The politics of the childish
Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg
Associate Professor, Ph.D.
Department of Comparative Literature and Semiotics
University of Southern Denmark
(Translated by John Row)
The first thing that occurred to me was a feeling of wonder and discomfort: What are these rough and bizarre colour clashes in Linda Bjørnskovs (f. 1973) simple portrayals in the EXIT06 exhibition? The next feelings that shot through me were fascination and amusement and a subtly shimmering feeling of fear: The almost obscene conjunction of lilac, orange and hysterical green in “Two policemen in the living room”, the grotesque shimmering bespectacled eyes in “Just because one has been burnt by an iron” …….. suddenly feelings of not just irritation and amazement, but also feelings of happiness and enthusiasm sprang forth. Three things stand out to the eye – and to the afterthought – on meeting Bjørnskovs pictures. Her representation of the way the world is steeped in violence, her effective usage of childish techniques for political purposes, and finally her courageous presentation of the harsh and strange adventure of everyday life. Three words about these three things:
From the outset the world is already steeped in violence. The dream of a non-violent modernity is a hopeless dream. It doesn’t mean the disappearance of utopia, but it does embrace Bjørnskovs world of anamorphous distortion: here we have all the mundane, the boredom of wealth, the banal and the trivial: a barbeque party in the garden, a clip from a television news presentation, the reporting of a violent incident, a cycle ride through suburbia, the lazy drift of an ambulance through town, a man with a flyswatter – but this eminent Danish slice of the world is always riddled with strokes of violence. Skeletons fly around the old man with a Christmas tree, whilst his open mouth is garnished with three rows of sharks teeth; the young man and the flyswatter appear in a double exposure with a living room and a large, grotesque saw-toothed knife directed at a profusely bleeding body (ironically commented on in the title: “He couldn’t kill a fly”); at the barbeque party the grill is covered with decimated, pink human body parts, and a man delightedly chews on a whole forearm, whilst a pink pig turns away and hovers in a light purple cloud; “Girl-cloud” is filled to the brim with decimated female bodies, all of which are impaled on Bjørnskovs hugely enlarged saw-toothed knife – here, all the false Barbie-clouds have imploded as a result of Bjørnskovs comment on the recently published UN report proclaiming that 200 million girls and women disappear in blue smoke due to sex-related violence (murders of honour, provoked abortion, lack of medicine for children etc.). In “Here Blue-eyes – your turn!” a greedy bright red monster gobbles up some human corpses that fall into its mouth accompanied by an enormous, purple woman’s pointing and threatening arm and hand; here we see the normal evening meal overruled by a happy, carnivorous grimace; and finally a picture from the TV news depicts Britta Schall Holberg (a well known right wing Danish politician), who at a comfortably safe distance proclaims that asylum-seekers are feeble and exaggerate, when they as PTSD-sufferers, apparently have learning difficulties and therefore have difficulty in passing the mandatory Danish language test for attaining Danish citizenship.
The point is that the world is structurally, unnoticed, constantly, homogenously and anonymously steeped in violence – and this fact is not influenced by the relentless developmental forward march of culture and civilization. No. On the contrary, the violence is accompanied and modulated by this very same civilization; the horrible violence in Schall Holbergs affable political rhetoric, the soft violence imbued in the cannibalistic orgy around the Weber grill, the sudden transformation from fly-swatter to giant-knife, the old mans hideous sharks teeth – they are all the visually and technologically presented brutal depiction of the commonplace violence, which is undisputed and prevalent in our brutal modernity.
In the now compromised, but retro-renaissance of the 1970’s it is said that privacy is politicized, and that politics are privatized; just as no aspects of private life are barred from the manoeuvres and manifestations of politics, conversely politics are ensconced in the idiosyncrasies and sovereignty of private life.
The division between public and private is herewith dissolved and porous – for better or worse.
But simultaneously, the apparition that privacy is particularly authentic and real becomes traumatized, whilst conversely politics become abstract and far removed from the small lives we ordinary people subsist.
