Hide-and-Seek (Do Me Baby)

- on the labyrinths of desire in Dorte Jelstrup’s art

By Rune Gade

Hide-and-seek is only fun if you’re found. Not instantly and easily of course – there has to be time for the excitement and anticipation to build. But in the end you have to be found, gleefully discovered in you hiding place. Being found is of the essence. Being too well hidden is a disaster. The seeker may weary of the search, may abandon the enterprise altogether, be distracted from it. The declension from being the subject of intense and focused attention to becoming the object of a resigned indifference – or indeed, the chillingness of having been forgotten – is cruel and devastating. The elemental delight inherent in disappearing from sight while knowing oneself to be tantalizingly present in the mind of the other is shattered once the search is discontinued and one remains in one’s hiding place unfound.

It is with this phenomenon of attachment to being found in one’s hiding place and, in particular, with the risks, hazards and disappointments, pitfalls and misapprehensions associated with it, that Dorte Jelstrup’s art is concerned. As were it some elaborate children’s game, she lists and unravels the myriad complex threads which at once draw together and pull apart the pursuer and the fugitive, the hunter and the quarry, their commonalities being their respective sequestrations, their mutual unfoundness. In Jelstrup’s work, everything would seem to distil into a game of hide-and-seek that’s lost its charm – indeed, which ceased to be fun quite some while ago – but which continues to enshrine, protectively and even enchantedly, the memory of the rapture and anticipation that could be.

Without promising answers or solutions, Dorte Jelstrup’s works may be read as proposing a bundle of questions and a cluster of problems we are free to take on board and engage with. Jelstrup’s entire oeuvre may be viewed as a kind of psychological map of the distances between people – not least when they are most in pursuit of each other, seeking each other out, craving each other. Qua fragments of unfulfilled yearnings, the dilapidated architecture of remaining unfound is conjured forth in complex installations that commingle materials and media in the form of intricate cultural appropriations. Perhaps the most persistent thread in Jelstrup’s work over the past decade is the relentless mapping of desire – its detours, false leads, distances and precipices – its obscure goals and chimeras, as registered in us qua sexual beings, concupiscent beings and qua socially and culturally determined beings.

The figuring forth of existential premises, albeit always framed from a particular viewpoint – a woman’s – though rarely that of a personalized situated woman but, rather more anonymously, through the persona of some woman or other. At the same time, Jelstrup’s works speak of desire from a vantage point and in a key to which we are not accustomed – from a quarter that is overlooked, hidden away, crowded out by male images of desire that dominate almost irresistibly in our culture. Not that these latter, or their influence rather, are absent from Jelstrup’s work, or that a clear distinction between feminine and masculine images of desire is even possible, but their presence is always inflected in the direction of something else, as when instantiated, for example, by quasi-synthetic or parodic utterances drawn from the infinite stock of gender stereotypes in which mass culture is steeped. Or when appearing as subtle reworkings of the ocular conventions that inform the repertoire of images with which we are confronted daily.

Pivotal to the extensive exploration of the scope for female desire is the body, the woman’s body/the artist’s body, qua the medium through which desire filters, as it were, to assume new forms. It is presumably the voice of a female subject that speaks in the charged quasi-narrative work titles and caption strips that accompany many of Jelstrup’s works, just as, correspondingly, it is very frequently women’s garments and accoutrements of various sorts or indeed merely objects emblematic of the feminine that are enrolled as components of the installational works. Finally, the whole appears to be viewed from the position of the female subject – to be distilled from a particular visual take upon the world: not one that places things in a radically different optic but, antithetically, one that invests the hegemonic gaze with an old-style reflexive dimension which allows the individual items to appear in an interestingly different, deflected light, mesmerizingly defined. The conflicts many of Jelstrup’s works thematize and frame are, on the one side, collisions between abstract and idealized images of bodies, as endemically and oppressively disseminated in our culture by advertising and the images of fashion and, on the other, the lived body, as experienced from within.

