Women For Sale
Solo exhibition at The Workers’ Museum, Copenhagen, 27 August – 29 December 2011
Interview with John Kørner
By Pernille Albrethsen
Pernille Albrethsen (PA):
Looking at your work from the outside, it seems as if a shift has taken place in the last couple of years – a shift away from works focusing on everyday situations and fundamental existential questions, to works, especially paintings, referring to specific situations or problems. This was the case with the 2008 paintings of the Danish soldiers fallen in the war in Afghanistan, and also, apparently, with the Women for Sale exhibition at The Workers’ Museum, in which the point of departure is the issue of prostitution and trafficking in Denmark. Does this represent a deliberate choice to relate to a more concrete set of problems?
John Kørner (JK):
It’s probably true that a shift has occurred. At present, my feeling is that if art fails to connect with something socially relevant, it has closed too tightly around itself. This change actually started before the soldier paintings. The year before I had been invited to participate in an exhibition on the Faroe Islands at a time when there was a debate as to whether homosexuals should have the same rights as everyone else, in itself incredibly provocative and due to the fact that there are some very religious people up there. So I chose to do a painting of two men, two fishermen, kissing each other. I discovered that there was something I could do here, as an artist, that was different from what a politician can do. I could simply present a picture of what it looks like when men on the Faroe Islands kiss each other, something of which they apparently had no impression or picture whatsoever.
The same line of thought lay behind the soldier paintings, which came about after reports that Danish soldiers were involved in active combat in Afghanistan, and then suddenly there were four deaths in quick succession. The Army Control Centre doesn’t allow the use of pictures of dead or wounded individuals, but I felt that these pictures were somehow missing. They can be found on other international sites. American soldiers, for example, put such pictures out on Facebook. I considered it pretty useless that we were still debating whether we should be in Afghanistan or not, since our parliament had already unanimously decided that we should.
In this light, I viewed the ban on pictures almost as a provocation. It may well be that the Army Control Centre sees it as showing compassion with the relatives, or something like that, but since it’s a national concern, I personally find it relevant to talk about it – and to talk about how far one should go in the coverage of the war and its victims. The communication was a bit too one-way. So to me it seemed relevant to depict a Danish soldier with the Danish flag on his shoulder, dying in a desert environment – even if it was a fictive motif. Because it really was a true picture, though it didn’t officially exist. The same holds for the painting from the Faroe Islands – the idea of coming out with something we are aware of, but for which we don’t have a visual expression. This is also the basis of Women for Sale.
PA: So how did your interest in trafficking and prostitution start? The issue is one that regularly recurs in the media, of course, but it can’t be said to figure prominently in contemporary art.
JK: It really began when I was at a gallery opening in Kødbyen in Copenhagen, and three prostitutes were standing outside, in front of the windows. This I found a bit embarrassing. Inside this cultural elite was standing around, and right outside were three prostitutes. Perhaps it is just representative of Copenhagen as a city, but I thought that it was at least worth taking an interest in. So I did some research, including contacting Susanne Møller, the spokeswoman for the Sex Workers Interest Organization. We agreed to meet.
I actually thought that she would be at an office, but much to my surprise, I must confess, she turned out to be a “practitioner”. Not that she was lying on the sheets when I arrived, but she said that if anyone rang the bell, I would have to disappear. I’m used to this well-organized Danish society where a trade association is something to do with a person sitting behind a desk in jeans and a shirt casually open at the neck, but the place we met was actually her bedroom which she had had a stylist decorate.
Her take on the matter was very interesting and made me understand that there were some voices missing in the debate on prostitution. The voices of the prostitutes and their customers were missing. This means that the public debate on the issue takes place, not among different parties, but as a sort of monologue delivered by a kind of politically correct Denmark.
After talking to Susanne Møller, I realized that the situation is far more complex. You can’t just say that all prostitutes are women who have been forced into it. There can be psychological factors, a strained economy or a hard childhood involved. A recent report showed that the ambition of 43% of the prostitutes is just to make some money – at least in the beginning. Things are not black and white. In fact, it is an issue with roots reaching much farther and with several possible explanations.
Susanne Møller also said that not all East European sex workers have been forced to come here. Many get into a car and rush up here in the hopes of earning some good money and then return home after a few years. Along the way they might end up in a criminal environment, and Møller’s suggestion is therefore to decriminalize the environment, which would make life easier for the female sex workers. Then a lot of nasty types and gangsters wouldn’t have as much power.
The question of prostitution gives rise to a debate that leaves multiple traces throughout society. One might also consider where the men stand in relation to all this. Why is it that all these men need to go to these prostitutes? Why do they rarely come forward? Why is their voice not represented in the debate? Is it because they can’t manage to get some sex with their wives, or are they just wimps, or what exactly is going on?
