Interview with Bjarne Melgaard for BUTT Magazine, Summer 2006
Slava Mogutin: The first time I saw your work, I thought, ‘What a mess!’ Piles of furniture, books and photos, S/M magazines and tapes, drawings and sculptures, personal correspondence and notes, old clothes and some rocks were scattered all over the gallery. I asked whether it was a finished installation and when I was told ‘yes, it is’, I thought, “This is fucking amazing!” I’ve never seen anything like this in a gallery space before! It was a meticulously organized chaos, a perfectly calculated madness together with extreme form of exhibitionism…
Bjarne Melgaard: I’m very flattered that you like my work so much but I am not too sure about the exhibitionism part. By nature I’m a very private person and kind of shy. Fiction interests me much more than real life. I always prefer when somebody’s telling me an interesting lie rather than a boring truth. I think my work and its “calculated messiness,” as you put it, has more to do with fiction than any part of my own life. Sometimes I did include a lot of personal stuff in my work but it was also about the obliteration of a self and the hate for the "honest" or "real" me – something that comes automatically from doing art.
SM: When I talk about your exhibitionism, I mean that a lot of your drawings and canvases are covered with painful self-revelations: ‘Wanted to become what I hated most: surface’, ‘Nothing means anything anymore’ and such. Do you want to appear like someone who has nothing to lose (and hide)?
BM: Well, the words on my drawings and paintings also function as a kind of "signature" or a “tag”. As for “self-revelations,” sometimes I do want to appear as "nothing more to lose" but just as much as "nothing can ever be lost." People always think you "tell it all" because they have no imagination of their own, that it can be much more than they ever imagine behind a word or an action. I will never reveal my secrets because I believe that a person without any secrets is like a poster and I don’t think art is a place either to do this or articulate things in such way. In general, it’s always more interesting what people choose not to say than what they wanna nag about…
SM: You are a household name in Norway. When I was in Oslo, I heard from a few different people that “Bjarne Melgaard is the most famous Norwegian artist since Edvard Munch.” Yet you don’t seem to be attached to Norwegian culture at all and prefer to live in Barcelona, of all the places. How did you end up there?
BM: I guess, it depends who you ask! I have to say that I don’t even feel a bit famous, but some people appreciate my work and that means a lot to me. I have a deep respect for my audience and fans. I really see myself as a total Norwegian artist, being very influenced by the Nordic landscape, to the kind of neurotic depth the people have up there… I ended up in Barcelona because of my relationship. God only knows how long it will last! Usually I like to move once a year, so we’ll see…
SM: Your messy and violent artwork seems to be at contradiction with your personal image. When someone pointed you out at our opening in Oslo, I thought to myself, “No, this cannot be possibly Bjarne!” You looked so tan and slick in your suit and tie, your hair perfectly styled, like some corporate fag who just got back from a 2-week vacation in Miami.
BM: Well, I spent a lot of time on the beach in Spain right before our show in Oslo. I want to look "slick and corporate" because I am not a 23 year old but a 38 year old man and I wanna look like one… and I do! For sure, I wanted to drop the "bear look" or "military look" I had before. I really hate bears and when I was suddenly referred to as a “muscle bear”, I had enough. I think this type of “new drag” (“bear”, “S/M”, “military”) is just one of the endless categories that gay men fall into trying to locate themselves as I did myself. Somehow I just wanted to have a bit more complex outlook on life… so I went a bit back in time and saw that once I was an elegant young man wearing suits and ties. And I love men in suits! In general, I like the distance between me and other people when I look more formal and boring. Sometimes I have the feeling people are so surprised that I’m not wearing Burzum T-shirts and don’t have long black hair and I like getting that kind of reaction because I don’t want to be what people expect me to be.
SM: What’s your connection with the Black Metal kids? Is it their image, the music, or their Pagan/Satanic appeal?
BM: I always thought the Satanic part was a bit pathetic considering that it was a Christian invention so I was more interested in pure violence and elegant gestures than Satan. It was always about their music. I also worked with many of them. I did films with the singer from Darkthrone, collaborated on some photos with Mayhem, used the original pics from Emperor and did performances with Frost from Satyricon. I was very much inspired by my position as a gay man in a very homophobic metal surrounding. My attitude was "If they don’t like me, why can’t I like them?!"
SM: Who is Anabolic Warrior? Is it your alter ego? And who is he fighting with?
BM: Anabolic Warrior was a figure I did in collaboration with the fashion label Maharishi in London. It was meant as a toy prototype we wanted to develop for the Japanese market. It wasn’t commercially successful so I just decided to keep it on a more humble scale and used Anabolic Warrior in several art shows. For me, he was a man who fought himself by chemically challenging his own body. I saw him as a battlefield where his own battles could be fought by the revertible means, so to speak, by deciding he was just a chemical waste dump and nothing else -- no substance, no complexity...
SM: Where does your obsession with steroids come from?
BM: For several years I was a major steroid abuser. It was really fascinating to see how in a period of few months I changed from a lean, skinny type into a big muscle hulk. Even before I started taking ‘roids, I was totally infatuated by the kind of sexuality that develops in the hardcore bodybuilder circles. “The equality of the needle”, as my then lover would say. For sure, you get mega horny on steroids! These injections can influence and change your whole life, they make you feel like you really own the whole world!
