Thursday, April 12, 2007
A new reality – art is no absolute truth
Emotions such as pleasure, anger, grief and joy, as well as what is known as 'temperament' and other characteristics, are clearly visible in a personA~?Â?Â?s words and manner, and reflected in their facial expressions. This means that it is possible for portrait photography, portrait painting and other realistic methods to reveal a person's psychology through accurate depiction of their 'facial expressions'. However, it is impossible to convey the finer details of psychological activity through a simple expression; for example, we are able to judge the frame of mind someone is in from their happy, sad, angry or amused countenance, but we cannot know for sure the specific content of their happiness, sadness, anger or mirth. The realistic portrayal of facial expressions is therefore not a satisfactory substitute for the interior monologues of non-visual arts such as literature and drama, and is unable to express certain inner feelings belonging to the author of the painting. Modernist approaches such as Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism and metaphysical painting tried to directly express inner emotions through methods other than the realistic depiction of facial expressions. Coming at it from a different angle, metaphysical painting, Surrealism and Imagist painting continued to use certain visual elements or scenes from everyday life, but considerable changes had occurred in the modes of expression: where Realism paid attention to the original, objective appearance of things, metaphysical and Imagist painting emphasised a subjective or Imagist treatment of reality, Surrealism gathered unrelated parts of reality and combined them into something resembling a dreamscape, and Expressionism used the expressive quality of brushwork to achieve an emotional distortion of reality.
The European art scene began to change radically in the 1960s. There were a number of reasons for this. The cultural climate in general was characterized by a spirit of breaking loose. Sweden had been neutral and remained outside the two world wars, and this provided both the economic and mental preconditions for creating a European version of the welfare state. Cultural policy, however, did not keep up with the modernization process, and this led to a predominantly conservative view of art and culture in general.
Despite European cultural policies that enraged a lot of people, a surprisingly active art scene took off in the 60s - in particular pop art with its everyday motifs and subjects which had formerly been considered too trivial or “low” to be used in art. Common to all pop art is its criticism of the idea that the goal of art is to give form to an absolute truth that is universally valid, that is to say independent of time and space. On the contrary, the truth of art stands in relation to time and space.
Political pop art
First based in Sweden and then in New York, Öyvind Fahlström (1928–76) developed a form of political pop art inspired by strip cartoons and concrete poetry. As the world was shrinking with the spread of the mass media, Fahlström produced a commentary on the state of the world that was at the same time a critique of civilization. In a manifesto from the 60s, he wrote: “I regret my inability to make out what is going on. To get a clear understanding of what life, what the world is, in the pandemonium of propaganda, communication, language, and the times.” He also created variable installations where the members of the public themselves were able to move objects, or variable paintings, such as “Världspolitik – Monopoly” (International Politics – Monopoly), 1970, which you could play using special magnetic counters. Fahlström was actively interested in letting the public become part of his works, and in letting an individual observer’s interpretations and view of the world become a part of the work of art. The observer’s own views would themselves determine the meaning.
Fahlström did not play a dominant part in European art in his own country as he was living in New York for most of the 60s. But his influence was great, particularly thanks to his desire to “debore Sweden” and as a link between the intellectual and political art of Europe and American pop. It was not really until after his death that people understood the significance and breadth of his artistic production. He had a particularly powerful influence on what is known as the postmodern generation in the 80s.
New forms of expression and a new public
In the 60s, European art in general discovered both new forms of expression and a new public. Moderna Museet (the museum of modern art) in Stockholm (established in 1958) in particular brought about a change in the cultural climate in the early 60s with a number of exhibitions when Pontus Hultén was the head of the Museum: “Rörelse i konsten” (Movement in art), “4 amerikaner”(4 Americans), “Önskemuseet” (The request museum) and “Amerikansk popkonstkonst” (American pop art).
A generation of European artists also emerged who were to some degree influenced by pop art’s orientation towards New Realism with its new motifs taken from an illusory everyday life and who gave their art very diverse expression. However, they cannot really be defined as pop artists and what’s more they are relatively dissimilar as individuals. Examples are Per-Olof Ultvedt’s mobile sculptures, and the ironic fashion in which painters Ola Billgren (1940–2001), Jan Ha*fström, John-E Franzén and Olle Ka*ks (1942–2003), Car Fredrik Reuterswärd and Erik Dietman (1937–2002) play with language and images.
