Jan Svenungsson

Svenungsson, Jan: "Accumulation of Labor", in Artists in Multifunctions, University of Applied Arts Vienna at Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi 2013

We artists keep repeating our gestures and acts. If we didn’t, they wouldn’t be identifiable against the surrounding clutter. Art making can be defined as the deliberate repetition of – and insistence on – idiosyncratic gestures and thought structures. When repetition fails, new idiosyncracies can occur and new thought structures replace the old.

Artists also use repetition within the very works they produce. Be it the continued echoing of certain shapes or tiny gestures within an image or a film; be it the accumulation of labour vested in the making of a piece. The artist’s use of repetition within the work can be as much about defence as offence, and it can be both, simultaneously.

For reasons more random than you would believe, I have a sculpture practice of building brick towers in the form of industrial chimneys. My rule is that each one has to be exactly one meter higher than its precedent. Up until now I have built nine such chimneys, with another on the way in April of this year. The last one is 18 m high. After twenty years I can see that the repetitive character of this project has led to an accumulation not just of towers but also of meaning. Accumulation is good for art. In any case, accumulation is good for my art.

From the beginning of this project, I made it a rule to always be part of the building team myself, to be an assistant to the bricklayers I employ. To feed them with bricks and mortar. Thus, each brick of each tower has passed through my hands. When a new construction is finished I photograph it, adding to my growing collection of depictions of my own vertical accumulations of bricks.

One day, I decided to indulge in a longstanding dream. I would choose photos of the first three towers and publish these through the most laborious and labour intensive printmaking process possible: I would create the world’s first (I think) photo-mechanical woodcuts. Each raster point cut by hand. A mad accumulation of pixels. I believed that in this particular case, the absurd excess of labour would be an invitation for extraordinary things to happen within the image, as my hand would necessarily fail me.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. My hand showed itself to be much less error prone than I had thought. No chaotic developments were found within the woodcuts. It was my mind, not my hand, which showed its human fallibility. When the three woodcuts were finally proofed it hit me like a flash. For two images out of three I had forgotten the most essential requirement of relief printmaking: the need to work in reverse. Accordingly, while the woodcut image of  the Second Chimney in Taejon is perfectly true to reality... both Stockholm and Kotka are now depicted mirrored. Maybe there is a hidden meaning? Out of nine Chimney sculptures it is the one in Stockholm and the one in Kotka which have been torn down. The others dare not face their reflections. They’re still standing.

Jan Svenungsson