Jacob Dahlgren: From Z to A (a selection)
By Renate Wiehager
The artwork of Jacob Dahlgren touches on a large number of terminologies, -isms, artistic concepts and movements of the 20th and 21st century. These will be discussed in greater detail in the essays contained in this book. The text that follows, which adopts a variation of the book’s title ‘From A to Z,’ aims to condense certain aspects of this, and to expand on other aspects.
Zones of participatory abstraction
In 2013, a diverse company of more than fifty participants under the leadership of Jacob Dahlgren—athletes, artists, city-dwellers etc.—designed and stitched a hundred-meter fabric banner decorated with abstract motifs and carried it through Edinburgh, echoing recent public petitions and demonstrations in that city (No Conflict no Irony (I Love the Whole World), 2013). Around 700 people at once could stand on the colorful sets of scales that the artist introduced into a visually ecclesiastical setting in 2015 in the role of an abstract floor sculpture (Heaven is a Place on Earth, Fabrica, Brighton, UK, 2014). In 2007, he began deploying hundreds of dartboards at venues such as the Venice Biennale—inviting tens of thousands of sporting art visitors to engage interactively with his abstract image configuration.
In or around 2000 Jacob Dahlgren first began a repetitive pattern of defining temporal-spatial configurations for experiments in artistically interpreted, participatory abstraction. The artist’s own private cosmos provides the primary starting point. Based on his researches into the utopian potential—realized and unrealized—of abstract art and Constructivism in early modernism, he has accumulated a (largely) ideology-free fund of material: T-shirts with a striped design, containers and functional objects from the world of mass-production and consumerism, photographs of abstract/iconic surfaces. The next step is to combine this basic material—assembled both randomly and selectively—with artistic world visions from an avant-garde context, originating from the 20th century to the present day. These visions typically combine abstract geometries and everyday objects with political and social programs: from Suprematism and Bauhaus to De Stijl, Art Concret, Zero, Minimal and Concept Art, Neo Geo, aspects of Relational Aesthetics, and the new formalisms of the new millennium.
On this basis, Jacob Dahlgren devises performative formats that—for a limited time, and within a defined space—make people within his environment, as well as art viewers and passers-by, into users and ‘carriers’ of abstract art, giving the art an unexpectedly up-to-date feel and a new symbolic potential. Children flit through constructed temporary rooms composed of colors and mirrors (Third Uncle, Millesgården, Stockholm 2002), groups of people carry pictures created in imitation of the Norwegian abstract painter Olle Baertling through landscape and urban spaces (Stockholm 2007 / Marin, CA, 2009 / Mexico City 2012 / Washington 2015 et al.), 350 children and adults dressed in striped shirts infiltrate—quite literally—the optical conformity of a shopping mall (Signes d’Abstraction, Gallerian Stockholm 2005), exhibition-goers become part of a structure composed of sets of scales (Heaven is a Place on Earth, 2007–2014) or temporary, abstract and colorful spaces constructed from silk strips (The Wonderful World of Abstraction, 2006–2013), thousands of people in shirts, each with a different pattern of lines, stream through the exhibition spaces of the KIASMA art museum in Helsinki to mark its opening (Our Body Might Not Accept a Single View Point, 2013).
The artwork of Jacob Dahlgren explicitly constitutes urban art—something he shares with other artists of his generation from the Minimalism/Formalism context, such as Mathieu Mercier, Alicja Kwade, Liam Gillick, Lasse Schmidt Hansen, Jan van der Ploeg, and many others. This applies to his selection of materials, their symbolic character, the striking displays, the communicative factors, and the emphasis on unconditional actuality, the “here and now” of viewing and experience. The world of Dahlgren’s art materials reflects an urban context, a context of construction, fashion, consumption and—repeatedly—references to children’s games. To put it another way, his images, objects, ensembles, and art actions reflect the contradictory facets of urban culture: order and disorder, participation and indifference, interconnection and diversity. The rough charm of a contemporary do-it-yourself aesthetic is juxtaposed with nonrepresentational forms, perfect varnished surfaces, and abstract iconic symbol constellations.
