The possibility of eternal conceptual misunderstandings
Stina Högkvist on Jacob Dahlgren
If the universe has unlimited time at its disposal, that not only means that anything can happen. It means that everything will happen.i
Jacob Dahlgren collects stripes. In his unceasing Signs of abstraction he photographs all the striped patterns he can find in his surroundings. His collection of photographs contains pictures of awnings, caps, t-shirts, building façades, buses, staircases, and window shades. Every time I meet Jacob he is wearing a striped t-shirt. He buys practically all the striped shirts that he sees and at home there are 400 of them stored away waiting to be worn. In addition to the everyday wear and use of the clothes, their patterns also provide a starting point in his current series of stripe paintings, where shirt patterns define the form of the painting. Close-ups of the patterns produce abstract paintings. Those taking a fundamental view of concepts would perhaps prefer to call the works shirt portraits rather than abstract paintings. But in this context this is of no importance. What is interesting is how the procedure gives randomness, mass production and play precedence over the highbrowed views of modernism regarding the forces of the spirit and the special nature of artistic thinking. And no difference is seen in the finished product.
One certainly cannot predict future events exactly if one cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely! ii
For some perhaps the thought process stops at the fact that the procedure is reminiscent of Daniel Buren’s city stripes. But today it is mostly original thinking modernists who passionately hang themselves up on the genealogists’ raison d’être. Who cares about the beginning or end? The dispute about who came upon the idea first is no longer newsworthy. A more rewarding association with Dahlgren’s art is to see it as a historic nomadology – a medley of conceptual art, abstract art, concretism, minimalism, pop art and neomodernism. A product of the post-modernist’s sampling and multiplication of impressions.
There are no parallel universes in Dahlgren’s art. There is no obvious hierarchical border between art and life. All is part of the same reality. Coffee cups, clothes hangers, building material, reels of thread, yoghurt cartons are used as natural raw material. The search for new material is carried out in various discount stores. What he is fascinated by is the aesthetification of the everyday, which means that products – although not required by their function – are designed. The wet room insulation that is to be hidden in the wall is produced in a light purple colour and clothes hangers that are to hang in a dark closet are made in all colours of the rainbow.
In Hamburg 1982 thousands of small colourful yoghurt cartons are piled on top of each other. They are organized in a line pattern in which the colours shift a little bit all the time. In Geneve 1997 however, they are placed in straight lines. As all dictators know, control disappears over the individual in the masses. When the yoghurt cartons are experienced in their thousands they loose their individuality and together they are united in something that looks like a colourful abstract painting. The traditional painting hierarchy is broken down and the cheap is transformed into something exclusive. Despite everything, a diamond is nothing more than compressed carbon.
Where the material can be seen as a way to demystify the abstract art, the titles strive towards another direction. Their role is not to seal the interpretation, but to transport thoughts even further away from the original material. Instead of quite simply calling the work 10,000 yoghurt cartons they are given titles in which, for example, a city is combined with a year. When you hear Hamburg 1982 you automatically start to think about what happened in Hamburg in 1982. You start to go through your personal historical reference material and the final interpretation is dependent on the observer’s subjective memory.
Another series of work is named after different Munch paintings: Despair, Self-portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed and Girls on a Bridge are a few of the titles. The tone is desperate, melancholic and unexpected. Perhaps some think that it locks the work. I see it however as an opportunity for generous confusion promising both an end and a continuation. That the titles are stolen from Munch, is furthermore nothing to attach yourself to. What is interesting is the meeting between the abstract works and the graphic titles. It is this that opens up for the experience’s unpredictable future. When an abstract sculpture is given such a personal title like The Sick Girl or Puberty the onlooker is activated. There are certainly very few who do not look for answers in the forms after having read the title. In this searching lies not only the possibility to see the art in another, less routine way, but also the possibility that art widens our relation to language. The gap or connection between form and words that Dahlgren consistently makes use of, opens up his different works for the observer’s individual comprehension, something the artist does not have access to. With the titles, Dahlgren releases control of his works. He throws the art out of the nest and in the end it becomes a way for him to renounce the preferential right of interpretation.
Several of Dahlgren’s works contain references to other artists. In Item 9; headmaster Malevich is written in carved out plastic foam – letters lying in stacks on the ground. It is also hard to ignore that the form of the sculpture Puberty is reminiscent of something Olle Bærtling could have been behind. But honestly speaking, Bærtling would never have thought of using glitter as material. In Despair it is as if Mondrian’s two dimensional wood studies had taken on a three dimensional shape. The sculpture is done in Styrofoam, a material that probably would not have been Mondrian’s first-hand choice. But these changes have in common that you sense a love and respect for the precursor. No taunt is intended. Just the opposite. It is as if the works turn to their soul mates, as a continuation of the old masters’ work, done in a new time, with new material, contexts and stories to tell.
Third Uncle was a giant installation that Dahlgren built at Millesgården in Stockholm. In short, it was an enormous labyrinth of colour, in which the monochrome walls in shifting height and colour interplayed with a thousand mirrors. Children in striped t-shirts had been invited. They ate ice-cream and ran around, high on sugar, and played in the labyrinth. The mirrors, children, rooms, observers and painting interacted alternately in an unruly entity. A simple interpretation would have been to dismiss this as painting in the extended room, but while there you understood that it was about a here-and-now experience and not about the material’s possible two or three dimensionality. Like Third Uncle, several of Dahlgren’s giant works are interplays between the room, time, art and visitors to the gallery. I, the world, things, life was an installation at Norrköping’s Konstmuseum, which was made up of thousands of black and white dartboards hung one after the other until the wall was chock-a-block. At the side there was a box full of darts, which the public was encouraged to throw at the throng of dartboards. The hypnotic effect that arose in the multitude of all the circles and stripes made it hard to focus on a specific goal. The visitors height, arm strength, concentration, chance and perhaps in a few cases skill, determined where the darts landed and how the work appeared.
In the exhibition The possibility of eternal conceptual misunderstandings a hundred or so shirt paintings hung at regular intervals on the walls of Galerie Anhavas. There were stripes everywhere. I could not help but wonder which painting I thought was best. Only snobs think that evaluations of shirts and art differ from each other in some way. In the middle of the room stood a group of mirror covered towers. While some were no larger than mushrooms, other reached up to the ceiling. Their staggered contours made them look like skyscrapers. Manhattan no doubt misses them. In the adjacent darkened room stood a solitary tower, covered in a florescent membrane radiating a yellow-green glow. It was like a negative of what was taking place outside. A night club version of Malevich’s tower.
The myriad of mirrors join the visitors, paintings and sculpture make up a psychedelic whole. A confirmed pragmatic might only see the mirrors as a good opportunity to fix her lipstick. Others probably noticed that the reflections put the installation in a constant state of change. It broke up the whole and gave a glimpse into a potential infinity, where entrances and exits alternate. To try to position a centre point was impossible. The parts are not greater than the whole and the whole is not greater than the parts. In fact, this is no harder than Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Time is not absolute. The past, the present and the future co-exist side by side. The movements of the observer dictate what is space and what is time.
i Erlend Loe, Naiv Super, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1998 (1996), page 84.
ii Stephen Hawking, A brief history of time, Bantham Books, 1988, page 59.