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Henrik Olesen

Henrik Olesen, Museo Reina Sofia Presents Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork, 2009, cardboard box, cutlery, jar, 32 x 39 x 29.5cm. Photograph: Joaquín Cortés and Román Lores. Courtesy the artist and Museo Reina Sofia
In her review of ‘Henrik Olesen’ at the Museo Reina Sofia, Camilla Wills looks at the circulation of libidinal flows and the potentialities of queer and minor operations at work in Olesen’s most extensive exhibition to date.
Henrik Olesen, Museo Reina Sofia Presents Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork, 2009, cardboard box, cutlery, jar, 32 x 39 x 29.5cm. Photograph: Joaquín Cortés and Román Lores. Courtesy the artist and Museo Reina Sofia

Henrik Olesen’s most extensive exhibition to date is installed in the main building of Museum Reina Sofia, a former hospital complex surrounding a central recreational square.01 Olesen has made architectural interventions throughout the series of rooms dedicated to his presentation; revealing windows, scaling walkways, making incisions between certain spaces and partitioning others. This resensitising flow of enclosure and dissolution is experienced as a form of intellect or desire.

The exhibition opens with the rehearsed installation of Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork (2009), a burlesque political parody that calls for a radical disinheritance that would eliminate the family. Olesen has re-synced the origin story, the oedipal triangle, in an arrangement of surrogate elements. Portrait of my Mother (2009) is an upright plank of wood with the title written in felt-tip pen at the level of a brain. Portrait of my Father (2009), another basic plank, appears twice, once with an empty jar for a head, and then more sensitive, reclining on a used pillow. A smaller piece of wood from the same tribe is hung diagonally on the wall beside a panel of text: ‘The child … is but an angle. An angle to come. And there is no angle. And yet it’s precisely this world of Father + Mother which must go away’. These lines partly belong to Antonin Artaud, via Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and their critique of ‘familialism’.

Henrik Olesen, Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork—Portrait of My Mother, 2009, wood, paint, screws, 177 x 8.5 x 4.5cm. Courtesy the artist and Museum Ludwig

On the floor, a plastic knife and metal fork are placed inside an empty Doritos box along with a Nutella jar and given the title of the full installation once again, Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork. This small work functions like the maquette of the institution, of the Reina Sofia itself. The Doritos box becomes a scaled-down model of the cultural industry. The walls are a surface for product-placement advertising and the visitor becomes a postindustrial consumer, virtual in her new grand scale: duplicated and suddenly uncontained. It is a mise en abymethat deterritorializes the full scenario and holds the viewer flickering between two different scales of thought, between the unmodified Doritos packaging and recurring, fundamental doubts: art is not a natural candidate for corporate or imperial sponsorship, so why is it the case? Are one’s criticisms (this text) duly subsumed into some kind of propaganda apparatus? The move is humiliating in the real way for all involved, and it stops Olesen’s re-arrangement from becoming formulaic.

In general, it seems for Olesen the minor, the one submerged, the humiliated or the bonded, is the one who knows, because he is always already in situ in the shape and form of the unmodified thing. He is imprinted in commodities, such as plastic or steel cutlery, or the Doritos box, during the labour or gestation of their production. Hegel describes how labour is ‘desire held in check, fleetingness staved off’ and how, unlike ownership, that ‘negative relation to the object becomes its form and something permanent because it is precisely for the worker that the object has independence’. 02

Mr. Knife and Mrs. Fork acts like a literary foreword setting up parameters, and it helps that the show has no title. Instead it is bracketed at either end by the artist’s name in vinyl wall text. This brings to mind a strong gesture made by Gerry Bibby – Olesen’s main collaborator at Reina Sofia – in his recent exhibition at Lumiar Cité in Lisbon. There, Bibby placed the vinyl of his name low-down on the double glass doors, ‘Gerry’ on one door, ‘Bibby’ on the other. When opening the doors, visitors split apart his artistic subjectivity as they entered and exited the show, sometimes without noticing.

In another room, the body of British mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing is reproduced via its emptying out and displayed alongside a disassembled Powerbook G4 laptop. The powerbook appears to be Olesen’s own well-used device, since the title reads ‘i do not go to work today. i don’t think i go tomorrow’. The process of the laying out looks bureaucratic, if not forensic, but feels unplanned like love, so the eye is undermined, just as Turing’s organs follow new lines of flight out of this world.

Henrik Olesen, Some Illustrations to the Life of Alan Turing (Apple), 2009, digital print, 31 x 22.5cm. Courtesy the artist

Emblematic of the twentieth century, Turing was recognised for his work while simultaneously effaced as a homosexual. This compromise resulted in the machine that constitutes the basis of all post-war computing. Olesen’s display of Turing’s indeterminacy is a reworked critique of capitalist alienation and extraction – you might be celebrated and rewarded for your work but you will not be allowed to live as you want. In 1953, Turing was convicted of homosexual acts and forced to take ‘correctional’ synthetic female hormones – in other words chemical castration – and later committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. Here, I typed a note on my phone: what is it to change, and what is it to hide? In Turing’s case the enforced change suppressed a social truth. His story has since been cannibalised by Hollywood into the digestible biopic form, absorbed into the general totality where all timings and lives are blurred and therefore differentiation (and meaning) is lost. The Imitation Game was in fact the highest-grossing independent film of 2014.