Let me take a few examples: in 2013, in connection with his multiple performances with striped T-shirts, Dahlgren made a video documenting his movements through the urban space, following strangers wearing similar shirts—thus turning these passers-by, who believed themselves unobserved, into kinetic images in an urban space (Non Object 1:25, 2013). Finally, in 2015, Dahlgren and a thrown-together company of people carried the abstract signboards inspired by Olle Baertling (for the Demonstration performance series) through the streets of Bellingham, Washington. 2015 also saw the creation of Dahlgren’s urban, site-specific sculpture The World as Site and Subject (Trondheim, Norway 2015), the monochrome steel surfaces of which multifariously reflect and break up the surrounding architecture. Color Crescendo was the title of an Instagram exhibition curated by Thomas Thiel. Users were requested to arrange their own selection of striped T-shirts based on the abstract color circle devised by Bauhaus professor Johannes Itten. They then had to select a sound (a reference to Kandinsky’s advocacy of synaesthetic experiences) and, finally, to loop the recording─thereby transforming articles of everyday dress into multimedia, individually charged objects.
As these selected examples indicate, this quality of urbanity is all about style, fashion, community, and symbols of social belonging—but also understatement, play, irony. Urban atmosphere is also a matter of signposts, ubiquitous signals, collective demonstrations of convictions, the declaring of attitudes and the universalizing of these attitudes, the manufacturing of an audience for an individual perspective (in this case, an artistic perspective). All of these things are key themes in Jacob Dahlgren’s work. It is also very apt in this context that from the classical era to the Renaissance the term “urbanity” was understood, in connection with rhetoric, to refer to an elegance of style, a refined sense of wit, an elevated civic culture of speech. At this point, we should also recall Charles Baudelaire, whose emphatic commitment to reportage drawing—with a focus solely on ‘today’—as the appropriate medium for ‘the painter of modern life’ (1859) and language-based elevation of civilization and the aesthetics of the everyday provided the spiritual foundation documents of an ‘urban’ modernism. Baudelaire was a proponent of artists working and thinking in an ‘applied’ way in order to break out of the cult of the genius and the fixation with art as the incarnation of a rarefied specialism—a call that continues to be relevant today, as our modern society and media continue to seek out the ‘artistic genius’ type.
“Base de la peinture concrète. Nous disons: 1° L’art est universel. 2° L’œuvre d’art doit être entièrement conçue et formée par l’esprit avant son execution.” These are the first sentences of one of the key manifestoes of the early 20th-century: the manifesto of Art Concret, founded in 1930 by Theo van Doesburg, Gustav Otto Carlsund, Jean Hélion, Leon Tutundjian, and Marcel Wantz. This manifesto of Concrete Art, whose six articles laid down the theoretical basis for the Concrete Art movement, appeared in the sole issue of the magazine of the same name in April 1930. “Art is universal. A work of art must be entirely conceived and shaped by the mind before its execution. It shall not receive anything of nature’s or sensuality’s or sentimentality’s formal data. We want to exclude lyricism, drama, symbolism, and so on. The painting must be entirely built up with purely plastic elements, namely surfaces and colors. A pictorial element does not have any meaning beyond ‘itself’ […].” Theo van Doesburg declared non-representational art to be a concretion of itself, seeing it as a manifestation of the intellect in a specified historical situation. To the demands of the members of Art Concret of 1930 for rationality and anti-subjectivity were added, significantly, the belief that the arguments of art should reflect the political and social developments of its times—an ethos that was largely lost to subsequent incarnations of Concrete Art throughout the 20th century.
Among authors who have written on the work of Jacob Dahlgren, Thomas Millroth, writing in 2006, has been particularly active in highlighting the significance of the pioneering socio-artistic conception of Art Concret and concrete poetry. This actual book also touches on a number of other influences: the abstract images of Olle Baertling (1911 Halmstad, SE—1981 Stockholm, SE), Bauhaus, Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Kenneth Noland, Jackson Pollock, Bridget Riley et al. I would also like to give a prominent mention to Daniel Buren, who, in 1975, staged the first abstract protest marches featuring a choreography of people in urban spaces carrying colorfully striped images (Seven Ballets in Manhattan). He has since repeated this action on numerous occasions.
