Peter Brandt’s gendered dialogues
Marilyn & Me
The project Marilyn & Me (1999-2004) had a profound effect on Peter Brandt’s work with gender representations and it was the beginning of his use of the dialogical method, which has since characterised his artwork. He utilizes feminist strategies such as his own body and personal experiences and in later artworks the gendered themes are put into play by the inclusion of theoretical texts. In Marilyn & Me (2000), Peter Brandt investigates his identification with the film star, the icon and the sex symbol – the twentieth century’s ultimate blonde: Marilyn Monroe. Dressed in a blonde wig, makeup and necklace, he uses his acting experience to get under the skin of Monroe’s star status. Man is dissolved and emerges as the woman Marilyn. According to the philosopher Luce Irigaray, the sexual relationship in the West is formed by a dichotomy, i.e. a hierarchical opposition, where the male is positively determined as man, while the woman is negatively determined as not-man. The dichotomy is therefore not based on two sexes, but on only one: the male gender. However, it dissolves into a genderless universality, which has functioned as the sole subject in Western culture, whereas the female is presented as gendered and particular. Irigaray argues the importance of the sexual difference, where the recognition of difference presents itself in two sexes, with the male and the female gender occupying each their own subject position. Brandt’s identification with Marilyn, which is underpinned by the use of her first name in the title, transcends the sexual dichotomy and in Brandt’s work, it becomes an investigation of actually being gendered, i.e. as a female.
In Comrades (2002), the photograph Marilyn & Me is placed between a photo of Monroe as a pin-up girl and a photo from the S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1974-82) by the artist Hannah Wilke. The photos are framed by ovenproof dishes of glass and wooden trays, both classic female symbols. Monroe as pin-up girl is the iconic object of masculine desire. Hannah Wilke was a feminist artist who was criticized by her contemporary feminist artists and critics for utilizing her bodily beauty. In this photograph from the S.O.S. Starification Object Series, her vulva sculptures made out of bubble gum are stuck onto her long fingernails and she has one stuck on her forehead as well. The two women thus represent woman as object and woman as subject, criticizing the objectification by way of the bubble gum vulva placed as a brand of Cain on Wilke’s forehead. By way of posture and gaze, Wilke’s photo refers to Bert Stern’s photo of Monroe, which also forms the background for Brandt’s photo. Wilke’s gaze thus reflects Brandt’s gaze, which reflects Monroe’s gaze and the two iconic women meet and merge in Brandt’s face. The film star and the female artist’s conflict come together when the need to be recognized as subject and artist collides with the view of them as women, objects of male art or desire. In Brandt’s work, it becomes a question of how man can be gendered by what is not either obliterated in the universal human’s neutral gender or tied to the stereotypical representation of masculinity. And how this new gender can find its place in art and in the world.
Whereas Brandt works with identification in his Marilyn project, the Hannah Wilke project Peter Super-T-Art is based on appropriation, whereby a dialogue between Wilke’s and Brandt’s artworks arises by way of the explicit representation of the sex. Whereas the Western world is saturated with phallic symbols, there are no similar symbols of the vulva. With her vulva sculptures in various materials, Wilke tried, from a female subject position, to create a symbol for the female sex. However, in much the same way that the female sex is absent as symbol, the male sex in the form of a soft penis is absent from Western culture, where men are expected to regard their penis as an omnipotent phallus. Which is why Brandt works on deconstructing the phallus by embracing the flesh and providing the male with a sex in the form of soft non-erect penis. Brandt’s series Elective Affinities (2006) consists of eight watercolours. The title is a repetition of Wilke’s title for an artwork consisting of small ceramic vulvas (1979). The pink watercolours and the fleshy quality remind us of Wilke’s latex objects, e.g. Agreeable Object (1972). Brandt’s series is a variation on penis-like forms in pink nuances; stretching from dull red to a delicate, almost white, pink. The contours are blurred and the form changes from abstract to almost naturalistic, from a soft to an erect penis-like form. The pink tones connote a femininity that underpins virility’s fragility in both flesh and the sex. The penis transformations are both lustful, erotic and aesthetic, and by way of colour, the soft forms and unstable contours dismantle the phallocentric as well as the pornographic.
Brandt utilizes his training as an actor in his performative works, including So help me Peter … (2005), which refers to Wilke’s So Help me Hannah (1978), a performance and photo series where she performed naked wearing sandals with high heels and using a gun as a prop, presenting herself as both subject and object. In Brandt’s work, it is the muscular, naked male body moving, as he falls or jumps, a gun ready to shoot in his hand. The gun represents both the phallus and the stereotypical representation of violence as something men do. In Brandt’s work, violence stirs like a next movement not included in the photo, while the soft penis is a reminder that man too is gendered and vulnerable, and violence can also be turned on the male body, which is thus presented as ambiguous.
