Interview with Madame Nielsen
The following is an excerpt from an interview that was conducted by David Damrosch and Delia Ungureanu—both of Harvard University—with Madame Nielsen in Copenhagen this past July. If you would like to see the entire piece, email me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu
David Damrosch: Across your career, your several avatars have delved very deeply into questions of identity and I was wondering, as a way of contextualizing your work for our readers, maybe you could talk a bit about these stages of identity, how you reflect on them and what has impelled the changes?
Madame Nielsen: I was born nameless, and well, most people say I’m born as Peter Hansen, but I guess no one is baptized before birth. I was named Claus Beck-Nielsen, a Danish name, as my parents are Danish. I grew up in Denmark. I made my debut as a writer, but not as Claus Beck Nielsen because I was still a wannabe poet—I started by writing poetry—and I thought that if I write and send in my poems under the name Anders Claudius West, if they then are rejected, it will be bad for Anders Claudius Westh, but not for me. They ended up being accepted, so it was good for Anders Claudius West, but maybe not that good for me. So at that time, Anders Claudius West was me and not me. After that, I also did performances; my second solo performance was about Andy Warhol, where I incarnated him. I had my hair dyed light blond as his, which made me look completely like him, and that’s why there is a photo of Andy Warhol in my passport. I originally made the performance in Hannover in Germany, and started to work with a German photographer; we made a company called Beck-Nielsen Hannover, where I was “the man with the famous face” and I met with all the important people of the Niedersachsen region— Gerhard Schröder, a princess, mayors and business men, lawyers, philosophers, and the rock band The Scorpions, among others—to discuss the future of Hannover in the years leading up to Expo 2000. Then in 1997 and 1999 I published two books as Claus Beck-Nielsen. I moved very much as a small child, and everywhere I was the new person in the class, and it was always a provincial city. My mother was a fan of the Beatles and she wanted me to have the Beatles’ hair. Being always in the provinces, when I came to a new school and a new class with my Beatles haircut, the boys wouldn’t believe I was a boy until we had the first gym class. There I took off my clothes and they saw and somehow accepted that I was a boy. I was always between a boy and a girl, especially with my feminine features.
DD: Was it hard for you to make friends, or did they accept you once they realized you’re a boy?
MN: It meant that I was always the outsider, but it also meant that I was interesting for the girls, they fell in love with me as I was handsome. The possibility of being an Other was always at hand. In 2001, when I had declared Claus Beck-Nielsen dead, I wrote a biography of him, and there I tried to show how this idea came to be. I had an idea in 2000 that took shape slowly: I wanted to show something real, not to make fiction, only reduction. I reduced my name to Claus Nielsen to make it more generic. I picked up an old thin sports suit I had and a cap and I took a train to Germany, where I had lived in 1994-5 and then I took the train back to Copenhagen and somehow erased the years between 1995 and 2000. I had no papers and no money, and I had removed from my memory all names I knew, all places, as well as my social relations. This meant that I was like a blank sheet of paper. Then I made up a very basic rule to follow: Each day you must find food, drink, and a warm shelter, considering it was December. I was waiting for a new life to start, and it did. It was very hard but also very fascinating. I lived like that for two months, listening to what advice other people would give about how to get a life. It turned out that I was more than simply homeless: I was like an illegal sans-papiers. So, following the advice from the other homeless people, I took my story to the local newspaper Ekstra Bladet—pretty similar to The Sun. Soon after I was taken by the Police and interrogated for twelve hours by four people, until I gave in because of my wife and newborn daughter. I figured it would cause problems for them if I didn’t give in.
DD: During those twelve hours were you still not having memories from seven years before?
MN: Well, it was one of the rules. And then the big article in the newspaper came out; it included a note by a doctor discussing whether this could be caused by a tumor or a case of amnesia, but the doctor felt that this wasn’t the case and thought there was hope for me. The article included a picture of me and a telephone number where people could call if they knew me. My cousin in Jutland whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years was very upset and called, saying he knew me. Newspapers started debating whether this was a social crime, so I wrote a series of ten articles from the point of view of Claus Nielsen for the more left-wing newspaper Information, which is closer to The New York Times. This double life led into divorce as my wife couldn’t live with these two persons. I was now addicted to this Claus Nielsen. I brought him home and he kicked me out, and I found myself in the situation he had been. For the next year, I lived in the apartment of a professor of semiotics who was on research leave at Stanford. For a year, I lived in his clothes, wearing his underwear, using his desk, receiving his correspondence, etc and even voted for him at the elections in 2001.
DD: You became a semiotician for a year?
DD: Under what name were you answering his correspondence at that point? His name, or a different name?
MN: I was using his name, Per Aage Brandt. After that, I was offered to become director at a small theater, which was part of a big musical theater on the outskirts of Copenhagen, where the musical theater director wanted to have some kind of artistic blueprint of his boulevard theater and thought I’d bring him that. I had also done some performances and written some plays, so I made this theater look like a worn-out East German nuclear power station. I chose to call it Das Beckwerk. We made it into a legal company with a board of directors, and I was employed as a nameless being; what you would call in English a “subject,” but in German Versuchsperson, a person or body with which you could carry out experiments. The board of directors could tell me what I should do. For ten years, 2002-2011, I was this nameless leader of this company, until in 2011 we organized the funeral of the now long-since dead Claus Beck-Nielsen, including a seven-day deathbed, a funeral procession of a thousand people, a burial ceremonyy by a priest and a grave in a cemetery with a gravestone and everything.
DD: And you published death notices in the press . . . ?
MN: Yes. The reason was that since 2001, where I had declared Claus Beck-Nielsen dead, people had nevertheless continued to refer to me as Claus Beck-Nielsen. So I wondered what was it that was missing for CB-N’s death to be publicly accepted. Then I found this theory in Carl Ginsburg related to what makes the death of a person, what makes it real in a society. It’s not the biological death, but the ritual, the burial, and we hadn’t carried that out. So we organized a real funeral; however, not being able to use my actual body for it, we organized it in the Roman way of the funus imaginarium. They always kept a double of the emperor made in wax in case the emperor died abroad, or his body was lost in a shipwreck or battle in a foreign land. So they buried the double instead in order not to make him haunt the city. We kept the body for seven days in a building constructed especially for this project in the center of Copenhagen. After that the company Das Beckwerk had become a celebrated part of the arts world, and we really wanted to become something else. We decided to close it down before it became just another marketable art product, which all kinds of curators could move from biennial to biennial around the world making money but no art. After we closed down Das Beckwerk I took a year off any public performances trying to find the way to a new life and a new form of art. I wondered: Were there any other artists in the course of history who had produced two lifeworks? It was a very dark and suicidal year, I didn’t see the light, no ideas came from just waiting. And then one day I put on the dress of the mother of my boy; I thought: hey, you’re not that young anymore, you’ll be just a skinny middle-aged man, but you look much more beautiful as a woman! This wasn’t something really that astonishing as in my teens everybody thought I was gay! So I thought: why not become a woman? And interestingly, there were almost no women in the history of Das Beckwerk. Since then, I have been Madame Nielsen and I hope to stay that way until my death. If a cat has seven lives, I have nine deaths.
Delia Ungureanu: Any reason why you chose a French designation?
MN: I realized I just told about Madame Nielsen as if it happened in a moment, but it was in fact a gradual becoming. I had put on this dress, and felt good. Then, at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen I got a lovely white dress, and I brought it to Paris where I was going to live in a residency for four months