In the titles of his artworks, Jacob Dahlgren makes particularly frequent references to the ‘Peinture Abstraite’ tradition (in the title of a series of striped pictures first embarked on by Dahlgren in 1996) and ‘Neo Constructivism:’ the first of these is a fairly general reference to the history of Abstract Art, whilst the second term is a more specific reference to one of the most significant movements that aimed to politicize Abstract Art in the 1960s. The Brazilian artists Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Hélio Oiticica responded to the repression of a military dictatorship by creating open, changeable concepts of nonrepresentational art that endeavored to address and include the viewer performatively and interactively.
In connection with his ‘lifelong–projects’ (T-shirts, stripe images, a series of photographs entitled ‘Signs of Abstraction’ which, to date, comprises more than 100,000 pictures, et cetera), Jacob Dahlgren himself provides a reference to another artist, who was to some degree also an inspiration: the Polish painter Roman Opalka. In his daily photographic self-portraits, taken in front of pictures with the ‘numbering’ of passing time as their motif, Opalka made himself the epitome of the incorporated artistic medium: in his own self.
I would like to look at yet another branch of this artistic genealogy: the line leading from the artistic-political ethos of the Art Concret group and the Neo-Constructivists to the utopias of the European Zero avant-garde, and to two outstanding exponents of socially-engaged Abstract Art in Scandinavia: Poul Gernes and Albert Mertz.
Until the early 1990s, the art-historical term ‘Zero’ was identified essentially and to some extent exclusively in the public consciousness with the group of Dusseldorf artists of the same name around Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Günther Uecker, founded in 1957. Since then it has been more broadly recognized that Zero was a European movement, with centers in Dusseldorf, Milan, Paris, and Amsterdam—the groups naming themselves as ‘Nul’ (the Netherlands), ‘Nouveaux Réalistes’ (France), ‘Azimut’ (Italy) or ‘Nove Tendencije’ (Zagreb). In about 1960, artists like Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, and Jan J. Schoonhoven, stayed in close contact with the above-mentioned Germans and a large group of like-minded individuals. Together, they formulated a radical reassessment of the traditional concept of the work of art, thus laying the foundations for Concept Art and Minimalism in Europe.
This reassessment of the traditional work concept is still, after about fifty years, difficult to reduce to a common denominator, as these developments did not lead to an artistic style. Instead, they questioned the basis of artistic production, reception and presentation in general. Additionally, artists all over Europe and America were working on this ‘dethronement’ of the traditional work of art, to some extent without being aware of each other and with very different motives. In art historical terms, various attempts were made to enshrine this ‘artistic turning-point’ in language.
So, why is it a good idea to take a look at the Zero movement? The first two things to be noted here are the movement’s consistent use of banal, anti-artistic materials—sieves, arrow and nail, aluminum and glass, light switches and crown corks, plastic waste and foam rubber, bread rolls arranged in serial rows, the leftover remnants of a table of food, microphotography and minimalist music, flyers, films and television documentaries—and its exploration of a variety of media. The Zero artists moved from images to action art, from light objects to art theory essays, from organizing and designing exhibitions to an introverted suite of drawings, always ready to abandon what had already been achieved and secured in the cause of overcoming media, stylistic, and artistic categories. The idea was to use concrete reality as artistic material, artistic experience, and artistic presentation.
Jacob Dahlgren’s art also depends significantly on everyday materials, a performance-based opening up of the concept of “the artwork,” and an effort to address society.
Poul Gernes (1925 Frederiksberg, DK—1996 Ängelholm, SE) can be regarded as one of the most significant exponents of the abstract post-war avant-garde in Scandinavia. He withdrew at an early stage and in a radical fashion from the institutionalized art world; as a result, his work was only rediscovered and reevaluated in the late 1990s. In 1961 in Copenhagen, Gernes and the art historian Troels Andersen founded the ‘Experimental Art School’ as an act of opposition against the academic establishment. ‘Ex’ classes focused on current tendencies in American Art—Minimal, Pop, and Concept Art. Politically, the aim was to place the social role of the artist within social structures and processes, a democratic understanding of art, and working toward a critical form of social responsibility at the center of their teaching. Gernes himself worked with his students on films, and designed public plazas and buildings. Concepts he created for this purpose included his series of circular artworks entitled Targets, which also made use of the randomness principle: it was similar to Dahlgren’s artwork in that striped shirts provided the pattern, and the paintbrush was dipped blindly into pots of paint behind the artist, in order to exclude the artist’s personal ‘taste’.
