On The Disappointed and Offended (Tribute to the Tribune)
and the art of reinventing an image
Annika Wretman

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

That an artist takes an image from one context and inserts it into another may seem a fairly uncomplicated undertaking. But in point of fact, recycling an image in this way represents a challenge to the categories that underlie human perception. Using categories as signposts we find our bearings in the world. Without a practical, intellectual and emotional organization the world around us would not only be impossible to cope with but also incomprehensible. And it is precisely here, in our desire to create structures, that contemporary art finds its most interesting function. It is in this context too that the "recycled image" produces a peculiar rupture in the order that we accept as given.

A considerable part of Magnus Bärtås's production deals with images that have been plucked from one context and conveyed to another. In his work this transfer is consciously made visible. The different significances that the pictures have accrued along the way are stored in the works and are impossible to ignore. The viewer's mind is thus set in motion by a world of images that does not just recycle a motif but also reinvents it.

Magnus Bärtås started working on The Disappointed and Offended aka Tribute to the Tribune in 1994 and the project is still under development. The point of departure for the work is the artist's interest in the Swedish tabloids' portrayal of people who feel themselves wronged in some way. The reasons for this may be as varied as maltreatment by the authorities, discrimination at work or indignation about cheating or misbehaviour in sport. Some of the people consider themselves to be victims of true conspiracies while others can be defined as legal suicides with a special feeling for justice. Common to all these cases is the individual's sense of frustration; the conviction that she or he has been subjected to someone else's wickedness, misinterpretation, revenge or ignorance, or has suffered an unreasonable degree of bad luck. Given a small amount of empathy an outsider can understand that such people experience a Kafka-like chaos; finding themselves part of an incomprehensible process in which the outcome is highly uncertain.

It is the portraits of these wronged people and the accompanying narratives that form the basic material of The Disappointed and Offended. The work consists of some 500 small portraits of faces or, more properly, impressions of portraits. The impressions are produced with the help of candle wax that is dropped on selected photographs from the newspapers. The printing ink on the paper adheres to the wax and when the slightly irregular roundel of wax is lifted, the result is a soft-focus mirror image of the picture. These portraits are then hung on the walls in various formations. The faces on the wax roundels cast indignant glances at the viewer from their new position as works of art.

Narrative texts are also part of the work, brief sentences that describe the core of each of the portrayed people's stories as presented in the press. This provides an endless list of wrongs that the people portrayed have been subjected to - hundreds of compressed descriptions of the evil that they have suffered. They are like a mantra or an endless reversed spell with an obvious poetic dimension. Like "the woman who had to strip for the customs officers when they searched for ecstasy tablets, the pensioner with cancer who by mistake was arrested for threatening to kill the Prime Minister, the smoker who had his pay cut for the six minutes it took him to smoke a cigarette, the railway employee who heard on the radio that she had lost her job."

The Disappointed and Offended is a work in which, as we have noted, it is evident that the images have been borrowed from another context. The intention is that the viewer should be conscious of the transformation that has taken place and the transfer is thus a part of the work of art. Of decisive importance is the fact that the pictures and the narratives have signified different things at different stops along the way. The material rides up and down on the interpretative see-saw, constantly shifting in significance. And perhaps it is precisely this quality – of constantly changing appearance – that is the very essence of the recycled image in contemporary art.

What, then, has happened with the pictures and narratives on the way from newspaper story to Bärtås's work of art? How has he recycled them, reinvented them?
To begin with, The Disappointed and Offended challenges the boundary between private and public. Each individual destiny forming a part of the work has passed this frontier on its way from the private sphere to the public domain of news reporting. Here, on the other side, the story becomes a public matter in printer's ink. From the newspaper version of a case the story is then moved on to Bärtås's work of art. At the same moment that picture and narrative are inserted into the work the character of the public aspect that has already been achieved is changed. It is transformed into art. The significance of the picture – or rather the viewer's interpretation thereof - swings backwards and forwards between the categories of "private" and "public" and, more intricately, between the definitions "art" and "non-art".

Here the concept of time is also of a certain importance. The portraits with their narratives have undergone a metamorphosis from a highly temporary existence to a much more lasting state. Newspapers and their content are ephemeral and the stories of the people portrayed are a short-lived consumer product while art is generally seen as belonging to eternity. It is highly probable that the first face that Bärtås chose, with its attached narrative, has long been forgotten by both readers and reporter. Who remembers "the man who became critically ill after taking Losec" or the "woman who was fired because of her fatness"? In The Disappointed and Offended they are still inviting the public's attention.

The work also points to the boundary between "chaos" and "order". The specific cases deal with the individual's feeling that the times are out of gear and often with the sense that it is up to the individual to put things right, like Hamlet and his vengeance. To receive publicity for one's cause on the pages of a newspaper is an attempt to create order in the chaos that one sees as created , or at least sanctioned, by society or the times – in short, to put everything right again. Here, too, there is a tension between the "individual" and the "group". In the media version, the private individual is presented with his or her individual indignation. Bärtås, on the other hand, places each of them in a group, in a context. In the work the people portrayed balance between being regarded as individual cases and as representatives of one and the same problem. Frustration blooms best in isolation while a group can raise it to the level of struggle and commitment.

Over the years Bärtås's work has changed. In the years since 1994, when the project was begun, the focus has been displaced, his approach has shifted. Initially the work was critical of the portrayal and the exposure of frustrated people (who ran the risk of actually making fools of themselves in public) and questioned the value of these stories. The portraits and narratives became an elegy to absurdity, an ironical list of things to which people devote their time and energies and at which the press rejoices. The viewer of the work was offered both an entrance to empathy and to repudiation.
But at a certain point Bärtås turned things upside down. He changed his mind - a guess is that this was a gradual and reluctant process - and his perspective became another. The title of the project changed from The Disappointed and Offended to Tribute to the Tribune and the rupture was a fact.

In this version the work has become a celebration of the media, the channel that allows the ordinary person's voice to be heard. Personal destinies or commitment that the work had previously treated as absurd or trivial when trumpeted forth in the press become tiny, individual expressions of a democratic spirit. Every testimony is important, every instance of indignation or frustration that is made visible is an impression of the human right of thinking and feeling what one likes.

The remarkable thing is that the work of art remains as it was but that it assumes a completely different significance from its new title. Thus Bärtås has recycled the pictures - both from his own point of view and from that of the public. To revise one's previous position, like Bärtås, without changing the work itself except with regard to its title, requires strong nerves. In such a situation, confidence in the artist and the work of art is seriously called into question and undertakes a balancing act between trust and mistrust. But Tribute to the Tribune clearly retains both its credibility and its importance in this new guise. The artist is again prepared to reinvent the picture and so the viewer is again prepared to believe in it.

Characteristic of the world of images that Bärtås's work communicates is the recycling, the reinventing of the image itself. Here there are no formal criteria for what can be used, what is suitable. A cutting from a tabloid can be as interesting as an aerial photo or a postcard. Everything of value he saves in one of the studio's numerous sorting systems - card index, registers and files - to be brought forth again when it is time to continue the conveyance from the original context to the new one. Magnus Bärtås's artistic work illustrates the potential of the recycled and reinvented image in contemporary art and his remarkable ability to make use of it.