Hornsleth the Antichrist of Anti-Art

Michel Henri

For two decades, the Hamlet of Danish art has wreaked havoc on the Western art scene. Hornsleth is a phenomenon who has put us face to face with the gaping emptiness and loss of values in our own culture. This experience has been both hellishly terrifying and rather entertaining.

The first time I saw Hornsleth, I wanted to discharge a firearm – which in itself is paradoxical, since I can normally be categorized as a conscientious objector, a pacifist with a non-violent disposition, armed only with a fundamental position against weapons, war and exercises of physical power – but Hornsleth's work gave me a character on the target, a motive and an alibi. After all, it was not the artist himself or his art that was the target, but rather the artist's self-proclaimed pseudo-intellectual high priests and arbiters of taste. To express it another way, all of those who sit there preventing all of us others from having a chance, because they themselves wish to safeguard a conservative, nostalgic, anti-progressive philosophy of life.

The piece that made me trigger-happy was Hornsleth's first signed Smith&Wesson pistol with that nominal motto scratched in the metal: FUCK YOU ART LOVER$. That was in the nineties – the decade when we exhausted Western Europeans had been lulled to sleep following several decades of the cold war. It was a period when the western world covered its ears, eyes, nose and mouth whenever it had to do with clashes or rebellions – which really became apparent in the case of the war in the former Yugoslavia. In the middle of Sleeping Beauty's slumber, Hornsleth suddenly emerged and armed us with Hornsleth branded Smith&Wesson gear. By this one would not say that Hornsleth started the rebellion of his generation, but on the other hand, the quiet nineties got others sounds, opinions and positions. It was as if everything that was once familiar began to exist again. People were not merely indifferent any more, they were suddenly provoked when Hornsleth went to Hamlet's castle in Helsingør and burned the Danish national flag. But what was it he triggered? What was it he gave us? Yes, he runs around like another disturbed Hamlet and reminds us of the killing of culture that has been committed, of the loss of values that is ravaging our culture like the plague. Hornsleth is not stupid, but he gladly assumes the role of court jester. It is not the jester's object to spell out the court's loss of values, but to camouflage it in such a way that the court will be entertained and amused.

Thank You For Driving Me Insane

In many ways Hornsleth is a dirty word within large parts of the established art world. From the beginning, he has been denounced as a provocative madman because of his aggressive pictures, and accused of being cynical for making use of commercial mechanisms. This has brought about a media image of him as some kind of cross between two types from the eighties - a preposterous yuppie with eyes wide open, and an obstinate punk with a stiff upper lip. As far as I am concerned, there was no way around it. I had to see for myself and meet the half-militant artist with yuppie ideals and the punk attitude. I had to have that gun.

That is why when I stepped inside the open door of the Hellerup address in Copenhagen, contrary to all expectations, I found the artist in the living room beginning to pick up his son's toys from the floor. He was composed, friendly and had red cheeks from spending the entire day in the forest with his children. He even offered herbal tea. Furthermore, he was observant, since he quickly picked up on my wondering look when I caught sight of his study at that time. It was a completely harmonious, clean room with white walls. "I have just begun to work up here," he explained. "It's something new and I can't understand why I didn't think of it a long time ago."

I followed Hornsleth down the back staircase, through the cellar and down at the end of a long dark hall we stepped into his workspace of the previous four years. "I cannot comprehend why I have worked here for so many years," he said. "It is so fucking gloomy. Now I understand better why my things have been so aggressive." The room was good-sized, but there was scarcely any light. More than anything, it reminded me of Francis Bacon's atelier, where the only light was a white canvas. In this dark room I came close to overturning a stack of paintings, all while Hornsleth pulled out a few different projects to present.

"Actually, I'm mainly interested in that Smith&Wesson pistol," I explained to Hornsleth.
"It's only a replica," he said teasingly.
"A replica? No thanks! It has to be the real thing."
"But do you have a weapon permit?"
"Do you know how to get one?"
"Noo..." I said.
(pause to consider)
"Do you want to go shooting?" I managed to say, and at once Hornsleth seemed enthusiastic about the idea. Some go to spinning, fine French cooking lessons, or porcelain painting classes. Instead, we decided to try our luck at a shooting range.

Float into the Noise

Now you must be picturing Hornsleth and yours truly decked out in hearing protectors, protective goggles and NRA caps, while we take aim at society, losers, and ourselves. And that image is not so far off.
"Fall into the noise, don't hold tight until the pain comes... let go," said Hornsleth to me once, when he wanted to explain something to me about his art. And that was not a bad sentence, if you would like to understand Hornsleth's art, his character, and last, but not least, some good advice for your own life.

