Jan Svenungsson

Lumbye Sørensen, Ann. "Hot Zone",

in: Hot Zone, Skovhuset, Værløse/Copenhagen, 1996

Around the year 1960, the body moved quite directly into visual art. Previously there had been, among other things, Jackson Pollock's physically demanding action painting, as an event that took place on the canvas and Yves Klein's work with "living brushes", where naked female bodies, smeared in blue color, cast their impressions. Now there was also a wide spectrum of actions and happenings - all of the so-called body art.

Here, the American Bruce Nauman was one of the most important artists. In 1966-67 he formulated, in an exemplary fashion, the late-modernistic dilemma, in a series of eleven color photographs, without titles, which were subsequently called The Artist at Work. The series shows snapshot-like situations of the artist's activities, where the boundary between everyday doings and the practice of art is undefined. In Eating My Words, Nauman is sitting at a table with a checkered kitchen tablecloth and a plate with pieces of bread formed as the letters ORDS; he butters the bread with marmalade. In another photograph, Waxing Hot, his hands are seen at work, polishing the large letters, HOT, which are standing on the floor. The series also includes the famous Self-Portrait as a Fountain, where he, with great concentration, spouts water out of his mouth as a living fountain. With this series, Nauman is scanning the entire field of artistic practice, from the myth and tradition of the artist to the function of language and ready-mades. He puts a period beside the self-contained work and the artist as genius remote from the world. The series also constitutes a showdown with the notion that the artist can create a radically new form or a new expression. On the other hand, the "incidental" slices of reality indicate art's anchoring in the social and point out the insistence upon a continually ongoing process as possibility for the subject of the image. With the help of art, we cannot expect any solution or answer to life's great questions, but we can react to art and maybe thus have our customary notions redefined by peeking through the tear that art opens up in the veil of reality.

However, art's social anchoring - as it occurred in the 1960's, and as it can also be seen today - might seem to be problematic. Because, how can the work of art insist upon its own significance and claim its own necessity when, by definition, it is without utility? Theodor W. Adorno offers an answer to the question: "[what is] societal with art is its immanent movement toward society, not its manifest standpoint. Art's historical gesture thrusts the empirical reality away from itself, although the works of art as objects have a part of it. Inasmuch as the works of art allow themselves to be predicated with a societal function, then this [function] consists in their functionlessness." Art's functionless presence in society creates a dynamic zone - which might also be designated as the Hot Zone - where the work is not only displayed but also, through the means of art, twists and turns the familiar into something different and strange.

In as much as, in this connection, we have taken our mark in the direct seizure of the body into art, with Bruce Nauman as our example, this is due not only to his important early experiments, but also to the state of affairs that here in the 1990's, Nauman has stood as the central focus in a number of international exhibitions where his violent, sensual and psychological utilization of body or body parts in sculptures and video installations has been of an epoch-making significance. Moreover, the bodily aspect, situated in a perspective between nature and artificiality, has also been made into an object of artistic watchfulness in the 1990's. A number of importunate questions of an existential nature have here found their formulation.

The exhibition PostHUMAN. Neue Formen der Figuration in der Zeitgenössischen Kunst (shown, among other places, at the Deichtor Hallen in Hamburg, in 1993), set its focus on the consequences of genetic technology, plastic surgery and other interventions, in order to sound out that our society is in progress with developing a new conception of humanity and that we might even speak now about a "post human" individual who can threaten the human character and appearance. The exhibition spanned a wide gamut, taking off from a conceptually oriented, figurative expression, and it made a contribution in demonstrating that the body, under all circumstances, is a useful metaphor in such an investigation.

Another remarkable and ambitious exhibition, but with the diametrically opposite program was Rites of Passage - Art for the End of the Century (Tate Gallery, London 1995). The title and, in part, also the concept, took its mark in the book, authored by the Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, entitled The Rites of Passage (1908), which constitutes an investigation about "life crises" and the ceremonial rites which can carry people through such phases. In many cultures, such a ritual is led by a person with a special insight: a shaman, a priest or a medicine man. Another anchoring point of the exhibition concept was Michel Certeau's characterization of Michel Foucault as a passeur - a person who "moves people or things over borders or into forbidden zones." From these two positions, the exhibition's organizer, Stuart Morgan, posed the question of whether the artist can assume such a mediating role and whether Western art has inherited some of the functions of religion. The participating artists' answers were formulated especially in the form of installations which thematicized bodily qualities.

