A Discussion between Niklas Östlind and Magnus Bärtås
Originally published in Magnus Bärtås, works –2000, Gävle
If one looks at your art from the beginning of the nineties, a theme is
evident or, rather, a world to which it refers and to which it gives expression
in various ways.One might describe it as commonplace, popular and, in
a sense, deeply personal. How do your projects - some of them stretching
over long periods of time – arise and how do they relate to your
own situation in life? I should also like to know what it was that made
you choose to be an artist
I had a strong realization that I was going to be an artist as early as
the age of seven or eight. This was probably because I could draw realistically
from an early age. I grew up in the province of Småland. We lived
in a couple of places, longest in the town of Ljungby. I had a very high
opinion of myself. I clearly remember how, at the age of nine, I was struck
by the thought that "I am best at drawing for my age in the whole
of Sweden". But it took quite a long time before I became an artist.
I started illustrating textbooks in biology before I had finished high
school. I continued to support myself by drawing but also as a graphic
designer, writer and, for a period, by writing questions for quiz shows.
I only applied to one art school on one single occasion – to Konstfack
in Stockholm. I was eighteen and I did not get in. I decided never to
As regards the theme you mentioned, I have never used the term "popular"
myself. But I am interested in the relationship between the general and
the specific. I see them as two movements: how something specific or peripheral
can be transformed into something general or central and the other way
round: how something general, or a mainstream phenomenon, can move out
to the margin. I am also interested in the fact that Stockholm is like
an island in a sea of "countryside" in which other norms and
aesthetic ideals are stronger.
I made a film to be shown with the advertisements in the cinema in 1998
under the auspices of the project "Art in the cinema". The film
portrayed a scene from the nursery school that my son was attending. Every
morning the children gathered round a basket and, at the teacher's behest,
they marked that they were present by taking out their dolls which were
based on Waldorf models. In my film the children were replaced by adults
who were somewhat ambiguously adult. The dolls in my version were also
based on the Waldorf model but they had specific characteristics so that
they genuinely portrayed the person they belonged to. The man with the
pony-tale, for example, had a doll with a pony-tale and even the clothes
were copied in detail from the person. Such a portrayal broke with Waldorf
principles regarding generality - that the dolls should be generalized
without particular facial characteristics so that the child is able to
project his or her fantasies on the "empty" face in which only
the mouth and eyes are sketched in. The fact that Rudolf Steiner's esoteric
doctrine has been watered down and is now to be found in all sorts of
common nursery schools, in the form of these dolls for example, is to
me a movement from the periphery into the mainstream. At the same time
my film referred to the "kick-off" courses that have become
increasingly common in recent times - in which companies visit Stockholm's
archipelago and the staff take part in various sorts of physical and mental
experiments to "weld the group together". Some of these kick-off
experiments have an almost sect-like tension. I have heard stories of
how some staff break down during the exercises either through pressure
or from the liberating energy. In my eyes this is a movement in the opposite
direction: from mainstream to the esoteric.
In general I believe that one does art because one is upset about something.
One can get in a state about beauty or idiocy, cruelty or the mechanisms
of forgetfulness or that one's view of the world collides with that of
people around one. One can also get upset about details that, for some
strange reason, one experiences as enormously important.
When I was preparing for the exhibition "Rum Mellan Rum" (Space
between rooms) at Moderna Museet in 1992 I started thinking about what
the houses looked like in the small town where I grew up. While I was
actually growing up I had never thought about them. But after travelling
round Småland and Skåne and devoting myself to taking photographs
of houses in the little towns I felt as though I had discovered a new
world, in spite of the fact that this was the world of my childhood. When
I moved to Stockholm at the beginning of the eighties I was just as struck
by the architecture of the mass-housing projects. My first real work of
art (together with Anders K. Johansson) was based on the shopping centre
in suburban Sollentuna and I believe that that work was partially dependent
on my viewing it as a stranger. We photographed three neighbourhoods representing
three decades (60s, 70s and 80s). I coloured them by hand in order to
take the motif back to the stage of a model or vision. The coloration
was also intended to inhibit the "that was then function" that
is inherent in all photography. That was then, but when was it? The coloration
was an anachronism. I later used the same method to produce pictures from
three other suburbs: Husby, Farsta and Akalla, districts of which the
politicians are not proud. Here too I produced a splendid vision, but
afterwards when it was already too late for such a vision.