Albert Mertz (1920–1990, Copenhagen, DK) redefined the horizons for European post-war avant-gardists with an anarchic and gleefully destructive œuvre, whose underlying conceptual and constructive strictness nonetheless reveals an emphatic questioning of art’s social and communicative roles. Mertz demonstratively emphasized his artworks’ ‘non-intact,’ non-conserved and battered physical form, thus focusing the viewer’s attention on the authenticity and coherence of the underlying thought. Albert Mertz represented an artistic attitude that, whilst it transitioned through practically all media of visual and acoustic form-finding, was bent on examining the question of whether aesthetics and responsibility are to be understood as mutually exclusive or symbiotic. The artist’s work went through a variety of states of artistic conceptions: Dada, Schwitters and the European development of Zero and Nouveaux Réalisme, Conceptual Art, Minimal, and Pop Art. Between 1970 and 1990, Mertz worked on his concept Proposition red/blue, producing free-hanging and floor-based visual objects from acrylic on cardboard, plywood and wood, and mounted canvas. In the 1980s, he began including snapshot photographs.
At first glance, the significant role played by selected materials in Jacob Dahlgren’s artworks appears to place them in the historical context of the Readymade: packaging from the consumer goods industry, objects from the office, craftsmanship or toy context, lamp stands, T-shirts and electric cables, passenger vehicles, saw blades, blocks of paper, clothes hangers, dartboards.
At this stage, it is worth recalling that the concept of the Readymade, as developed
by Marcel Duchamp, celebrates its hundredth birthday in 2016—at least according to one interpretation of events. It is a ‘double’ birthday of the Readymade, both as a concept and as an artistic praxis. In January 1916, Marcel Duchamp, who had moved from Paris to New York the previous year, wrote a letter to his sister Suzanne concerning the disposal of his Paris apartment, in which he mentions the concept of the Readymade for the first time. Marcel Duchamp explains to his sister the status of the things that he left behind: “Now, if you have been up to my place, you will have seen, in the studio, a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack. I bought this as a ready-made sculpture. And I have a plan concerning this so-called bottle rack. Listen to this: here, in N.Y., I have bought various objects in the same taste and I treat them as ‘readymades.’ […] This long preamble just to say: take the bottle rack for yourself. I’m making it a “Readymade,” remotely. You are to inscribe it at the bottom and on the inside of the bottom circle, in small letters painted with a brush in oil, silver white color, with an inscription which I will give you herewith, and then sign it, in the same handwriting as follows [after] Marcel Duchamp.” Duchamp’s explicit explanation failed to prevent both the bottle rack and the bicycle wheel from being disposed of as rubbish.
In April 1916, the catalogue for the group exhibition ‘Exhibition of Modern Art’ at New York’s Bourgeois Gallery had listed the artworks contributed by Marcel Duchamp as ‘Two Readymades.’ Five years later, in 1917, the jury of the New York art event ‘Salon des artistes indépendents,’ which included Marcel Duchamp, decided not to admit to the exhibition a urinal signed ‘R. Mutt 1917,’ which had been submitted as a sculpture. It was also in 1916 that Duchamp acquired a simple comb and gave it a title, a signature and an inscription (the sole surviving ‘original’ Readymade, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
The original definition of the Readymade stipulated that Readymades should be individual pieces, and that they should be titled and signed. Anti-aestheticism, a protest against predominating dictates of taste, and provocation—with respect to Duchamp’s intellectual positioning of the Readymade and the gestures of presentation and contextualizing, but even more so with respect to the reception of Readymades in the 1960s and 1970s—were equally important facets of the Readymade.