Perhaps the question should be linked to the discussion concerning strong women and to a whole series of interesting perspectives on what goes on in our contemporary society as well as to our ambitions of a life where you realize yourself – as the father or mother of a family with a full-time job, creating an existence for yourself that harmonizes with your conception of what it means to be a good person and have a good life.
Looking from above at the ramifications of expectations and relationships, it could be said that the prostitutes also do a good job. I don’t want to look at it only through politically correct glasses, in the way that certain politicians does. It provokes me when they goes at it full speed, justifying victims they have appointed as such themselves. I lack a counterpart. Where are the others? Where are those who frequent the prostitutes? What do they think?
PA: What sort of task have you had as an artist in this connection? In your paintings from the war in Afghanistan you showed a picture of something one doesn’t ordinarily see, but what is it that you can do in this context where your motivation to create the paintings is more complex?
JK: The task has been a different one. It is really about the way we as a society depict women altogether. In the majority of the images we see in the public space, women are assigned a very special position, which is not as an individual with an intellect. It is her body that is used. She is a figure. This is highly remarkable, at times disrespectful, and it is strange, actually, that the majority of women put up with it at all.
PA: Now you’re talking about women generally?
JK: Yes, I think that the picture most often drawn of women is a very conventional one. There are a few strong women, but in the majority of the images we see in the public space, only the sexual aspect of women is emphasized. So the challenge for me has been to depict types of women who perhaps aren’t seen very much. This is also why I haven’t focused on the vulgar woman. I don’t paint women undressed and with their sex right in your face.
For example, I did a painting which is rather extreme, in my own opinion. Seen in the foreground is a kind of leopard woman lying in some water in a landscape environment, and at the same time a giant elephant is wading around in this water environment and also steps on her. In the background is a manor house, making it possible to place the setting on Funen or somewhere like that. So the elephant symbolizes the human male, the mastodon and a primeval creature. It is brutal, of course, but symbolically, I think it fits several situations quite well.
PA: So the title of the exhibition, Women for Sale, should really be understood very generally?
JK: A shift occurred in the course of my research for these paintings. My first painting was a more classic sort of motif of a prostitute seen in the backlight from a car while soliciting on the street. It is included in the exhibition. With time, I have acquired some distance, and my interest has shifted to the more symbolic and philosophical, because I felt that this was where I could contribute something. The image of the prostitute leaning against a wall on the notorious street named Skelbækgade is well-known already.
PA: Would it be fair to say that in the Afghanistan paintings you showed us the pictures we weren’t allowed to see, while these pictures show us the context – the tangled web of social relationships – which we don’t automatically conjure up when we think of a prostitute in Denmark today?
JK: I try at least to present the so-called victims in a larger context. We live in a tough society and by rules that are not as clear-cut as they might appear offhand. I also think that we live with a moral attitude, for example, of looking down on prostitutes. Just as we look down on horny men willing to buy sex. I actually sympathize a little with these men. They want some sex and perhaps they are not getting it at home. There can be a thousand reasons why they can’t manage to have sex.
Perhaps it’s impossible to formulate. Perhaps their emotional life is at the level of a child. Or they might be perverts, or they are just themselves and find it simply wonderful to have sex with a woman. That’s actually OK, as I see it. If you look at lust in isolation, it’s not a major crime. I don’t justify it – but I understand it.
After that, it becomes complicated. I’m no moralist, but I can see that there are some losers in this game. At the same time I quickly realized that it was uninteresting as a motif to paint men with giant dicks and then a bunch of women over in the corner who had just been used.
PA: But are all the women in these paintings not victims of a sort anyway?
JK: No, some of them are, but I also did some paintings in which the women are just seen in a bedroom environment without any symbols pointing in the direction of prostitution. It could be completely private. And if, for example, you look at the painting showing the stoning of a woman, it could conceivably be from a country where women are punished for adultery by stoning.
Here I have chosen to eliminate the act itself, so that you can’t see who is throwing the stones, but the stones are still there to show the strange kind of condemnation we live with. That is to say, we have a tradition of pictorial representation in which women are elevated – they are wonderful, beautiful, the womb of life etc. – but at the same time the prostitutes are condemned.
We have a sexual equality debate in which we try to be as equal as possible in most of life’s affairs. At the same time – especially in our visual culture – women are accentuated in a way that creates victims.
PA: Was it different to depict women – I suppose you haven’t done that very much before – also seen in relation to the art-historical tradition of using women as a motif?
JK: I soon realized that the special thing about depicting women is that clothing means incredibly much. It is of crucial importance to the expression you want whether the woman is nude or what kind of clothing she is wearing. It is considerably easier to paint men. It is as if the attitude to men’s clothing is not so important.
