Olav Westphalen, Desert Dreams, 2007

Desert Dreams

Performance by Olav Wastphalen

16.5 2014


Olav Westphalen’s Desert Dreams is a conceptual work on many layers, but also a pornographic fairytale in the form of an experimental essay. The work consists of two parts. Part one is an image suite set to music composed by the saxophonist Jonas Knutsson. Part two is a reading of a text by Olav Westphalen.

The image suite is the result of an extensive picture hunt undertaken by the artist in 2005 and 2006. It comprises the blurred blend of pornographic and political images that was available through the internet and other media during the Iraq War, and that imbued much of the war coverage.

The work focuses on art and politics, and the spectacular conditions that arose in the geopolitical conflict zone of the Iraq War – a conflict that provoked people all over the world get out of their armchairs to respond and protest. Olav Westphalen was born in Hamburg in 1963. He lives and works in Stockholm. He is a professor at the Royal Institute of Art (KKH) and is represented in the Moderna Museet collection. Jonas Knutsson was born in Umeå in 1965. He is a saxophonist and primarily a jazz musician. He last participated at Moderna Museet in several concerts and workshops at the Bucky Dome in the Museum garden, during the summer of 2012.

A reading/performance by Olav Westphalen

Desert Dreams is a multi-layered, conceptual project. It combines heterogeneous images and materials, i.e. literary fantasy, documentary evidence and staged photography, in a provocative form. Desert Dreams is an experimental essay on art and politics under the conditions of spectacular, geopolitical conflict and within a culture of ritualized criticism.

The event consists of two parts. A five-minute slide show of found imagery, accompanied by an original score written by composer Jonas Knudson, followed by a 20-minute reading of a not-to-be-finished film script by Westphalen, titled Desert Dreams.

The slide show is the result of a broad image research, conducted in the years 2005 and 2006, on the blurring of pornography and political imagery, ranging from the infamous Abu Ghraib images to “Sex and War” a military-theme pornography website (the purely fictional contents of which have been presented as evidence of American atrocities in some Arab Media), to images of strippers entertaining troops and amateur-pornography produced by soldiers in the field. The images in the slide show are selected and edited to avoid cheap provocation and are no more pornographic or violent than any daily paper or news-site.

Desert Dreams – Cock and Awe is a fantastic, pornographic fairytale, taking place in a historical setting, during the early stages of the Iraq war. It juxtaposes stereotypical tropes of an ideologically informed news reality with playful, idealistic, positive, pornographic scenarios. Desert Dreams references the established, and by now somewhat nostalgic, genre of pornographic film parody, such as “John Wayne Uncut,” and “Tonya Hardon.” The result is an entertaining, yet radical text, at times comical, at times shocking, at times perhaps even sexually enticing, which is strategically positioned outside any prescribed rhetoric of political criticism or traditional satire.

Script and images: Olav Westphalen
Original Music: Jonas Knudson
Duration: ca 45 minutes


Desert Dreams is both an experiment with the traditional genre of the literary reading, and at the same time an analytical study of image politics in electronic media. The artistic approach is unusual in that it not merely criticizes the rules of infotainment and the dramaturgy of political mis-en-scene, but substitutes one type of globally ubiquitous, commercial imagery with another: Desert Dreams swaps the stereotypical, iconographic simplifications of political journalism with pornography’s universal formulas of exaggeration.

Clearly, Olav Westphalen’s performance is not about the type of superficial provocation one might imagine within the logic of pornography (even though pornographic stimuli have long been a mainstay of electronic media). Rather, Desert Dreams derives from an analysis of the heightened, binary theatrics of the political. It draws its material from the permeation of political symbolism and pornography as found in the self-directed performances of the Abu Ghraib prison guards and their easy commodification in our news media. It analyzes the obscene displays of military power in „embedded“ visual reporting on modern wars. Most of all, it refers to an uncritical, commercially motivated, sublimation of political developments and debates into a sham universe of interchangeable scenarios of escalation. Westphalen sees pornography as a matrix capable of unmasking the omnipresent political imagery. Behind his obvious, satirical transpositions lurks a precise description of our mediated political environment as a grotesque fantasy world caught in a circular, pornographic logic.

In Desert Dreams the vernacular of the obscene is not employed to target intercultural conflicts, or the clash of “western” pornography with societies in which pornography is subject to religious and ethical taboos. Westphalen’s screenplay ignores religious questions as consistently as it avoids cultural descriptions of the sites of armed conflict. Instead, he transfers the political iconography of an international, Anglo Saxon-dominated news-language into the imagery of a specifically American style of commercial pornography. In doing so, he does not highlight the factuality of obscene exhibition, but in an act of ironic rupture he effectively turns the situation upside down. The clichéd expressions of political pathos are broken down and utopically redeemed in the empty behavioral patterns of the porn-industry. In burlesque fantasies and grotesque distortions mortal conflicts dissolve in the protagonists’ carnal desires. Their sexuality erupts into an esthetic Satyr-play at the very location of conflict and leads to limitless harmony. The political iconography of news networks suddenly appears as a veiled form of pornography, which is being denied its ecstatic redemption. The romanticism of archaically political, visual argumentations is pitted against an equally romantic promise of love and peace, which proves to be just as absurd as its real political counterpart.

Thus, the unveiled fantasy world of obscenity reveals the obscene content of an unreal political reality. Westphalen isolates the pietistic, political formulas, which are wielded to create majorities and decide conflicts, from their accepted esthetic tradition. Not pornography itself, but industrial-pornographic dramaturgy is scrutinized here as a second reality, constructed in our daily image-consumption.

Gerrit Gohlke, Berlin