I believe that art, or rather the impulse to produce art, often comes
from not understanding. When, today, I look at humorous programmes on
the television and fail to laugh a single time, not even smile, I become
obsessed with the question of why I do not think the programme funny when
numerous other people do. Perhaps I do not belong to the target audience.
Nor do I believe that there is a consensus about what is humour. But the
thing is that in these cases there is no boundary zone. I can hardly understand
this humour even theoretically. I am spurred on by this feeling of autism.
To be in a cinema in which everyone is laughing except oneself gives one
a sense either of belonging to the elect or of being isolated. It was
these two communicating vessels that were my starting point for the exhibition
Konspirationen (The Conspiracy) in 1997: that the world at large had agreed
a treaty behind one's back and that you want to communicate to the world
around the appalling truth that you have discovered.
We first met almost 10 years ago at Tidskriftsverkstan (Periodical
workshop) in Stockholm. I was one of the editors of Hjärnstorm (Brainstorm)
and you were working on Tidskriften 90TAL (Periodical 90s). Later we were
both on the editorial staff of Index. From what you have related it seems
as though you have always done lots of things, not least writing texts
about art. In many contexts people talk about focusing on one thing or
one project. How do you view this and how important have your other activities
been for your artistic work?
When I started my career as an artist at the end of the 80s it was not
considered entirely correct to both write about and work with art and
to be active in neighbouring activities such as graphic design and drawing
comic strips. There has been a big change in the understanding of the
artist's role in Sweden in the last ten years. Nowadays an interdisciplinary
attitude is praised. Interdisciplinary art has developed into an aesthetic
of its own. Some of my diverse activities were the result of a need to
support myself financially. But even in recent years when the financial
pressure has not been as great I have continued to work in many fields.
In one of my latest works – the "Who is..." series - I
have mixed together several of my interests: graphic design, an interest
in product design, text and photography.
Even disregarding the different disciplines in which I have worked and
the different roles that I have, it has been difficult for me to gather
myself into a "style". Each time that I introduce a new series
of works of art I develop a new method for them that I have usually been
able to work with and refine over an extended period. It is for this reason
that I can be working in parallel with a series of works that differ from
each other in visual expression. I am probably the sort of artist who
has a mental framework that is fixed but this mental framework can be
"directed" in different directions with varying results.
Sometimes my textual works lead on to object-based works and sometimes
the reverse happens. While working on The Conspiracy-exhibition I looked
a lot at conspiracy sites on the Internet. Some of the content of these
sites was included both in the catalogue and in the "noticeboard
work" that I produced in collaboration with the other artists (Peter
Hagdahl, Leif Elggren, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Ann-Sofi Sidén,
Annika Eriksson and Andreas Gedin). I was drawn into the narratives and
the improbable theories on these websites. After the exhibition I was
unable to forget them. With Fredrik Ekman I started writing a text on
mind control and behavioural technology. The work led us to the Spanish
neurologist José Delgado's activities. In the fifties he invented
a machine that could be coupled to electrodes implanted in the brains
of humans and animals. Using a remote control he could send electrical
impulses into the brain of his experimental subjects and in this way produce
motor and sensory effects. He was able to produce involuntary movements,
memories, feelings of distress, hate, aggressivity and hallucinations
as well as happiness, euphoria and sexual emotions. Delgado was no marginal
researcher. He was a professor at Yale and received enormous grants for
his research from both civilian and military institutions. To pursue the
story we travelled to Madrid, where he now lives in retirement, and sought
him out. After the visit we wrote an article and I am myself working on
a video. I was not sure in advance what form the work would take. I was
fairly open for all sorts of possibilities. When I place my written texts
in a daily newspaper, for example, the result is probably quite different
from that caused by my composite texts here in an artistic context.
