The Emperor’s Exquisite Corpse*
“Men han har jo ikke noget paa,” sagde et lille Barn.
(“But he has nothing on!” said a little child.)
What is the voice of the child? That is, for whom and towards what does the child speak? A child’s voice has a rare force: speaking obvious truths in the face of power. The classic image of the child is one of naïve purity. And even in the modern imaginary, the voice of the child continues to, at once, operate as a house of innocence yet display a subversive potentiality. Indeed, for Hans Christian Andersen—whose tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, though quaint, retains weight—it is the child’s voice of confusion that reveals the truth. In this instance, naiveté does violence to the structure of ignorance. And, just as there lies a moment of indiscernibility between power and innocence, there is a fine line between the naïve and the ignorant. In The Emperor has no Clothes, the dynamics of naiveté and ignorance, and of power and innocence, become entangled. The exhibition overflows with flesh-colored flags, and other objects attempting to locate power in diverse matters: baseball, crickets chirping, shipping boxes, radio signals, etc. When facing this sort of entangled collection of work, the viewer’s approach ought to be filled with hesitance, skepticism. Gaps, reversals, false starts, and undoings…these are the objects of interpretation. Encountering a mere tangled mess: always possible. So one must be light in thought. –But always of more than one mind.
By now I have cleared my throat long enough. On to it!
“So,” asks the child, “what clothes does this exhibition don?” Approaching this question, the Emperor transforms my initial question (and rightly so): “whose is the voice of this child?”
A curious child walking down Bremen Street in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood pauses to admire six flesh-tone flags fluttering soothingly in the lake breeze. The precocious child understands that flags, like the rainbow pennant her parents proudly display on the front porch, have political meaning. She remembers the flags when her 5th grade teacher assigns a project on the United Nations, still unaware of why they were on display or if, weeks later, they remained part of the streetscape. Had she known the flags were part of an ongoing art project by the Danish collaborators Hesselholdt & Mejlvang, she could have used that in her paper on diversity and discord—where in she summed up her understanding of national politics with the deceptively simple “patriotism is not always good.”
Hesselholdt & Mejlvang’s A Beautiful Act of Patriotism is part of a group exhibition titled, The Emperor has no Clothes, curated by Danish curator Iben Bach Elmstrøm. The piece is the public face of an ambitious curatorial vision—and the most successful incarnation of that vision—at the influential project space, The Ski Club. Part of Ski Club’s well-earned reputation stems from the relationship between its modest physical footprint and the scope of its programming. Enter Bach Elmstrøm and her cross-continental goal to import questions about cultural subjectivity, knowledge, and power into a culturally diverse neighborhood—relatively speaking for Milwaukee—in a smallish midwestern city.
Bach Elmstrøm’s is a voice of inquiry: pressing onwards into difficult subjects, troubling topics. Her tone is soft, but accompanying the artwork are pages of text, in which each artist is profiled with both directness and brevity. All the pieces are put in line. Like the police sketch abstracted from The Stranger, Bach Elmstrøm voice transforms the overflow of work in the exhibition into something manageable, accessible to one’s imagination. Yet, the exhibition’s excess is not merely physical in nature. What cannot be kept neatly arranged in the work’s presentation is a deeper, pessimistic logic that permeates the exhibition. This logic exposes itself most clearly in Stucky & Briffa’s Self-Contained Display II. The piece hangs in the bathroom. It is of minimal composition, containing two parts. Specimen one, the 1996 So So Def Bass Allstars CD: a cracked neon Jewel-Case; a fingernail-torn sticker, which still advertises that the disc contains “Whatz up, Whatz up”; initials—KA—quickly written in Sharpy. Specimen two, a polymer knife, is more mysterious. The handle and the blade blend smoothly into one another; the motion from one end to the other is almost sexual in nature. The blade is frightening, and is the sort of knife one could easily sneak past TSA agents. Together, the disc’s alluring colors and reflective quality with the blade’s deceptively sharp edge provoke a mixed message: the fear of castration, but also a desire for it. What better place than in the bathroom of an art exhibition is there to realize that while one’s interests can be deceived, one’s desire cannot? As Deleuze and Guatarri expressed the pessimistic thought, “the masses were not deceived, they desired fascism…It happens that one desires against one’s own wishes.” The logic that this piece exposes operates throughout the exhibition—bringing to light, with one hand, social oppressions, and aestheticizing them with the other. Yet, given Self-Contained Display II’s placement, the pressure to dwell on such tension is ever-so-brief.
The Emperor has no Clothes orients viewers through a schematic map that serves as Title List, along with a Curatorial Statement, short descriptions of each work in the show, and biographical information on the artists. One senses the striving for clarity in the way in which the exhibition is dressed for public presentation. The didactics are no doubt intended to help navigate complex, topical subject matter: from questioning the colors of patriotism (Hesselholdt & Mejlvang) to reappraising the scant resources of homelessness (Annesofie Sandal) to confronting the brutality of power and pain (Stucky and Briffa), to technological/poetic seductions of time and place (Ana Hansa-Ogren). While generous, the exhibition’s desire for political reckoning seems deferred, obscure, or maybe just buried under too many cultural buzzwords.
After November 8th, everyone I care about is in collective despair at the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the most powerful country in the world. We fear this emperor who revels in bloated nakedness—except where his taxes are concerned. The pain, defeat, and sadness are all the more profound in knowing that almost as many people are rejoicing in seeing their candidate victorious. The country’s divisions are in plain view. The exhibition’s unfilled promises withstanding, the show’s titular premise of examining the appearance of decorum is timely indeed.
