Jan Svenungsson

"...we all fall down – Alex Rizkalla and Jan Svenungsson in conversation",
in: Be, # 4, 1996

Jan Svenungsson – Do you think it is possible to teach people something through art?

Alex Rizkalla – No. Not particularly, but I think it can direct the viewer's attention to an issue.

J – What kind of content is possible to put into an art work?

A – Well, to take a really simplistic view there would be those two terms, homological art and heterological art. Homological being art that refers to itself and its own history, and heterological art being various art practices that are particularly and passionately involved with something that is not directly about art but is expressed within an art structure.

J – What about a didactic process...?

A – To take the position that this work is about teaching people about X, Y or Z one really has to be very clear that it's absolutely correct and I haven't felt in that position for years. I can only think of one artist who is able to do this and that is Hans Haacke.

J – Is it a possible position at all, to have the answer and then make an artwork which will eventually lead the viewer to this same answer? Can such a work be engaging?

A – No, I've talked about that with people before, because I do these projects that have been defined as being anti-fascist, but they are more complicated than that. I'm against the state, full stop. I don't trust its intentions and I don't see the state as representative of the people, and my projects try to expose the mechanics of controlling the mob. At the same time they stem from a point of confusion as I don't trust the people either.

J – Has there been carriers of fascination for fascism present in these projects as well?

A – It's definitely against; rather than it being a fascination, it works from my own history, moving from one country to another for a variety of socio/political reasons, still ending up an outsider, an immigrant in exclusion. I've always felt a certain alienation, and my money-earning practise as a social worker with junkies and outcasts definitely has had an influence as well. It's not fascism like the Second World War we're talking about – we're talking about an ideology of exclusion.

J – But in your installation here at Bethanien, most of the stuff had a definite patina, and a lot of it looked like being from the thirties. Doesn't that aim the installation towards the particular history of Germany?

A – I work with where I am, I collect what's around. Obviously the German content arose out of this situation. Secondly, I have this attitude that the older the stuff is the more it has a certain anonymity; it is open to multiple readings. I can not accept an argument that this is exclusively German history. If I wanted to talk genocide and choose to talk about Nigeria, then there would be a tendency for people to slip into this thing that, oh well, this happens in Africa – it doesn't happen in the West...

J – Nigeria is today. If you were to use Nigeria as material for a project I believe you would get into a more complicated and complex ideological situation as there is not a definite history written, whereas when you deal with fascism and use Germany as a historical reference, you do move on quite safe ground. It would of course be very different if you'd worked with this material from a fascistic position...!

A – I'm more curious about the psychology of the time and the psychology now that can probably recreate this situation. I want to explore the relationship between the state and our bodies. That's a more universal issue that is about how every state, every authority can pull certain psychological strings and make people respond; a form of social engineering.

J – It's the first time you did a project outside of Australia. How did you find the response?

A – Well, whenever I do a project my expectation is for it to result in some dialectical exchange with the audience. Often I would find something that is particularly interesting, that suggests a history and it will go into the project and I would expect a viewer to fill me in... none of that actually took place, that was disappointing. Most people really fixed on aesthetics, I didn't get a lot of dialogue and that's what I would consider a failure.

J – Can you see now what went wrong?

A – Possibly, it was too close to home for viewers here, it was just so clear as to what part of their history it belonged to; there was no other discussion basically.

J – I think one problem with your show was this accumulative method of yours, believing that each piece that you put into the show would add some more meaning, whereas after a certain point the opposite took place.

A – I always fill the space. I always collect a lot of things. In the old accumulative museum you look at the object, then you do the work.

J – But is it possible to reproduce this situation as an artistic strategy?

A – Yes, I'm trying to because I think the way to an open reading is to have a lot of objects; thus the viewer will link up with some and ignore others. It propels one to do further work, further thinking and further looking, rather than taking a didactic position.

J – But this strategy also involves keeping yourself out of the plan. You use the structure of a museum, which in the past was an anonymous place for collections put together by anonymous collectors. Can you be anonymous and produce relevant art at the same time?

A – I would say so. Relevance is not a personality issue. What there is of me in there is my interest in museums and collecting, and fragments of personal history that slip in. I don't necessarily want to make an issue about that.

J – To me something is lacking in this project; that it is not possible to go in there and see the problems of your own situation in the context of this content.

A – I don't really want to talk about how terrible it was 30 years ago to be an immigrant in Australia without speaking English, with all the difficulties that come with landing in a strange country and how you start a life. I did it; I don't have a problem with it. I don't want these private problems; I want a more universal discussion rather than one about me.

J – What triggered your interest in museological strategies originally?

A – When I was painting earlier, it seemed to me that the painting was obscuring the narrative. By using objects which belonged to a more universal vocabulary, I found I could deal with the subject in a way where the work itself wouldn't totally obscure the narrative.

J – But doesn't this strategy depend on the fact that you and the audience already share the narrative before you confront the object? Look at the ready-made strategy as it comes out of Duchamp – the artist takes something and renames it and then this something changes meaning. You, on the other hand, do not change the designation of the object. You just present it and believe still it will carry your narrative. Isn't this paradoxical?

A – Duchamp was homological, he was dealing with questions of art, whereas my practice is not about the ready-made as such, but an object-based vocabulary. My selection identifies the subject. The rest is up to the viewers and their accumulated private memories.

J – You once did a project inside a real museum...?

A – Yes, I like the idea of the museum as a library – you go in and you focus on a particular point of interest – you don't expect to receive it; you are expected to do some work. I particularly enjoyed this project at the Museum of Victoria, because it was not an art institution, but a natural science and social history museum, and a library. Every day hundreds of people went in, passed through my installation as it was, went in there to look for something and they were really caught up in the idea of thinking and I thought this was the very audience I'd love to be involved with. What I did there was I took on all the trappings of the museum and the library, like alphabetical and taxonomical systems including the old cabinets I took from storage. I picked one word for each alphabet letter and each word I picked was fairly loaded; there were things like genocide, alienation; single words that can suggest a whole lot of issues; and I matched them up with objects, hoping to anchor the word to a symbolic object, like a memory trigger.

J – So you provoked the viewers who come to look at the museum and happen to find themselves in a situation that is part museum, part your installation. I think that must have been an ideal situation for work like yours because in this situation, as I imagine, there is no way of avoiding adding a layer of perversion or ...

A – ...subversion. It is about interrupting linear readings, causing diversions along other paths. This is the labyrinth Bataille talks about. Within it one is alive with experiences, once outside, it is the end.

J – So what does it mean your title "...we all fall down"?

A – Well, we all fall down. In the end the body rots. The power of the state is always working from the fear of falling down, the fear of death, the fear of sickness, this is what is actually used as a means of pushing certain ideas. So my statement is: we all fall down, it's all irrelevant – I don't really find any absolutes. Basically, I don't trust anything.

Jan Svenungsson