A characteristic of your works is the unusual choice of media
or materials that you work with, for example plastic folders, wax and
embroidery. The latter two I think people born in the sixties would recognize
from their time in nursery school when they embroidered cloths with cross-stitch
and made wax impressions of comic strips. One common aspect is that they
are all slow methods. It takes time to turn snapshots into embroidered
pictures or to create a whole wall of wax portraits. How does one choose
oneís medium of expression and what is its importance?
I can see that there is an ethic of "do it yourself" that you
describe in several of my works. My ideal is that each series I make should
have its very own technical and formal structure which belongs with the
structure of ideas. In several of my works there is an invisible instruction
about a method that it should be possible for the viewer to take home.
In the Fluxus movement artists worked openly with such instructions, or
scores, as they were sometimes called. Some similar scores have been my
strongest source of inspiration. The invisible instruction I see as a
promise of metamorphosis - that there is a potential in the ordinary,
both as regards beauty and information; above all information.
As regards slowness it is a matter of part being added to part in my works.
It is like doing a little bit every day - the fact that you do it every
day leads, in the end, to an enormous quantity. Some of my works have
developed in this way although this was not planned from the beginning
- they are added to and they extend gradually until a large amount results.
This is true of my wax figures in Tribute to the Tribune. I have not yet
decided when I shall conclude the work. The newspapers are constantly
giving me new material. In other works I seek to reduce an enormous amount
of information to something very small and simple. In working with texts
I often proceed in this manner. In the collection of aerial picture postcards
I am assembling the same principle applies. Every individual aerial photo
contains enormous amounts of information; one usually sees miles and miles
of a landscape or of the city. So with a minimal space occupied by a hundred
such cards your gaze can scan an area equivalent to entire countries.
With the embroideries I generally do a little bit every day. In the long
run this results in a great deal. The needlework is really slow. Each
embroidery takes me almost a year to complete. Initially I did not worry
about these aspects. The embroideries were done by my wife because she
liked needlework and was amazingly dextrous. Needlework was almost an
obsession. At this time I was myself principally interested in the business
of transferring something from a photograph to a embroidery. I do this
by sending my photographs to a company that produces a digital needlework
pattern in which each stitch represents a single pixel of the coarsely
scanned picture. The company supplies me with the needlework pattern together
with all the wools in their various colours as determined by the computer.
It is interesting that the computer "hypertranslates" the images.
The computer cannot accept light areas as merely light or white. Rather,
it marks the nuances and contrasts that are not visible to the eye. In
the series of portraits that I am currently working on I have placed people
against the white background in my studio and have photographed them.
On the photographs the light background looks entirely even but when I
start to embroider them according to the pattern, there are veils round
the figures like fields of energy.
Since 1997 I have myself embroidered the 25 000 or so stitches that each
work demands and in this way I have been forced into slowness. It was
only when I started doing the work myself that I really gained a true
feeling for the time aspect. I alternate between two attitudes to the
time aspect. Either it is a matter of a luxury – of wasting enormous
amounts of time and energy - or that the tapestry captures and materializes
all the time that would otherwise have "disappeared".
A further aspect that attracts me is the collision of two different speeds
that the photo-needlework involves. A rapid speed represented by the photography
and the digital technique collides with a slow technique – needlework.
I made use of this idea in a triptych which I called "Roadmovie 1-3"
which consisted of three snapshots from car trips in Sweden. The aspects
represented by a roadmovie - fleetingness, rapidity, movement, momentary
impulses - were placed in relation to their opposites - slow and demanding
needlework in the home. At the same time I noticed that, in my choice
of motifs, I had taken some small acount of the demands of needlework
– even the "Roadmovie images" had something homely about
them. The motif that portrays a road in northern Sweden leading absolutely
nowhere is, in fact, a picture postcard.
