December 2, 2013

Action Painting
Timo Valjakka on Jacob Dahlgren

“…The number of particles that compose the world is immense but finite, and, as such, only capable of a finite (though also immense) number of permutations. In an infinite stretch of time, the number of possible constellations must be run through, and the universe has to repeat itself. […] Since everything is bound to return, nothing is unique, not even these lines…”
Daniel Birnbaum: Chronology (2005)

“If you use a lot of plastic coffee mugs, you transform them into something else. If you use just one, then it’s still a plastic coffee mug.”
Jacob Dahlgren (2007)

In 2004, Jacob Dahlgren made I, the world, things, life, which was shown in an exhibition of the same name at Norrköpings Konstmuseum in Sweden. Since then, he has made various versions, the latest of which is currently on display in the Nordic pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennale.
Monumental in its dimensions, this piece, which covers an entire wall on each occasion, may be the most popular of Dahlgren’s works, and no wonder. At the very first glance, it sweeps away the boundary between artist and viewer. It allows viewers truly to participate in the creation of the artwork, and also gives them an urge to join in. The work is like a Number-One hit that everyone has to have because everyone else has one like it.
The first I, the world, things, life consisted of almost a thousand black-and-white dartboards mounted side by side and an equal number of bright-red darts thrown into them by people who had seen the work. More darts were available from the open wooden box in front of the target wall, encouraging new arrivals to throw their own darts. As in a real darts match, a black line on the floor marked the correct throwing distance.
Dahlgren’s background is in painting, and in fact all of his works can be viewed as paintings, at least if the concept of painting is suitably loosely defined.
At the same time, however, his works again and again defy the boundaries of that concept, as does Signes d’Abstraction (2005). This was a performance staged for a Stockholm shopping mall, in which a large number of people had dressed in striped shirts. An ordinary weekend shopping day turned into a living abstraction, a kinetic painting that constantly changed its shape and dimensions.
In talking about his dartboard work, Dahlgren uses the expression action painting. This term, familiar from the history of Modernism, leads our thoughts straight to abstract expressionism, and in particular to Jackson Pollock’s large, all-over canvases, but the work itself turns the whole concept on its head once again.
The active agents here are not the artist pouring his soul out onto the canvas, but the viewers throwing their darts. Dahlgren mainly watches the situation from the sidelines, as he also did in the shopping mall performance. Actually, Dahlgren would not really even need to touch his work. It is a ready made, it is made up of industrially manufactured parts, parts that anyone can buy in sports and hardware stores in the Nordic countries.
As they throw their darts, everyone can think about how a fundamentally modernist artwork is disappearing before their eyes and turning into an open process that advances under its own weight. The outward appearance of the work changes according to how the darts gather together on its surface. The way the darts hit home is, nevertheless, dependent on the viewers’ aim. Their aim was definitely not helped by the concentric black-and-white bands on the dartboards, which made their eyes swim.
Like all of Dahlgren’s works, I, the world, things, life shuffles cultural and social codes, art speak and its habitual reading habits, as lightly as a pack of cards. It looks as if Dahlgren does not care a great deal for art’s traditional value hierarchies. On top of his works being viewable both as a modernist abstraction and as an interactive process, like Pop art, they can also be thought of as mirroring some of the typical features of the Nordic way of life.
For instance, dart throwing is a common, popular form of recreation at the summer cottages to which many Nordic residents retreat to enjoy their summer holidays. The dartboard is a sign that symbolises a shared utopia, the warm, light holiday weeks on the shores of the sea or a lake, amid unspoiled nature. A utopia because the reality is frequently less rosy than this picture-postcard image.
The references contained in the work probably do not end with those already mentioned. A broader framework is provided, for example, by the Nordic design and architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. They, too, brought with them their own utopias, a sublime idea according to which good design and beautiful buildings ennoble their users, for which reason it is society’s task to put them within reach of everyone. When we look at the grey concrete suburbs and shopping centres, we know what became of that dream.
Jacob Dahlgren was born in Stockholm in 1970. He grew to be an artist at a time when abstract painting and sculpture had already had to surrender their place in the front ranks of the avant-garde. They had turned into signs among other signs, precisely because radical changes in society had consigned the ideologies that originally lent them wings to the shelves of history.
When Dahlgren graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1999, globalisation was already in full swing, and the Nordic welfare state, one of the main embodiments of the modern project, was in crisis. Regardless of party affiliation, politicians’ greatest worries were about how to prevent that utopia from collapsing.
Dahlgren stresses that in his art he is not interested in the original ideological underpinnings of the styles and image languages that he recycles, nor in their links with social utopias. This is actually understandable specifically because, during his time, no utopias have emerged to speak of.
“They all just want to make more money,” Dahlgren says when our discussion turns to such enterprises as Polarn & Pyret, Ikea, Artek and Marimekko. All of them have at times been, and also manufactured, material symbols of Nordic democracy and welfare.
“I am a sampler,” is how Dahlgren defines his art. His works are based on repetition and recycling of existing aesthetic languages and ready-made objects, often in different meanings of the words simultaneously. Nothing in his art is totally unique or original, apart from all the new combinations, which he constructs by mixing his found ingredients and by shaking up concepts in art. He is an eclectic artist in the straightforward sense of the dictionary definition, and he creates meanings by combining things that already exist.