This specialized genealogy and system of semantics does not apply to the artwork of Jacob Dahlgren, even if individual features such as the use of saw blades or banal surfaces from the packaging industry do contain certain echoes. For the contemporary artist, materials from the consumer goods industry are ‘the means of painting.’ They are an arsenal of refillable, modular objects, and at the same time a declaration of the short-lived nature of trends and aesthetic preferences. Dahlgren uses existing signs and patterns from art and from everyday life, implementing them, translating them into the art context through performance and multiplication, and thereby integrating them into an aesthetic canon of values—it is in this respect that there is, as it were, a subcutaneous connection between Dahlgren’s work and the genealogy of the Readymade.
The founding documents of our concept of modernism are inextricably linked with the practices of multiplication and serialization. Individual manifestations in the form of pictures, drawings, and sculptural sketches are subsumed into an artwork idea enacted through a process, with the ‘Non-finito’ inevitably linking the individual artwork into a continuous chain of visions that, taken together, represent the utopia of an ‘artwork-less’ art. Cézanne spent forty years working on new versions of his ‘bathers’ motif. Between 1892 and 1894, Claude Monet painted 28 different pictures of the cathedral of Rouen, as seen at different times of day. Over two decades, Piet Mondrian created countless “variations on an artistic syntax, with every ‘composition,’ as he still called his pictures, making use of that syntax in a different way.” Some decades later, we have the image series of the 1960s, which continued to demolish the concept of the artwork: Andy Warhol’s 102 versions of Shadows, Poul Gernes’ open-ended series entitled Targets, Olivier Mosset’s series of identical circle pictures, et cetera.
I believe that, for Jacob Dahlgren, the concept of multiplication and a generally open serialization of elements and objects are essential. He begins with the collecting process, with the daily wearing of striped T-shirts and with his quasi-ritualistic photographic documentation of this concept (since 2001), with the plastic mirrors and dartboards, the number of which increases in proportion to the size of the display wall (2001/2004), with the colored paper and book blocks that form a small ‘city within the city’ (Color Reading and Contexture, A-Foundation, Liverpool 2010), and progresses to the sculptural concept of Primary Structures, for which Dahlgren devised individual elements with a standard measurement that can be multiplied to produce ever-growing play-structures, depending upon the location and the situation.
In his writings, Wassily Kandinsky wrote circa 1910/12 about the “pure sound” of a word, which can only be experienced as an abstract, spiritual value if that word has been freed from all actual functional purpose. One might loosely summarize the intentions behind Kandinsky’s theorizing thus: if one repeats any word often enough, its real meaning evaporates, giving place to an abstract and non-referential ‘beauty,’ a space that is experienced in a spiritual way.
Thus, banality, when it is multiplied and potentiated in this way, opens up a form of abstract beauty that is accessible to everyone. ‘Democratic’ Abstract Art (not a term accepted by Dahlgren) is impossible without a reconnection with reality. One could describe two principles that represent the basis of the conceptual projects pursued by Jacob Dahlgren over a number of years. Piet Mondrian coined the expressions ‘New Design’ and ‘Painting of Real Abstraction’—Dahlgren’s œuvre as a whole is in this sense abstract painting embodied as reality. One example: the artist’s demonstrative artwork series entitled Peinture Abstraite, first embarked upon in 2001 and usually modified by co-curators (“In this project, where art becomes life and life become art, I’ve been wearing a striped T-shirt every day since 2001,” J.D.). As individual items, the striped shirts that the artist has bought/collected are banal, as are the individual photos of him wearing them. In the linking together of the abstract design—in meter-long flags, in filmed stripe compositions, in all-over hung pattern pictures, and above all, as a kind of re-translation—to the ‘real’ application on his body and the bodies of his family and of his friends, a beauty becomes perceptible that belongs only to the whole.
In 2006, when Jacob Dahlgren was asked whether his artwork expressed democratic aspirations, he replied: “In terms of skill, my art is democratic, but in reality there aren’t many people interested or who have the drive to do the work even if they have the skills needed. So what makes the projects interesting is that I actually do them. No, I don’t really have democratic ambitions. It’s more about doing geometric art and at the same time having a connection to reality. Without reality, I would feel too far-fetched to sit in the studio and try to do abstract paintings that were just about color and form. It wouldn’t feel as if the paintings had any connection to me, only to other people’s art.”