Sanne Kofod Olsen
Local subjects and (very) private politics
Originally published in: Wiener Secession Catalogue, Gitte Villesen, 1999, 1999ISBN 3-901926-08-9
The local is only a fragmented set of possibilities that can be articulated into a momentary politics of time and place. (1)
Kathrine, Bent, Ingeborg and Søren Welling are all new characters in the work of Gitte Villesen. Although they are very different from one another they have one thing in common: they are passionately interested in objects of different kinds. Kathrine and Bent love and collect lace. Ingeborg is obsessed with oddities – or so it seems – and strange phenomena in nature. The late Søren Welling created his own world in his small town museum: an almost complete reconstruction of a Danish small town with church, school, theater, traditional house interiors and all the other things that would belong in a small country town towards the end of the last century. Another thing they all have in common is their affiliation to the Danish provinces – something that is very typical for Villesen’s work in generel. This focus on the local is what I would like to consider here in relation to the different persons presented.
The local is an issue often written about within post-modernist theory and then seen in a local-global dichotomy relationship. However, I would prefer to relate the concept of the local to feminism and post-colonialism; discourses within which the local implies a kind of politics of the place and/or the body. Even though this is not supposed to be about the politics of the minority groups of society in opposition to white western man. This is not about the politics of the “other” in the sense of the one excluded from Western discourse: rather, it is about the politics of a single individual who does not belong to broader groups in society (such as man, woman, lesbian, Asian, Jew) but to even smaller groups in society such as buskers, lace lovers or eccentrics – in other words, the minority of the ordinary. To relate Villesen’s descriptive works of real life characters to feminist discourse might seem tendentious to anyone without a specific political agenda. However, I think this is one way of looking at these works.
Basically, I base this on the idea that feminism and cultural studies in general and the cultural production that accompanied them had a significant influence on the arts in the 1990s. Especially important here is the investigation of the self and of differentiated subjectivities within feminism and related theories, which have since become major issues in contemporary art. With the political agenda changing towards a more or less apolitical dialogue, content individualizes into an extremely crystallized and pluralistic subject matter that is not partaking in any common cause but instead withdrawing into private world of the individual. In this process the political can – as a possibility – remain, but only in the form of very personal politics that do not include collective or greater ideologies.
The works of Gitte Villesen suggest partly the concern with differentiated subjectivities, with people and their lives and partly the personal politics of the subjects within the local context. Preceded by the Willy video-series the video is about the passion for specific objects, in this case it is lace: Kathrine makes it and Bent collects it.(2) Lace-making is an old Danish tradition, practiced especially in the southern part of Denmark. Nowadays, lace has become collector’s item. If it is especially beautifully done it can achieve high prices at auctions or in the retail trade. Traditionally, lace-making was (and still is) a women’s craft, but today there are not many women left who can still make lace. It is a dying profession.
Thus, the focus on a vanishing past constitutes a secondary signification which lies in the role play in the video and the additional documentation that explains the events leading up to the artist’s meeting with Bent and Kathrine. Obviously, the gender roles are very traditional: a woman producer of handicraft items and a male collector and benefactor; a woman in a traditional domestic though productive role and an active, organizing and outgoing man. However, these roles are also very ambiguous: on the one hand we see the woman as producer (a traditional man’s role when it comes to the history of the creation of art) and additionally a woman who was a skilled lace maker and who could actually exploit this to make an income; and on the other hand although the man seems well aware of his masculinity and masculine pose, he succumbs at the same time to a passion for lace – something obviously belonging to the sphere of conventionally feminine attributes. Bent’s traditional male attitude towards Kathrine (and Gitte as well) and his view on life appears self-confident and well-bred, even though he seems well aware of the ‘role’ 3 (a conventional male pose) he is playing: Villesen emphasizes this even further by informing us in the additional text that Bent and the artist made a wager on whether she would be married with children or not by the age of 25. Of course Bent lost.
