Like the Viennese Actionists, Danish artist Kristian Hornsleth operates at the outside margins of conventional artistic practice where the distinction between art and life is imprecise. The Actionists' deliberately shocking performances sought to expose the endemic violence of the "human condition," an expression in wide circulation among artists and writers since before the Actionists formed in the early 60s which described the broad questioning of life's conditions and existential paradoxes including the meaninglessness of actions and their consequences and the certainty of death. The Actionists' self-torture, exhibitionism, and quasi-religious ceremonies using blood and animal entrails was an interrogation of humanity on its own terms, not one in the abstract, and came too close to the brutality of life in their discordant times. So close for comfort in fact, that members of the group were at times prosecuted on charges of obscenity.
As the founder of the Futilistic Society, Hornsleth has made a manifesto of his investigation into the meaningless, which he perceives as a sort of white noise between outposts of things that give sustenance in a barren landscape. The idea of "futilism" is Hornsleth's acknowledgement of the inefficacy of the individual to mediate the cultural ebb and flow against larger, perhaps darker phenomena –though he is careful to differentiate between those societal forces which certainly may be wicked and depraved and the "futile" space surrounding them which he explains is neutral and thus holds potential. Hornsleth's sober appreciation of the meaningless reflects the violent oppression of marketing and its stultification of individualism today. Hornsleth thinks of himself as a brand as well as an artist. His name is emblazoned within a black cartouche like the expensive lines of couturiers ("Hornsleth black label") over large areas of his paintings and figures no less prominently in his sculpture. In the largely elitist world of contemporary art where many of the consumers behave as if certain artists and galleries are luxury brands, Hornsleth utilizes marketing strategies as the ultimate gesture of the realist, one that is as futile as it is absurd since it is the confidential machinations of the art market that determine demand not an artist's mere declaration.
Hornsleth's acknowledgement of recent art history and artistic forbears is plentiful including references to the Actionists. For example, Arnulf Rainer's aggressive action painting is summoned by Hornsleth's splatter-filled paintings Contact with the Fatal (2001) and Wichita (2004), and the bodily mutilation (actual and staged) in performances by Günter Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler is recalled in Hornsleth's Fun, Fun, Fun (200X) an image of furiously menstruating women, and Fuck You Art Lovers (1999-present) a work that exists in many forms including sculpture, neon, and also as a tattoo. Fuck You Art Lovers is a text piece that re-asserts the artwork's confrontational title, bringing to mind the language-based conceptual practices of the 1960s and perhaps making concrete the literal meaning of Joseph Kosuth's neon installation Words are Deeds. However, unlike much of the performative work of the 1960s and 70s in which the real or enacted violence against the artists' own bodies was intended to relocate in the consciousness of the viewer, the violence in Hornsleth's work is directed outward. Like the proto-Dada poet, boxer, and art "lecturer," Arthur Cravan, who in 1917 hurled his briefcase at his unsuspecting audience in New York City and proceeded to strip while screaming insults at them, Hornsleth's barbs are aimed point-blank at the audience/consumer, after all "Fuck You Art Lovers" is tattooed on the collector, not Hornsleth. One can imagine his appeal to Schwarzkogler – "cut off the curator's dick, cut off the collector's dick, cut off the dealer's dick, not your own!" Hornsleth radically situates himself within the system that his work and practice investigates and dissects, a system that has long since digested, commodifed, and thus neutralized the Actionists' once extreme pronouncements. Thus a mainstream versus antisocial or antiart binary is not necessarily the only layer of meaning that exists in Hornsleth's work. Rather, as the corruption of politics and power and the vulgarity of new wealth has come to characterize the zenith of contemporary artistic production and distribution, Hornsleth's practice recognizes the crude violence, onanism, and auto-sycophancy in the euphoric accord between both the supply and demand side of the artworld.
If spending millions of dollars on art was something done in private a few years ago, conspicuous consumption is back. At this spinoff of the highly successful 35 year-old fair in Basel, Switzerland, young, hip hedge-fund managers, Fortune 500 executives and A-list actors are shopping side by side in a spree fueled by new wealth, a hot art market and the headlong pursuit of membership in a glamorous, elite club…'It's not just about buying art; it's about buying a lifestyle.'