In one nuanced contribution titled CWS @ BAL 4.29.2015, Stucky and Briffa appropriate televised footage of a Major League Baseball game played in an empty stadium due to civil unrest in Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s unnecessary death while in police custody—the death itself suspiciously criminal. Two-channel audio accompanies the spectacle—or non-spectacle—combining announcers calling the game with audio from protests of the abuse of power in another American city, the artist’s hometown of Chicago. Like Hesselholdt & Mejlvang’s flags, the piece was brilliantly positioned outside for the opening. Unlike the flags, the piece was moved inside at the end of the opening due to logistical concerns. Once inside the darkened gallery, the baseball game and its mute audio—now with far less audience than the original game—embody daunting questions regarding effective political engagement. And these questions are central, in sharp ways, to a curatorial premise that seeks to locate cultural agency within an increasingly inhumane, polarized political landscape.
And so, what clothes does this exhibition don? What is the nature of an artist’s thought, such that (in the case of The Emperor Has No Clothes) an artist can stand before the troubling issues surrounding, for instance, political agency, or the forms of subjectivity imposed upon migrants or minorities? In other words, what sort of responsibility is being taken in this exhibition, and what sort of response can this work possibly receive? Like the pessimistic logic uniting the works, answering these questions involves a tension between (a) exposing the problems of culture and (b) aestheticizing them. First, the exhibition evokes to the social tension precipitating in the West. And such tension is not something that is easily navigated. For instance, social problems may seem clearly definable in theory, yet each of the many possible solutions are too opaque to act upon; or, if a solution appears promising, one finds the problem itself to have been insufficiently articulated. Such tension is mirrored in the exhibition. Hansa-Ogren’s Imagoes illustrates at once the impenetrability of contemporary art and its intuitive, user-friendly nature. Such a quality extends to other works in the show. And for this reason, The Emperor Has No Clothes is successful: each piece both obscures and refines its matter. That is, each work in some way obscures its own material, form, or process of communication, in order to express its materiality, form, or communicative properties. Think, for instance, of Sandal’s Shades of Value. Here, the series of spray-painted boxes on the wall obscure the piece’s sculptural form. This is because the spray-paint, which, in the first instance veils the works’ box-like nature, ultimately exposes, in the last instance, the sculpture as a mere collection of boxes. The play of the exhibition is between concealing and revealing. Yet, like the pessimistic tension, there is a (b) side to the exhibition. So, there is also the question of how the aesthetics operate—from whose perspective, and to what end. As is clear, the objects of the show are social politics, diversity, and dynamics of power. But what is not so clear is the position of the subject. Perhaps approaching the subject involves shifting the question with which we began. No longer is it what clothes does this exhibition don? But rather: whose body do these clothes veil (or, if there are no clothes: whose body is left exposed)?
The ancient tradition of potlatch holds that whoever underwrites the event lays claim to agency commensurate with said event’s scale and success. The Emperor has no Clothes is an investment—by artists, curator, and host— that seeks a return. The transaction, overt and implicit, is where the objective becomes personal, and the personal is always political. The exhibition’s title and curatorial statement put art in the service of seeing the rife injustices of our social reality with acuity and, one hopes, resolve for bettering the situation. The exhibition asks its audience to confront their relationship to social justice. Of equal significance is understanding the show’s relationship to the subject matter.
As regards the latter, The Emperor has no Clothes fails to cohere into any real, or persuasive, call for accountability. Respective works would feel more compelling, more honest, if the curatorial agenda’s vague predictability were somehow less present. The show’s edge and overall impact also feels blunted by an inscrutable range of work. The exhibition wants to have purpose that is both practical and poetic, which is as laudable as it is difficult. But if Bach Elmstrøm’s admirably earnest vision undermines itself, it also infuses the project with significance. The exhibition’s weakness becomes its strength as I make my way through diverging subjectivities—its inchoate sensibility is an accurate reflection of contemporary reality. I am given options to: a) synthesize subject matter—penury and police brutality (Sandal, Stucky and Briffa respectively); b) disentangle it—fantasies of self-mutilation from delivering power to a demagogue (Stucky and Briffa, America’s political landscape); or c) be lulled and displaced (Hansa-Ogren). The Emperor has no Clothes is a criss-crossing arrangement of personal agendas that, though perhaps like-minded, show the path toward social justice to be infinitely forked with personal asides. Even in these dark times, I take comfort in the role of idiosyncrasy in social structure. The exhibition reminds one just how problematic such a generalization can be.
The Emperor has no Clothes was open in October and November, 2016.
Images courtesy of Iben Bach Elmstrøm.
*The Emperor’s Exquisite Corpse was co-authored by Scott Cowan and Paul Druecke.
Scott J. Cowan currently lives in Milwaukee, WI. He has a background in photography (BFA, Columbia College Chicago), theology (MA, Fuller Theological Seminary), and philosophy (MA, UW-Milwaukee). His interests are in the philosophical nature of critique and issues relating to human creativity and finitude. Hiscurrent research is in Kant and his legacy, in particular, the relation between critical philosophy and Romanticism. Some examples of his work are found at: https://uwm.academia.edu/
Paul Druecke‘s work was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. His Social Event Archive will be exhibited at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2016 in honor of the project’s 20th anniversary. A co-authored discussion of his work will be included in the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Public Art and he’s currently an invited resident at the Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik in Berlin, Germany.Druecke has worked with the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC; Marlborough Chelsea, NYC; Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne; Terrain Biennial; Lynden Sculpture Garden, Milwaukee; The Suburban, Chicago; Outpost for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Many Mini Residency, Berlin; Woodland Pattern, Milwaukee; Green Gallery, Milwaukee; and the Contemporary Art Museum Houston among other venues. Druecke’s work has been featured in Camera Austria and InterReview, and written about in Artforum, Art in America, Artnet.com, Blouinartinfo.com; and Metropolis.com. Paul Druecke lives in Milwaukee Wisconsin.