RETHINKING MASCULINITY - NOTES ON "WE DON'T SPEAK ABOUT BIRD"

An art exhibition titled We Dont Speak About Bird that was on view in Aalborg recently concluded. The exhibition was arranged by artist, organizer, and current Funen Art Academy student Sara Arenfeldt and featured the work of several young artists based in Denmark and Norway including Peter Højbjerg, Paula Kaniewska, Sandro Masai, Nicolai Risbjerg, Samara Sallam, as well as Arenfeldt herself. “We Dont Speak About Bird” was the inaugural exhibition at a new artist–run venue called Big Shark.

The exhibition takes masculinity as its point of departure by seeking to problematize – more sympathetically understand – and explore alternative visions for masculinity through various art works.

We Dont Speak About Bird was based on exposing “taboos about conflicting masculine gender roles” and invited the artists to take “a profound study of their own relationship to masculinity”(1). The exhibition, which was also curated by Arenfeldt, clearly invited others into the realm of her artistic interest as it relates to her practice of exploring masculinity through artistic work. Arenfeldt doesn’t seem to be examining masculinity to fetishize its hegemonic condition, but rather as a critical polemic to explore a broader framework of representation through feminist discourse vis a vis artistic practice. This could be interpreted as a negative dialectical gesture to better understand feminism and gender by critically looking at the much less explored opposing categories of “masculinity” and “men” to evoke different entrance points into conversation. It could be argued Arenfeldt is exploring Judith Butler’s claim that asks the question: “do the exclusionary practices that ground feminist theory in a notion of “women” as subject paradoxically undercut feminist goals to extend its claims to representation?”(2).

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark in Aalborg. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark in Aalborg. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Big Shark. Photo: Sara Arenfeldt.

Big Shark. Photo: Sara Arenfeldt.

Big Shark (detail in the window). Photo: Sara Arenfeldt.

Big Shark (detail in the window). Photo: Sara Arenfeldt.

Perhaps through exploring masculinity as polemic to femininity, but with a more inclusive spirit and from an expanded perspective, Arenfeldt is seeking to create a feminist discourse through a less explored framework via the masculine, masculinity, and its associated normative roles as subject matter through artistic practices in this exhibition. By looking at masculinity explicitly as subject matter (as opposed to its more common position as being performed often problematically by cis-males without awareness) the curatorial ambition invites the artistic practices to rethink and reframe what masculinity is, and can be through their artistic works.

By looking at masculinity explicitly as subject matter (as opposed to its more common position as being performed often problematically by cis-males without awareness) the curatorial ambition invites the artistic practices to rethink and reframe what masculinity is, and can be through their artistic works.

The artists in the exhibition used a wide variety of media by creating drawings, sculpture, installed objects, video projection, performance, public performance, and social installations that explored their individual responses to the topic through an equally varied range of ideas. For example, upon entering the exhibition space, the viewer encountered several different objects, drawings, and other static works. Peter Højbjerg’s pseudo-surreal mixed-media sculpture of a male mannequin wearing a black cape, holding a broken aquavit bottle and Kay Bojesen’s famous monkey toy hanging from its extended hand, next to a thrift store portrait of Den Gamle Fisker (The Old Fisherman) greets you upon entering. Through these iconic Danish signifiers present in the sculptural installation, Højbjerg created his own narrative through stereotypical versions of Danish Masculinity from childhood to old age – from wooden toys, to middle age drinking, to kitsch portraiture.

Peter Højbjerg, I døden skal du lide (In death you will suffer). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Peter Højbjerg, I døden skal du lide (In death you will suffer). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Peter Højbjerg, I døden skal du lide (In death you will suffer). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Peter Højbjerg, I døden skal du lide (In death you will suffer). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Peter Højbjerg, I døden skal du lide (In death you will suffer). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Peter Højbjerg, I døden skal du lide (In death you will suffer). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opposite, Arenfeldt had a series of drawings that look like doodles, or squiggles, which were positioned underneath Paula Kaniewska’s Who Washes the Pants? – a miniature clothesline draped with brightly painted pants made out of paper that evoke a strange, but fun, feeling like bunting at a party.

In contrast to its pop-like appearance, the title Who Washes the Pants? seems to allude to the gendered power dynamics of housework, perhaps pointing to the fact despite the progress toward greater gender equality, that women still statistically do a great majority of unpaid domestic labor globally (3). Further, this reading is reinforced by the proximity of the title to the American expression “who wears the pants”(4) which refers to the post-war power dynamic in the household (favoring the working man who was in control). With this associative title, the work provokes the viewer to ponder the status of this gendered power dynamic.