You mentioned that you do not, yourself, use the term "popular".
But what I am referring to coincides with what you call peripheral, i.e.,
peripheral in relation to a perspective within the field of professional
art. It is really a matter of a widespread aesthetic notion to which the
world of art has, in many senses, an ambiguous relationship. When it becomes
an aspect of art it is always treated in a manner that introduces moments
of distancing: for example, investigative, nostalgic or ironical. The
central aspect, as I see it, is that one is not unreflective but that
one has a conscious relationship to the cultural manifestations that one
can term popular or peripheral. You have already dealt with this to an
extent but could you describe your relationship to this aesthetic sphere
in more detail?
As you note, concepts like peripheral and central have to do with perspective
and position but from a more objective perspective the popular, or mainstream
to use a broader term, are not peripheral but central. Internet has created
interesting mutations in this field in that one can suddenly communicate
with large numbers of people in what were formerly peripheral areas of
interest. A strange figure in the sticks is no longer quite as strange
when he is part of a world-wide network of thousands of other people with
the same interests. If one speaks of what is popular as a subject for
art, what is popular is hardly peripheral. One may claim that pop art
turned mainstream phenomena into something central in art. I do not believe
that the word "popular" should automatically be linked with
folk-art. But the more one thinks about it the more complex the category
becomes. And the various manifestations of popular art are wildly heterogeneous.
Sometimes quite esoteric phenomena find their way into what is popular
and one wonders how this happens. This may be Gregorian chant, balloon
dances or suchlike. Some people will willingly explain how some improbable
artist manages to become popular but I am sceptical to such explanations
as to how someone who might otherwise be termed mad, suddenly becomes
popular. There seems to be a random-selection mechanism at work somewhere
that influences everything.
In fact I have difficulty in clearly seeing my own relationship to what
is popular, not least because my thoughts go astray when I try to see
this as a category on its own. If what is popular was easy to analyze,
then anyone would be able to exploit its commercial potential. But if
one speaks of the aesthetic sphere of what is popular that you are focusing
on then things become somewhat more concrete. Here there is a spectrum
of different sorts of creativity with numerous "own" effects.
There are tricks of illusion in popular art that I have embraced. I am
thinking of decorative objects, home-made or mass-produced, where one
makes use of a sort of double vision in which the illusion is simultaneously
discovered and revealed: pieces of cork are transformed into a beach with
palm trees or one hammers nails into a white-painted board and stretches
threads between the nails and a shoal of fish appears. Similar transformations
occur in my own art, for example in my work with plastic folders.
You speak of a desire to move things and to place them on a new
scale of values. What do you think happens in these changes of context?
We can take your house pictures as a concrete example. What reactions
have you received when you have shown them in different contexts?
The discussion as to how the production of meaning in a work changes
when it is moved between different contexts has been central to today's
discussion of art. As I see it, art is part of a complex system of imitation,
repetition, temporality and transference.
If we start with the house pictures, I discovered that they emphasized
the viewer's background and personal history when they were shown. During
the exhibition at Moderna Museet one critic wrote that I exhibited pictures
"of the houses that sully the landscape". That critic lives
in a palace. Several architects who visited the exhibition looked at the
"mad solutions" that people find for their houses with terrified
delight. I have shown them twice in SmÅland. The first occasion
was at Urshult's entertainment park where we showed our work for a weekend
as part of an artistic manifestation. Carl Johan Erikson mounted the exhibition
with three artists who had grown up in Småland but now live in Stockholm.
The works that we showed all related to the smaller towns and the countryside
but had previously only been shown in larger cities. We had great difficulty
in being accepted as part of the local artistic manifestation and had
to do our utmost to be accepted. But when we had installed our works most
people were satisfied. The second occasion was at Smålands Konstarkiv
in 1998. The gallery was situated in the middle of a domestic neighbourhood.