It is interesting to ascertain that on the basis of a medical, scientific, as well as from a spiritual, position, a discussion takes place with visual art and also that in both instances, the body constitutes the angle of approach. The artists in Hot Zone are also investigating, to a greater or lesser degree, the bodily as the starting point for a content-determined art. Their works contain a duplicity, because behind the surface of beauty, something else is concealed which might even arouse disgust and distaste. Regardless of whether it is sculpture, installation, photography or painting, there is a gliding transition from the work itself to those associations which lie behind and which are different. These associations also intervene in the field of tension surrounding the work of art. This dynamic zone can be sensed, partly in the individual rooms of this exhibition, where each artist has placed his own personal stamp, and partly through the sequences of diversified pictorial statements, upon which the entire exhibition is constructed. The spectator's body and state of mind will be exposed to an art virus which, hopefully, will have long term effects!

* * *

The series of color photographs entitled Synekdoke [Synecdoche], by Annika Svenbro, shows a sequence of close-up photographs of different people's big toes. These toes are monumental in size and with the nails as the mirroring point, they hang in a line, side by side. In the reproductions' sterling perfection, the toes make their appearance with dignity and harmony. However, a solemn sliding takes place between the work's appearance and its motives - the worn-out, sometimes uncared for, toes, which are shown one by one, as if they were cut off from where they originate and have assumed independent existences. They do not in any way contain that documentary dimension of which the surrealistic writer and photographer J.-A. Boiffard availed himself in his illustrations for Le Gros Orteil, by Georges Bataille (Documents 6, 1929), where the single toe is distinctly connected with its "originator" and furthermore, well supplied with the person's gender and age. In the work of Annika Svenbro, the break has become consummated and finalized. The Synekdoke series points toward taboo-laden areas where the private threshold is transgressed. The motive thus goes through a transformation and is subordinated partly to reflections about identity and about how such identity is perceived, since the toes also become metaphor for decomposition and defect- the ravages of time. Svenbro makes use of a universally recognizable sign - a disregarded part of the body which has seldom been the object of pictorial pursuit - and thus emphasizes, with the sharpness of photography, the body as nature and process, but also as an image of existential life conditions. The sculpture as body and as volume has been completely central for Lone Høyer Hansen, who is fundamentally and incessantly making an investigation of the sculpture's space, and especially of that imaginary intermediate space which the sculpture engenders in relation to its surroundings. The sculpture can be shut off around its own form, but frequently, it reaches forth and around into the space and takes part in the world, with an articulating body language. At the exhibition, Høyer Hansen integrates sculpture, object and the architectural room in a place with a different otherness. A poetical, both physically and mentally distinctive place. In her installation, entitled Point of View, monochromatically-hued brown plates reach out into the squareness of the room and, together with three mirrors, redefine this into a new room housing two whitely-waxed bodies - one lying and one standing female figure - who are silently and contemplatively bathed in the light coming from the whitewashed window sections. This almost dreamy room, which entirely and in every sense, embraces the viewer, tears asunder any attempt to obtain an unequivoval overview, only to reveal instead a profuse plurality of directions and possibilities for the glance. Between the apparent and the concealed, a narrative of stillness that tells of body and of senses is distended in rhythm with a spreading mirroring of narcissism. Rosan Bosch is working in a dynamic field situated between the form's expressive contours and the sensual surface of the materials. Regardless of whether she makes use of the large or the small scale format, the sculpture possesses an organic basic form. There is a long artistic tradition for this, but here, in the treatment of the amorphous form and in the selection of materials, there is an intense displacement in relation to abstract, modernistic sculpture. A displacement in the direction of the very sensual and intimate, towards the internal organs of the body or towards that body which is situated in a border region, a zone of disgust, where the subject has become abject and has been reduced to fluid and mass. The polarity between beauty and loathsomeness is one of the points of rotation in Rosan Bosch's installation, entitled Exit, where an iron grille closes around one large and one smaller sculpture, both bound up with aluminium foil, which seem to be locked inside a cage, illuminated with powerful electric lamps. There is only one entrance, which psychologically amplifies the confrontation with the work. The sculpture's slightly mirroring surfaces capture and reflect the light in a beautiful vision. However, the contrary influence upon our senses stems from a group of glass tubes, filled with red and yellow liquids, that have been inserted into the sculptural bodies.