The feature on people and their passion is presented here as a fragmented description of life that includes a characterization of norms within a non-specific small community or a local setting. In this case the local exposes affirmative domestic standards that exist in contemporary society. Nonetheless, a certain ambiguity remains through the observation that the norms and standards, apparently present in the video, do not seem quite so stereotyped at second glance than they appeared at first. Avoiding an ostentatiously critical stance, Villesen establishes a distance between herself, Bent and Kathrine by actively intervening in this conventional location and emphasizing the generation span and disagreement on gender roles between herself, Kathrine and Bent: yet, this is a disagreement that might not be there at all, because of Bent’s ambiguous behavior and Kathrine’s productive role. Nonetheless, the local becomes a space of generation shifts in which Villesen becomes an observer who will not only preserve the production of lace but also a scheme of norms belonging to a vanishing society. But yet again, this is undermined by the contradictionary aspects in the whole scenery.
Kathrine and Bent are characterized by Villesen through a low-tech video screening. Villesen as the observer and camera holder is evidently present, emphasized by the fact that she continously and loudly encourages the two participators to say something about their common interest in lace and tell something about what they are doing together. She is not leading the course of events but pushing them in a specific direction.
The same procedure is apparent in the video of Ingeborg the Busker Queen. In this video we meet Ingeborg who seems at first glance quite ordinary but at a closer look is not ordinary at all. The video was taped through in days. In the first sequence Ingeborg is laughing at the camera. In the next we are presented with her rats who refuse to leave their cage. In the last sequence (which is the longest one) we get to know Ingeborg a little better – not on the basis of biographical information but through a lot of small oddities and kitschy bric-a-brac and images that she collected throughout her life. In this sequence a young woman – Else – appears. She asks questions inspired by the odd objects and images Ingeborg shows to her while Gitte plays an inconspicuous part as the camera holder, only once in a while asking a question or two. Animated by the memories evoked by all the curiosities in her rather crowded living room, Ingeborg relates episodes from her live. She demonstrates her various music boxes: the one with the lights, the one with the dancer, the jug that will play when you lift it to drink and the very old mechanical “record” player. She also shows her mechanical mouse which the kitten loves to play with, as it loves to play with the living rats without doing them any harm because they grew up together. She takes out an album with collected cat pictures and points out the one with the cat boy who is covered in facial hair. A photo of a calf with two heads is displayed on the wall. The calf once belonged to Ingeborg but it didn’t grew very old: when it was supposed to start to chew the cud it died because it couldnÕt swallow and digest.
Ingeborg has been on the road together with her former partner Cibrino, the Rat King, as a busker for the past ten years. During that time she was constantly looking for curious things and phenomena that (lovingly, when it comes to animals) could be used as entertainment. She collected many strange objects, images and oddities that were used in establishing a busker museum. For many years, the busker museum was a very popular and unusual attraction especially for people who came to visit the annual Vorbasse market in mid-south Jutland. Ingeborg and Cibrino decided to will their busker museum collection to the city after their deaths, but today the museum is closed. For one reason or another the local authorities apparently could not wait for that. A lot of the objects are already in the custody of the local authorities and as such belong to the public museum in town. Ingeborg is left with the small – and the less important – objects. Ingeborg, it seems, has definitely lived an exciting and thoroughly happy life and still appears very excited about her life in general. Nonetheless, the rather sad story about the calf signifies a part of Ingeborg’s life that has been (and still is) very important to her and which differentiate her life from the life of the majority of people.
It is a kind of life in which the tragi-comic plays a significant part and is articulated in the performance of the busker (like the clown) who will use it as her way of imparting the truth. It is also a life that could be said to be constituted within the theatrical in the sense that the location of a busker’s life in which Ingeborg (or the busker in general) contextualizes herself differs significantly from the location of standard, middle-class life and behavior.
