November 29, 2013

Steven Wolf on Jacob Dahlgren

Jacob Dahlgren’s Demonstration is the wiley mating of two radically different entities, the paintings of Olle Baertling and the protest march. One comes from the exalted world of high modernist abstraction, the other is taken as a readymade from political culture. In the course of their surrealist coupling, they vandalize each other, defamiliarize each other, drain one another’s blood like vampires. Then, as husks emptied of their former significance, they escort each other into foreign realms, soak up new meanings and tell vital new stories about modern painting and contemporary political life.
Little known outside Sweden, Olle Baertling produced hard-edged geometric paintings and sculptures from the late 1940s until his death in 1981. The works use a purity of line, color and composition in the tradition of Malevich and Mondrian to help the viewer access a higher state of being, a metaphysical world beyond decay and daily experience. In Demonstration, Dahlgren paints reproductions of Baertling’s paintings on plywood then mounts them on poles. That you can refer to the paintings as signs and not be speaking explicitly about semiotics typifies his practice of deflating the exalted intellectual or spiritual thing by making it physical and ordinary.
Dahlgren has used this strategy to extend the sell-by date on works by some of his favorite modernist artists. Heaven is a Place on Earth, Dahlgren’s 2007 floor grid made from different colored Ikea bathroom scales, does for Carl Andre’s stainless steel floor tiles what Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band did for Beethoven in 1976 with their disco version of the Fifth. You can hang out in the minimalism room of your local museum for hours before someone exploits Andre’s liquidation of pedestal sculpture by engaging the floor tiles as a stage. People are afraid to go near them. By contrast, people prance on Dahlgren’s grid. The scales electrify the air above them with anxiety and pleasure by offering the prospect of doing publicly what is almost always done privately: weighing one’s self. It’s a magic carpet ride through our culture of narcissism, excessive consumption and body-image nightmares that renders a banal activity strange by turning it into a performance and divides the genders with some women, at least in the U.S., making the sign of the cross as they tiptoed past.
Something equally rejuvenating occurs to Baertling’s paintings when they are put into the hands of the people. Out of the white cube they shed their museum profile as cryptic portals to a spiritual world accessible to none but a few historically-minded conniseurs. On the street they are democratized, their readings shift from the individual’s quest for enlightenment to the social and political realm, and these mutate depending on the context.
Against the urban backdrop of the 2007 Stockholm march, Baertling’s formal ordering of space could be seen to analogize modernist urban planning and its roots in social engineering—Le Corbusier’s machines for living but also sterile worker domiciles, arid corporate plazas and ghetto housing projects. In Marin, California, 2009, the contrast of Baertling’s astral palette and geometric precision with the ruddy colors and organic shapes of the northern California hills cut right to the heart of the mind and body dualism of western culture. The paintings stood in for logic’s brick by brick construction of an eternal Christian consciousness and the landscape played its part as the mutable, temporal and unreliable body that gets controlled, flageolated and rejected. Given the region’s green politics, it was inevitable that Demonstration would then look like a protest against the role this tradition has played in licensing culture to desacralize the landscape, industrialize it and pollute it.
Demonstration’s site specificity makes one wonder what a performance in Beijing or Tehran or Washington D.C. or even Wall Street would look like given that Baertling was a banker as well as an artist.
The protest march, the other thing being appropriated in Demonstration, is an ancient ritual, particularly in northern Europe, where peasants marched against feudalism and Protestants—a name that contains the word protest—marched against the Pope. A tradition that began perhaps as long as a millenia ago with small, radical gestures by tiny marginalized groups, however, has evolved into a big box, retail experience with some estimates pegging the 2003 Iraq war protests at 15 million world wide. It is inevitable that the protest march be diluted as a result of its exponential growth and that something be lost. I don’t think we’re going too far out on a limb by saying that something is authenticity and commitment.
Demonstration manifests this loss by substituting the performance of dissent for the politics of dissent. In doing so it questions the authenticity of dissent—maybe even the capacity for dissent—in the monoculture of today’s liberal capitalism. It was clear thirty years ago that Ronald Reagan was an actor playing a president, that the representation of political power had replaced the authentic presence of it, but Demonstration suggests that voters and protesters have lost their authenticity as well, and are merely performing their roles. The marchers in Demonstration are like the kids bearing tattoos, piercings and mohawks. Those used to be signifiers of tribal belonging and markers of an authentic desire to revolt. Now they’re just costumes that perfume us with nostalgia for a bygone era.
We are inclined to view the dissipation of authenticity from the protest march in a negative light. We assume that a protest should contain an attack or at least a critique of some kind and we still tend to privilege authenticity over other modes of being even though we live in a culture of reproduction and nostalgia. But Dahlgren’s Demonstration is full of ambiguity and to its credit resists enforcing a moral hierarchy. No longer centered on creating political change, Demonstration morphs into a free-wheeling, pluralistic gathering in which the reasons for its being are allowed to proliferate. Marchers in the same parade can hold the same signs and have completely opposite views about them. The focus is less on an evil other than on the relative nature of the march itself. It has an existential air. One is constantly asking, what are we doing here? What does this mean? It’s a demonstration turned inside out, studying itself and ultimately demonstrating its own properties. If on one level it is a funeral march for authentic political engagement, it is also a chrysalis for the production of a group consciousness liberated from the simple binaries of left and right, oppressor and oppressed, private and public. The confusion and ambiguity is then passed on like a virus to the bewildered onlookers complicating their assumptions about protest, modernist painting and political commitment with a giant question mark.
