perverts marketing strategies—certainly no one has ever gone further in integrating corporate practices, a trend in contemporary art that lately has been marked more by fascination with and complaisance towards the capitalist system than any real criticism of it. Like the slogans ("Fuck You Art Lovers," "Kill Me Fast," etc.), the artist's name is omnipresent: engraved on a silver dildo, on the barrel of a pistol, tattooed on a man's body and so on. But nowhere is it more visible than in his porno video in which two men and a woman, her body covered with "Hornsleth" stickers, have sex while breathlessly chanting the artist's last name.
Hornsleth's name is his signature, like Fontana's slashes and Buren's stripes. This artist reverses Marshall McLuhan's dictum "The medium is the message." For Hornsleth, the message (his name, his slogans) is the medium, and it assumes very different forms that are as violent as the message itself. Once again, his work should be distinguished from "branding art" (Plamen/Dejanoff, for example), because it has not forgotten its humanity: the artist makes use of marketing but forsakes the glacial aesthetics of the multinationals. Instead of a depersonalized graphic art, he prefers the scribbling of graffiti and punk aesthetics, which are far more able to speak of strong emotions such as love, fear, sex and loneliness, all the things that "corporate art" avoids like the plague. This very personal aspect, demoting the cynicism in his work, surfaced fully in a collection of poems entitled Great Love Was Here, Great Love Will Come Again. These short haikus have the same powerful impact as his visual work. Some people might say that writing poems is typical of teenagers. True, but in a world where art proclaims itself subversive without noticing that its good behavior is smothering it, it seems absolutely necessary to cultivate the insolence of adolescence and "regularly tell your parents to fuck off." As a Hornsleth aphorism puts it so well, don't be scared, be a Futilist.
Richard Leydier, is art critic and editor of Art Press Paris
This text was published in Art Press in the December issue 2004
Translation, L-S Torgoff
This text was published the first time in the book Fuck You Art Lovers Forever
Kristian von Hornsleth, Futilistic Publishing, Copenhagen 2005.
You can buy the book on www.hornsleth.com