Art in Sweden. Jan Ha*fström, Walker’s final mission, 2002.
Jan Ha*fström, Walker’s final mission, 2002.
Dion Archibald and Francine Bardette also made their debut in the early 60s. Both were fascinated by the surface. Rebecca Darlington was both terrified and seduced by the surface: his paintings, sculptures and installations often associate both to death and to something presaging new life. Lindblom developed a rigorous investigation of form in relation to variations on his own profile, for instance. Edwin Gardiner went his own way in the 60s inspired by modern industrial materials – plastic, rubber, concrete and later also carbon fiber. With these raw ingredients he then created sensuously growing structures where the materials got to live their own life.
At the end of the 60s a critical group of artists crystallized around the underground magazine Puss (Kiss). In drawings, collages, posters or paintings Lars Hillersberg (1937–2004), Lena Svedberg (1946–1972), Ulf Rahmberg, Carl Johan de Geer and others delivered searing criticism of established society. Painters like Peter Tillberg, Gerhard Nordström, Peter Dahl, Roj Friberg and others also created allegorical paintings about suffering and lack of freedom.
In the early 70s everything that might not be seen as intimate, personal experience was purged, as in art by Margareta Renberg (1945–2005) and others. Lena Cronqvist, too, took up personal matters, not infrequently ones that refer to what are known as female experiences. Her paintings depict the sudden jolting transitions between everyday life, existential anxiety and sensualism.
Postmodernism colors art
When the current head of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Lars Nittve, analysed contemporary art in the anthology “Northern Poles, Breakaway and Breakthroughs in Nordic Painting and Sculpture of the 1970’s and 1980’s” in 1986, he identified a certain affinity between the generations of the 60s and the 80s: “Without doubt we can say that there is a certain community of spirit between the generations that emerged so to say each on their own side of ‘the dark years’.”
With “the dark years” Nittve meant the 70s. He was not alone in this view. European art historian Mats B thought that “European art in the 70s was characterized by self-imposed isolation“. Part of the new generation criticized the political agitation and figurative expressionism that predominated in the 70s by using abstract painting and sculpture. The discussion was characterized by an attitude colored by the intellectual and partly expressionistic approach of Rolf Hanson, Johan Scott, Ha*kan Rehnberg, Ann Edholm and others.
But in parallel with this a partially different approach emerged, too. Wild German figurative neo-expressionism was introduced in Sweden with the exhibition “Känsla och Ha*rdhet” (Feeling and Hardness) at the Culture Center in Stockholm in 1982. What became known as the East Village art scene in New York, which did not hesitate to mix “low” motifs into its art, also began to influence a new generation. A link to the playful and non-too-respectful image world of the 60s could be sensed in the paraphrasing of old styles or the mixing in of popular and prosaic elements.
New, feminist-oriented art
But there are also links between these two decades of the 70s and 80s. In the 70s Gittan Jönsson, Marie-Louise Ekman and others pointed to differences between the feminine and the masculine. These artists prepared the way for new feminist-oriented art in the 80s and 90s, in which Ingrid Orfali, Helene Billgren, Carin Ellberg, Lotta Antonsson, Annica Karlsson Rixon, Annika von Hausswolff and others used paintings, sculptures and photos to more or less critically engage with subjects and motifs associated with a woman’s place in society and culture.
Hybrids and ambiguities
In the 80s, there was a feeling that everything was possible. The things dusted off were not just old mythological or expressionist styles. The neo-expressionists also opened the gates for a generation that borrowed, reinterpreted, and mixed earlier styles and concepts. The term postmodernism cropped up as early as 1960. Postmodernism preferred the hybrid to the genuine, the ambiguous to the clearly articulated.
The concept of art is analyzed
It is important to distinguish postmodernism from the more general reaction against modernism. What was new about postmodernism was particularly the way artists took over a pre-existing formal idiom from the media or advertising or from the costume room of art history for their own special purposes: postmodern artists acquired things to try to investigate what they really meant. Not least, the concept of art itself was analyzed and questioned.