When one looked out of the large windows one saw the same sort of houses
as were portrayed in the pictures. There was a sort of mirror effect.
Some of the visitors did not understand why I was showing the pictures.
The degree of difference between what as portrayed and the surroundings
was too small. One visitor jokingly asked where the price labels were.
He saw the houses as pictures in an agent's catalogue.
The movement in the other direction - from high to low if one can use
such a terminology - how does it find expression in your work?
No, I do not think that one can use such a terminology with regard to
my work. High-low does not work. If, on the other hand, you exchange "the
high" for "the narrow", or why not the "special case"
it will be easier to carry through such an idea. The low can then be exchanged
with "the broad" and "the general". I made a video
with one of my pupils at Konstfack – Leif Lindell – where
I sometimes think of such a movement. The video is a documentary of Leif's
visit to the psychiatrist and hypnotist Ture Arvidsson who has a little
clinic on Lidingö. Leif wanted an answer to certain questions about
the past, the present and the future. They were highly personal questions
about love, repressed memories and the wisdom or otherwise of pursuing
a career as an artist. Ture Arvidsson was a well-known hypnotist in the
seventies. He often appeared on television and even on one occasion succeeded
in getting a famous television pianist to play in a trance on a live transmission.
At the same time he had a completely different and less spectacular position
in research at the Karolinska hospital. It was Ture Arvidsson's opinion
that it was fairly easy to get answers to the questions that Leif put.
When Leif had been hypnotized he would provide the answers by movements
of his fingers. His unconscious would manifest itself in the so-called
idiomotoric reflexes, he opined. In the video one can follow the whole
process in real time. The belief in this ability – to be able to
get into a person's innermost secrets using such simple means –
fascinated me. What was difficult became simple, one might say.
My interest in conspiracy theory also builds on this movement. The fantasy
that a freak, who put together a most peculiar chain of explanation that
would explain everything, proves himself right. When we realize the truth
the ground will shake beneath our feet.
In several of your works there are references to contemporary
Swedish history: to the Swedish welfare state but also to moods and reactions
to the dismantling of the welfare state that has taken place in recent
When you talk about dismantling I suppose that the subject is most apparent
in my pictures of houses. The only work in which I have thought in these
terms in a more articulate manner is the series AMU-land which I started
in 1995 even if I can see that my pictures of suburban apartment blocks
and houses can also be interpreted in this direction. AMU-land is built
up of photographs of sheds, cottages, sheds, small workshops and barns.
They are very simple buildings whose appearance emphasizes the fundamental
functions of protection, privacy or enclosure.
When I produced the series Neighbour with common, small-town houses I
was interested in how people alter their houses. They make strange additions
to their standardized houses. A house built of white brick had been provided
with a decorated wooden balcony. From the general form a special form
or hybrid is developed. As regards the buildings in AMU-land I have interested
myself in the opposite problem: how different special cases are assembled
in a category in which something common floats up to the surface, something
that is stronger than the individual elements. When I photograph them
I have a certain sort of generalized house in mind, the sort of house
that children draw. I try to envisage a sort of generic house. Some of
them are awkward and ugly while some of them tend towards minimalistic
elegance; the boundary line is extremely narrow. The houses have often
been built with an ad hoc attitude, most of them presumably without any
architect's plans. They form part of an invisible landscape, belonging
neither to the romance of the countryside nor to architectural history.
I have put together photographs of these simple buildings with pictures
of AMU establishments. My view was that there existed a correspondence
or a silent agreement between the huts and the AMU establishments. Even
the AMU establishments are almost exclusively very simple constructions
though on a larger scale. When I travelled round Sweden in a car I discovered
that at the entrances to towns I could look at a map showing the most
important buildings. The AMU establishments were always shown. But really
such an indication was unnecessary because one could find the premises
anyway. One had only to drive out to the industrial neighbourhood where
the steel buildings became increasingly box-like whereupon one discovered
a flag with the AMU logotype and one realized that one was approaching
AMU land. Since the AMU group, as it was called, had its own flag, its
own bags, track suits and pens one could readily see the organization
as its own, enclosed state.