SM: In some of your texts you mention “Russian steroids.” Being from Russia, I’ve never heard of them…
BM: Russian steroids is a pack of tablets of ‘roids made in Russia that they used to sell in Norway. Taking them is considered very "hardcore" ‘cuz they are kinda poisonous…
SM: Are you still using steroids?
BM: I stopped doing ‘roids because I just got sick of it. I also realized that I like a more natural body type and didn’t want to look as blown up as I looked. I now do a regular gym routine with a personal trainer --- bench, squats and so on… I can still do a 120 kg bench press three times a week without a problem. But since I’m so busy with my shows and travel nonstop, I don’t go to gym as much.
SM: You said that you really hate “bears,” but even more so, skinny fags. What kind of guys are you into?
BM: I don’t really hate anybody, and I don’t have any particular body preference either. I like guys who don’t give a shit how they look. To be honest, I care more about eyes and face than body. A sensitive face is the best, a sensitive face with deep eyes… But he must be a good kisser. No matter what you do and with whom, you kiss them afterwards and say “thank you” for what they gave you or what you gave them. For me, the most important quality is loyalty and that’s what I look for in a man (sexually or not)... When I say “I hate bears” what I really mean is that I’m so fucking sick of this type of “cute and cuddly” gays performing a kind of “male” appearance that is just so obedient to everybody’s super-standardized expectations of gay men! And anyone who wants to call himself a “bear” from my point of view is a complete idiot! I think it’s just a gay excuse for being fat! They could also call themselves “reindeer” or “pony” or whatever, but I just don’t like the fact that they refuse the more general feminine traits of homosexuality. I like guys when they are really “homo” and not just “whatever”. I like men who are not just into ANY other men, but into GAY men.
SM: These days I see more and more how a lot of artists who are gay try to enter the mainstream culture by downplaying their gayness and refusing to be called gay artists. What about you?
BM: Yes, now there’s this tendency to just kind of minimize the homosexual content and turn it into something that is no longer a “big deal”. Well, for me it is! I see myself very much as a homosexual artist and also even when painting I see myself as a homosexual painter.
SM: To me, your obsessive drawings of chihuahuas is the only sign of gay “cuteness”. Why is someone who’s so masculine and buff so obsessed with such dainty and fragile little creatures?
BM: I was always painting and drawing dogs, not just chihuahuas. My first installation ever was with live chihuahuas dressed up in baby clothes. Actually, it was also my first published book too. Maybe it just shows that I was never really that masculine? I always had a hardcore taste in music but even in my most violent expressions you can find some kind of sensitivity coming through…
SM: What was the reason for you to go to Milan for the fashion week? You claim to be so anti-fashion yet follow the trends?
BM: It was my first fashion week and the LAST one! If I didn’t have a partner at the time working in fashion I would never been there for a second! How fuckin’ boring! Once I tried to get some stuff done in fashion, I wanted to have scarfs made in silk with my design, and ABSOLUTELY every label rejected me so I really have no connection with the fashion world whatsoever!
SM: A lot of your art suggests that you are into all kinds of kinky stuff like self-mutilation and tit torture and fantasies about cutting off your nipples. One of your texts reads: IT TOOK SOME TIME BEFORE THE DECISON WAS MADE… BUT THEN IT WAS EASY. GOT HIM TO CUT OFF MY NIPPLES… CAME WHILE DOING IT… Have you actually tried to do that in real life?
BM: Well, I did cut one off… kind of cut half-way with a scalpel and then just ripped it off… was bleeding a lot. At the time I had a lover who was a doctor and, as far as I remember, it was not stitched but kind of frozen right back on… That was a few years ago and I was a bit out of it! Now you can’t even see a scar and the nipple looks just like new! I also carved the word SNUFF on my upper arm but over time the scars get less visible…
SM: You asked me once if I ever saw myself letting somebody stab me with a scalpel while screaming at me “SAY THANK YOU, FUCKIN’ CUNT!” (No, I haven’t!) Or drinking somebody’s blood… (Well, I wouldn’t go that far but I must admit, blood does excite me!) And what about you: Do you see yourself doing all that?
BM: Blood turns me on too! I really like to have my chest full of fresh blood and wanking my cock in blood. Especially if the cuts are very deep and bleed for a long time, then the blood gets much thicker and somehow feels a bit like cum. I also get turned on by the idea of infected blood, or drinking a glass of blood! It’s a matter of danger, very appealing to me in its extreme closeness, and also the ways blood represents both life and death in our society. Being HIV-negative (as for my last test two months ago), I guess for me the whole representation of death is very important as a sexual reference. There is this great book "Is the Rectum a Grave?” by Leo Bersani, which articulated the connection between homosexuality and death, and this connection has always been very present for me in gay sex and relationships. In many ways the “romantic” notion of gay men is such a stereotype that there is this idea that S/M or anything transgressive somehow obliterate monogamy and romance, which I strongly disagree with…
SM: Have you ever been in a real fight when you got seriously hurt, or hurt somebody?
