Not Safe For Capitalism: Jenny Hval and the ritual of sex and embodiment

by Amanda Borg

The polyphonic work of the Norwegian avant-garde artist Jenny Hval creates a seemingly contradictory artistic body of material combining the transgressive and pop-cultural elements found throughout her textual, visual, performative and musical projects. Reviews of her most recent studio album, Blood Bitch (2016), places it within a lineage of abject art that makes use of corporal waste to negotiate notions of selfhood and sexuality. The use of menstrual blood to maintain the image of a subject within the lyrical narrative of the album and to construct the sense of a physical body in which this subject is contained while exclaiming to be so tired of subjectivity is not only a representation of a menstruating body, but an exploration of embodiment.  Hval asks:

 

Where does it hurt to create curves for the gaze?

The Body as a subconscious

And desire takes place somewhere, everywhere

Here it comes

 

By centring the erotic in relation to the conceptualisation of the body, this body becomes dependent on sexuality as a descriptor. This sexuality is fragmented and displaced, as it is constructed by the gaze and a desire which is not simply just contained within it. Thus, the sexual self within the lyrics needs a body since it mainly exists in relation to consumption. The subjectivity of the I and the process of embodiment comes at the expense of objectification. In the spoken intro of the track “the great undressing” Hval describes the album as being

 

J: (…) like fruit with cake and like, cinnamon, it’s very fruity and good

–  What’s this album about, Jenny?

J: It’s about vampires

– No?

J: Yeah

–  What?

J: Well, it’s about more things than that, but, a large theme of it-

–  That’s so basic, it’s about vampires

J: It’s about blood-

 

Interrupting this description with the first line of the chorus like capitalism, Hval evokes popular imagery of the vampire as a popularised equally alienated and sexualised figure that is easily consumable. This figure aids the connection between the embodiment of the self through the ritualistic cycle of menstruation to a continuous process of consumption because this vampyric body engages in the rituals of both obtaining and losing blood, often when corresponding to an aestheticized form of eroticism. The body of the I being that of a vampire positions it within a pop-cultural referential framework in which the consumer and passive conjurer of said body is enabled to form a perception of it defined in relation to the the correspondence between ritual and a sexual self. On her website Hval wrote a post responding to the reception of the music video she made for “the great undressing” stating that the nude body presented is only a portrayal of a “very casual and innocent and non-sexualised body image”. This expression of “political and personal sadness” is inherently tied to the sexual since it is consumed as a body that is not safe for work. The inherent transgressive nature of this embodiment comes from it being easily consumable as a sexual self manifested through ritualistic physicality. However, by positioning itself within a tradition of subcultural ‘low’ art Hval attempts to articulate something “that power in the time of Neo-capitalism can overlook”. Thus, the subject contained by the body in Blood Bitch is able to explore an anti-capitalistic process of embodiment enabled by a capitalist perception of ritualistic self-fashioning through sex and corporal waste. This duality of an anti-capitalist language of expression contained within a capitalist view of abject consumption of it is well summarised by the co-producer of Blood Bitch, Lasse Marhaug, who suggests that the artistic endeavour to create and present this body is not unsafe work, but rather “Not Safe For Capitalism”.

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