As opposed to the exhibition's work made by Annika Svenbro and Lone Høyer Hansen, who, as far as the bodily aspect is concerned, are working, respectively, with the "natural" and the "constructed" body, we see in the work of Rosan Bosch the "referring" body, where the shape signals body and the materials refer to the bodily, organic regions, such as hair, and liquids like blood, semen and urine. But at the same time, with such references, all of Hot Zone's participating artists are working with a surface of the beautiful. This is instrumental, to a significant degree, in throwing into relief that which conceals itself behind the veil of the surface. Anja Franke has, for some years now, been exploring the possibilites of visualizing different bodily functions and processes with the installation as an artistic praxis. This has taken place along various trails, partly as a minimal visual residue of a physical presence, where the impact of the space through objects has been central, and partly in larger installations, with longer narrative sequences, formulated in a picture and text material, adapted ready-mades, and also video. Nature and artificiality are often played out against one another in works which basically deal with the mutual approach between perception and insight.

Outsider is the title of Franke's large, staged color photograph which is included in the exhibition. A clothed woman's torso makes its appearance, with graduated sharpness. As the "semiotic" body, she functions as a mannequin, clad in an unfinished corsage, with sewed-on pieces of cloth. Her right arm is draped with different kinds of cloth, and a piece of fur lies on her left shoulder. However, in a gesture that is foreign to a mannequin, her right hand executes a symbolic gesture, which opens the picture up towards the imaginary and metaphorical. With Roland Barthes' expression, this hand could be the punctum of the photograph, as its most disturbing element. For, as Barthes writes in Camera Lucida: "A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)." Jan Svenungsson is working in a serial process with both photography and painting. He perseveringly follows a given motif or theme, which, in the current instance, has been the investigation of the copy's artistic function. Previously, he executed, for instance, series with chimneys as motive. Not random chimneys, but specific ones with historical references to a societal context, thus chimneys that were in a state of breaking down. The black and white photographs possessed documentary features, but the manner in which they were mounted, in entirely special, crooked frames, which meticulously followed the motives' shapes, got the attention to shift and made the work into an object, the entire figure of which pointed out beyond the time and space of that which had been photographed.

Presently, Svenungsson is working with the series entitled Test, which he began in 1992. At the present time, there have been much more than 100 paintings on wood and canvas, in various formats, and each one of the paintings is supplied with an ongoing, consecutive numbering. The title refers to those kinds of analyses or tests that are carried out in laboratories. At first glance, the paintings can resemble spontaneous abstract painting. However, they are something completely different. For Svenungsson has scrupulously copied watercolors, executed by himself, and this process is crucial to the objects, which postulate to be paintings, defined as the unique work, where the artist has settled his thought in color and form. With this practice of work, among other things, he calls attention to the motive as a problematic figure. The series's object character is amplified by its dense hanging, inasmuch as the entire room herewith becomes an integral part of the work. The clinical and laboratorial are underlined by the use of neon tubes, which, devoid of mood, illuminate the white premises. Inside this cubicle, filled with the pictures' splotches of red colors - ranging from slightly transparent to solid brownish-red - the optics are changed from spontaneous painting into blood stains, and the copy becomes the new reality.

* * *

In the dynamic zones, the viewer can meet the art works with an expectation about something else, and more, than merely beholding something beautiful and pleasant. A splendid reflection about this has been put forth by the sculptor, Willy Ørskov, in his book Aflæsning af objekter og andre essays (1966), where he formulated the relationship between the spectator and the work in the following way: "The spectator, for his part, wants to be seduced, because for him, a seduction is connected to a sensually delightful metaphysical experience, which constitutes an understanding. The picture's errand can be summarized as a transfer, which is both pictorial and spiritual reality. The movement, that is common to all branches of art, is the art work's genuine process; the spectator's introduction into a chain of events. The movement (the transfer) is not illusory and does not serve the illusion; it is the very process of art, the metamorphosis: you enter into the picture as somebody, and you come out as somebody else."

Ann Lumbye Sørensen