December 2, 2013

Fredrik Liew on Jacob Dahlgren

This fall’s Olle Baertling exhibition at Moderna Museet confirmed several things I had long suspected. Above all, I was struck by the vitality that Baertling’s works still possess today. How contemporary they feel despite having been painted over forty years ago. Indeed, they seem more in tune with the times than much of the art I see from artists working today. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but one factor I feel is the graphically distinct visual expression, and how the works’ formal idiom comes close to the point of intersection between art and design; a space that has only naturally – given the society we live in – become one of several arenas for art in recent years.

Olle Baertling himself applied his art to ”everyday objects” – flags, draperies, and architecture. I am reluctant to speculate as to how interested he was in the charged nature of this borderland, presumably he was more interested in his utopian visionary art achieving the widest possible dissemination and permeating society. But as a thought experiment it is nonetheless interesting to see Baertling’s open form – as well as a lot of other avant-garde abstract art – through a deliberately historyless gaze, and thus allow it to end up in new and interesting relationships.

But the exhibition also highlighted the fact that there is another more troublesome facet to the relationship between art history and design in which design gravitates toward art rather than the other way around. Here expressed by the English artist Olivia Plender:

“It is one of the ironies of the twentieth century that the language of abstraction, post the (arguable) failure of the avant-garde, has survived in the world of design and in the appearance of manufactured goods. The first abstract painters sought to push colour into the realms of meaning through the link to social revolution or to the spiritual. But in our pluralistic, post-hierarchical visual culture there is a striking similarity between modernist painting and contemporary product design.”

When avant-garde art is hijacked in this way and transformed into innocuous superficiality in our consumption-driven society, it is completely reasonable, if not necessary, for an artist to react by doing the reverse. To throw form back into the realm of art, to an aesthetic space that is reserved for dreams, ideas and reflections. It is this movement that lies at the core of Dahlgren’s artistic identity. It is this quality that has led him to portray striped pullovers, to stack coffee cups, hangers, spools of thread, dartboards, pens, scales, containers, and with these objects make active reference to artists like Olle Baertling, Carl Andre, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, Blinky Palermo and many others. When art creeps into our daily lives and becomes object, Jacob Dahlgren resolutely tosses the object back into art’s domain and redirects our gaze. The hope is that this will also rub off on us and that we can take our way of seeing and the associations that characterise our gallery visit out with us and experience the world around us with a heightened sensibility. Just as Dahlgren himself does in his ongoing photo project Signs of Abstraction, in which he collects images from everyday situations that have artistically abstract qualities.

Much has already been written about Dahlgren’s relationship to art history, painting, sculpture, everyday life, design and an abundance of reference points have been made explicit between these fields. I would instead like to devote the remainder of this text to discussing the wheels he sets in motion when he goes about realising his ideas, and through simple observations of his process try to capture important aspects of his artistic expression.

In 2005, I invited Jacob Dahlgren to exhibit at Malmö Konsthall. We agreed early on that he would do a big installation that would rise up from the floor like an urban landscape and take over the space. Colour Reading and Contexture came to consist of a wide assortment of different materials. In short, everything we could find with a monochrome surface, including chocolate bars, bricks, dishcloths, crispbread, carpets, insulation, books, tiles, glass, plastic crates, and above all, innumerable painted blocks of wood. Everything was sorted according to colour and stacked up one on top of the other. The quantity, the superfluity and repetition were essential for the piece to work. One dishcloth is simply a dishcloth, and aside from the ontological issue of what constitutes art, there is nothing particularly interesting about putting it on display in an exhibition space. But a hundred arranged dishcloths rob the individual unit of its value. Together with thousands of other items they became part of a composition; an object, a sculpture, or perhaps a painting that slowly rose up from the floor of the Malmö Konsthall.

Watching Dahlgren as he created his work on site was an experience that contributed to its understanding. How he arranged the colours and materials in relationship to one another – moved back and forth across the surface, stacked on more objects, stepped back and scrutinised, then stacked some more – was surprisingly similar to how a traditional painter works. While Dahlgren normally seems to try and avoid making these kinds of deliberate choices by using a single form that is repeated until it creates its own pattern, it is still obvious – also in these works – that colour, form, and a feel for the material are second nature to him.

The work on Colour Reading and Contexture, however, was not confined solely to the composition. In the months leading up to the exhibition, the gallery staff travelled all over southern Sweden collecting materials from factories, depots, and wholesalers. We set up a special workshop where volunteers were brought in to help the technicians cut and paint wooden boards. Those of us lucky enough to have been involved in the production were left with lasting memories of the exhibition, and for Dahlgren the process and the concomitant social relationships form an essential part of his artistic process, to which we will return in a moment.

All the effort that had been put into it, could also be seen and felt in the finished work. The enormous quantity and variety of materials bore witness to unexpected encounters (when the world of art comes in contact with the construction industry or a tile factory, surprising scenes can sometimes be played out) and all the painted surfaces were a testament to the time that had been invested. The fact is that this in turn sparked discussions regarding the piece. I cannot say how many times I listened in on visitors declaring their amazement to gallery staff at how much effort must have gone into creating the piece. Much of the conversations also referred to the small discoveries one makes standing in front of the landscape: how a certain material, colour, a piece of tile, or perhaps a book can spark a memory of a time or place, can surprise or amuse. It was clear that the audience wanted to talk about the piece, share their experiences with others – in short, Colour Reading and Contexture engaged them.