I Died In Italy But No One Knows It
The reality of violence is unfolded in the project I Died In Italy But No One Knows It (2007-10), which is an investigation of the trauma following a violent attack Brandt himself was victim of when living in Rome. It consists of photos, objects, videos and textiles. The title-work consists of appliqued silk and ink in which the title I Died In Italy But No One Knows It speaks to how the ‘I’ has both experienced its death and survived it, only this loss is not recognized by the surrounding world. This is unfolded in the work by way of bits of text on shiny silk. The concrete surrounding world is maintained in statements such as ‘Roma’ and ‘Police’ and the very personal experience in texts such as ‘Betrayal, Loss of Friends’ and ‘1966-2002’ which are the years of Brandt’s birth and of the assault, which is thus given the status as the year of his death. There are texts that reflect the experience itself: ‘Violent Assault’ and ‘Male-bashing’, which are mixed with statements that apply to the diagnoses Brandt was subsequently given. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is followed by words such as ‘Depersonalization’ and ‘Flashback’ while ‘Clumsiness, dropping things’ and ‘Fatigue’ refer to the brain damage he was also diagnosed with. Each statement is on an individual piece of material, which is not directly connected to the other materials and thus become a fragmented collage of a dissolving self and a world that is shattered along with it.
After (2002/10) is Brandt’s photos of himself immediately after the attack. In the dark bathroom, his orange top contrasts the purple, bruised marks on his face, which is primarily hidden by the camera. The pictures are unfocused, which underpins how violence destroys a sense of self, and it contrasts the photograph’s insistence on a self, which is no longer available to the victim. The traumatic experience in After is formed by the sense of a the death of the self, where you lose your humanity and become unrecognizable, even to yourself. The male as victim and traumatized destabilizes the stereotypical representation of masculinity and the idea of a real man as strong and invincible. Dehumanization is thus put into play with a masculinity that appears ‘flawed’ and fragile.
Post Trauma Documents
In Brandt’s project, Post Trauma Documents (2001-15), the themes of trauma and loss of identity are renegotiated. As Brandt explains in connection with the introduction to the artworks, they circle around the experience of being outside the ‘common human experience’ and the sensation of invisibility and un-reality that follows on from that experience. The underplayed aesthetic of the artwork, Post Trauma Document: procura della generale repubblica, with its white silk background and orange pieces of material at the top combined with huge red letters and the much smaller letters in pencil remind us of an official document, only in a homemade, deconstructed format. In the text, Brandt explores the way the system regards the victim as a potential criminal, where an interview with the police develops into an interrogation. When, at a later stage, the ‘I’ asks for a copy of the police report, he is told that it does not exist. Society has discarded his experience and he has been rendered invisible. He is erased from society’s collective memory and the report is non-existing, as if the assault had never happened.
In Post Trauma Document: letter to x (2011-15), which consists of appliqued silk and pencil, the subject is rendered invadable, much like the torn silk of the broken boundary between the ‘I’ of the text and the assailant. The silk appears as an inner world with unstable and overlapping boundaries while the writings in pencil tries to establish an identity. The text is the victim’s inner dialogue with the assailant, where the ‘I’ through its identification with him reaches an acknowledgement of the fact that the assailant never left him. The assault’s dehumanizing effect is thus continued in the continued presence of the assailant as part of the victim, and thus a porous and dehumanized subject appears in Brandt’s artwork. It is related to the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s including ethics, where the subject also encompasses dehumanization. It contrasts the universal subject, who cannot encompass dehumanization, and Brandt’s work thus destabilizes the basic, universal subject position, which has historically belonged to man.
Letter to Rabi
Letter to Rabi (2011-13) was originally part of an exhibition on HIV/AIDS arranged by Doctors Without Borders, where it was first exhibited in its original format. The work is carried by a dialogue between a Nepalese boy with HIV, Rabi, and Brandt. Rabi has sent drawings and photos of his life to Brandt and they are included in the artwork alongside Brandt’s letters to Rabi. Included in the artwork are also photos and objects from the Western cultural narrative on HIV/AIDS. The artwork’s dialogical form highlights differences between the Nepalese boy and the white, western, male artist, such as ethnicity, age and class. However, the dialogue also builds a bridge by way of highlighting the connection between the existential exposure of the man and the concrete, physical vulnerability of the child. The community is also reflected in the father/son theme, which negotiates masculinity, as there is no son to carry forth the paternal heritage. When Rabi suddenly died, Brandt decided to continue working on the project, which added yet another layer of meaning, as the man faces the death of ‘his son’ and is thus confronted with his own mortality. The loss is inscribed in silk in the soft remembrance blanket and the beauty of the work celebrates the dead and creates a tension to the loss. The meeting with the other thus also becomes a meeting with the absence of other through death, and thus also a reflection on our own mortality.
Agamben, Giorgio: Remnants of Auschwitz. New York: Zone Books, 2002 
Brandt, Peter: “The Penis knocked out” in Peter Super-T-Art. 2007
Irigaray, Luce: Étique de la difference sexuelle. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuits, 1984