Any affirmative, post-biological promise of resistance sampled by Olesen in this work with Turing (that is, a fantasy of possible bodies coded to bypass representation) has been undermined in the last ten years. Where is the pain, disgust and slow degeneration that need to escort the inexhaustible body as in De Sade? Love can’t be optimistic because there is no attachment. The liberating flows, multiplicities and open applicability of Deleuze and Guattari’s ontology of ‘becoming’ has been recycled and incentivised by the powerful to establish unidirectional control over others. The internet is now built around definitive declarations of personal identity and networking is about individual survivalism. And that which is produced by participation largely seems to be the same as any other good, since a government-corporate complex is doing the assemblage. In his recent book Dark Deleuze (2016), Andrew Culp recovers Deleuze’s hatred and negativity to contest ‘today’s digital world of compulsory happiness, decentralized control, and overexposure’. It is interesting that the major thread he pulls through the book is a repulsed ‘materialist feminist one: something intolerable about this world is that it demands we participate in its accumulation and reproduction’. 03

Some Faggy Gestures (2007) is an inventory of gazes, dispositions and anecdotes that struck Olesen as queer, all drawn from pre-modern Western culture. The seven panels of raw, printed web images have a total lack of world-building aspiration. Instead they make an adamant historical materialist case against ‘realism’, and against the status quo. Standing among the panels is to understand that bodies have an effect on each other far in excess of a person’s capacity to represent it. In his indifference towards manipulating his research into anything other than it is, Olesen effectively suspends his own role as artist and simultaneously arrests the viewing process. We are postponed in a pre-modern, non-legislative struggle of looking and being seen, which challenges the evaluative, combative tendency of the eye to see and search for what it already knows (control). What is the value of being recognised by someone you do not recognise? Desire, like power, has no aesthetic value in the traditional sense, ‘meaning that most researchers of non-dominant social groups and sub-cultural practices must, as a matter of principle, interpret what cannot be found’ (Olesen’s words).

Installation view: ‘HENRIK OLESEN’, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2019. Photograph: Joaquín Cortés and Román Lores. Courtesy the artist and Museo Reina Sofia

Faggy Gestures in combination with How Do I Make Myself a Body? (Olesen’s work on Turing), raises Maurizio Lazzarato’s question: what types of organization, on the street and with our bodies, must we construct to bypass the double bind of social subjection and machinic enslavement? It follows that in Corners (2015) Olesen gives up altogether on visibility as a means of claiming political recognition for marginalised groups. Instead, he goes directly into the schism between theory and practice, pleasure and possession, driving them wider apart and leaving both properly unsecured. This disconnect enables a big release of libidinal energy, staging a collective form of life that can no longer be conceived within a visual, liberal economy. The four corners of the space are cast in plaster and collapsed on the floor, with an extensive pamphlet called Sex (In Public) stacked at the edge of the room.

At the core of the show is an impasse of confusion. Anthony Caro’s bright red, modernist sculpture Early One Morning (1962) is appropriated, bloody and messy like some kind of perpetual Caesarean section, surrounded by blacked-out collages and enlarged printed internet images of butchered carcasses glued on plastic sheeting, marked and splashed from previous use. A piece of writing by John Kelsey is presented on the wall which conflates the exhibition as a whole with the expanse of a life. Kelsey uses this quote from Dante’s Inferno at the centre of his own text: ‘Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost’. At a moment when all language outside of consensus and marketing is being eradicated by liberalism, Olesen manages to hold oppositions and dysfunction with justice (instead of balance) in a single room. The work asks how to remain torn, weak, how to be split apart and persist within one’s weakness instead of consolidating power in normal ways. This is maybe similar to what the UK’s Labour party is currently working out at their party conference late in 2019, at the time of writing. And for Olesen’s work to come, the proposition of which is visible through an inserted window: how to proceed and build a system from intuition, a system of this complete abandonment.

Installation view of Henrik Olesen’s St. George and the Dragon, 2016, wood, metal, paint and text on paper, 600 x 226 x 240cm. Photograph: Joaquín Cortés and Román Lores. Courtesy the artist and Museo Reina Sofia

Recent work consists of the packaging of painkillers, creams and other products declassified by a layer of paint, laid out on school tables. There is a wooden, free-standing door frame plastered in exit stickers called Exit/ Portal (2018). A large clear perspex sculpture of the letter ‘M’ distorts the timing of thought in the room because its referent is a red perspex ‘M’ far away at the other end of the show. Smaller glass boxes line the space, all As Yet Untitled (2018). One such transparent box carries a scribbled post-it note reading ‘arm’, and a reflective black box of similar dimensions is called Depression (2018). Olesen’s exhibition demonstrates over and over how repression is the pervasive phenomenon of history, and how the status quo is pure concealment. Various health studies suggest that repression is inherently connected to memory loss and dementia. If, as D. W. Winnicott writes, madness is the need to be believed, Olesen has laboured without intention to relinquish his own need to be believed. The viewer’s basic processes of looking and reflection are discontinued in turn.


  • ‘Henrik Olesen’, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 26 June–21 October 2019.
  • G.F.W. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (trans. Michael Inwood), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 81.
  • Alexander R. Galloway and Andrew Culp, ‘Ending the World as We Know It: Alexander R. Galloway in Conversation with Andrew Culp’, Boundary 2 [online journal], 29 June 2016, available at accessed 4 December 2019).