Interactivity, openness and a generosity toward those who choose to take part in one of Jacob Dahlgren’s larger projects are characteristic of his artistic universe. In 2007, for example, he participated in the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale with I, The World, Things, Life – yet another monumental piece that like Colour Reading and Contexture made use of the entire space. This time it consisted of a wall that was filled with black and yellow dartboards creating a huge optical pattern; the visitors to the exhibition then completed the work by throwing red and green darts at the boards. In 2004, the performance Signes d’Abstraction was staged at the Gallerian shopping centre in Stockholm. Over the course of one day, Dahlgren engaged the help of volunteers whom he dressed up in stripped pullovers and sent them out to infiltrate the environment. Sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups creating a constantly changing composition that everyone there was drawn into – even those who were not wearing stripes. This little breach of normality instantly raised the level of perception among the general public. Nobody takes any notice of one person in stripes, perhaps not even two, but when they see a third, fourth, fifth… they start to look at their surroundings in a different, more observant way. Two years later, Jacob Dahlgren took part in Moderna Museet’s Moderna Exhibition with the work The Wonderful World of Abstraction; an interactive cube of silk ribbons, each one fastened with a double knot to a steel grid measuring 6×6 metres that was suspended from the ceiling. If I remember correctly, that resulted in some 30,000 double knots with ribbons in 78 different colours. Just as happened in Malmö, it soon became clear that the technicians would not have enough time to complete the piece on their own. In order to get it finished according to plan, volunteers were recruited from the Friends of Moderna Museet, and for a little over a week a host of people came to the rescue. Most of them returned day after day, bringing with them their friends, children and grandchildren. And the closer the deadline approached, the clearer it became what a profound sense of responsibility the new members of the team felt for getting the work finished in time. The Wonderful World of Abstraction became their work.

Naturally the whole thing could have been a fiasco. In Malmö, at Gallerian in Stockholm and at Moderna Museet. But Dahlgren has an amazing ability to cultivate the social situation, to unite people around an endeavour and turn his artwork into a common goal. His charisma, curiosity and creative exuberance – a characteristic aspect of his whole artistic approach is the steady stream of new works and ideas – rub off on those around him and inspire them. To my mind, he looks upon this social experimentation not just as a means to an end, but as an intrinsic and important part of the work as a whole. Despite the fact that he has never been included among those typically associated with the concept of relational aesthetics – nor does he have anything to gain from yet another label – one could draw parallels to the socially interactive art movement developed in the mid-nineties. It could, for example, be compared to Rirkrit Tiravanija, one of the key artists of the genre, whose most well-known works consist of cooking food for the visitors to the gallery, thereby creating social encounters. This is how his agenda and that of relational aesthetics were described in a press clipping:

“His work is difficult to categorise and in some ways the term ‘visual artist’ does not accurately represent him. As he says, ‘it is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people.’ Tiravanija’s works tend to set the stage, to offer an opportunity or a possibility for interaction and participation. He integrates the flux of his itinerant life into sedate museum and gallery spaces, effectively destroying the division between art and life.”

That could have been a description of Dahlgren’s work had it not been for the fact that Dahlgren’s social processes have left behind some of the most visually powerful artworks to have come out of Sweden in recent years. Another difference is that the concept behind Dahlgren’s work, how we think about it, is by necessity separate from how our bodies experience and understand it. We cannot, for example, get a satisfying picture of The Wonderful World of Abstraction if we have not wandered in among the silk ribbons ourselves. Oddly enough, I do not feel that way about Tiravanija’s social experiments, which, contrary to his rhetoric, I basically consider to be conceptual and symbolic.

As we have seen, direct physical interactivity forms an essential element in several of Jacob Dahlgren’s works. And even if it can only be said to apply to one category of many in his artistic production, I would still maintain that his entire oeuvre is built upon a physical relationship to the visual, to material and to scale. Returning to Colour Reading and Contexture at Malmö Konsthall, that was not an interactive work in the literal sense of the word, at least not once we had completed the installation process. But the work was nevertheless experienced, and its dimensions perceived through the body. Depending on your relationship to the piece, you could either see it as enormous – if you compared it to a painting – or as a miniature, if you mainly looked upon it as a model of a city. In any case, it was impossible to get a full view of it from one place; in order to see it you had to shift your gaze, to walk around the piece and change your perspective. From a distance the work became one great sea of colour, but if you moved up close the surfaces and materiality became more activated than the colours: matte, glossy, rough, smooth, high, low. Furthermore, Dahlgren deliberately used the many different everyday objects in the work to play with the visitors’ intuitive understanding of the materials and body memory. Something that Pontus Kyander noted in a review of the exhibition:

“We know what a piece of chipboard feels like, and approximately what sort of a load it can take, we feel the weight of the brick and the springy elasticity of a sponge, the smooth surface of glass and the brittle dryness of crispbread. All of this, drawn from our memory of touch, is mixed together with what we see. Seeing is knowledge; painting and sculpture are as dependent on what we know, and think we know, as they are on what we actually experience.”

This information is critical when speaking about Jacob Dahlgren, and can be applied to all his works. It means that he is constantly leading us into a personal relationship to his art, which in turn means that it is impossible to pin down his artistic production simply by describing it. Through thought and language we can access the conceptual and social dimensions, but never the sensually phenomenological dimension – the experience.

That is left to each one to experience on their own.

Fredrik Liew, Moderna Museet Stockholm