BM: Yes, I have been in many fights, years ago. My fist is still covered with scars. I broke my hands in fights a few times and even took some cute pics of myself with a plaster cast on my arm. Last time was about four years ago when an art student in Antwerp slapped me in my face in a discussion. I knocked him down and tried to strangle him while banging his head into the concrete floor. It took three guys to force me to let go of my grip. I didn’t like that whole thing but I also didn’t feel bad for beating up that little cunt… Still, I don’t like to fight and I am very anti-violence…
BM: Yes, I’m sure that I can do and enjoy a lot of violent stuff – both mentally, aesthetically and emotionally – but I like doing it with somebody mature and voluntary, not some poor guy who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time… Like, say, if a guy is fantasizing about being raped, it doesn’t mean that some wacko should feel free to knock him down and just give him "what he asked for"! That’s really one of the fundamentals of my whole being – the complete right to have a fantasy world without any borders. It’s exciting when somebody’s doing something totally free with their brain and have a wish to experiment, without meaning they are complete morons! Or victims. I just don’t like victims or perpetrators. What I really hate is dumb violence, done by idiotic men with zero self-esteem who just need to make others feel bad so they themselves will feel better… I think after seeing the photos of Iraqi prisoners and the Americans just abusing them in their idiotic way, I don’t even know if we can watch violent imagery with the same innocence... Maybe it sounds very PC but I don’t have any political agenda and I really don’t give a fuck about people who just use others without any elegance or intelligence… However, I can also say that I have no problem being "abused" or "used" myself… in fact, it’s the opposite -- I really wish I was "used" more! Actually, I think for most people the problem is that nobody had used or abused them at all! They are more "invisible" as potential victims than already abused citizens…
SM: How does this translate into your rage against the art world?
BM: If you look at the art world, you find so many art works about "power structures" but very few works about the REAL power structures in the art world itself, which would be the most natural starting point for most artists! But nobody seems to have problems with that! Still, galleries take 50% of an artist’s income for doing nothing except for hanging a picture on the wall! Or how curators really corrupt the art and the artist. I mean, when Wolfgang Tillmans ends up taking a picture of Tony Blair it’s just something really constitutionally wrong! All respect Tillmans, but maybe we need to see also where stuff develops and not just where it started? What does it mean when gay men so easily portray figures of power and end up giving interviews about how "nice" they were? For me Blair is really a weak monster, just like Bush… Sorry, but it probably comes across just as sour and jealous but it’s not. I just really hate Tony Blair and British politics!
SM: What about your White Power sentiments? Is it something you say for the shock value or is it your true beliefs ("IT'S TIME FOR WHITE PEOPLE TO SHOW THEIR PRIDE AND POWER" and such)?
BM: For sure, I see myself much more as a Scandinavian/Norwegian Viking than some “world citizen”. I think the world in general would be a better place with more true nationalistic pride – meaning pride in a higher developed thinking about problematics of race, instead of the hypocritical “global post-colonial discourse”. It’s a superficial attitude that has been dominating in the Western world for many years as an excuse to conceal their own ambitions and nag about the “other”. I really believe that first you need to solve and re-articulate your own national identity before being so busy with others… As for my own work, for instance, with the Black Metal guys, I’ve had more problems with their idiotic Nazi fascinations than with their nationalism. I see no problem if a black guy wants to be a slave for a white man but I really just don’t believe in the racist issues. I believe that cultural differences are sometimes so big that there’s no meeting point! Yes, I loath rap and guys singing about being cool with a sock on their head! Or Eminem standing as a white doll saying "thank you" to black rap! Fuck off! I don’t like rap or soul and I don’t give a fuck either, ‘cuz I just never saw or heard anything else from rap other than commercial crap about money, women or cars and I just don’t find it very fascinating! I was and always will be about music I like and find interesting! Music was always my main fascination, and in my last show I included a concert with Cobrakillers that was fuckin’ awesome! But after years on the “hardcore” scene, I think most bands and musicians are just a bunch of real weak fake women. And as for gay men, most of them have NO music taste at all! Really, they fist to Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears without any problems!!!
SM: You seem to get very passionate when you talk about music! One of your books is entitled “Punk Movement Was Just Hippies with Short Hair”. Are you trying to say, it’s all the same shit, all these popular music trends?
BM: I was never a punk and was never fascinated by any aspect of punk or the punk retro spirit that everybody seems to love these days… I arrived to the Black Metal quite late, coming from a different background. My starting point was the No-wave record "No New York" with DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, later – Swans, Revolting Cocks (my all-time favorite supersexy band), Ministry and so on… I’m just not interested in either rap or rock, I hate it, I hate the 70’s, and the 80’s, and the 90’s! Generally I see myself as a futurist. In my work I was always either a bit too early or too late and I also consider it its best quality – the fact that it just never arrives on time. I never did belong anywhere and was never a part of any scene, and I didn’t want to be either! I always felt awkward, out of place, overdressed, underdressed, un-cool, insecure, too self-assured, too much in love, too romantic, too strong, too weak, whatever... But my whole point is actually very simple: You can do whatever you want! With all the complications this simplicity brings.