CURA.

LENA HENKE
BABYSTEPS INTO MASOCHISM

LAYR, Vienna
09 Dec, 2020 – 20 Feb, 2021

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Text by Robert Müller

Getting closer via what is far away: King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who will always look like Visconti’s Helmut Berger in Ludwig (1973), walks through a huge open hole into a gargantuan cabin in which half-naked soldiers are sprawled around a tree, sleeping and unscathed. The king, full of pent-up desire, is invisible to them. Outside it’s freezing cold; inside huge fires are blazing. Everything is dripping with sweat. Waiting beyond the frame, also invisible, and wearing a blindfold, is Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Otherwise, he works in Vienna and takes a female nom de plume, calling himself Zoë (“animal soul”) von Rodenbach. He is waiting for the mysterious Anatol—also a pseudonym said to be that of the king, who “devours” the books of the celebrated author.

He, too, must not see the king. Where absolute power enters the sphere of his subjects on tiptoes, leaving footprints that the snow swallows optically and acoustically, the invisibility of this power—which is otherwise based on visibility—expresses more than the transgression of the border between ruler and ruled. There is also a desire, an unfulfillable yearning—here, of course, entirely among men—to be a subject, an object, and submit to the will of another. A desire to give up absolute control, whether as a monarch or within a patriarchal society, for the sake of this submission. The warm glow of the fire on the bare feet of the soldiers casts flickering shadows onto the relationships of those present. In this late Romantic, masculine pastiche that still operates in terms of inside and outside, private and public, upstairs and downstairs—and in doing so dreams above all of the simple reversal of the arrangement as itself homoerotic—the protagonists of this equestrian culture can hope for invisibility, stealth, and discretion; they can hope for a secret.

Meanwhile, actual industrial capitalism in the cold beyond has long since decreed the death of horse and rider. A wet pond swallows up the Swan Knight. The complex entanglements of lust and cruelty in the constellation of “Babysteps into Masochism” make it seem as if one were looking through the keyhole of a glass door. Productive misunderstandings. Lena Henke’s exhibition is not about coming to terms with nostalgic or ornamental splinters of repressed sexual urges in some secret side of life. What dominates at LAYR is maximum visibility.

The imagery in the works on view formulates a shift away from clandestine, masculine, heteronormative deviance to an overt, society-level engine in which fetishization not only brings about objectification but also creates opportunities for greater freedom and equality. The exhibition also, however, critically interrogates the (sexual) drives that are capable of inflaming the neoliberal capacity for individual suffering as a desire for self-inflicted pain that can, moreover, be monetized.

It thus also offers the opportunity to forcefully restructure one’s own situation, the circumstances of one’s own position and the pain and suffering resulting from it, and thus to gain control of otherwise uncontrollable and often violent forces. An entire arsenal of different practices and desires is presented here, too. The interconnections between the body, sexuality, and architecture that allow Henke’s works to become prosthesis fetishes are, alongside the millennia-old practice of analogy, also what pulls the space of signification and representation into brutal reality. Physical pain, normativity, and the proverbial desire for humiliation, diminution, while present in other works, too, here develop their effects in a way that is deeply unsettling.

“Organic Architecture” is set against the fragile architecture of the body: from Vitruvius to Leviathan to King Kong. The gallery—itself the shape of an even bigger footprint, once pushed into the mortar of the building by some greater power—tilts on its longitudinal axis through the action of an as yet unknown force. It seems as if the images of feet bound in latex are stepping on the visitors, crushing them, in an act of pleasure, between themselves and the water lilies on the floor that was once a wall.

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Lena Henke, Babysteps into Masochism, 2020, Installation view, LAYR, Vienna. Courtesy of the artist and LAYR, Vienna 
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Lena Henke, Babysteps into Masochism, 2020, Installation view, LAYR, Vienna. Courtesy of the artist and LAYR, Vienna 
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Lena Henke, Babysteps into Masochism, 2020, Installation view, LAYR, Vienna. Courtesy of the artist and LAYR, Vienna 
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Lena Henke, Babysteps into Masochism, 2020, Installation view, LAYR, Vienna. Courtesy of the artist and LAYR, Vienna 
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Lena Henke, Babysteps into Masochism, 2020, Installation view, LAYR, Vienna. Courtesy of the artist and LAYR, Vienna 

Featured image: Lena Henke, Babysteps into Masochism, 2020, Installation view, LAYR, Vienna. Courtesy of the artist and LAYR, Vienna

OTHER TIPS
C L E A R I N G, Brussels
MACRO, Rome
Wschód, Warsaw
Liminal website, Online
Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan
Clima Gallery, Milan
The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin
CRAC Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée, Sète