When I started working on this there was an economic recession in Sweden,
almost an economic catastrophe. I had a feeling that people in the countryside
were being put into AMU camps. There they were equipped with AMU T-shirts,
AMU pens and given computer training to keep them quiet.
Now it is time to conclude this work, or to change it, since the climate
of society has changed. The AMU group has changed names this year and
is now called Lernia. But I find it difficult to stop because I can't
stop noticing these buildings and I seek them out as soon as I get a chance.
Perhaps I should make a Lernialand.
You have exhibited in Greece, Spain and France for example. How
have people reacted to your work there? What have they seen and how have
they interpreted your images? Are you differently received than in Sweden?
AMU-land as such has never been shown outside of Sweden. I find it difficult
to believe that it could mean anything to anyone who does not know or
can guess at the context (some of the buildings have been photographed
in Norway and Finland). But I think that it is a work that is dependent
on special references on the part of the viewer. I do not think that people
who have grown up in the larger cities in Sweden have the same possibility
of absorbing it. Nor, in all honesty, the majority of those who live in
the countryside on acount of the lack of distance.
The works that I have show most abroad are Tribute to the Tribune and
the Who is...? series. Tribute... is in some respects a documentary work.
It consists of texts and of wax pictures of people's portraits published
in the newspapers. All these people are dissatisfied and consider themselves
maltreated. Some of them feel that their honour and reputation is threatened
while others think themselves the victims of conspiracies. They are famous
people, tenants, pensioners, ice-hockey trainers (very many ice-hockey
trainers - they are over-represented), golfers, patients, priests, etc.
They all want redress or some form of compensation. Both Tribute... and
Who is... are narrative works. The texts that are included in the works
are received in more or less the same way in different countries. Tribute...
is seen primarily as a visual work since the wax figures have a certain,
fragile beauty and their considerable number creates a mass effect. Within
the visual experience I have noticed different reactions. Both in Spain
and Greece the work was interpreted to a greater degree as an invocation
with references to the votive offerings of the church. In southern Europe
wax does not have the same everyday aspect that it does in Sweden but
is more ritualistic, liturgical and seriously charged.
There is an aspect of your art that you have touched on but that
I should like you to comment further. In the series Who is..., as you
say yourself, several fields of interest are united, not least texts which
are often fragmentary with you and which frequently contain a biographical
element. The first time that I saw one of the Who is...-"works in
the group exhibition "Little Big Stories", which had been curated
by Suzana Milevska and shown in Stockholm in 1998. The interesting thing
was that not only did this work fit in very well in the context but that
the title of the exhibition functions as a very fruitful entry to many
of your works. Brief narratives about everyday events and phenomena that
together make up our lives but which we seldom think about until something
changes or ends. You seem to have an almost literary relationship to narrative
and I am reminded of authors such as Auster and Borges. Can you say something
about your view of narrative?
There is, of course, a link between my work and literature in that I
have produced several works in which texts form part of the whole. Raymond
Carver's short stories, to name a particular author, influenced me greatly
when I read them in the early nineties. Otherwise it has been more concentrated
forms of narrative, poetry rather than prose, that have been important
to me in my textual work. A collection of poems that I often return to
is Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Written in the first decade
of the twentieth century, the book can be described as a collection of
necrologies from a fictitious small town known as Spoon River. Each poem
summarizes one person's fate in a remarkably light but often tragic manner.
