Bo Bjerggaard

John Kørner

11 Oct - 14 Dec 2013

© John Kørner
Family at the beach, 2013
Acrylic on canvas
180 cm x 240 cm
The Family
11 October - 14 December 2013

Factory and family
by Cecilie Høgsbro

The factory was the Soviet comrades' family. The factory collectiveone was born to belong to was one's birthplace, rodnoi. Soviet factoriesfirst and foremost produced Magnitostoroi, the new people: "Whatis Magnitostoroi?" one would ask. "It is the magnificent factory for thereproduction of human beings, where Mankind itself will be rebuilt,"was the answer. (Magnitostoroi, magazine, 1931).

The long-dead Stalinist utopia was revived last year in a new, softform in John Kørner's exhibition Produktion (IMO, 2012), in which he compared breeding children to a factory and described human reproduction as society's most important production unit. Thus, the exhibition's high point was the chambre separée, where the public could take a roll in the hay and reproduce themselves. Although it was only the factory metaphor's beauty and rich associative possibilities that interested Kørner, the exhibition illustrated a good communist point: productive work creates reproductive results. This applies not just to the factory, but also very much to art and if anything, family life.

In general, relics of a world of old communist imagery smouldered under the open emotional surface of the exhibition, perhaps by virtue of the fact that Kørner, the year before, had an exhibition on sex trafficking Women for Sale at The Workers' Museum, Copenhagen. In any case, Produktion recognised the communist rejection of bourgeois, capitalistic notions of romance and sentimental love in favour of a completely demystified sexuality, and the idea of the factory as society's primary, if not only, public sphere was current. Produktion, which dealt with the soft side of a hard, late-capitalist production era, could in other words not avoid being caught up in grandiose imagery in which the West apparently no longer believes, but which nonetheless haunts our imagination.

Kørner's new Galleri Bo Bjerggaard exhibition The family revisits in many ways the themes of Produktion, if it does not actually end up being a kind of complement to it. With The family one could in any case say that the concept of the family is in play again in a reverse form. Seen from outside, it seems as if the concept of family is now being reflected as if in an East-West axis, such that we see the family in a more obviously late-capitalist light, i.e., in the shadow of working life, rather than in a more dusky post-Soviet factory light.

The exhibition is organised around nine new family portraits. Genrewise, the family portrait, as is well-known, has been the very seal and validation of the Western, bourgeois family for more than 200 years. Famous examples include C.W. Eckersberg's and Wilhelm Marstrand's Golden Age portraits of well-off Copenhagen families such as the Nathansons and Waagepetersens, or Edgar Degas' more ambiguous Bellelli Family and lesser-known commissioned paintings such as Franz Doubek' s late-Victorian era Bohemian paintings. In Kørner's case it is not a question of idealised family portraits of specific people, but rather portraits of family ideals in a problematic atmosphere. We see the family celebration, the posing family, the family's many sneakers - a recognised surplus phenomenon in families with teenagers - the family in the leisure society. All of it is surrounded by pill-shaped "problems" in sedative colours. The painted portraits are once again contrasted by a significant number of spatial Kørner problems in the form of abstract, nearly conical glass objects.

However, the point is that the anonymous families that we see in the paintings are not necessarily linked, but comprise looser identity groups, as is characteristic of modern family life. For Kørner it is the alternative familial bonds on the edge of the consumer society that are especially interesting: bikers, prostitutes, red-heads [sic!] and park bench bums. They - who are in some sense families without homes - are the ones he declares himself to be "related to".

Whether Kørner's attitude toward modern family relations is satirical or melancholy is hard to tell. One does feel, though, that all of modernity's family ideals are problematic for him. He has a kind of indistinct eye for how the liberation of the family ended up in two kinds of totalitarianism: the militant, as in the Soviet Union, and the consumerist, as in the West. The broken bourgeois family has turned out to be just as characteristic of modern, late-capitalist society as it was for the Soviet communist society in its day. The only difference is that whereas the Soviets consciously wanted to liberate the individual from the private bourgeois sphere into a new kind of collective family, the production community, the West dissolved the bourgeois family in order to liberate buying and labour power from the home. The Soviet factory should be understood as the final break with capitalism's private property rights and thus with its most significant sociological gestalt: the private sphere centred on a breeding female in the most evil of all empires - the bosom of the family. It meant a life under the constant watch of others.

When Western women likewise wanted to free themselves from the "female mystique" of home life and enter the workforce, their new status quickly became an economic compulsion. There followed a whole business of living for the career woman, meaning that no woman could leave the labour market without going under or being stigmatised. In a late-capitalist society, the primary community is not the factory, but the consumer sphere. One is not liberated into a collective, but into a "network" of profitable individuals that has replaced the less profitable family. Perhaps for that reason the "families", that do not belong to one or the other place, are interesting to Kørner. In the logic of capital one can say that he in The family connects with those who do not liberally withdraw from working life and into the private sphere and private consumption every day, but live a public life in secret.

If one should look with a more artistic than sociological or political eye at the family and the family hearth's stigmatisations, there is no doubt that there is also a radical art-historic aspect to The family, consciously or not. The art system is still marked by a semi-communist clash with the feminine, the sentimental, the homely. In the final analysis, this is perhaps why the notion of family is so artistically interesting. Obviously, this is a long ways from the political art collective Røde Mor, who with their satirical political manifesto album Hjemlig hygge [Family bosom] sent an unambiguous salute to Majakovskij and his aggression towards the feminised home with its knick-knacks and nauseating canaries. But there is still more understated notion that the heteronormative family is an oppressor of individual and collective freedom. Present day art is driven by a more or less conscious longing to free the individual from the norms of working life and family life and create a contrarian sphere, where the individual can reproduce him/herself in his/her own image or in that of those with whom one shares destiny - or hair colour.

Tags: Edgar Degas, John Kørner