Stories about the Selves
Suzana Milevska

Originally published in Magnus Bärtås, works –2000, Gävle Konstcentrum 2000

It is very natural that we want our lives to have meaning, or weight, or substance; we want them to grow towards some fullness and to make them part of a life story which has sense of purpose. The wish to build a meaningful unity of it underlines the importance of the quest for a kind of center of gravity around which the story would be narrated.
Like all physical objects, the human life has also a center of gravity: the self that gives the necessary ‘plot’ of narration to the life story. The stories about the ‘selves’ of other people provoked the artist Magnus Bärtås’ to develop his peculiar art procedure that grew in one of his most durable and consistent project: The Disappointed and Offended, later called Tribute to the Tribune.

In a quest what other people consider as important problem in their lives, so important that they do not hesitate to reveal it through the media (thus hoping to solve it), the artist built up a special kind of collection, a kind of wailing wall, as he calls it. His personal archive of files of fragmented destinies of people that he found about through media was ”designed” through a long process of reading newspapers, cutting the news, reportages and personal complaining statements, selecting the most interesting cases and, finally, with condensing the detailed stories in one short description.
While collecting these stories, sometimes full with sorrow and pain, and sometimes ridiculous and absurd, Magnus Bärtås came not only to immense amount of unexpected life screenplays, but even more important, to many different and unpredictable ways of self-perceptions. How people identified themselves and how they identified the others, and the discrepancy between this two often opposite views, became amusing and paradigmatic example for the relativity of the self that the artist continued to explore in his later project, the series of installations Who is…

The project Disappointed and Offended employed all those examples collected during several years and they served to the artist as a basic material for the installation that was exhibited, with certain modifications and supplementations, several times in different contexts. The wax ”masques” made with a very simple technique of ”entrapping” newspaper images within thin layers of melted candle wax became formal carriers of the narrative fragments. This cut up procedure of photos and texts enabled the artist to present the emphasized sentences that were condensed moments of disappointment or regret as a kind of predicament for the wax faces. Such concept is used in several other projects by the same artist: Bergtagen (The Magic Mountain) (1993), The Predicament (1996), Who is…? that employ a kind of pars pro totto or synecdoche in order to explain someone’s life only by using a certain recognizable although minor fact about him/her.
The series of projects Who is…? is a kind of continuation of the obsession with the details about other people’s lives, and not only about their disappointments. While collecting detailed descriptions of someone’s look, face, body, character and habits, Magnus Bärtås continually approaches to the asymptotic truth about the persons who provoked him to make a project about them but never comes to its accomplishment. The persons are usually artists themselves, not that famous but unique for being idiosyncratic and charismatic because of particular features that amused the artist and moved him to devote certain time to the investigating and discovering other details.

The presentation of the ‘files’ is somehow simulating the investigating procedure of police files although or because of the usage of some already obsolete machines still in use in some libraries- the microfilm readers, results with certain humorous turn: by following the detailed research procedure about any person there is danger that the findings may always turn the person look suspiciously.

With the very attentive choice of ‘selves’ who are main agents in this project series and by putting together all these ‘censored’ biographies the artist construct the drama of the project in which none of the characters communicates with each other. They hardly know anything about each other and exist independently in different corners of the world and the only thing that they have in common is the fact that the artist met them during his travels, and each of them influenced his life in a specific way.

Of course, the investigation process inevitably comes to certain limitations due to the fact that there is certainly no definite answer to a question posed in such restrictive manner. The always already pre-existing difference between the internal and external idea of the self and the subjective character of the experience will obviously always be an obstacle to define who is any of the characters who became a target for such investigation.
Probably that is one of the reasons that Magnus Bärtås, in his other works, moved towards different, more complex structures wherein the people, their minds and bodies (although absent from these works) are mutually constitutive with places, objects, forms, colours and architecture. The cross-cultural references and the material evidence (the models of kiosks in ex-Yugoslavia and Sweden, for example) based again on collecting as a procedure, this time focuses on the reflexivity of the formal and social processes that derive or impact us from the outside. It involves research in the modes of ‘‘learning how to accept, reject, and respond physically to external forces and subjectivities in ways that allow us more possibilities materially for entertaining difference”.

The self, therefore, is not neutral, independent and punctual object. ”It exists only in a certain space of questions, through certain constitutive concerns”. The main sources for the projects that Magnus Bärtås presents in his exhibition are the ‘selves’ of other people but, in order to present their meaning or substance as thoroughly as possible, he inescapably understands and constructs them in narrative form, as a story with their personalities and surroundings as structural requirements of human narratology.