The work In my Dreams We Fly (2003) brings together a portfolio of studies prosecuted by Jelstrup in various modes over the past decade, here telescoped into a dense thematic span before being played out through an idiom characterized by a radical lightness. Both in its concentration and in its diffusion, the work is monumental, hermetically seductive, and convoluted – a multiply fragmented sketch in three dimensions. The title itself suggests the work’s narrative character while at the same time establishing its dichotomised and ambiguous relation to the point of rational address (the realm of utterance) and the associative reality of dreams (the realm of reference). A realm of possibility not coincident with the sterile ideality of utopias, but bound up, rather, with the elemental wishfully conjured scenarios and yearnings for love in the quotidian – with the momentary suspension of gravity and the body’s effortless transport and ecstasy registered even while entwined with its dismal negation – the dream that burst. All that could be, but isn’t: In My Dreams We Fly. As in much of Jelstrup’s output, the keynote of the work is bleakly prosaic, melancholy and not untinged by tepid resignation. What is portrayed is not so much the dream itself as the shattering of it. Scattered, its shards retain an oddly fading resonance, a quasi-vestigial trace of the power to cohere, while constituting a vast collage whose themes are self-giving and break-out, intimacy and distances, pleasure and pain: the confessional memoranda of a nameless subject, who murmurs forth her desire, her yearning, her angst, her loneliness and love.


The work insists on presenting itself as an integral whole, sufficient unto itself, while at the same time reaching out and engaging with the surrounding space and not least with the viewers. A finished work, which, while corralling and subsuming the viewer, keeps a number of exit routes open, down which one can absent-mindedly and imperceptibly disappear, should the game of hide-and-seek become wearisome. The installation is an aggregate and juxtaposition of a compilation of materials and media, which, in a diversity of languages and keys, speaks of phenomena regularly encountered in experience. Large-scale photographs in a variety of formats and exhibiting varying degrees of focus are mounted directly onto the walls, frameless, glassless, in syncopated cadences – dissonant, fractured, in staggered collisions – stand-alone single works or else small clusters, the subject matters vaulting from portraits to winter landscapes, the former in hyperrealistic polychrome, the latter in a murky monochrome. Rough-and-readily mounted, the photos curl up at the edges like the brittle contents of some old time photo album. Amid the photos, a negligée primly draped on a hanger stands out, partnered by another dangling untidily from a nail nearby. Elsewhere, a scarf or a handbag. Also conspicuous is a conglomeration of white fabric banners bearing hand-painted inscriptions splashed like headlines horizontally and vertically, and which demonstratively, in the idiom of pop, proclaim the work’s central themes: ‘I RENDER TO YOU MY BODY AND SOUL’, ‘STILL MY DESIRE CARRIES A SHAME’ and ‘MUST I ALWAYS DREAM AND SEE YOUR FACE’.

Scattered throughout the work, are a host of inconsequential drawings and watercolours on paper, small-scale botanical studies, schematic jottings of petals and stems in watery thinned-down colours juxtaposed with odd clumps of compact decorative glitter or scribblings and declarations, large handwritten letters that, in a spirit of emotional rambunctiousness, bespatter the unconstrained space of the white paper. ‘NOBODY LOVES YOU THE WAY I DO’ or ‘I WISH I HAD WINGS SO I COULD FLY AND REACH THE ONE I LOVE’. Though couched in direct speech, it is as though the neurotic reveries and the declarations turgid with yearning are without specific address, figuring rather as a generalized, stereotypical, de-individualized, subjectless type of sentimental schoolgirl verse. Expressing culturally sanctioned conceptions of monogamous female desire, they are here egregiously directed to anyone and everyone, not to some one and only. The romantic declamations play off each other, interrelating with their more complex but hardly less universal or stereotypical opposites: the imperative ‘DO ME BABY’, say, or the constative ‘TINY DEMONS INSIDE ME’.

Lying on the floor is a pile of crumpled white silk sheets and shiny silk pillows, some half ripped up with wads of cotton wool spilling out of them. Topping the pile, as if to reinforce the suggestion that an act of violence or an assault has taken place, is a swatch of black negligées casually discarded and sprinkled with shreds of lace. Or else drawings, note pads and photos scattered across the lily-white bedroom-style farrago. A pile of blue tulle decoratively draped and with sharp folds, flimsy and diaphanous, serpents its way between the floor’s conglomeration of fabrics and the wall’s somewhat more dispersed contents, as though mediating a link between the work’s horizontal and vertical planes. One wall is semi-concealed behind strips of white and coloured tulle hanging in pleated strips from ceiling to floor, and accompanied by a single caption strip.

In my Dreams We Fly is patently an intricate, convoluted work, which, while its material hybridity and formal refractedness balance on the cusp of complete dissolution, is held together by a unifying thematic focus. With its bedroom semblances, evocative of an intimate sphere, the work sets up a fluid interface between dream and reality. Gracing the bedroom’s interior is an assemblage of riddling snatches of reality and day residues in the form of narrative traces and emblems. These mediate a spectrum of shades of desire through un-pin-downable but oddly recognizable scraps of a quotidian reality of which we have no knowledge and yet which strike us as familiar.