As a busker, she belongs to a very small minority of society that have elected to stand apart from conventional life, not belonging to any particular class, subculture or political organization but forming a very individualized group of people. The busker can be said to be the subaltern of society. She/he is a person who will not adjust to the accepted standards of social behavior but rather remains in an isolated position as a differentiated subject and an eccentric. In the story of Ingeborg the local becomes even more marginalized than before. The local is not only the small society she lives in but also her own person and her immediate and present context: her identity and her life as a busker. Here, the local turns out to be a personal history centered around an apparently happy elderly woman and her life who has constructed her own local and very individual location in which her identity is visualized and constituted for the viewer through the attributes from a busker’s life, her personal belongings and obvious passions and loves. Objects that become signifiers for her life.
The final work is the documentation of Søren Welling, represented through memory by Gitte Villesen who visited Søren’s small town museum in 1995. Afte the visit she memorized and drew down the ground plan of the small town museum, which was in itself a small town. Søren Welling did somehow accepted the consequence of being an eccentric. He simply built his own world in his small town museum in central Jutland. In this museum – obviously a fiction of life (and not a signifier of life) with no historical accuracy – he could make his own rules, have his own standards, be whoever he wanted to be: the grocer, the priest or the teacher. He was in fact an artist and a poet. Painting and writing as well as asking other people to write for him, for instance the two nurses he asked to write a play for the theater in the small town museum, was a part of his strategy in deconstructing all kind of societal hierarchies and hierarchic positions. For Søren Welling there should be no societal rules, he could himself become anyone he liked to be: an artist or a writer, even a teacher and a priest. He strove for a better world of total independence for the individual, an independence which was not directed toward the local community but the state apparatus.
Søren Welling was a social critic in his own right. He even intended to make his own pay system. He protested against the existence of interest profiting in his home-made village journal and suggested to abolish all interests because it was a fictional structure pulled down over our heads of the government by the central bank system of Denmark. Instead the government should decide the extent of the production of money and in this way control that no more money than needed (specifically) was being produced.
The small town museum represents a kind of alternative society taking its ideals from the past but counteracting the present as a critical intervention. Taking the idea of an almost exchange economy system controlled by a governmental currency strategy into a present in which it seems an impossibility, Søren Welling established a half nostalgic, half idealistic small town community. But only as an allegory of the old days because the existence of the small town community will always remain a fiction. Here the establishment of the local becomes the establishment of a fiction of life; maybe a home-made ideology which must be considered political in its own right, but actually a fantasy in which you can feel safe. Being an artist he considered his small town museum a work of art (he called it an art house). Almost exemplifying the definition of the artist by Sigmund Freud who called the artist a person who turns away from reality to become hero, king and creator in his own reality (der Held, König, Schöpfer)(4), by building his own world. It is a very private definition of the local that is exemplified in the real life story of Søren Welling.
Taking her point of departure in a geographical local, Gitte Villesen shows different aspects of the sociological and psychological local. Firstly, the local is seen as a representational system of norms in modern society, drawing on nostalgia and distance, even though with a twist, in the video of Bent and Kathrine; a local subject as an unsettled individual which defines her own local through a deliberate constitution of an alternative local or a location in which she further signifies herself in the case of Ingeborg; and finally a complete construction of a local in the documentation of Søren Welling through characterizing someone who is building his own world.
It is the local subject and the private and momentary politics of the individual that is the focus in Villesen’s works that embodies a way to connect the psychological local to the social, cultural and geographical local as well as the nostalgic and fictional local.
(1) Elspeth Probyn; “Travels in the Postmodern: Making Sense of the Local”, s. 186, in ed. Linda J. Nicholson; Feminism/Postmodernism, Routledge: New York, 1990.
(2) Willy collected cars.
(3) It must be emphasized that Villesens videos are not fictional.
(4) Sigmund Freud; “Formulierungen über die zwei Prinzipien des psychischen Geschehens” (1911), i Sigmund Freud: Psychologie des Unbewussten, Studienausgabe bd. III, S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt a.M., 1975/1994, s. 23.
Sanne Kofod Olsen is a curator and art critic lives and works in Copenhagen