In the history of art there has been a strong interest in the female body as a motif. This fact naturally influenced my project as well – for example a painting such as Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) of 1863 showing two fully dressed men in the company of a nude woman. She sits there as if she herself was the luncheon. This outlook on life is to a certain extent one that we still carry around with us.
PA: Is this in reality a gender policy exhibition?
JK: Yes, I think you could say that. I actually had “Used Women” as a working title, because the entire project, all the paintings, can be seen as an analysis of whether we as a society actually use women. At the same time it relates quite well to the title of the exhibition, “Women for Sale”, which refers to the one extreme of the spectrum, the case of a woman very concretely selling her body. What is interesting is how, as a society, we depict women. For they are not just neutral figures, just some people, but precisely women. It is telling of a society that uses women.
PA: I can’t help thinking of the problem that often arises when as an artist you take on issues that are hot topics in the media. You try to show the complexity of the problem. If one sees things only from a journalist’s perspective, it could well be said to be a rather aloof way of addressing a serious question. What is it that you can do as an artist?
JK: I realize that this is a minefield, but I think I can see something that politicians and photographers can’t, because I can create a language that allows me to fantasize and where I have some fictive addressees and in that way try to depict the view we have of certain gender-political problems. Through which eyes are we seeing things? What are the causes of prostitution? Which human conditions cause it? There is not enough time to discuss this in a TV debate.
I think it is particularly urgent here because of the predominance of one-way communication in this area. This is probably where art and politics are most clearly differentiated. In the 30 seconds available to a politician on TV, he or she can’t possibly cover the whole situation. They can remark that this or that is wrong, that the prostitutes are victims, etc. I can do something else. I can depict vulnerable women appearing in poetic, dreamlike and imaginary environments – while the paintings at he same time relate to a reality familiar to us.
And here I find my working method to be a relevant form of expression, even if it is more demanding. For art can take abstract action and focus on aspects that can’t be accentuated in a media reality. This is not an act of displacement, but a tool belonging to the artist. You can dig a little deeper, and this freedom I would like to preserve as an artist. But you’re right in saying that when interviewed by a newspaper or TV, you’re sure to be met with “Well then, are you for or against the war?”
Journalists often act out of prejudices about artists, rooted in a 1960’s perception of political art, according to which artists are primarily leftists who go around shouting “Red Front” and produce black and white woodcuts of a playground, and that sort of thing. But I insist that it’s possible to produce political works of art that relate to a political debate without my own person or my political standpoint taking precedence.
PA: But nevertheless you often see that the journalistic agenda is allowed to determine the premises of this particular debate – even if the case presented takes the form of a work of art.
JK: Yes indeed, and that is why I try to appeal to viewing it as a work of art. If I wanted to start a debate, I would write a letter to the editor, but what I have done is create a work of art that operates on the premises of art. Of course I would also like to start a dialogue, but there has to be a real understanding of what my tools are.
PA: Can you talk specifically about the sort of tools you have at your disposal. What is it that you can do with a painting?
JK: First of all it is extremely important to insist that we’re talking about painting. The language that my paintings represent is the imaginary and the poetic. It is a very refined language which must be cared for and which I don’t want to destroy by supporting it with manifestos or interpretations. The painterly language I work with contains references to our shared reality.
Thus it uses familiar motifs, such as a woman, an elephant or a manor house. I then isolate these motifs within an abstract environment in a way that enables viewers, by means of a very simple symbolism, to work out for themselves the connection between these figures and the environment in which they are placed, while at the same time allowing the intermingling of abstract elements.
I think it is characteristic of my aesthetics as a painter that I’m satisfied when I have completed a figure that is easy to decipher. I’m mainly interested in creating something that is accessible and reminiscent of something, and when I’ve gotten hold of something, I don’t need to perfect all the details. I believe that when you make a brushstroke longer, for example when painting part of an arm, something extraordinary happens. The arm has a certain length, and if I extend the outline of the arm beyond what is normal, I really force the viewer to fantasize and to embrace the abstraction.
This is an appealing way of thinking. In many of these paintings I also use my own fingers, and this is also to show that “nothing prevents me from anything” – I’m free, everything is accessible.
PA: Why did you choose to exhibit the paintings at The Workers’ Museum?
JK: I thought that if working women were to be represented anywhere, it would have to be at The Workers’ Museum, so I contacted the staff. Women for Sale at The Workers Museum – it fits well with my way of seeing things, and perhaps even better than at an art museum. Perhaps this special context can serve to provide a framework for the exhibition that will make viewers think a little more about how a painting, due to its special properties as a painting, can be a relevant way of presenting a subject of current interest.
The Worker’s Museum