The hugger-mugger of pictures, writing and physical objects – all appropriated from a commonly recognizable reality – serves to underscore the dream-like associative principle that structures the work’s dispersed, somewhat random composition, and which achieves its full effect in the installation’s contrast with the sober exhibition space’s more commonplace prosaic ambience. Acting, as it were, as the reality principle by which dream and imagination are at once nurtured and challenged.

Despite its fractured, disorderly and repetitive character – composed of scattered hints and suggestive references rather than yielding any finally coherent story – everything in the work feeds the one narrative. A composition not unlike a suite of stills lifted from their original contexts and embedded in new ones able to extract hidden meanings from them and forge new connections between them. Several of the large photos carry the tell-tale signature of video stills – the crisscrossing of lines mimicking those on television screens, imposing a dense raster on the surface of the images – a feature that invokes, both formally and directly, the mass media’s desire-saturated fictional world, underscoring the fact that the images figure forth at the very interface between private experience and cultural phantasmagorias.

What lies hidden in these story openings, half original, half borrowed? The work’s pervasive female figure who through her appearance in the photographs assumes a protagonist’s role, proves to be none other than the work’s creator. We are looking, then, at the artist herself. It is she who through self-exposure masks herself. She appears, however, not posing as the artist, nor even in her own person, but as some woman or other, half undressed in bed, at once beckoning and rebuffing. Her body metamorphoses into a succession of postures, garnered in equal part from art history and from the pin-ups appearing in lads’ magazines, glamorized and seductive, unattainable and erotically tantalizing. Never directly accessible, she variously evades us, confronting us only obliquely, hidden by a pillow she hugs to her chest, burying her face in it, her back turned to us in some remote corner of the room, dejectedly sprawled on the duvet, meeting our gaze via a mirror – idly, self-sufficiently, masturbating in a silk negligée. Myriad are the ways in which she conceals herself, putting everything on show and eliciting a particular gaze, a particular interest. On the bed, half-naked or half-undressed, but above all solitudinous and isolated, she experiments with a string of postures, acting, indolently playing to the camera – a symbolic surrogate for the gaze of the other but seeing nothing.

Surrounding the woman en deshabille are the portraits of a constellation of handsome young men, individually distinct but all photographed naked at the same spot in the same room, adopting one and the same posture: slightly decentred frontal bust portraits. The pictures of the young men are apparently taken in the room occupied by the woman, but on no occasion do they figure together. Permanently segregated from one another and not least from the woman, each is confined to his individual space. In contrast to the woman, their postures are not erotic: they adopt a more neutral, less ludic, pose. In several instances their heads are slightly bowed, their eyelids lowered, as were they lost in reverie or fantasy, self-enclosed and oblivious to the world. They see nothing. In their compositional uniformity and identical spatial situations they would appear to be some woman’s interior gallery of the one and only, regimented here as a pantheon of options rather than a glorification of the chosen one. In the realm of dreams, this unfulfilled potentiality exists unspoiled, and yet not without qualification. The options are present but their phantasmagoric character and perhaps precisely their sheer potentiality prevents them from materializing – and becoming actual. Hence we observe no genuine connections, no contact. The portraitees are consigned to separate individual spaces – alone, at best united in imaginary pictorial space or, more accurately perhaps, the mental space that they collectively inhabit. Individually, they may dream of one another, of reaching each other, but this desire – the woman’s demonized appetite for a plurality of men – still carries shame as its indelible signature.

Here and there, between the portraits dispersed across the walls in seemingly random order are renderings of barren winter landscapes, bare trees standing out as black silhouettes against slate skies. The intimate inner sanctum of the bedroom, the most private room in the house, is here obtruded upon by external nature, trees lined up in lonely majesty, defoliated, denuded, disconnected as they reach skywards. For all that they alone represent the work’s windows, the sole emphatic references to an “outside”, the landscapes figure as blocks and barricades, as viewless glimpses of a beyond rather than as liberating escape routes. The motifs are to be read symbolically – as inner landscapes, as a buffeted and coarsened inner nature. It is as though the cramped insulation of the bedroom has been outpressed into its surroundings, into a landscape even more closed-in and loveless than the bedroom’s remorseless loneliness, unfoundness. In that sense, the landscapes represent at micro-level the duplication of the relation between inner and outer, which, at macro-level, the installation mediates through the siting of a private bedroom interior in a public museum space. Ironically and quasi-prosopopeically, the work draws attention to the art space’s own intimacy and sequestration from the wider world, this public space’s own rather torrid bedroom aspect, its existence as a species of imaginative space as much as an actual physical space.

