Contagious Affairs

By Reinhard Braun


It has become a commonplace observation that the media and advertising in general – as an aesthetization of the public (and increasingly also of the allegedly private) sphere, as a “framing by media dispositifs” (Tom Holert) – expose us to a constant barrage of idols, ideals, dreams, desires and ideologies, “beautiful images or ideas that are preserved by the picture for no other reason than because they only ever exist in the picture, because they have only ever been created by the picture” (Gilles Deleuze). It is an equally commonplace observation that artistic practice, to the extent it confronts this fact in the first place, always does so in critical terms and/or in terms of strategic affirmation. The increasing performativity of the pictures provokes on the part of artists a specific critical awareness of pictures, which – in a manner of speaking –derails this performativity in order to make possible a different treatment of these pictures. By doing so, art intervenes in the relationship between picture and desire, in the power of pictures to evoke desire, a desire that has served as a cultural motor already for quite some time and as a centre of gravitation for countless industries that cluster round it. What is the likely outcome, one may ask, if this desire is not only taken seriously but literally? What happens if this desire becomes in its turn the motor of artistic production? „I Would Love to Make Her Radiate“ is the title of one of Kristleifur Björnsson’s most recent works, a self-made line of lingerie presented under glass in sumptuous wooden caskets. This is supplemented by lingerie ads Björnsson has lifted from fashion and women’s magazines and subjected to artistic second-guessing. He has covered the usually full-page ad with tracing paper and traced the lingerie: the result is “Succeeding Desire” (2008/2009). This was preceded in 2007/2008 by “This would suit her”, a series of photographs depicting various items of lingerie spread out on a bed. These have obviously not landed there in a haphazard manner, they’ve been carefully if mysteriously arranged as if they were meant to serve some obscure purpose.

These works seem to address a desire for – female – beauty, for sumptuous materiality, for the embellishment or the reworking of – female – bodies; they circle round affects generated by the desire for these bodies. In a manner of speaking they are to be read as an (indirect, medialized) re-enactment of these bodies, as an attempt to establish and represent a contradictory (because medialized) intimate relationship with these bodies. In this way Björnsson creates a specific space for the – male – affirmation of that intimacy. This is why a certain sense of unease is inherent in these works, which has its origins in the fact that they are entangled in structures of desire, in their adaptation of structures of perception, in the affirmation and voyeurism that flare up in the absence of a critical distance to separate them from their “obscure object of desire” (Luis Buñuel). This sense of unease is all the more remarkable as these works do not constitute any immediately recognizable taboo breaking or lewdness. It has to do with the fact that they raise the question of the individuality of desire. Is there such a thing as individual, authentic desire in the first place? Or is it the case that we are off kilter because we can never make this desire completely our own?
Björnsson takes up the discourse centring on fashion, bodies, beauty, politics, pop culture and identity politics to turn it inside out and switch it into overdrive. Examples of this are the tracings of the “Succeeding Desire” series, which display a downright manic preoccupation with the female body, its beauty (which is entirely produced by the medium and is therefore purely fictional) and the ambivalent desire for those bodies. The ensembles in the “I Would Love to Make Her Radiate” series also make it clear that the focus is on the production process, the material realization and not on a strategy of representation. They are at the same time objets d’art and sumptuous presents, gifts and commodities. The lingerie items are not intended for wearing; there are no fasteners; they are made from the most expensive materials; they do without synthetic fibres or metal components. The conspicuously coloured seams prove beyond any doubt that, while all the items are handmade, the person who made them has not yet fully mastered the requisite skills. The struggle for handcraft perfection; the tracing method, which leaves the originals curiously untouched; the purposeful arrangement of the lingerie items on the bed; all this evidence of interventions, interference, alteration and re-interpretation, i. e. of the presence of the artist in his work, seem to point to an obsession, a desire which is being addressed here and put centre stage. One would have to ask though whether there is any fulfilment in sight for this desire. Is it not the case that the very character of Björnsson’s works as a series suggests the impossibility of any kind of fulfilment? “Succeeding Desire”? “I Want to Make Her Radiate”? Are not the very titles marked by melancholy and angst?

In these series Björnsson engages with an unspoken taboo that is at the same time generated and suppressed by the visual culture of advertising. That taboo concerns the phantasmagorias and desires kept in circulation by advertising and the implicit ban on taking them literally, on tracking them down and giving them material existence. After all, their “fulfilment”, their “realization” is supposed to be channelled towards other cultural practices, in particular towards consummation through partial consumerist satisfaction. This means that these series are neither guided by a critical awareness of this particular kind of wishful thinking that owes its structure to the medium of advertising nor by its sublimation through consumerist behaviour. They are in fact guided by speculations about those strategies that are seen at work in the appropriation and modulation of this wishful thinking, about the possibilities of wish fulfilment and the circularity of the triad desire, subject and representation. In his latest series Björnsson draws our attention to the ambivalent entanglement governing the performativity of pictures – and bodies – by using it as his point of departure for his work. And there is no doubt that the focus is on the bodies despite their ostensible absence. It is in fact their very absence, their representation by what amounts to no more than a paraphrase that evokes them all the more powerfully in the mind of the observer.

All this gives Björnsson a unique position within the scenario of those contemporary artistic practices that are directed towards a discourse about desire, media and commodities; about the body as the locus of real desire on one hand and phantasmagorical production on the other. Our craving for beauty, the circulation and commodification of ideals of beauty in countless media channels, “all the bodies I know and those I want to know” (Ultravox, 1977) – Björnsson draws us into a closed loop involving emotions and desires that we recognize both as belonging to us and, at the same time, as not belonging to us in any meaningful, authentic sense that relates to us as individualized subjects; desires that we would love to succumb to if we did not feel at the same time the need to try and distance ourselves from them, as we recognize them as essentially commodified (and power hungry) desires. As we contemplate Björnsson’s works, we oscillate between wanting to voice criticism and wanting to succumb to seduction; we are drawn into an arena in which different forms of identity, obsessions, phantasmagorias as well as power and control are renegotiated (as opposed to represented). They stake out an affective space in which materials, pictures and the interventions in pictures themselves become the actors that re-enact those negotiations. They demonstrate what happens when desire is taken literally and put before our eyes, when it is freed from its medium-generated frames and its conventionalizations and/or when these are isolated, displayed in their own right and made ultra-visible. Björnsson intervenes with his most recent works precisely in those orders that ensure the consistency of this desire as well as the consistency of the policies affiliated with the desire.

If art is the discourse that produces a specific critical knowledge about pictures, the production of that criticism is located in Björnsson’s work in that constellation in which his most recent work addresses those mechanisms of seduction that have always attempted to silence criticism and to neutralize it. His works replicate the different arenas of a society that is divided against itself, oscillating between normalization and excess, triviality and spectacle, public voyeurism and new “Biedermeierlichkeit”, i.e. an a-political, escapist stance, a kind of cocooning in a segregated private universe. They use pictures both to put bodies centre stage and to make them disappear, to produce subjectivity and to pacify it, smothered in joint desire. They deal with a relationship of mutual contagion between pictures, commodities and subjects, a relationship that Björnsson has entered into himself and about which his works have “tales to tell”.