Hornsleth works entirely with the meaningless of life and on the principle of the Futilistic manifest. "God has been declared dead you know... people are searching for answers. Futilism is my bid," Hornsleth once explained. There is a 20-page long manifest that spells out the concept in detail. I asked for the short version. "Fulitism is a tool for putting one's creativity in turbo... in connection with a new way of interpreting the purposelessness, that is the futile. Futilism is the decoding process of the futile." He explains the meaninglessness and will at the same time have an opinion, if it can be found in the futile. "It is not deconstruction... because that is just a remix of modernism," Hornsleth added. So it comes down to modernism or anti-modernism anyway, and this is where it gets difficult. Because there is nothing futile in Futilism. Just as there is not any Dada in Dadaism. In other words, it is just a form or modernism. It was there that Dali produced a brilliant trick by saying no to the surrealistic movement and declaring, "I am surrealism!" But Hornsleth holds his own and is strongest because he puts himself at our service. He puts our social mechanisms into overdrive and lashes out at them. It is an obligation. Hornsleth takes part in the game himself. He has fallings out with the art world, but lives in it. He gives as good as he takes.

Hornsleth both offends people and fills them with enthusiasm with his commercial methods, but he does not compromise his art for that reason. It is as boisterous as hell and not particularly pleasing. "I want to oscillate between nasty and nice and at the same time make the spectators doubt their own interpretations." He is cynical and uncompromising. That is what makes it interesting. On a deeper level it is our own cynicism, loss of values and cultural emptiness that he feeds us.

The Zero Point of Art

His art is an examination and an exploitation of the commercial art world. Hornsleth brands and signs a long series of products, such as Rolex watches, the previously-mentioned Smith&Wesson pistols, Pokémon teddy bears, jewellery and clothes with his name and mottos like Fuck You Art Lovers and Rape Kill Steal Burn. "If they want a name, then they'll get a name," Hornsleth declares. "It provokes me that the game is played that way and that is why Hornsleth usually fills half of the picture. In the end, that is what someone is measured by, the name itself." In this way, branding is a concept/filter used to understand and impart Hornsleth's art.
"This is the zero point of art, but 500 art collectors can't be wrong," Hornsleth states with a devilish smile. I am reminded of a Hornsleth painting of the pop icon Robbie Williams. Written above the picture it says, My Collectors are Richer Than Yours!
Hornsleth's art can be designated anti-art because it goes against the culture, against the parameters. That is why Hornsleth has not lost his faith in art. "I believe in art, like a kind of atheist. Atheists are generally the most faithful of them all," as the artist expresses.

Extreme Role Playing

Hornsleth's artistic development stretches into the common reality, or rather, our common media consciousness. It aroused great indignation the time he appeared on a "Big Brother" program with portraits of the confined participants. "I just thought that it was fun to stand there and explain Hornsleth futilism to a fucking Big Brother participant," he grins. His stated goal is that there should be a Hornsleth in every single home in Denmark within the next five years, and with the Big Brother event, he came closer than ever, if only for half an hour. At the same time, Ole Bornedal was directing the play Skrigerne at the Aveny T. Theatre in Copenhagen, where Hornsleth also contributed portraits of the actors' characters in the play. Skrigerne was a signature Bornedal piece about a group of young people who were all pursuing quick fame and wealth in exactly the same kind of Big Brother set-up. Hornsleth reflected these two phenomena toward each other and voluntarily participated in both camps – in the criticism as well as in the occasion for criticism. It was an extreme role-playing that Hornsleth performed. In that way he works with the commotion as if it were an extra colour.

You can call Hornsleth a walking archive. His pictures and motifs are whatever falls into his field of vision at any given time. Later when he is working on these pictures, they are mixed with other relevant or irrelevant expressions or slogans, and it is then that the commotion breaks out, the confusion and the short circuit. In other words, he uses a short circuit as a weapon.

The Naughty Boy Who Loves To Shock The Bourgeoisie

In 2003 Hornsleth decided to exhibit in the gold coast north of Copenhagen, and the exhibition drew crowds. People practically stood in line to come inside to see the artist himself at Galerie Knud Grothe.
Big flesh coloured balloons hung from the trees on Jægersborg Allé in Charlottenlund, just outside of Copenhagen. That is what children were told by their parents as they passed by. In fact, they were really Lolita dolls hanging from the trees outside of Galerie Knud Grothe. Genuine sex dolls made of rubber vinyl with movable eyes, copious hair, soft skin, a scent of perfume, inflatable pumps and vibrators.