There is much in the book that seems dated, of course, not least the rather
exalted used of metaphor. But the condensed "actions" in each
poem often penetrate the time barrier. There are the same disappointments
and joys in Spoon River as in any contemporary town. A man who has invested
all his money in building a house with "spires, bay windows and a
roof of slate" has daughters who "grew up with a look as if
someone were about to strike them". A woman who had lived a life
in finery, “forever eating or traveling, or taking the cure at Baden-Baden"
comes back to her native town where no one asks where she has been or
whom she has eaten dinner with. It is this desire to create an extract
from a long series of events or a whole life that interests me. The greatest
possible economy of narrative is also to be found in the medieval ballads.
But one also finds condensed narrative in quite different areas, non-literary
areas, that interest me even more. I am thinking, for example, of the
extremely brief notices that sometimes appear in the newspapers as accounts
of highly complex events and the television supplements' descriptions
of films. The story of an entire film can be told in a few lines.
But most interesting of all is listening to people discussing a mutual
friend whom they have not seen for a long time. One hears them saying:
"He went to the USA. When he came back he was different. He had got
In the concentrated narrative an under-pressure is generated. Everything
that is not said, the lack of explanation, creates an enormous pull. There
is an obvious level. Everyone knows that there is something unexpressed
but no one knows exactly what it consists of. So one has to flesh out
the narrative oneself and create links between the clues. After reading
the awkward descriptions of films in the TV supplements one can watch
the film in one's mind's eye. Someone who reads a very short account in
the newspaper of an expedition that got lost in the jungles of South America
and was obliged to eat the rare butterflies that had been collected during
the expedition is not satisfied with what is in the account but imagines
a great deal more. This thought, that a few words say more than a thousand
words, also has a history in pictorial art with the likes of Lawrence
Weiner and Jenny Holzer.
My first biographical work was produced in collaboration with Peter Andersson
in 1993. This consisted of an insert for the periodical Tidskriften 90TAL
with the title Vitae Parallelae - Olle Granath and Bosse Dynamit. The
title was borrowed from Plutarch's method. Some 2000 years ago he wrote
about fifty comparative biographies of leading Greeks and Romans. The
form of our version was the surface biography. A surface biography is
a brief summary of a career assembled from materials in the public domain
such as excerpts from registers, newspaper cuttings and suchlike. A biography
of this sort thus presents the various phases of a person's life as seen
by "register eyes". Olle Granath was (and is) director of the
National Art Museums; Bosse Dynamit was a thief. During the seventies
he made a name as a "dynamiter" and an escape artist. He seems
to have been extraordinarily skilled at breaking in and breaking out but
he never managed life in freedom for long at a time since he was constantly
being arrested. Besides their slightly similar sounding names Olle and
Bosse were (and are) about the same age and similar in appearance. Assembling
Olle Granath's biography was no great problem but for Bosse Dynamit I
was obliged to sit hour after hour in the Södra Roslagen court reading
court records, police interrogations and examinations.
Otherwise there are no direct literary references in my works. The exception
was the exhibition Bergtagen (The Magic Mountain) in which there were
references to Thomas Mann's famous book. For me the literary references
were really of a more private character. The exhibition was dedicated
to my friend Kjell. In the winter of 1986 he borrowed my blue duffel coat
whereupon he disappeared without trace. He went off and has never been
heard of since. When I installed the exhibition at various places in 1993
I had the action of the novel as a sort of private hope. In Mann's novel
the hero returns seven years after his disappearance. The same thing could
happen with Kjell, I thought. But this was not the case.
Bergtagen was constructed round a series of postcards where I had photographed
a sentence that was written on the back of the card. I showed this sentence
together with the postcard motif and in this way the motif influenced
the contents of the written message. The postcard texts formed, for me,
a sort of mini-story: "Have you entirely forgotten that Bosse exists?",
"This time I feel we have luck", "It will be nice to leave
this place and to do what we want", "We thought it would be
nice to become real people".
