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Untitled is a black and white poster featuring an image of graffiti that reads ‘ALL FAGETS in the Army Will Be Killed [sic]’. It is one of three posters in Tate Collection by Olesen that are similar in their conception, execution and messages they convey (see also Untitled T11953 and Untitled T11954). These are printouts of enlarged photographs of homophobic graffiti that the artist found on the internet and that are exhibited pinned or stuck with double sided tape to the wall. Of identical size, each poster is constructed from thirty-two computer printout sections joined together on the reverse with adhesive tape. The sections are joined together in a casual and low-tech manner that mirrors the low-resolution quality of the photographic imagery. Each is unique, printed only once. They are usually all shown together, in a vertical configuration, as recommended by the artist.
In his appropriation of the words ‘ALL FAGETS in the Army Will Be Killed [sic]’ Olesen suggests that stereotypical attitudes towards sexual orientation may exist in key institutions in society. The phrase appears to have originally been scribbled by somebody with a marker pen onto white tiles. The tiling recalls the walls of public toilets, evoking the covert activity of washroom graffiti, created in secret by somebody who has shut themselves into a booth and subsequently visible to everybody who passes through. The internet provides a similar realm for disseminating anonymous messages to a wide public, in which individuals view the text in a private space. By enlarging the image many times, the artist has accentuated it, pointing to the cowardliness of this kind of public statement in which the perpetrator is able to remain anonymous, acting from a hidden place. At the same time, he emphasises the absurdity of a message that suggests that an army might kill its own men as a result of homophobic tendencies. In this image, the distorted view of the text – a result of the combination of the angle the original photograph was taken from and the peculiar shading it acquired through its enlargement and printing – adds an extra dimension to the work that is related to Olesen’s criticism. By highlighting this graffiti, he suggests a transference of importance from key public and political structures and situations, such as the army and, eventually, war, to the private, non-socially destructive realm. By taking the images out of the potentially unlimited public sphere of the internet, and transforming them into unique art objects, destined to exist in an entirely different public sphere, Olesen invests them with greater symbolic value. Raising them to high art status and preparing them for exhibition in the art institution is in itself a politically charged gesture, which functions through both irony and awareness-raising.
Olesen’s work deals with various dimensions of repression in society. As he says about his art, it is an investigation of ‘the representation of minorities within achievement of history, and within law and social/political structures: how does legalisation/ criminalisation characterize certain social groups and what are the consequences of the heterosexual (regulated) structures?’ (Olesen in http://www.sparwasserhq.de/Index/HTMLmar4/CVhenrikolesen.htm
, accessed 9 March 2009). He particularly directs his interest towards sexual orientation and the socio-cultural prejudice that surrounds it, as well as all the consequent economic and political ramifications of this. His criticism is expressed through subversive conceptual strategies, such as placing material of various origins in a new context.
Olesen’s work takes many forms, including posters, collage, sculpture and installation. He has exhibited a range of work such as photographs accompanied by texts based on rights-related facts and information drawn from state archives of countries all over the world; carton boxes squeezed against walls; and young tree branches of differing shapes tied in a bundle. His spatial interventions, which reduce architectural elements’ size or block them altogether, symbolize the restrictions imposed by public laws and categorisations in contemporary culture, while his materials are intentionally fragile, questioning the stability of the cultural and legal constructions of society. Untitled is an example of this use of a fragile material – the digital print. Its pinning directly to the wall may furthermore be seen as referring to or paralleling the literal act of pressing someone against the wall, in this way alluding to the psychological pain caused by the criminalization of a particular sexual orientation.
Lars Bang Larsen, ‘Natural Justice’, frieze, issue 70, October 2002, http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/natural_justice/, accessed 9 March 2009.
Heike Munder (ed.), Henrik Olesen: Some Faggy Gestures, exhibition catalogue, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich 2008.
Henrik Olesen, What is Authority?, Copenhagen 2002.