Beautiful, mysterious, tense: Jeppe Ugelvig likes to let artworks stand their ground. Their opacity turns into an antidote to essentialist politics.
For this year’s curated by – centered around the notion of hybridity – Jeppe Ugelvig accepted the invitation of gallery Sophie Tappeiner to Vienna. His show Get Rid of Yourself zooms in on the role of the image in times of identity politics. In conversation, the curator and critic explains why essentialism is so harmful in current debates around identity and how an aesthetics of protest can be imagined in the gallery space.
As a curator, critic and – most recently – book author of Fashion Work you are something of a hybrid yourself, as are so many of our generation. Your research interests span disciplines – art and fashion, most prominently. So, what does hybridity as an explicit concept actually mean to you? How does it shape your curatorial practice?
You’re right – the motivation for writing the book was to attempt to write an art history of my own form of artistic knowledge production, and those I saw around me coming of age in this industry. As my book also testifies, hybridity is most of all a sign of labor precarity: hustling between systems and contexts to make ends meet. In my life and practice concretely, it means straddling commercial fashion journalism, institutional exhibition making, and academic art historical research and teaching all at the same time, and everything in between. I do this every day, which might seem chaotic to some, but I’ve come to enjoy it very much. Much like the practices I discuss in the book, what started as a simple material premise of my career – having to survive in a culture industry – ended up shaping my perspective: these systems are deeply connected, and they can learn from each other in both critical and economic ways.
How, then, did you approach the topic for your show »Get Rid of Yourself« at Sophie Tappeiner?
It was something that I had been mulling over subconsciously for some time – a certain skepticism against the current culture war we’re in, observing how identity politics have taken a hold of art as much as consumption, and how both work to lock people into fixed images rather than proliferating difference and autonomy. For a long time, I’ve been interested in artists and thinkers who seek out its opposite: invisibility, opacity, refusal to be imaged. Sophie approached me at the height of the BLM protests in the US (where I’m mostly based), and I took it as a sign that I had to pursue this quickly and in an experimental fashion. The basic question for me was: what is the aesthetics of protest?
What struck me in »Get Rid of Yourself« is the visual dominance of pairs: two chairs in Kayode Ojo’s »L’Amant Double (Vienna)«, Rindon Johnson’s wall-mounted leather pieces, or Trevor Yeung’s two potted plants suspended in mid-air. Is hybridity always a play on symmetry, an almost carnivalesque inversion of binaries?
It’s so funny you noticed this; I had not thought about it until Sophie pointed it out to me during install. I wish I could say there was a conscious motif behind this, but I certainly think that symmetry and balance ended up informing the perspective of the show. Particularly Kayode’s piece deals with doppelgangers (the work re-stages a scene from the erotic thriller »L’Amant Double«) and how identity can be distorted via doubling or multiplication. We register Rindon’s leather pieces as doubles, but in fact they are individual bodies – developed from two individual cows – but have been industrially manipulated to seem part of one whole. And with Trevor’s work, there are actually not one but many money trees: the thing with money trees is that they industrially grow them close to each other in a pot in order to braid them together with force to seem as one. In this way, they speak to how disparate things and people are conflated or reduced everywhere.
The central themes here are identity and image and how they relate to each other under current political circumstances of so-called identity politics and the 21st century police state of late capitalism. Are questions of identity a line of inquiry that run through all of your work?
I would say so, but they do so in ways that are not necessarily legible to the viewer – and this, indeed, is kind of the point. There is an identity subtext to all of the work, and my reading of them. But they are also beautiful, mysterious, tense, alluring objects and images, open to interpretation and standing their ground. It feels important to not give them away totally, but to let them be.
You argue for a certain mode of opacity, one that resists reduction to any essence, which is »the most perennial guarantee of participation and confluence«. How do you translate this claim into the exhibition space?
Essentialism is one of the most harmful things to ever have come out of discourses on identity – it’s what’s fed wars, genocides, and currently, our cultural climate. I see why many find it useful, necessary even, to fight on these essentialist terms (what does it mean to be something or other), but personally I think this works to enclose human experience more than opening it up. This goes for my own life too, of course. Why would I assert my presence in this world based on my identity, as if identity is a fixed and stable concept? This extends to privacy – not anonymity, which is dealt with in Bernadette Corporation’s video – but privacy.
Jeppe Ugelvig is a curator and cultural critic based in New York and London. His research focuses on histories and theories of cultural production. His next exhibition Witch Hunt about the Nordic witch trials in the 16th century opens at Kunsthal Charlottenborg on November 6th, his book Fashion Work was published by Damiani in 2020.