Sara Arenfeldt, Untitled (left) and Paula Kaniewska, Who washes the pants? (right). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sara Arenfeldt, Untitled (left) and Paula Kaniewska, Who washes the pants? (right). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Paula Kaniewska, Who washes the pants? (detail). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Paula Kaniewska, Who washes the pants? (detail). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sara Arenfeldt, untitled. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sara Arenfeldt, untitled. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Following Kaniewska’s “clothesline” through the exhibition space, one made their way to the second room, where they were met by her other piece, an enticing textile work consisting of a pair of black Adidas training pants hand-embroidered with flowery gold images up and down the legs. This pair of pants with its detailed stitching and flowery motif stands in contrast to Kaniewska’s “clothesline”, as the overall reading fluctuated between critical probing and aesthetic reconfiguration.

Paula Kaniewska, Extraordinary Encounter. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Paula Kaniewska, Extraordinary Encounter. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opposite to this work on the floor, Nicolai Risbjerg’s very small-scale video installation Strange Masculine Energy enticed the viewer through its novel size and colorful abstraction of balloon shooting, and other bizarre imagery in the projection. What was most striking about this work was its extremely small scale and position on the floor as the projection itself was only about the size of an A6 paper, requiring the viewer to almost crouch down to take it in properly. This produced an intimate relationship to the work, which was in contrast to content in the video itself. Appropriately named, Strange Masculine Energy was a bit cacophonous – the constant noise of balloons popping as they’re being shot at by a figure toting a small gun emanating from the video projection, which was filmed from odd angles, combined with other imagery created a semi-surreal and abstracted experience. Through this work, Risbjerg creates a metaphorical reading of masculinity as something vibrant yet disruptive, but also wavering and able to be muted.

Nicolai Risberg, Strange Masculine Energy. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Nicolai Risberg, Strange Masculine Energy. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Nicolai Risberg, Strange Masculine Energy (detail). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Nicolai Risberg, Strange Masculine Energy (detail). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

In addition to these static works in Big Shark, next door Sandro Masai performed a powerful and delicate Butoh dance in his contribution BOND(s). In this work, Masai engaged in a highly controlled 20 minute struggle and embrace with a plastic life-like baby doll. Masai, who was wearing a suit, and restrained by a thick rope wrapped around his body, stretched, contorted, and manipulated his way through the small space with his attention throughout fixated on the plastic doll he was connecting with, treating it as if it was a real child he desperately didn’t want to drop in his ensnared position. At the end of his dance, which was set to a soundtrack of songs sung to children by their fathers from different cultures remixed and edited with other sounds and ambient moods, Masai crawled up into an embrace with the doll, after what appeared to be a very technical and physically strenuous hybrid dance. Masai’s performance evokes peripheral conversations involving identity, nationality, colonialism, and race in addition to its most present focus on masculinity, which illustrated a set of complex emotional qualities performed as a masculine nurturer to a fictitious child.

Sandro Masai, BOND(s). (Detail from the performance). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sandro Masai, BOND(s). (Detail from the performance). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sandro Masai, BOND(s). (Detail from the performance). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sandro Masai, BOND(s). (Detail from the performance). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sandro Masai, BOND(s). (Detail from the performance). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sandro Masai, BOND(s). (Detail from the performance). Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Across the street from the gallery entrance, the exhibition continued as Arenfeldt performed Lålleby/lullaby in the nearby plaza. In this performance Lålleby/lullaby, Arenfeldt (along with another performer, at her invitation - Risbjerg) led an improvised series of chants, actions, and gestures appropriating the “LÅ LÅ LÅ” football chants as a performative motif (5). In this roughly 20-minute performance, Arenfeldt and Risbjerg, clad in dark hoodies and carrying a portable stereo playing Gabry Ponte’s techno anthem Geordie, made their way from the gallery to the plaza where the gallery goers soon followed. The performers then began singing and chanting loudly, over and over, the same “LÅ LÅ LÅ” chant.

They jumped on each other’s backs, ran around, sang loudly, penetrated the crowd, swarmed the plaza, and after an obviously exhausting output, collapsed onto the ground to loud applause from the audience.

Sara Arenfeldt with performer Nicolai Risbjerg, Lålleby/Lullaby being performed outside the exhibition space.  Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sara Arenfeldt with performer Nicolai Risbjerg, Lålleby/Lullaby being performed outside the exhibition space.
Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sara Arenfeldt with performer Nicolai Risbjerg, Lålleby/Lullaby being performed outside the exhibition space.  Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sara Arenfeldt with performer Nicolai Risbjerg, Lålleby/Lullaby being performed outside the exhibition space.
Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Beyond leaving an impression on the audience, the performance interestingly embodied and re-enacted these football gestures in a re-contextualized situation in which they could be seen more clearly by the audience and examined as such without the normalizing gloss of a football match that allows for all forms of objectionable public behavior that is often overly masculinized, can be violent, and perpetuate problematic stereotypes of men. However, by isolating the chants, and performing them in unison, the audience can see the camaraderie become more ambiguous stripped from the highly corporatized and overly competitive situation away from the football pitch and located in an artistic context.

