This one goes out to the first gay guy to break my heart. (He did warn me!) The bed we shared for a few months in the linoleum floored dorm of the Folk-high-school of Art at the windswept island of Langeland (Danish for Long Island), was nothing more than our two pinewood bedframes that we had shoved together under a makeshift canopy adorned with an antique gilded mirror in the shape of the sun. We painted our heels red, as was the costume of Louis XIV and drank our instant morning chocolate out of a golden tea set that we had set out on the blonde nightstand. Here comes the sun king and his well-heeled, head-over-heels (or need we say headless) apprentice.
One morning as we were studiously pouring over his-and-hers Vogue Italia, he put his head on my shoulder and pointed to a centerfold of a Bengali tiger swimming in the Ganges amidst a field of white lotus flowers with, in the background, a funeral pyre set ablaze by a party of sari clad mourners in orange and magenta. He sighed and said: “Don’t you just wish that you were that tiger?” It was clear from his sighing, that this was another kind of coveting than our morning lecture would usually inspire –that of a glamorous life far away from the countryside of Denmark—but instead aspiring to a higher longing: to know the beauty of the world from the inside out.
Soon after I found myself in India, in a quest for this insider’s knowledge of beauty. By the Ganges I imagined the wild tiger’s roar, but everything else was just so. This was in the days before Facebook hence I had no one to share it with, and had to devour this savage beauty all by myself.
I wrote a letter to my absentminded friend, the poet. He responded that I was a better writer than artist and published my letter in a literary magazine he was editing –together with (on my insistence) a dry needle fantasy of a pair of copulating angels I then considered “my art.” I was furious with him for his honesty, while in retrospect I have to give it to him that he saw my bosoms, but raised me my brains –such gifts are the unexpected oranges that life throws in undeserving young-girls urban turbans.
On return from my travels to India (which I mostly loathed, if only for the fact that I was constantly being looked at, which tends to obstruct your outlook) I travelled to Rome in search of a beauty closer to home. After that, I moved to Copenhagen to go art school, thinking that was perhaps the place to get to know beauty more intimately.
According to Dave Hickey, my timing was just right, as we were about to embark on the Nineties, and while I was travelling the world in search of beauty, he was preaching to the reluctant choir assembled in a university auditorium somewhere deep in the heart of darkest America, that “The issue of the nineties will be beauty!”
In the introduction to his essay “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” he revisits the event:
“I began updating Pater: ‘Beauty is not a thing,’ I insisted. ‘The Beautiful is a thing. In images, beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder, and, since pleasure is the true occasion for looking at anything, any theory of images that is not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begs the question of art’s efficiacy and dooms itself to inconsequence!’”
By equating beauty with agency, Hickey animates the world around us, imbuing these images –and by extension “anything” that causes us pleasure from the mere occasion of us looking at it—with an attention seeking willfulness.
The scopophilic pleasure we are granted in return for giving in to the whims of this beautiful world, is by its retinal nature often spiked with envy. An envy of fully possessing this beauty, of internalizing it, of an ever hungry eye that is left wanting more. More images, more wilderness, more beauty. (But also –as we embark on the quest for beauty, our nose in the scent trail still wet from our first whiff of it –with the satisfaction of knowingly knowing it when we see it.)
Beauty can, in fact, be experienced in the muddied rained out countryside of Northern Europe, just as well as anywhere else. And this particular envy can, in rare cases, be inspired by visiting an art show: Not the usual petty “OMG, I wish that was me showing my work in [insert major art venue],” but the real, un-adulterated swimming-tiger-lotus-envy of “OMG, I wish I had made that!” –of being so unexpectedly enthralled with the surface beauty of a body of work, you wish to intimately and organically know it from the inside out.
This happened to me, when visiting Josef Strau’s “The New World: Application for Turtle Island” at the Renaissance Society.
In the gallery, clustered objects are laid out in rectangular grids, some on tabletops and some directly on the floor in little islands, resembling house altars for the worshipping of homely deities. Ceramic conch-shells and brightly colored tiles are the gods’ favorites, it seems. Textile prints with text passages from Buddhist and Native American religious and spiritual practice are laid out by way of both explanation and offering. Behind a low metal fence, a Buddha caressing a cat in his lap with one green hand, sits on a blanket of black polyester lace. One brightly sequined lampshade bears Pocahontas’ portrait and another that of the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, while others again are decorated with images of turtles, exotic parakeets in flight, or cuddly toys.
On the surface, his makeshift tableaux’s work not much different than our own primitive interior decoration back in the day: the beatifically pimped-up lamp-shades do not belie their discount store origins, their inner workings exposed and their cables only half heartedly hidden by shoddy duck tape.
(It’s a Barnum-and-Bailey’s world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believe in me.)
This make believe world is home to the winsome couple Bear and Wolf (I wonder who among the two is the king, and who the jester) and represents the Turtle Island where they roam and reign. Sometimes travelling together down the lazy river on a primitive float, then in chains, but still together. Their togetherness seems prerequisite to their adventure, as if the beauty of the new world they are discovering is not in the eyes of the beholder, but in the eyes of the other. We recognize them from the lampshades, which immediately elevate their status to that of the divine, and their tall tales to mythology. A longing back to some indigenous Eden, in which all of nature sings with symbolic gestures and coded messages, or, as it happens –in the Queen’s English.
