Lars-Henrik Ståhl

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

In Fyodor Dostoevsky's short-story “A Fool's Dream”, the narrator lands on a foreign planet which turns out to be our own earth in an archaic guise, a paradise in which people live in total harmony. But by his very presence the narrator unintentionally transforms this idyll into its very opposite. The innocence of the inhabitants is exchanged for a scientific searching for a paradise that is gradually disappearing. If one ignores the fateful implications of Dostoevksy's story, it could serve as an allegory of modern society's longing for, and impoverishment of, its own margins. True, established forms of culture have maintained a well-known strategy that has meant rejecting various subcultural and - seen from that perspective - marginal phenomena. But this attitude does not offer any real surprises since its aim is to consolidate the distance between the centre and the periphery. Things get considerably more interesting, on the other hand, when forms of life and expressions close to the margins are highlighted as interesting alternatives in a society constantly demanding renewal.

The modern architectural aesthetic provides a typical example of how marginal phenomena are absorbed and filtered in order to fit into the ruling context. At an early stage, modernism's architecture turned away from what was seen as a historically tainted vocabulary of forms in favour of searching among areas that had been ignored or which were peripheral from the point of view of architectural history. Factory buildings, silos or ocean steamships have often been presented as typical models for early twentieth century avant-garde architecture. At a comprehensive level modernity contains a self-critical moment that is constantly seeking renewal in different types of revolt. Towards the end of the last century, modern self-criticism had intensified into irony and nostalgia. When some young architect in Sweden today wants to point to the mass-housing of the sixties as something positive, it is difficult, therefore, wholly to free such a value judgment from ironical or nostalgic connotations. This is also true of the picture in the media of somewhat dated design and architecture as it is presented in certain TV-programmes and in articles. In the latter example an unreflected attitude that everything old and odd is interesting is raised almost to axiomatic status. Why is it so difficult to portray or use in a relevant fashion impressions from the margins of architecture and why do the attractive marginal phenomena tend to disintegrate as soon as they are subjected to this treatment?
When the interplay between centre and periphery was developed into a post-structuralist concern some years ago, the erosion of hierarchical systems led to a sort of breakthrough in the possibility of theorizing around marginal forms of expression. But on a concrete artistic level the problem of the fragile margins remains. A large portion of goodwill and a subversive attitude are not enough since somewhere one has to pay attention to the integrity of the marginal. One can claim that the integrity is destroyed when the margin is conceptualized in order to serve different purposes. Its treatment should, therefore, be developed from a critical temperament which simultaneously shows respect for the mysteries that confront us. If this is successful, then both the centre and the margins are freed from their essentialistically conditioned positions and are transformed into a horizon with an infinity of possible positions.

Today there is considerable interest in the built-up environment, not least among contemporary artists. There is also a serious potential for a transformed view of architecture in which concepts like centre and margin seem to be on their way to being disarmed. As well as artists who act directly in structures or in building-like processes, the work of other artists bears witness to their contemplation of architectural phenomena in general. Several of Magnus Bärtås's projects belong to this latter category. In the projects All over the world, Farsta, Akalla and Husby, Grannar (Neighbours), AMUland and Satellites, Bärtås portrays different types of building which move in more or less confined circles round the concept of architecture. This may be a matter of major architectural projects of the sixties and seventies that, over time, have lost their visionary force and been forgotten or remembered only as social-planning failures.

By hand-tinting black and white photos of suburbs like Farsta and Akalla Bärtås creates a medium in which he can play with a sort of reconstituted image of a utopian stage which reveals itself as an appendix. The result gives rise to ambivalent feelings. One can feel fascination, disgust and wonder at his pictures. The last-named is extraordinarily important in that it creates the interpretative space that the fragile phenomena of the margin require if they are not to disintegrate, even if they are the most commonplace things imaginable. This is even more true of the project Grannar (Neighbours) from 1992. Here too we are faced with hand-tinted photographs of buildings. Here it is no longer a matter of the visionary mass-housing project, but Magnus Bärtås has chosen to describe how family houses are built onto in the provinces of Småland and Skåne. This type of building connotes a Sweden in which teashops have been turned into pizza and in which soap operas and TV-shop advertisements are the dominating offers in television. Nonetheless, the field that Bärtås describes in this work is controversial. Among architects it is almost de rigeur to express horror at one-family houses that show evidence of non-professional involvement. Neighbours could even be read as a taxonomy of uglified family houses though this would also be a severe oversimplification of the work. Here, too, the colouring technique helps to widen the interpretative possibilities. If the documentation in itself could serve a disparaging purpose, this is compensated by the relatively large format (140 x 90cm) which in itself awakes admiration, and the special colouring of the six different pictures.

Even if the works AMUland and Satellites deal with marginal phenomena to an even greater extent, his interest has shifted to how different fundamental functions generate specific types of buildings. In the case of AMUland it is a matter of a photographic documentation of simple and seemingly insignificant sheds and huts which are placed alongside the architecture of various AMU (Labour Market Board) premises. In this way a special dimension is created in which one is simultaneously obliged to see some minimal similarities between the large premises and the little shed.
In the recently initiated project Satellites Bärtås has left the Swedish “folk home” and instead has chosen to record a type of Eastern European plastic hut which is generally used as a kiosk or market stall. The plastic huts come in various sorts largely dependent on the country of origin. They are the result of modular thinking which also reflects a special vision of modern architecture. Just as the portrayals of Farsta or Akalla, these portraits provoke ambivalent feelings. One can understand the visionary force of the plastic huts at the same time that they also represent a sort of failure. In Satellites Bärtås has isolated the various plastic modules and he shows them against a yellow background. In this way he wants them to lose their links with the eastern bloc. A further effect of this process is that the model character of the recorded objects increases very considerably which, in turn, makes them the point of departure for a discussion of a future architecture.

Common to all the works by Magnus Bärtås under discussion are the subtle shifts that in a highly sensitive manner bring forward different phenomena from a specific background. The approach can be likened to those archaeological processes in which fragile objects are freed from various layers of sediment. This is a necessary condition when one approaches marginal phenomena even though dealing with the most commonplace objects and events.