March 15, 2017

Casual utopia
By Magnus Af Petersen

“Moments constructed into ‘situations’ might be thought of as moments of rupture, of acceleration, revolutions in individual everyday life”.
Situationist International (unsigned), The Theory of Moments and Construction of Situations, Internationale Situationiste no. 4, Paris June 1960.

In his novel – or is it an essay? – Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer describes the opening days of the Venice Biennale 2007, how he, along with tired museum directors, curators and critics drag themselves through the excruciating heat and dust, sweating, trying to breathe, cramped in the darkness of black box video screenings. And how happy it makes him to walk into the Nordic Pavilion where people are throwing darts at a wall completely covered with dartboards – it’s a generous set-up, you’re allowed to have some fun and you can’t miss. He is describing a work by Jacob Dahlgren, and in spite of his slightly ironic tone, Dyer captures the easy-going atmosphere it created. The title of the piece: I, The World, Things, Life is playfully ironic in its pretentious ambition. But at the same time, Dahlgren does work in a utopian tradition, but without the aggressiveness this has often involved.

The dartboards that cover the end wall of the space together make up a large-scale painting. Its strict geometrical abstraction is slowly challenged and dissolved by the red darts that the viewers throw at the dartboards, turning the viewers into co-creators of a huge action painting. This participatory situation sets it apart from the many art historical references it also sets in motion; Jasper Johns’ target paintings, Niki de Saint-Phalle’s shooting paintings, Frank Stella’s early paintings with stripes reproducing the shape of their canvas, the ready-made and the seriality of minimalism, to name but a few.

Exhibitions of Jacob Dahlgren’s art make it clear that the objects on display are merely part of a situation that in its entirety makes up the experience of the artwork. In fact, the more one consider his work, the more difficult it becomes to decide where the artwork, and the experience of it, begins and ends. The well-known rhetoric of the viewer becoming a participant all of a sudden makes perfect sense. Objects that have agency, creating situations that invite you to partake in some kind of action, are performative, which is different from a work-as-performance.

Ideally, this should be true of most successful art – art should inspire action of some kind – not that I am against contemplation in any way, but if contemplation can also give you a sense of new possibilities, of opening up a space that is more inclusive, more liberating and democratic, isn’t this even better? Not that we can expect art to always be democratic, but Dahlgren’s work really does inspire participation. Of course, there is always a first mover – the artist – an instigator and inspiration. Are we willing pawns in a game, or, in short: are we manipulated? If so, it is something we choose, for no one is forcing us to take part in these exhibitions.

Some of Dahlgren’s works and exhibitions, like Colour Reading and Contexture at Malmö Konsthall in2005, have required a large number of volunteers to be involved in the construction and installation of the exhibition. This is first of all a practical matter, but it also has wider consequences, and if it is to be seen as a part of the artwork, it poses an open question. Working with amateurs instead of exclusively with professional technicians and art handlers is also a way of inviting those who are interested to become part of the process. Often words like ‘amateur’, ‘dilettante’ or ‘enthusiast’ are used in a pejorative sense. But what separates them from the professional is not only skill but that an amateur does something for motives other than money, because it seems important, interesting or just plain fun. It becomes a collective effort, slightly diluting the authorship, or distributing it. It also becomes a collective experience, a little closer to that of a concert than is often the case with art exhibitions. The amateur participant experiences and learns by doing.

The slow process of collecting materials and making can be seen as an homage to labour, but again, a labour of love (and this is something we don’t see much of today). All these are qualities that are mostly considered positive. “Collaboration is the answer,” Hans Ulrich Obrist has exclaimed, “but what is the question?”. In the late ‘90s, back around the time Dahlgren graduated from the Royal Institute of Fine Arts in Stockholm, art that focused on exploring and activating human relations and social interaction was theoretically elaborated as Relational Aesthetics by Nicolas Bourriaud. Part of Dahlgren’s work can be considered as closely akin to this. The model situations that are created in some of works have been accused of lacking criticality.

But in a way Jacob Dahlgren’s work is part of the legacy of the first avant-garde for whom geometrical abstraction was not merely a formalist project but a utopian project to make a new art for a new society. Indeed artists, movements and schools like the Russian constructivists, de Stijl, Bauhaus and the Noe Concrete artists of Brazil saw art as a way to transform society.
For the first avant-garde, abstraction was a venture into unknown territory, to “make it new”. Today it seems impossible to make even a monochrome painting or anything else that is not somehow referential, or that does not echo Art History.

Dahlgren’s abstractions easily move between the mundane and the vernacular, using plastic cups, t-shirts and other consumer products and references to avant-garde art. And, after Pop art, not even these consumer products are without art historical references. This blurring of the boundaries between art and life championed by Alan Kaprow can make us more aware of the aesthetic aspects of everyday life, while at the same time demystifying art. As many have pointed out, Dahlgren reclaims everyday abstractions as art, turning them into ready-mades or objets trouvé, for example in his ongoing series Signs of Abstraction, an obsessive, never-ending collection of photographs of stripes and other abstract patterns that he sees in everyday life, or turning them into paintings, assemblages, performances, demonstrations… in an endless game that we are all invited to play.