The occasion for the expansive assortment of balloons was a Kristian Hornsleth exhibition with the poetic title: Fuck My Brains Out, which consisted of fifty pictures with topless girls and sex kittens with their legs spread open. In short, a series of pictures that touched on everything from titillation, vulgarity and sex discrimination to the power of money. Everything was for sale for the highest price.
This was not the average, toothless, smooth-tongued art we usually come across. Hornsleth's art series was a screaming commentary and barbarous satire of modern images of women. He considerably outdid these images of women with the help of the lavish colours of fireworks and fatally scathing slogans, such as: My wife is younger than yours, Cunt Hunt, Pillow Power and Get a job sucker.
No expense was spared at the Fuck My Brains Out exhibition. The artistic effects seemed more extreme, if possible. The women seemed more stripped than formerly. Even the slogans appeared more sarcastic and humiliating. This time the characteristic Hornsleth mottos seemed to have been spat on the canvases with the uncovered women.

"Monstrously brutal, I want it all," said a young son from a rich family to his buddies at Galerie Knud Grothe. Knowing very well that father had to be persuaded before he would pull out his generous wallet. His eyes were fixed on a Hornsleth painting with "Piss off you can't afford me" written on it. A few steps a way, yours truly heard an older gentleman confide to his friend, "It's a little too pricy for a boy's bedroom," while pointing at the price tag.

Everyone worth mentioning from the gold coast of Denmark showed up. The opening could not be limited to the usual two hours. Instead it lasted over three days, so that it would not all end in chaos, as the gallery put it. But it ended in chaos anyway.

The program was tailor-made to entertain the wealthy and offered séances with titles such as Wonderful Paintings of Women, Art Lounge Party, Lyric Poetry & Go Go and Classic Afternoon Matinée. Events ranged from body art performances, high-profile cigars hand-rolled between the breasts of Cuban beauties, champagne served by dancing Go Go girls, from poetry readings by the rapper Joker and von Hornsleth himself to piano pieces by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov played by Olga Magieres, and erotic romances sung by the Russian baritone Valery Lichatjov.
The wealthy are evidently so bored that Hornsleth the court jester thinks that they should have a bit more defiance in their daily lives. And in these times – where there is no opposition – where everyone accepts everything, it is absolutely necessary to have a troublemaker in the shape of Hornsleth.

Hornsleth in Action

"What should we do?" asks a topless girl who suddenly arrived. "You should just go around and have some fun. Serve wine to the guests and I'll paint on you a little later," Hornsleth answers. A second later all of the onlookers were suddenly thirsty and the two scantily dressed girls were faced with a lavish parade of empty plastic cups. The girls poured wine and teased people while the men looked them up and down and snickered at each other. In the meantime, the Charlottenlund wives compared the girls' attributes very critically with their own.

Hornsleth calls the girls over to him and they remove some more clothes. Then he paints them one after the other. Excitement fills the room. The temperature rises dramatically. In those minutes, the people demonstrated an abnormal interest in art. Greedy eyes closely followed every single brush stroke Hornsleth placed. He signed the girls with his characteristic Hornsleth brand.
"It's really fun to see him in action, isn't it?" a man asks another standing next to him. The topless brunette turns around and Hornsleth writes Rape Me on her buttocks and Sorry Mom on the blond's seat. He paints the $$ dollar signs on the breasts and writes Suck me daddy on the topless waitresses. And subsequently paints freely over these living canvases.

"Do you take credit cards?" commented a smart Alec in the crowd. On the second day, the Gentofte Police arrived at Galerie Knud Grothe and threatened to shut down the exhibition if the topless waitresses did not have their breasts covered and the exotic balloons were not removed from the treetops on Jægersborg Allé. The following day, Hornsleth went through with the third and final private viewing that was to declare the exhibition open. Unfortunately for Hornsleth and his fresh works, his artistic efforts were then overshadowed by a police report and the fuss that came with it. To be honest, it seemed absurd to censure an exhibition that was a reaction to the massive exposure of sex and pornography we are exposed to. Even so, Hornsleth delivers the goods, because he once again puts himself up to this. Again, he gives back what he gets and takes humiliation with his head held high. Hornsleth has a wonderful ability to bite the hand that feeds him. He pokes at all of the inferior human instincts and obsessions. If we do not offend others, then we will be offended ourselves. Maybe that is why Hornsleth strikes first?
So just get used to him. As one of Hornsleth's own mottos says: Don't Worry, This Is Art.

Michel Henri, journalist and musician based in Cpopenhagen
Translated from Danish by Pamela Starbird

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