Dahlgren is fascinated by the appearance of “true abstraction”. He sees himself in the mirror of Olle Baertling, Sweden’s leading concretist. He likes the Bauhaus, because it operated in all areas of art at once, without making a big deal about the limitations of the arts. He is clearly an urban artist, who finds abstraction in his own everyday life, in products and adverts, in car side panels, in the symbol language of the street, in people’s clothes and in various structures and patterns associated with the environment.
When he is travelling, Dahlgren collects street abstractions in his small digital camera. Added to the fact that the thousands of pictures accumulated up to now are for him an inexhaustible source of ideas and potentials for his works, he incorporates them into his exhibition catalogues, where they do an excellent job of shedding light on his pictorial thinking and on his way of looking at the world. His solo exhibition Signs of Abstraction at Ystads konstmuseum in Sweden in 2007, also showed his photographs as independent artworks for the first time.
“For me, abstraction is a way of making out of reality something that has no clear meaning, or perhaps something that has its own clear meaning,” Dahlgren says ambiguously.
Be that as it may, he nevertheless succeeds in making everyday, anonymous design and cheap mass-produced objects interesting, important and expensive looking. Many of the objects that he uses, from French yoghourt pots to plastic Ikea hangers, are a variety of post-Bauhausian bulkware, quasi-modern cheap manufactured goods that have in turn contributed to the break up of the Nordic (design) utopia. Producing quality on the current economic terms is simply too expensive.
When people write about Dahlgren’s art, it is apparently customary to point out that he collects T-shirts, and I do not intend to be an exception here. “He buys practically all the striped shirts that he sees and at home there are 400 of them stored away waiting to be worn,” Stina Högkvist wrote in 2003. When I asked the artist about this in the late winter of 2007, the shirts numbered close to a thousand.
Writers also mention that Dahlgren always wears something striped, which is a feature that I, too, can confirm. Apart from wearing the striped shirts, he also uses them as models for his painting. In his studio are hundreds of small-scale striped paintings, each one based on a T-shirt design.
Once again, Dahlgren mingles the codes of looking, and slips the mat from under ideologies that are fundamentally bound up with modernism. This time, the object is “high modernism” as promulgated by Clement Greenberg, and its figureheads, such as Kenneth Noland.
In 2003, Dahlgren showed more than a hundred striped paintings at Galerie Anhava in Helsinki. The paintings are all different, even if they are all based on a reiteration of horizontal bands of colour. They are reminiscent of formalist abstractions, but their large number, small size and minor differences effectively empty them of all modernist notions, for example, those associated with the presumed purity of abstract art. If these paintings have to be viewed as a homage to something, then it would be to those same anonymous designers who are responsible for the cheap light fittings in our homes, and who paint the diagonal yellow-and-black stripes on our roads to control traffic.
Dahlgren’s art contains endless ingenious amalgams of modernist abstraction and mass-produced objects. And yet he is not satisfied solely with running through the various concepts of painting. A wonderful example of his inventiveness is Heaven is a Place on Earth, a minimalist sculpture, of which he made several versions in various sizes in 2006.
Each version is made out of cheap weighing scales. As with the dartboards, the smallest contains 25 of them, and the largest 1500. Their compositions are equally simple: blue, red and white scales, either arranged into a square or covering the entire floor of the museum entrance hall, as at the opening exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm in 2006.
I, the world, things, life is rooted in Jackson Pollock’s paintings. This time, the main father figure is the minimalist Carl Andre, who is known for his floor-hugging modular structures. On the other hand, the colourfulness of the scales evokes memories of the grids in concrete painting, only now dressed up as cheap everyday wares.
Here, one of Dahlgren’s initial concerns has been the way that, unlike artworks in general, we are allowed to walk on Andre’s works. In museums they are often situated in doorways and corridors so that the public unavoidably has to step on them. Sometimes, we can even see the museum guards intentionally stepping onto them so as to encourage viewers to do the same.
The physical connection between public and work is a part of Andre’s aesthetic, but it is also a part of Dahlgren’s repertoire, as the above examples show. At the same time, like the dartboards, the scales also contain references outside the recent history of art. In addition to Heaven is a Place on Earth reacting to the weight of everyone who walks over it, Dahlgren says the work is especially perplexing for American viewers, for whom body weight seems to be a particularly sensitive issue.
When abstract expression came into existence a hundred years ago, operating in the background were, in principle, two parallel processes: improvisation and abstraction. Improvising artists started from nothing, and trusted in their own inner vision, while abstractists simplified the tree or landscape in front of them, until all that remained was its formal structural skeleton. Of the early abstractists, Wassily Kandinsky represented the former method, and Piet Mondrian the latter. Both ended up in pure abstraction, an area from which Dahlgren has subsequently absorbed a great deal.
Jacob Dahlgren’s art has a special feature. His works, too, seek to abstract the world that we see around us. But, instead of being images abstracted from the world, they draw our attention to all that is abstract in our own environment, to all those formalist pattern fields and sculpture-like structures that make up urban reality.
Dahlgren’s works get us to see how big a part of the public space still contains echoes of the utopia of modernism and its positivist worldview. He strips his chosen objects of their functional properties and brings out their aesthetic aspects. He thus transforms the everyday object world into art, which he uses to breathe new air into the ideologies and concepts that can be glimpsed in the background, and which have already been buried once. And he does this in a way that leaves no one cold.

Timo Valjakka