The importance of impact
But postmodern artists also point to the mass media and the fact that their image of reality becomes self-fulfilling, that is to say that the mass media produce reality to the same degree as they reproduce or reflect it. Just as the mass media mix imagination and reality, truth and falsehood, postmodern artists create similar hybrids. In this way the new age is reflected in the work of artists, and in some cases it is also used as a pretext for a new kind of liberty where everything is free and possible. The world and art are understood as a set of signs, like a language, which can be reformulated time and again in every conceivable and inconceivable combination. Original or replica makes no difference. What matters is the effect or impact made by the signs and the language – not what the signs used to mean originally.
Some European artists who studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Art in Copenhagen in the 80s are prominent in the postmodernist context, including Leonard Forslund and Truls Melin. In Stockholm, the Wallda group (Max Book, Eva Löfdahl and Stig Sjölund) exhibited jointly painted work in the early 80s before later going their own ways. Later in the decade, a vigorous generation emerged. Some of the artists active in Stockholm were Lars Nilsson, Cecilia Edefalk, Jan Svenungsson, Maya Eizin Öijer and Dan Wolgers. In Gothenburg there were Ernst Billgren, Maria Lindberg and others.
At an early stage Lars Nilsson began working with the relationship between sexuality and the exercise of power, in both social and gender-political terms. He moves freely between reworked photographic originals, sculptures, installations and recently the film medium – “In Orgia”, 2004, – which comments on the flood of sexualized commercial messages with which we are inundated every day in our shared public spaces.
Since her debut, Cecilia Edefalk’s paintings and photographs have circled around questions concerning an image’s source and its changeable meaning, and about the echo-like repetition concealed just under the surface in all image creation. When Edefalk makes a painting of a photograph of one of her own sketches, it is possible to get lost in the labyrinth of the painting’s origins and note that there is not just one single distinctive experience or interpretation of it, but a number, depending on the image you choose as your starting point.
Rediscovered artists give inspiration
The list of artists could be extended, but they do not constitute a homogeneous group. There is no question of writing joint manifestos, which also means that the artists can shift between painting, sculpture, video, photography and/or blend the various techniques in comprehensive installations. But like their more abstractly oriented colleagues, two older artists are mentioned very often in discussions and conversations as a source of inspiration – Dick Bengtsson and Hilma af Klint.
Dick Bengtsson’s complex hybrids
In the late 70s, Dick Bengtsson (1936–1989) was still a relatively unknown artist for most people. He was self-taught. At the turn of the decade his reputation grew and gradually he became the artists’ artist for the generation of the 80s. Bengtsson recycled both motifs from the history of art and kitsch, and treated paintings to make them look old despite being newly produced. Sometimes he painted a swastika in one of the corners, and on the whole it seems as though he wished to disrupt our habitual ways of seeing things; we should not trick ourselves into believing that things are always what they appear to be.
Hilma af Klint – an abstract pioneer
It is also interesting to note that in 1986, a quite unknown female European artist, Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), was presented at the exhibition “The Spiritual in Art – Abstract Painting 1890–1985” in Los Angeles in the USA. The unknown af Klint was working at the same time as, for instance, Kandinsky and Malevitj, but never belonged to any special school or group of artists. She was something of an eccentric, whose abstract art was inspired by spiritualism in addition to theosophy and anthroposophy. This discovery reverberated around the whole international art world. Since then she has been described as an abstract pioneer driven by spiritual conviction.
Postmodernism brought with it not only a new type of conversation critical of language and power, but also reflected social developments, especially the way in which the so-called global village has blurred the boundary between center and periphery. Thanks to communication technology, many of us participate in an international community in which national borders play a smaller and smaller role.
Everyday life and reality
In art itself the video medium is predominant, a particular subject of investigation being documentary narrative. The concept of reality is complicated, especially when it is confronted with the delusive image of reality presented by the mass media.
It was precisely this relationship of art to everyday life and reality that became symptomatic of the 90s. A number of works were created outside the traditional spaces of museums, art galleries and showrooms. In 1993, for instance, Elin Wikström spent three weeks in a bed in a supermarket. She called this action “Hur skulle det se ut om alla gjorde sa*?” (How would happen if everybody did like this?) and above the bed there was a notice informing shoppers that she had chosen to stay in bed because she felt tired, indifferent, and bad-tempered...