Further, Arenfeldt complicates the reading of the chants by performing them herself, in a female/male duo, which also modifies this performative readymade as the audience struggles with Arenfeldt as she strains to lower her voice to match the deeper male pitch as she continued to yell the chants along with Risbjerg. In the end, the simple gesture that Lålleby/lullaby allows for by essentially relocating and re-enacting football chants allows highly gendered aspects of this event to be glaringly present as masculine, but also viewed not as perpetuating problematic hegemonic masculinity only – as something with aesthetic, cooperative, and vulnerable qualities.

Sara Arenfeldt with performer Nicolai Risbjerg, Lålleby/Lullaby being performed outside the exhibition space.  Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Sara Arenfeldt with performer Nicolai Risbjerg, Lålleby/Lullaby being performed outside the exhibition space.
Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

This is a similar, but slightly different strategy that, for example is used by Catherine Opie in her photographic documentation of different male, masculine, butch, and other sub-cultures and groups. For example, in Opie’s photographic series High School Football (6) she uses portrait photography of a highly masculine youth American culture to create visualizations of these young male athletes. The result is a visual profile of their gestures, mannerism, body language, and style that creates a more contemplative representation of the young male athlete than is normally produced surrounding the young men playing High School Football.

However, Arenfeldt goes deeper with her performance. As the female performer performing the masculine ritual (along with Risbjerg who is also performing a cis-male role) she adds another dimension to rethinking the gendering of these rituals as normatively “masculine” or “feminine” that opens up for broader spectrum thinking around stereotypical gender roles.

Also, isolating and re-contextualizing the performative readymade from sport situations into an artistic context operates with more complexity than portrait photography – which is easily consumed at a distance. Arenfeldt’s performance with its re-contextulazation of the public space, rethinking of normative gender roles, and stripping of loud, musical, and camaraderie building activities away from their referent (the football pitch) create new possibilities of understanding and rethinking masculinity through her works.

It is as if Arenfeldt creates a situation where she acknowledges the problems of toxic masculinity, while also highlighting its potential (stripped of its associations to patriarchy, problematic power dynamics, and capitalism) as also redeeming and adaptable in a spectrum.

Unlike Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being performances (7) in New York in the early 70’s where Piper dressed up in a moustache, sunglasses, and typical mens clothing and did masculine activities in public that operated more like a critique of hegemonic masculinity, Arenfeldt seems to be trying to locate masculinity’s redeeming qualities and generative areas of ambiguity. It is as if Arenfeldt creates a situation where she acknowledges the problems of toxic masculinity, while also highlighting its potential (stripped of its associations to patriarchy, problematic power dynamics, and capitalism) as also redeeming and adaptable in a spectrum – not as one of two points on a line.

In contrast, the final piece in the exhibition by Samara Sallam addressed the notions of masculinity from a different matrix, in a less direct manner, and with a more intersectional perspective. Her installation Say Mama consisted of a performative installation in which Sallam cooked and served a dish with Syrian flatbread and cauliflower from a tent outside the gallery in the nearby plaza. Interestingly, her Say Mama installation, which was housed in a pop-up vendor’s tent, was located next to a farmer’s market consisting of similar vendor tents and other food vendors so as to “blend in” to the surrounding urban and commercial context. However, when guests visited Sallam’s “kiosk” they were not placing orders and exchanging currency, but were instead offered the delicious assembled flatbreads that were garnished with an assortment of fresh veggies, herbs, and sauces.

These sandwiches were wrapped in wax paper printed with a short story she had written on the outside. As she served her “work” at the end of the opening, even hungry audience members who had several drinks stopped and huddled together out in the cold under a small light to read the text printed on the wax paper of their sandwich wrap.

Samara Sallam in her social-installation  Say Mama  in the nearby plaza.  Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Samara Sallam in her social-installation Say Mama in the nearby plaza.
Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Samara Sallam, Say Mama (Detail of narrative text on the outside of the wrap).  Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Samara Sallam, Say Mama (Detail of narrative text on the outside of the wrap).
Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

This relational aesthetic practice of serving food to an art audience as its “medium” can’t escape historical references to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Pad Thai, however Sallam’s project seems to build upon this idea, adding additional layers, and going into specifically political areas of migration, identity, and gender as read through the visual signifiers present in the Say Mama project. For example, the installation of the kiosk as integrated into the topology of the farmers market (where she isn’t selling anything, but is rather giving away) creates a different exchange dynamic than Tiravanija’s, which clearly operates within the context of gallery self-marketization.