A poster announcing the exhibition with quotes from Pocahontas and Nezahualcoyotl, is also announcing it’s own genesis; after wrestling with finishing the work for the exhibition, the artist breaks away from the “photoshop bureaucrazy” on his computer, to take a stroll in the park:
“so I took myself and the color striped jacket out of the house and walked down and when I came to the first flowers I already started thinking they talked to me and they said make posters again. simple posters. Of course I argued with them a while, why the simple poster ways would be wrong and maybe not doing enough for the project. […] But the flowers were in a soft way stronger than my arguments. I felt. It was as if they said, don’t think of representations, think of the real things and about the relations to them, keep doing the same things but at the same time not thinking about representations, the representations are evil ways.”
On the verso to this recto, Strau declares: “ I wish I could say that my whole project is dedicated to the Americas, but I for sure don’t know what I’m talking about, so I better not. I wish my whole project could be dedicated to the Holy Mother of Guadalupe. But I might have become too shabby a soul to proclaim my name and my word so very next to her, and as well, in connection to the, at least to me, such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas. […] Anyways, the better question to ask myself before going public, is why does it mean so much to me to capture this outside or alien perspective, while at the same time there is nothing I desire more than morphing myself into a true Turtle Island citizen (American of many American nations) myself? Probably it is because I was always a bit of an alien too, wherever I was, wherever I will go, and therefore it would be better that I live there myself.”
The first time I visited America, I had no ambition to live there myself, but as I flew in over the suburbs of Saint Louis with all its swimming pools glistening in the summer heat, I had to admit that the aerial view had a stunning American Beauty. On my next trip I found myself in the snowy mountainside of Boulder, Colorado, where the wild mountain lions are. A relative of a relative, whose chalet we were dining at, inquired with a smirk what it was “like to live in Amsterdam?” I assured him that not all the good citizens of Amsterdam like to enjoy their soft drugs before lunch and continued: “… just like all Americans don’t have a gun tucked away in their bedside table drawer.” He looked puzzled: “but we do have a gun in our bedside table drawer?” His wife butted in, trying to alleviate the awkward silence: “Yes, but now that we have a baby on board, I gave him gun locks for Valentines Day, so that our little one doesn’t have ‘an accident.’” I assured her that was the most romantic thing I had ever heard, but the conversation had stalled. From both sides we were staring into a cultural divide, the size of an abyss.
Now that I do live here, I frequently feel this chasm opening between me and my friends and family back in Europe who like to generalize along similar lines about what Americans and life in America is “like.” From a European perspective, America is often perceived as a bully: lacking of history, uncultured and crass, while I find myself everyday surrounded by “such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas” and such unadulterated American Beauty.
In her ode to America “Oh Beautiful,” Detroit rapper Invincible sings:
With your spacious skies
I want to love you
But you hide behind
A fake disguise
I dunno. I see where she is coming from, but I suspect that the true American beauty lies in its fake disguise, its artifice. Glitzy Faux-Italianate facades on plywood and cinderblock structures from whose derelict backsides exposed telephone and power cables spill into unsavory alleyways. State-of-the-art plastic surgery boob-and-lip-jobs paid for with the 2nd mortgage or the 7th divorce settlement alimony by has-been Hollywood starlets m/f, now rendered so unrecognizable that a return to the silver screen would more aptly be called a reincarnation, was it not for the fact that the meat on those bones have been all-but-replaced by silicone. Etc. Etc.
Like in the cosmology of Terry Pratchet’s fantasy novel series Disc World — in which the world resides on the shield of a giant turtle, standing on the shield of an even bigger turtle, living on the shield of a more enormous turtle yet, traversing the shield of a gargantuan turtle, etc. etc. –this Turtle Island is “turtles all the way down.”
I’m writing this on Columbus Day: You don’t know what you’ve got till your gone. I forget how American I am (becoming) until I find myself wearing the only red jacket in a black sea of Scandinavian winter wear. In Copenhagen, the only people wearing varsity wear are the pushers. You will find them on Pusher Street. They are trying to look “ghetto,” because we don’t have real ghettos in Copenhagen –or so we like to think. In America you are considered fashion forward for knowing the cardinal rules of color coordination: All black always work we all know. The color-blocked flatness of modernist monochromes we all know. Yet I crave billboards on my shirt palm trees and sunsets landing strips and desert highways disappearing into my solar plexus. The illusion that you can just blend in and be one with the landscape like tromp-l’oeil, like camouflage.
On our way to school this morning, my pearl of a girl suddenly exclaimed:
“Art class has been good to me this year!”
Although absentminded, I asked her to elaborate. She told me about a collaborative class project, in which a scrapped subway car (imagined, I imagine) is thrown into the sea. Nestled on the bottom of the sea, as the corals do their thing and the fish move in, the subway car muses to itself: “I used to live in a city, but now a city lives in me.”
As we all know, you can take a girl out of the countryside, but you can’t take the countryside out of the girl. As those of us who paid attention in art class will know, once beauty has known you from the inside, you will find beauty’s inside, where you least expect it.
Art class has been good to us so far, indeed!
This post first appeared on the Bad @ Sports on October 22nd 2014. Images throughout are installation views of Josef Strau’s “The New World: Application for Turtle Island” at the Renaissance Society, 2014.
Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark in 1992 to study painting in the Netherlands. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family.
In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work.
Her first book “Mothernism” was published by Poor Farm Press and Green Lantern Press in 2014.
 David Hickey, “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty” in The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009) 1.
 Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, 2
 Josef Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island (poster)(Chicago: Te Renaissance Society, 2014)
 Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island