How can we come to define contemporary queerness whilst living under a capitalist regime? In an attempt to spark discussions surrounding this question, ‘A Strong Desire,’ at Berlin project space PS120, explores body politics; the experiences of those living on the fringe, outside the heteronormative structures of society; and the commodification of a liberation movement.
The exhibition, which fittingly opened during Pride weekend, comes at a moment in time where queer bodies have been incorporated into the public face of capital like never before. One might look no further than the evolution of Pride itself as evidence of this very commodification of ‘queerness’: what once signified radical politics has become a purely celebratory corporate event. Rather than a type of radical lifestyle, it now often finds itself at the center of neoliberal regimes looking to promote themselves and their products, and in the process turn a profit.
Tracing works from the early 1950s to the contemporary, ‘A Strong Desire’ examines the ways in which capitalism has co-opted various elements and forms of queer culture, while examining desire itself—or, more implicitly, how desire is ascribed to us by society. In the exhibition’s challenging and re-evaluating of these structures, oftentimes by looking to the past for historical context, ‘queerness’ by its very definition is deconstructed; it becomes something broad and expansive, an umbrella term not only for gender identities and sexualities, but for fantasies and desires as rendered in the lush imaginings of artists such as Andrew Holmquist, Leon Eisermann, Maren Karlson and Monika Grabuschnigg.
The show prominently features the work of Touko Laaksonen (better known as Tom of Finland), who pioneered expression of gay desire with his homoerotic fetish drawings and illustrations displaying bulging and endowed leather-clad men, their features exaggerated to the point of caricature. His work famously created a new aesthetic language of hyper-masculinity, based upon a kitschy and exaggerated form of ’50s and ’60s machismo, which went on to influence such figures as Robert Mapplethorpe, The Village People and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Much of Laaksonen’s early work was influenced by U.S. censorship laws, which restricted the depiction of overt homosexual acts, and could only be featured in athletic and physique magazines as a way of bypassing these strict codes. It’s an interesting juxtaposition therefore to view these works alongside those of emerging photographer Florian Hetz, who, in a series of images, unapologetically captures ecstatic youth through erotic close-ups of tongues, lips, armpits and a visible erection underneath a pair of Nike running shorts.
Hetz’s series is displayed perpendicular to a collaged wall that includes photographic works by Kayode Ojo. In photographs made between 2016 and 2017, Ojo, perhaps best known for his sculptures and installations, examines the line between private and public perception, capturing fleeting and intimate moments from various New York art world after parties. Idealized and toned bodies are present throughout Ojo’s various ‘screenshots,’ and there is a shared intensity among these images, though perhaps also a shared sadness that so often lies underneath the surface of queer spaces. In viewing the illustrations by Tom of Finland alongside the photographs of Ojo and Hetz, visitors are also reminded that in terms of “desire” perhaps little has changed over the years after all.
Through Karol Radziszewski’s collaged works in the series Fag Fighters (2007/16), concepts of body politics are further explored. Fag Fighters presents a fictionalized gay guerrilla gang sporting pink balaclavas (made by the artist’s own conservative grandmother) operating outside the margins of a heteronormative Poland in search of alleviating the oppressive effects of institutional power. In response to the Polish right wing’s view of the LGBTQ community as not only a moral but also mortal threat, Radziszewski shows this gang as it wreaks havoc on a binary society, terrorizing a city with graffiti and acts of violence, including sexual abuse. He presents an actual menace on society, something dangerous, anarchic and deadly to fight for homosexual rights.
Elsewhere in the exhibition works by acclaimed Berlin-based artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset evince their signature brand of subversive humour: two pairs of Calvin Klein underwear are seen inside two pairs of black Levi’s jeans which lie on the gallery’s floor as if someone had just undressed and dropped them there. Two hand-blown glasses, part of their larger work Side Effects (2015), are also on display. The vases, which appear like urns, are filled with powdered, pastel-colored pigments used to coat the HIV medication Truvada. At first glance and without context, the sculptures are objectively beautiful, their candy colors hiding the toxicity of the medicine within or the severity of its side effects.
The advent of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s—to which these vases allude—brought with it an abrupt end to the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Seen by many as a death sentence, every sexual interaction between men in the early days of the epidemic carried with it the risk of death. During the epidemic’s peak, artists-turned-activists, such as General Idea created discourse surrounding sex, disease and death. For many gay men, medications such as Truvada and PrEP have served as a liberation movement in and of themselves, yet Elmgreen & Dragset’s vases, along with two large-scale text works by Constantin Hartenstein rendered in acrylic paint mixed with crushed PrEP pills, can also be seen as a reminder that these issues haven’t disappeared. Despite a wave of complacency in media attention surrounding the disease and a decrease in urgency surrounding issues of safe-sex, HIV/AIDS continues to afflict the lives of millions of people around the world.
On another wall, various queer zines are available for visitors to browse. The inclusion of these pieces is not only significant because of the historical context they provide for more contemporary works in the exhibition, but also because DIY zine-making or self-publishing can be seen as the ultimate free market. Having historically played important roles in feminist, queer and anti-capitalist movements, zines give their makers a level of autonomy and unrestricted freedom.
Topics explored within the exhibition are perhaps more connected than they may initially seem, the pairing of artists both established and emerging bridging a sort of gap—both generational and hierarchal. The zine archive, a stunning and fascinating addition, creates a precursory context to reach the moment of contemporary queerness, or the commodification thereof, which we currently inhabit. So although ‘A Strong Desire’ compellingly traces the evolution of queer desire across recent decades—from pioneers of visual hedonism to younger interpretations of those legacies—the inclusion of more than 40 artists feels, at times, overwhelming, perhaps even overly ambitious.