And thus Hornsleth strives for a sort of détente in search of meaning. His approach is a reflection of the artworld's awareness of its own global culture economy, and his work is less an angry response than it is an amused but detached observation of the forces that compel the demeaning and futile task of waiting for admission to the "elite" club behind velvet ropes. History has shown the difficulty of sustaining anti-social and anti-art positions. The intensity and exhilaration of uninhibited social and political opposition that propelled the Actionists through the 1960s, or the British and American punk movements through the late 1970s, or even the AIDS activist group ACT UP through the 1980s was ultimately doomed by success and consequently absorbed into the mainstream and neutralized by the media. As the writer David James explains punk's decline: "as they became 'professional,' as authorship was isolated [from the unified sense of a popular voice] and as the art became a commodity, the original social function was lost." Coming of age during punk's denouement, Hornsleth has come to embrace the institutionalized prerogative of "private ownership of socialized production" in contemporary art culture as a viable means of maintaining an oppositional stance.
Money and sex, conditioned by violence, are leitmotifs in Hornsleth's work. Located between hostility and desire, his work simultaneously attracts and repels. Like a Siren, the female nude functions as a lure and is a recurring allegorical figure for the desirable but unattainable realm – the "elite club" of the global culture. Drawn from soft pornographic sources, the nudes embody the promise of arousal and exhilaration, which once through the club doors is only to be realized, alas, through solo masturbation. In Follow the Money Honey (2004) the title's directive is scrawled on the chest of an underwear model like concrete poetry, as the text seems to train into the model's cleavage. Another nude is revealed behind a feathery smear of yellow paint. Its title Pillow Power (2004) recalls the 1990 Iggy Pop song "Pussy Power":
Makes me feel alright
Like a human being
Take your building and your income and
Shove it up your ass-
Take your building and your income and stuff
It with your cash-
I heard a lotta big talk-met a lotta tough guys-
That shit looks ugly under a starry night-
Which country is the strongest?
Who plays the best guitar?
Who fucking cares
Under the stars
An evil shadow across my brain
A certain burning that makes me insane
She's on my beam oh no she's in my room
She's all around me now and I'm a tool
Hornsleth's clay sculptures such as Sempre or My Collectors Are Richer Than Yours (both 2001), hand-made and fired at the Studio Trugo in Albisola, Italy, are burnt with resplendent gold enamel beckoning one to admire the reflective golden forms. Snakes often lurk, writhing throughout the works, perhaps Medusa-like warnings of the danger of unchecked desire to behold that which is beyond reach. Sempre (always) is a still life in the northern tradition of the vanitas: calla lilies, symbols of death and resurrection, are bound by a snake around its stems whose forked tongue is echoed by their erect stamens. My Collectors Are Richer Than Yours or M.C.A.R.T.Y both mocks and pays homage to the career of Los Angeles based artist Paul McCarthy who is best known for his "shocking" and violent performances of the 1970s, and whose work has since become much sought after. The taunt on the front of the sculpture is spelled out boldly below one of McCarthy's "Blockhead" characters sitting at the edge of the base. He has been given skeletal features by Hornsleth as if to suggest McCarthy's demise (at least in essence) at the whim of the rapacious market for which he shares culpability.
Taken at face value, Hornsleth's work might be misunderstood as mere provocation goaded by an irrepressible art market. However to approach his work without a sense of humor is to do so at risk. His sardonic critique of the artworld's nouveau bourgeois is as crystal clear as a landscape by the 19th-century Danish painter Christen Købke and as darkly amusing as a film by Quentin Tarantino because it so closely corresponds to the spectacle of an art fair promenade: picture Hornsleth's silver-gilt dildo inscribed with "fuck you art lovers" and then imagine the sort of toupee wearing art collector who might own it, or yet consider his ceramic portrait of a curator with a dick for a head. That Hornsleth is sincere in his pursuit of technical artistic excellence is evident in the work itself. The churlishness of his paintings is belied by their adroit execution and the rude epithets on his golden sculptures don't conceal their masterful craftsmanship. And he is no less sincere in his investigation of the potential of the white noise that he calls futilism – it is in this soundscape where painfully evident truths may be articulated in the crudest fashion in an age when truth generally yields to money.
Michael Rooks 2005
Chief curator, Haunch of Venison Gallery, New York
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