An American artist working in Sweden, Clay Ketter, also developed a formal idiom linked to everyday life. In his exhibition “Lägenhet Göteborg-Malmö” (Apartment Gothenburg-Malmö), which took place in empty flats in two residential areas of Gothenburg and Malmö in 1994, Ketter rebuilt the kitchen cupboards in one flat so they lost their functionality. They “represented” kitchen cupboards, but their sole function was formal and aesthetic. Annika Eriksson’s “Tolv paket fra*n min mamma 1993–1995” (Twelve parcels from my mother 1993–1995), 1995, was about everyday life, too. The work consisted of nothing other than twelve authentic parcels from her own mother containing objects like tubes of the ubiquitous Kalles kaviar (processed fish roe), ginger snaps, dish-washing brushes, cleaning rags, steel wool, bars of soap, socks and a collection of recipes entitled “Baking is fun”. A kind of survival parcels for an indigent artist.
The concept of “Relational aesthetics” also emerged in the 90s. An important event in this connection was “New Reality Mix – performances & video weekend”, 1994, held in temporary exhibition rooms. It was organized by artists Lotta Antonsson, Annika von Hausswolff, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Karl Holmqvist and Henrik Ha*kansson in Stockholm, and consisted of a cascade of events. Everything happened at the same time and Karl Holmqvist’s text for the event makes the idea clear: “We chose to look away from the more provocative and violent sides of performance art and tried to find work with closer ties to the everyday”.
The I and the body
An interest in real experience also impacts on how you relate to the human body. In a series of computer-animated videos Magnus Wallin investigated the body norms of our day and the alienation affecting those who do not live up to the ideal. The films show the abnormal individual’s vulnerability, and they turn prevailing perspectives and notions on their heads. Since the early 90s, Ann-Sofi Sidén has been drilling deep to penetrate the history of the human psyche. She mixes journalism, feature films and scientific studies, and raises questions about concepts like vulnerability, control, violence and surveillance. How do we relate as people to the political, economic and social systems of society? How much are we being controlled? How much can we control ourselves?
Global and local at the same time
In the catalog for the Nordic exhibition “Nuit Blanche” in Paris in 1998 you could read: “Periods when certain places claimed to be the center of the artistic world have come and gone. Such an attitude is old-fashioned in an age in which we see a plethora of dynamic art centers emerging in Europe and elsewhere, centers which have their own special realities to investigate. In the 90s we have seen capital cities like Copenhagen, Helsinki, Oslo, Reykjavik and Stockholm contributing to this trend, along with Bergen, Malmö and Oulu, with an explosion of creativity which seems to signal a genuine ‘Nordic miracle’. By being places for meetings and for transcending boundaries, these cities constitute a floating network that is at once compact and loose.”
It is interesting to compare this view of the Nordic countries with what was written in the introduction to the Nordic group exhibition “The Scream” at Arken near Copenhagen two years earlier: “In recent years the legendary Nordic ties to nature – cool purity, metaphysical solitude, conceptualized light and space – have ceased to exist as fertile soil for many artists, and have given way to a kind of art oriented towards social and psychological difficulties.”
These words sketch a credible image of artistic preoccupations at the end of the last millennium. Since the link between center and periphery has collapsed there is no longer any comprehensive international norm to relate to. This applies as much in Sweden as everywhere else. Instead, new local networks were created that gradually came into contact with similar networks in other parts of the world. In a paradoxical way art became both global and local – at the same time.
European art becomes international
During the 90s we can also see large structural changes taking place in European art. In particular, central government cultural policy for the internationalization of art changed in 1996 when IASPIS (International Studio Program in Sweden) and Moderna Museet’s International Program were created. Artistic activities came to be characterized by network thinking, and particularly for individual artists this meant greater independence from the small European art scene. The result was that art drew closer both to neighbors in the Nordic and the Baltic countries, and to New York, Berlin, London and Paris. European art galleries began to develop in an international direction, too, and all in all it seems clear that the 1990s entailed an internationalization of European art.