Relentlessly and polyphonically, In my Dreams We Fly speaks of the condition of not being found while wanting to be found. Of being seen without being acknowledged, about a particular bodily posture that elicits a gaze while tacitly and forlornly angling after much more. The work presents itself now as a scrupulous and now as a chaotic register of the emotions activated by the condition of not being found. A peculiar hyper-femininity is configured through the accumulation of items associated with women, the diversity of fabric textures, the wishful declarations, the romantic connotations of flowers and their sexual associations, the subtle erotic postures of the body. However, an unknown avenger has disrupted the idyll of the feminine universe, has thrown it into disarray, violated it. The fragmented, lacerated white lace figures as a suggestive image of involuntary defloration, rape. The work remains silent, however, as to its source – whether a male assault or the woman’s self-destruction, self-annihilation was the cause – or perhaps both in equal measure. There is no question that a collision between violent forces has occurred, giving rise to a turbulence and disequilibrium whose traces in the installation are plain to see.

As noted above, In my Dreams We Fly both brings together and broadens out a number of the themes broached previously by Dorte Jelstrup. Cross-referentially, the installation alludes both directly and obliquely to earlier works, most obviously in its title which reproduces a statement that occurs in an untitled colour photograph from 1997. There the statement figured as an embedded title plate in the context of a small packed tableau’s photographic documentation which included a black negligee topped by a white lace doily – indeed, yet another element which recurs in In my Dreams We Fly, but here accompanied by an open tin of Vaseline with the word ‘YES’ engraved on the surface of the soft, erotically-laden jelly. The disturbing presence of a crumpled bloodstained tissue – a casual memento mori – stood as a reminder of the inroads the violence of a night is able to wreak on the wishful luminosity of virtually ecstatic imaginings. The tableau comprised photographs obviously torn out of fashion or erotic magazines. A beautiful, androgynous-looking woman, easily confused with the youths Jelstrup repeatedly uses in her works, wearing nothing but make-up and a slip. A couple of intertwined legs, respectively hirsute and smooth, exhibiting gender iconography writ small, the detail of sexual semiotics – the masculine and the feminine in anonymous union. With its slender swatch of peculiarly ambiguous fragments from the mass media’s cache of images, explicitations of impossible but insistent and obsessive visions of beauty and redemption, the tableau can be viewed retrospectively as a species of draft for some subsequent large-scale installation which in its full-fledged form articulates the shattered dream.

But already in an earlier work And She Renounced the World and its Pleasures (1994), several questions are anticipated that are taken up in In my Dreams We Fly ten years later. Early on, And She Renounced the World and its Pleasures combined a sculptural praxis with a ready-made strategy, which might be said to constitute the springboard for major parts of Jelstrup’s more recent artistic work. A monstrously large bookcase in dark mahogany was set against a wall with a white doily placed on each of its 25 shelves. The simple juxtaposition of the sheer bulk of the bookcase and the fineness of the lace, the dark and the light, created a striking and counterpointed collision which, in combination with the work’s title, lent itself to gendered decoding: the feminine enveloped and weighed down by the masculine, forced into self-renunciation and the abnegation of desire. Needlework as an imposed sublimation of sexual desire qualifies as a highly plausible interpretation albeit that, in common with all of Jelstrup’s work, the piece eludes any definitive and univocal reading. Rather than presenting its own constructions, it elicits the viewer’s knowledge and preconceptions, enrolling them as players in the work’s production of meaning. However, the ambivalent reference to needlework as a traditional distaff recurs in a number of Jelstrup’s works including In my Dreams We Fly, where lace, now vandalized, figures as a central component.

In The Look of Love (1996), we encountered lace in the form of elaborate cushions and quilts in a scenic video installation, given prominence by means of a low square mahogany podium. Spread out on the podium are a woman’s lace-trimmed garments and shoes, quilts and pillows along with photographic collages and selfstanding rubrics which with single charged words or textual fragments pointed the reading of the work in the direction of themes such as shame and affection. In one corner there was a monitor which, in a bow, showed the title video, the artist in a silk negligée applying make-up, coiffing her hair or moving her body suggestively, enticingly. The Look of Love highlighted some of the tricks and devices by means of which a woman is transformed into an object of desire, invoking not least references to lace as a peculiarly feminine and erotically encoded sign. The work’s conspicuous display of woman’s erotic armoury qua culturally determined toolkit – a kind of acquired craft which requires its woman and needs, not least, a body that’s up to it – ties it in with the implicit media critique and media fascination encountered in several of Jelstrup’s works.

