“The naming of a human being is a very powerful thing, an act of violence and a delivery,” reflects Madame Nielsen – the artist, musician and writer formerly known as Claus-Beck Nielsen, who was born in Denmark in 1963. That person had no formal education but read avidly. That person published poems as Anders Claudius West and award-winning novels as Claus-Beck Nielsen – and then, in 2001, that person was declared dead. The nameless human being who remained was made director of an enterprise called Das Beckwerk and in this capacity, for a decade, carried out experiments exploring what it means to live without an “identity” – or, at least, without a name and all its encumbrances.
The nameless human being existed as a homeless person for two months, spent three months staying in a storage room, took up residence in the apartment and life of a professor of semiotics who was away on research leave. “For a year, I lived in his clothes, wearing his underwear, using his desk, receiving his correspondence etc. and even voted for him….” All the while, the nameless being kept on writing, interrogating through language the eternal riddle of identity and belonging. Works like The Suicide Mission and Fall of the Great Satan are at once autobiography and fiction, political manifesto and philosophical tract. Dense sentences delve into the nature of duplicity. The first-person narrator is an unstable self who may or may not be the author. The settings are international, prompting reflections on the limits of citizenship and democracy – especially when the latter is exported elsewhere by the West. The texts, like the Das Beckwerk-life, might be a form of conceptual art.
In 2011, the Das Beckwerk project concluded with an elaborate funeral inspired by a death ritual in ancient Rome. Thus the anonymous head of Das Beckwerk was laid to rest. Soon after, Beyond Identity was published: a book without an author that catalogues the entire Das Beckwerk endeavour.
Afterwards, there was a hiatus. “I took a year off any public performances trying to find the way to a new life and a new form of art. It was a very dark and suicidal year…. 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! … Since then, I have been Madame Nielsen and I hope to stay that way until my death.”
The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen was published in 2014. A love-story between a Danish woman and a much younger Portuguese artist, the novel is narrated in sentences that unfurl like symphonies, dazzling with detail, yearning towards something that refuses to take any single, final shape: “I want to think of the human being as a potential, and instead of becoming ‘the one I really am’ or that one I want to be, I’ll try to live as many different aspects of these potentials I have.”
Text: Priya Basil