In the Bergtagen catalogue I explained how I came to realize that a year
of my life was almost entirely blank, that I only had a few distinct memories
from this period and that, therefore, I wanted to exert myself to become
more present. In connection with this I started to work with a sort of
memory-training technique in which I tried to remember details pertaining
to people I had met. This is the method, if one can call it such, that
I have made use of in working on the Who is series. I write 24 compressed
texts about the people whom I portray. Some parts of this one might term
information or facts as though taken from a CV. Other parts have a totally
different character. They are details or quotations by the people. The
texts have been presented in different forms. In some of them I have let
visitors to the exhibition wind them forth on microfilm readers. The readers
are somewhat obsolete even though they are still used in many libraries
but the ones I use are entirely new. I purchased them from the USA and
they are splendidly designed. Placed in groups they manifest sculptural
properties. Like the kiosk models from the Eastern bloc that I photograph,
one can never be sure whether their design belongs to the future or the
Fundamental to Who is...? is that it is a presentation. That is why I
make use of posters and Styrofoam letters in these installations. In an
exhibition in Zagreb I used panels fixed to the walls of the gallery.
Association was directed at information boards in the countryside or in
museums that tell one what one should be looking at after reading the
text. In the exhibition one could also lift one's gaze from the panel
and look at one of the people that the exhibition dealt with, at least
at the opening. One of the people portrayed - Zdeno Buzek - was exhibiting
at the same time. In another context - the exhibition "Ventspils
Transit Terminal" - in Latvia, I installed the texts on a reader
in the library. The work was customized to the environment without making
a great deal of noise. But even if the texts fitted into the library they
did not fit a given horizon of expectations, to borrow an expression from
hermeneutics since they were not contained in books but "ran out"
directly onto the table top.
In recent decades there has been a reorientation of the political
system and of political debate in Sweden. The earlier social-democrat
vision of a Welfare State has given way to a neo-liberal free market and
social deprivation and differentiation has increased, something that polemicists
such as Göran Greider and Johan Ehrenberg continually remind us of.
What is your attitude to this development?
I have often reacted at the claim that "ideology is dead".
In Sweden, and even in the rest of Europe, rightwing ideology is in full
bloom. This applies both to the consumer-oriented and the extreme rightist
ideology. For people living in Stockholm the effects of privatization
- which is entirely an ideological movement - are to be seen more or less
every day. In the seventies the entire political scene moved to the left.
At that time even the young liberal politicians could speak of their role
in the coming revolution. Today the opposite is true. The social-democrats
have adapted themselves to the wishes of the "market". I hope
that the right will lose ground; there is nothing I wish more.
I am not certain that art can be used directly in a political cause. Art
gives rise to far too contradictory feelings. Political language has to
reduce reality so that it can be dealt with. Art transforms reality into
a "special case". Yet this special case tells us more about
reality than what is conveyed by political language. In this sense art
has a political dimension with long-term or stealthy action like some
My work “al4a could be read in political terms. But I have changed
my attitude to my own material: from an aspect of media criticism to a
sort of celebration of the media. I am in the process of evaluating the
work once again. I slide back to the feeling that the media use such complaints
as crumbs for a frustrated populace or as entertainment. Perhaps I need
to rename the work. One cannot be as vacillatory as a politician.
And to be honest, what is your attitude to conspiracies?
I am basically out of sympathy with conspiracies. Perhaps that is why
I am so devastated when they turn out to be true. My problem is that I
find it difficult to understand such intrigues. Conspiracy theories challenge
my ideas about what is unintentional in life and about the role of chance
in our lives.
On the other hand I have a lot of potential as a dogmatist in that I often
think that things must be totally "right". Many times I have
dreamed Hamlet's nightmare: that I have arrived at a dreadful truth, that
I have realized how everything fits together or that I have been badly
treated. I described this on a wall in the entrance hall to the museum
of art in Uppsala:
"One tries to communicate to the world around the sensational, initially
calm and level-headed, later all the more anxious. Nobody is listening.
One raises one's voice. People turn their faces away. They speak in falsetto.
They turn their gazes back to one but they are empty, indifferent."