Elmgreen & Dragset’s "Amigos" at Galeria Helga de Alvear, Madrid

Octavio Zaya

March 8, 2011
Galeria Helga de Alvear
January 19–March 4, 2011

Remember “Mr. B,” the supposed predator-collector living in the Nordic Pavilion during the 2009 Venice Biennale, whom we found dead in his house pool? His cadaver has now re-emerged—so to speak—in Elmgreen & Dragset’s latest antithesis: the sauna they have opened at Helga de Alvear Gallery in Madrid. But Mr. B’s pool is not the only familiar requisite here in this newly charged historical “construction” or “scenario.” From a replica of Barberini’s muscular Drunken Satyr to several pictures of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s ephebi with shorts and t-shirts, this gay Mecca is replete with accessories and details that coalesce with those we expect in a gallery or an art institution. In a sardonic yet elegiac way, Elmgreen & Dragset’s new exhibition both simplifies and expands upon the Venice installation.

As openly queer men, Elmgreen & Dragset know rather well that the gay bathhouse is a place where love, like art, has lost its “aura.” Characterized by the perversity of social-sexual relations in commodity exchange and circulation, the contemporary gay sauna, before and after the AIDS crisis, is a territory that feeds the allure of commodity-spectacle—instead of romance or real engagement. Its empty and passing gaze of fetish-bodies-on-display nourishes erotic fashions and recyclable lifestyles, merging the contraries of sexual radicalism and economic progress into the romantic idealism of gay liberation: two faces of the coin in the homoeroticization of capital. In this sense, the sauna could not be closer to an art gallery. For the gallery—as Michael Elmgreen conveyed to me—”is a social space for meeting and for watching (also in a voyeuristic sense). One would maybe say in public or at family gatherings: ‘Oh, I went to this exhibition,’ but one would hardly mention outside of intimate circuits a visit to a sauna. But both the sauna and the private gallery are commercial venues profiting from our lust for the visual. Both venues are platforms on which we are supposed to perform our roles and our appearance that will either trigger success or failure.”

Most of Elmgreen & Dragset’s works are fictions of space that either address questions related to the white cube or make reference to urban gay culture and desire—or both. In this case, the sauna “Amigos” concentrates on the phenomenology of the mythical mass experience of gay sex and its contradictory powers of transformation, seduction, and consumption, to forge a dialectic of commodity display. For the gay bathhouse is the ultimate site for recognizing the dialectics of gay capital and homogenization, in the same way that the gallery is a prominent site for financial speculations, a phantasmagoria of the exchange value that asserts the relationship between commodities. Thus, through sets and categories—such as desire-images, ruins, and fetishes—the artists map a territory caught between the mythology of identity and the allegories of capital and power in the confusion between sexual intimacy and public place. Beyond the juxtapositions of codes—the locker room, with its references to sports, the use of classic Greek or Roman idealized depictions of the male body, and the healthy body as the ultimate sex machine—here and there hovers the spectre of death and the subjugation of life to the power of production. And not only the death of Mr. B, but the death they bring out in references to the bathhouse’s alleged role in disease and decadence—an allegation that succeeded in scapegoating the gay sauna at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the US. We might reflect on this death when noticing the blood transfusion given to Barberini’s satyr, right next to the glory holes. The black humor displayed in the bird’s nest holding two small quail eggs hiding in one of the lockers seems to transcend this theater of contradictions, fissuring identity all the while.

LGBTQ+, Sexuality & Eroticism, Installation
Commodification, Public Space, AIDS, Death

Octavio Zaya is a curator and writer living in the US since 1978. He has been Director of the journal Atlántica (CAAM, Canary Islands) since 2007. Zaya was one of the curators of Documenta 11 (2002) under the direction of Okwui Enwezor.

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March 8, 2011

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