This aspect is very much to the fore in A Piece of Evidence from 1996. Configured against a massive back wall of dark mahogany is a department store-style product presentation in an ordered and seductive display of erotically charged white women’s underwear, semi-transparent and sensual, arranged on clear plastic hangers. But where we would expect to see some scintillant promotional image we encounter a light box containing one of Jelstrup’s photographic collages. It features a beautiful young woman pulled from a glossy magazine, hovering above a pair of white panties abjectly daubed with unmentionable body discharge. A rubric at the foot of the picture proclaims: ‘INTERDICT’. Here, then, the cultural scripting of woman as an antiseptic and immaculate erotic creature is set against human experience as lived – a woman of flesh and blood. Menstruation as a peculiarly sensitive taboo in a culture that so relentlessly embeds the female sex in an inescapably and clinically sterile iconography of purity is here directly and provocatively under attack. The targets are manifestly the beauty and fashion industries; which is not to say, however, that these are unequivocally indicted, inasmuch as their mesmerizing power is also harnessed, reused.

Seduction is never purely and simply in the dock in Dorte Jelstrup’s work. She paradoxically mobilizes seduction by ambushing it, enveloping herself, and the viewer too for that matter, in its stupefying beguilements, its endless labyrinths. Her adult version of hide and seek is played out not merely at the level of a meta-discourse but is annexed by the game itself, incorporated in it. Jelstrup’s works participate in the masquerades of which they speak and implicate the viewer in the game – now by enticing him now by rejecting him, by self-exposure and self-concealment. The inviting and appealing configuration of the work’s constituent materials is consistently offset by subtle but patent glimpses of their subversion and defilement. Everything in Jelstrup’s work addresses this dialectic of attraction and rejection, of the play of desire and its cultural and commercial inscenations, and of human isolation caught up the convolutions of the game.

© Rune Gade


I Wish I Had Wings so I Could Fly and Reach the One I Love

By Lene Burkard

Dorte Jelstrup has a remarkable ability to transport us into a female universe which, while contemporary, simultaneously reaches many years back in time. Her works encompass places, symbols and settings that have been forgotten or repressed. The viewer has to muster no small amount of grit to approach these visually compressed installations, with their gender-related, utterly direct, but at the same time deeply symbolic content.

Decorum does not get much of a look-in in this zone of deshabillement, where seductive underwear in mauve and black both entices and welcomes us into this singular artistic representation of a boudoir. We find ourselves surrounded by signs and images, with items of severe mourning attire displayed amid beguiling lingerie. A single wall consists of a transparent purple veil. A space of desire and sorrow worthy of Madame Bovary.

We are voyeurs by default the moment we step into this trio of rooms, in that we are immediately confronted with the artist’s scantily clad/unclad body. The alluring images prompt associations with light porn, but are infused with ambiguity throughout. There is temptation and yearning – although imbued with suffering and despair: the principal figure seeks to conceal herself behind hair and clothing, as though constrained to do so by the writing on the wall, which bears the words ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’.

Draped on a podium are fragments of a virginal veil of fine white lace, whose traditions of manufacture down the centuries enmeshed female creativity into a fixed pattern of Freudian repetition compulsion. The history of women’s roles in which longing, love and desire are intertwined with guilt and shame, unfurled in all its otherness – is recounted almost cinematically, spanning historical and psychological boundaries.

The yearning for liberation – the vision of a potential liberation comes through in the exhibition’s title: I Wish I Had Wings so I Could Fly and Reach the One I Love. And the installation itself comes to embody a liberation process, or rather, processes: the otherness of socialization, narcissism, self-oppression and the modification of – and integration of a rupture with – notions of a “female evolution”. We perceive the integration and rupture as a resolved whole – before ultimately finding ourselves in the simplest of the three rooms: a kind of reliquary space or sanctuary of femininity, shrouded in the black of mourning and the mauve of pleasures and spirit. But we must leave this story and all its associations behind. There is no knowing where this liberation process will lead.

We can trace some of the layers of the process, and the overall effect constellates around the liberation of the self – and that in a work which boldly “paints” itself out. In Jelstrup’s works, truth is sought through the conscious inscenation of a double enactment in which the longing for liberation is integrally bound up with the role of a woman artist. With Jelstrup, as with a number of recent cohorts of women artists, one encounters a virtuosity to integrate dreams and longings into the works – quite unabashedly, and in ludic and contrived ways. Engaging playfully with the momentous and the banal, they tap into our deepest feelings. It’s audacious.

The above is an edited version of an address given on 1 June 2005 at the opening of the exhibition entitled I Wish I Had Wings so I Could Fly and Reach the One I Love.

© Lene Burkard, 2005