Bjørnskov introduces an unmistakeable and powerfully personal expression in the form of her own experience with violence. But this expression is not uncompromising and private; there is no question of confronting diary entries being shoved under our noses – rather, a series of contributions to the interjunction between picture and ideology which insists that every act at this intersection is worth completing. These contributions acquire their special value by intervening from the background of personal experience.
Note that these contributions are not blind and naïve activism, not aggressive, raucous, disguised propaganda cries, but on the contrary they are pregnant, dream-clear and especially childish thrashings and break-ins on the terrain vague of normality.
Often Bjørnskov introduces a virtuous flirt with the theatrical, the over emphasized, the deceptively childish, the ridiculous and at the same time deeply serious. Bjørnskovs pictures assume thereby a character of utterly strange and special reinvention or reconstruction of the 70’s programmatic slogan, but clad in the wild and engaging robes of the 0’s. Self biographical narrative and political indignation flow from Bjønskovs crazy canvases splashed with brilliant neon colours, picturesque stripes and flowery patterns.
Bjørnskov works also, and not least, with the alliance between idealism and iniquity.
It is not a simple question of the appearance of ungodliness in domestic settings – of the overdue surfacing of the suppressed in the middle of – and as an integral part of so-called domesticity and normality – on the contrary, it is a question of the idyllic being malevolent, of household evil – precisely evil contra homeliness. This applies for example to the man with skeletons in the cupboard, where the skeletons literally rattle out and float about. If evil is banal and ubiquitous, we can’t protect ourselves against it – we can’t stigmatize it and say “be gone, Satan”; in stead we are bound to develop the skills to live with and labour against evil; accept that we ourselves are momentarily evil, and that the world is (also) evil. This insight is probably not astonishing, but Bjørnskovs pictures effectively demount the filters and attitudes that usually allow us to be blasé about and to ignore or laugh in the small and large faces of evil. This applies equally from Britta Schall Holbergs spiteful moon-face through to the cartoon-face of the red monster.
But it is far from the whole story. There are also islands or zones of pure happiness and contentment in Bjørnskovs galaxies, as in “Contented suburban-mother” or “Family flyer” – there are no nightmares here, no distopias, and no terrifying distortions, but solely an airy, colourful and cheerful representation of contentment’s endless banality. The courage needed to introduce this aspect is monumental: it relates precisely to the courage needed to move to Gladsaxe (a progressive suburb of Copenhagen), the courage needed to invest in a conversation kitchen from KVIK (manufacturer of discount kitchens), the courage needed to do all the forbidden and tabooed things in the middle of the conformist idea about bohemian life and the intellectual Potemkin-scene. The real avant-garde gesture is to be found in the petit-bourgeois reinvention of contentment; in the eternally extraordinary terrain of facileness; in the wild resources to be found in habit, security and intimacy, – beyond the self promoting bohemians winging angst for conformity.
In spite of the fact that Bjørnskovs pictures abound with dreamlike tableaus, it becomes apparent that Bjørnskov seems to reject symbolic and allegorical codes. In stead, we are confronted with the literally bizarre or poignant. Here, the dream is no longer unreal and phantasmagorical; on the contrary, it has turned round and transformed itself into a tangible reality.
This transformation of the dreamlike fits well with the subtle exploitation of the naïve childish drawing universe; we don’t meet customs and excise officer Rousseaus or the communistic Scherfigs idealism here. Not even the romantic notion of childhood innocence and unadulterated play, and absolutely not Astrid Lindgrens (Author of Pippi Longstocking) escapist trampoline (when misery nocks on the door in “The Lionheart Brothers” you can always jump forward into another world, where all is well). Bjørnskov cleverly utilizes her childish technique to disarmingly sneak the political, violent and evil triviality in under our armour plating – that vaccination which our decoding of the Medias bombardment erstwhile has equipped us with.
It is brave, it is peculiar, it is violent, it is frightening, it is witty, it is clever, it is incessantly naïve and banal, it is neon-bright, it is an accurate mapping of the worlds eternal injustice, brutal violence and exuberant love in the middle of our heretical and wild every day life. With her reinvention of child drawing, of the political indignation and of the literally grotesque dream, Bjørnskov walks towards us as an architect of the child’s politics.