Further, the content of the short story of her childhood anecdotes referring to her upbringing with Syrian and Palestinian heritage presented on the food wrapper tied together notions of identity, nationality, and gender beyond only serving food from the country where she was born. In these ways it was an enriching expansion of this particular type of relational aesthetic practice in its more developed context specificity, consideration of exhibition details, and thematic relation to the exhibition. It may be a more abstract response to the exhibition theme, but that is also where its strength lies as being more intersectional in nature by interweaving conversations of gender, nationality, and ethnicity together into one work. Sallam’s work operates more along the lines of an Oda Projesi performance, seeking to draw a disperate audience together through an act of generosity, but also telling a personal story in a novel manner through her “narrative sandwich”(8).

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark in Aalborg. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark in Aalborg. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

In summary, works in the exhibition simultaneously explore stereotypes, expand clichés, and seek to clarify misunderstandings about masculine motifs existing in society. The works present stereotypes of masculinity, critiques of the reality of hegemonic masculinity, and expanded notions of what masculinity could be. The work in the exhibition doesn’t exactly seek to reflect or argue for broader spectrums of gender away from a hegemonic binary reading of femininity and masculinity, but rather focuses on broadening notions of what is considered masculinity and breaking down notions of hegemonic masculinity. The works are all quite different and have varying levels of success in engaging with the theme of the exhibition, while also going outside of its boundaries in a productive manner.

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark in Aalborg. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

Opening of “We Don’t Speak About Bird” at Big Shark in Aalborg. Photo: Scott William Raby & Rikke Ehlers Nilsson.

On the whole the curatorial aspect selecting the content of the project was quite innovative as there isn’t much direct work in the art world on masculinity as a specific aspect of broader gender politics and gender(s) as subject matter in and of itself (9). Often, masculinity is combined with femininity, viewed under the broader umbrella of gender, or asserts itself problematically through the overabundance of gender imbalances often seen in the art world in the discrepancies between men and women artists represented in major exhibitions and galleries, etc (10).

When masculinity is present in the art world, similar to other parts of society, it is often not presented as self-reflective subject matter, but rather is performed often unconsciously by cis-males in power

Moreover, if (or rather when) masculinity is present in the art world, similar to other parts of society, it is often not presented as self-reflective subject matter, but rather is performed often unconsciously by cis-males in power (11). In this respect, the organization of such a critical curatorial and organizational project is novel, and would be interesting to see pursued further, in other iterations, and different contexts to add further scrutiny and depth to this conversation. However, as has been previously described, several of the projects exhibited were carving out new spaces for conversation and adding generatively to broader milieu of discussions in and through art in We Don’t Talk About Bird – a strong achievement considering the emerging position of many of the artists and the context of the exhibition in Aalborg – a small city still finding its footing through contemporary art in independent spaces.

If this leads to reframing, rethinking, and perhaps freeing masculinity from its problematically constructed normalization and into a more ambiguous and flexible category, then it seems like a productive strategy.

As Arenfeldt noted – she wanted to seek to not be overly critical of masculinity as a set of socialized characteristics or men as a socially constructed and gendered category, but rather seek to include men into a discussion about masculinity and its relationship to gender conversations. If this leads to reframing, rethinking, and perhaps freeing masculinity from its problematically constructed normalization and into a more ambiguous and flexible category, then it seems like a productive strategy. However, similar to other macro level societal issues in relation to artistic practice, the difficult task for artists is to figure out the role and efficacy of art within broader scales and contexts toward positive transformations of masculinity.


  1. According to the We Dont Speak About Bird exhibition hand out (translated from Danish).

  2. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 2006), 7.

  3. See OECD Report.

  4. See Cambridge Dictionary.

  5. These onomatopoeic chants are often sung loudly in unison before, during, and after Danish football matches by groups of (almost entirely) young men as a way to show support for their club.

  6. Maria Lokke, “Catherine Opie’s High School Football”, New Yorker, 2012.

  7. Elsie Lammer and Karima Boudou, ‘“Adrian Piper ‘The Mythic Being’ at MAMCO, Geneva”’, Mousse Magazine, 2017.

  8. Derya Özkan, “Spatial Practices of Oda Projesi and the Production of Space in Istanbul”, ONCURATING.org, PUBLIC ISSUES, Issue 11/11, 51.

  9. Other than a few exhibitions, such as the 2017 Man up! exhibition at Chaffey College outside of Los Angeles and the 2005 Masculinities exhibition at NBK in Berlin.

  10. As articulated by artist activist groups and individuals such as the Guerilla Girls statistical installations in museums across Europe and North America, and the work of artist Micol Hebron in a similar fashion.

  11. Again, see the work of the Guerilla Girls and Micol Hebron.

Scott William Raby (b. 1984, US) is an artist, researcher, organizer, and writer currently living in Aalborg. Scott has contributed to idoart.dk since 2019.