As Demonstration presides over the disappearance of authenticity in political dissent, it naturally mirrors the disappearance of the avant garde artist into the history of art. If Demonstration were performed 30 years ago we would assume the marchers were haranguing bourgeois culture for its lack of humanity, spirituality, adventurousness—something. But in a world reshaped by Warhol, Hirst and Koons where artists can be more like businessmen and any activity can be classified as art, we see the marchers not as guarantors of an independence outside of mainstream culture but as purveyors of objects from within culture who manage occasionally to complicate our easy digestion of it.
Sitting around decoding Demonstration when you can actually march in it is like reading the recipe for a chocolate cake when you can eat it. Although I have to admit, when Dahlgren first emailed me about Demonstration I turned up the radio in my head and pretended not to hear. I’m more comfortable with mockery than participation. If Alan Kaprow had my phone number when he was alive I would have screened my calls. His actions mostly seem ridiculous and boring to me. Pulling rocks on a string, carrying water on a tarp—not fun. Even though Dahlgren’s actions are witty and visually opulent, more like flash mobs than happenings, I still hesitated in getting back to him. I like the line that separates performer from audience even though it reinforces a revolting passivity. I prefer to remain anonymous in the dark. However, since it was I who introduced Dahlgren to the Marin Headlands, I felt partly responsible for the existence of this event and drove across the golden gate bridge to grab my sign.
Dahlgren described Demonstration as a march, so I assumed it would be a relatively short walk, something circular perhaps, around the former military buildings that have been turned into artists studios; or maybe back and forth, like a picket line, in front of the decommissioned nuclear missile that overlooks the Pacific. That it was reconfigured for the blue skies and unspoiled hills of the Headlands as a 3.5 mile hike came as a surprise, and it made me think of Louis Malle’s May Fools, the tale of a self-absorbed French family’s country reunion the weekend of the 1968 riots in Paris.
I discussed earlier how context affects the reading of paintings, but the reverse is true as well. The proximity of Baertling’s imagery to the California hills infected them with a storytelling power, they seemed like one sprawling landscape painting, or one massive work of land art depending on which way your art historical compass points. For me, a kind of paranoia invaded my perceptions, not only did the steep path that dominated the first leg of the hike start to look more like a Robert Smithson sculpture than something designed by a park ranger, but the marchers themselves began to seem imbued with the magical property of art. This set the stage for my epiphany, which I had precisely at the mid point, as though it were choreographed. We had finally made it over the ridge and we could see the Pacific, spread out before us in an endless blue. Hardly anyone anticipated the length and rigor of the hike. There was almost no food or water. Nonetheless, we were all strangely giddy, as though someone had passed around a joint. But this mountain high, at least for me, came directly from the bond that I had formed with the other marchers, the first time I ever experienced that kind of thing in a work of art. There is a certain amount of tension or anxiety in my normal consumption of art. I’m either trying to explain the significance of a work to someone, or figure it out myself, or a person is trying to use a work to impress me with their wealth or connectedness or I’m worried that something I used to love has lost its potency. The feeling I had on that ridge was freedom from all that. It was pure and temporary. I know I’d find art more of a comfort and a paradise and less a field of struggle and competition if more of my art experiences were like this.
With that in mind, I think it’s important to go beyond comparing Dahlgren to his obvious visual sources, artists like Andre, Malevich and Judd, and connect him with his peers in the realm of participation art, particularly Liam Gillick, whose colorful, hard-edge objects slip into the space between design and sculpture, foregoing a conventional utility for one that promotes highly-self-conscious, non-traditional gathering and conversation. Their work is very similar, but in contrast to Gillick’s austere, comic challenges to the corporate organization of social space, Dahlgren offers us a euphoric, hippified dance party. It’s loose, flooded with color, dry Swedish humor, striped clothing, physical bodies and a healthy dose of chaos.
That’s not to say this Demonstration wasn’t also a bit of a death march. On the way down, I whistled the work song from Bridge over the River Kwai, noted how Dahlgren had resurrected the spiritual in Baertling’s paintings by rematerializing them as crucifixes on our road to Calvary, and caustically invoked Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film in which a tribe of mountain people are hired to lug a steam ship over a hill so culture can be brought to the people of an isolated valley in Peru. People were happy not to have to listen to me when the march was over.
Several weeks later, near the end of his residency, Dahlgren told me that he had reenacted Demonstration by himself. Thirty people with abstract paintings is legible, I thought, but one man with an abstract painting sign hiking through the woods—well that’s just nutty. But Dahlgren proves to be good not just at challenging conventional wisdom but challenging the conventional wisdom about his work. Where 30 abstractions against an unspoiled landscape make Baertling seem like a bogeyman of modernism and industrialization, a single abstraction against the totality of nature is like a single candle in a huge forest, or a tiny figure in a Jacob Von Ruisdale painting. Dahlgren had reframed those floating shapes of color one more time as the tiny fire of humanism in an endless cold universe.

Steven Wolf