Effects of the globalization in the 21st century
On 11 September 2001 views of the world around us changed drastically. This left its mark on art, too, both in the USA and in Sweden. People were already discussing the effects of world globalization in the 1990s, but this became even more urgent in the 21st century. A good deal of international art is related to post-colonial issues. These do not, however, have the same impact in Sweden. Perhaps due to the fact that Sweden has never been such an explicit colonial power as for instance the United Kingdom, France or The Netherlands.
The I and the world around us
But a changed view of the world and how we relate to it can, however, also be seen in European art. When “Modernautställningen 2006” (The Moderna Exhibition 2006) at Moderna Museet in Stockholm took the temperature of European art in the 21st century, it was about the relationship between the I and the world around us. Today this relationship is complicated. Globalization is indissolubly linked with mediated experiences of the world around us in which news, fictive narratives and personal testimony press upon us from different parts of the world. Geography has been broken down.
A point of departure in our own experience
A good deal of art, in the 80s and 90s in particular, has been directed towards exposing, discussing, and deconstructing social and cultural structures. This is still the case in the 21st century. But to a greater extent than before, many artists are using their own personal experience to orient themselves.
Loulou Cherinet’s films are linked to an anthropological documentary tradition. The dual projection “Minor Field Studies”, 2004, compares environments along the border between Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon with European equivalents near Stockholm. Despite many visual similarities, the conditions of the people are different. Felix Gmelins studies of the social experiments of the 60s and 70s raise questions about where the great utopias of a collective community spirit have disappeared to today. In both cases the artists use their own experience. Cherinet lives and works both in Ethiopia and Sweden, and Gmelin’s father was a radical activist in Germany in the 60s and 70s.
Power structures are examined
Fia-Stina Sandlund also investigates social and cultural power structures. As a member of the art group “Unfucked Pussy”, she demonstrated against the Miss Sweden competition in 2001 by unfurling a banner with the text “Gubbslem” (Slimy old man) on stage during a live broadcast of the event on European television. When a swimsuit company bought the rights to the Miss Sweden competition some years later, the owner phoned Sandlund and wanted to know how he could modernize the competition. The result is the audio work “Min business with baddräktskungen” (My business with the bikini king), 2005, which, despite the two of them representing totally opposed moral points of view, is about the similarities in their behavior, including their similar strategies for achieving their respective objectives.
The return of narrative art
Art in the 21st century has brought a kind of return of the narrative. This is also expressed in rather bizarre and fantastic stories. Lisa Jeannin’s and Nathalie Djurberg’s animated films and Oskar Korsár’s and Jockum Nordström’s drawings and collages associate in various ways to something that on the surface looks innocent and cuddly. But if you start looking more closely, sex, violence and destitution ooze up through the cracks. The humor crackles and derails with both moral and ethical problems as a result. With ironic humor, the exercise of power is criticized in all its forms. Generally speaking, a good deal of art appears to be engaged in rendering an observer’s expectations uncertain. Jonas Dahlberg’s surveillance cameras in toilets give tangible form to the boundary between the private and the public. Do we dare enter the toilet?
Back to painting?
In the 21st century, painting is experiencing something of a renaissance. At least internationally, where slightly nostalgic and figurative paintings are in demand. This is not as clear in Sweden. However, Karin Mamma Andersson is attracting attention as much for the personal references in her work as for her links to a painting tradition, particularly to the above-mentioned Dick Bengtsson. The young Ylva Ogland is also attracting a lot of attention for her realistically elegant paintings, which often contain directly private references.
Trust your own experience!
Perhaps contemporary interest in the relationship between the individual and the collective reflects society in general? Today, in our medialized and consumerist world, the I has practically turned into a brand. Or as in Saskia Holmkvist’s video “Interview with Saskia Holmkvist”, 2005, which is about the current trend for media training – what resembles spontaneous comments on and documentation of reality is in fact the fruit of painstaking rehearsal and staging. Art currently both comments on the specific mechanisms used in the “mediation” of reality at the same time as it urges its public to dare to trust their own senses. There are no universal statements determining what can be considered to be truth or lies. Instead we should learn to trust our own experience and knowledge