Jan Svenungsson

"The Solution to the Problem", from: Vägen – en antologi om att göra bra konst, Bonnier Alba, Stockholm, 1995

I like to receive assignments. An unexpected letter or phonecall leads the thoughts in new directions and lets the artistic work-process take temporary form as problem solving, which makes it tangible. If some time passes without the arrival of a new problem I get nervous and restless and start to feel dissatisfied even with work that actually develops well.

illustration: half–finished Korea chimney with scaffolding (photo:JS)

Some time ago I was in Korea and built a chimney there. When at long last I was able to return home a letter awaited me with an invitation to write a text on "how to make good art", for a pedagogical anthology with this theme. My usual attitude is to accept even those assignments where at first I have no idea whatsoever of how to tackle them. I am interested in finding out what happens when a situation starts to slide, and where it may end up. So I agreed. My thoughts began to race.

This phase, the conception of a work is probably the most enjoyable. Nothing is yet given and everything is possible. Ideas come into being, divide and change shape without any conscious effort from me, whose main task is to wait for the most hard-to-get-rid-of idea to define itself – later to see if theory is confirmed by practice. Good ideas are not easily forgotten, but neither are they always possible to carry out.

This time, after a few days, the process led me to start writing an essay about the Japanese pop group Shonen Knife. I had quickly become convinced about the inherent impossibility of the assignment`s subject. It could not be addressed directly without having recourse to irony. To avoid irony is always one of my starting points, and therefore I now had to use a circumventing strategy. Since I had been taking an interest in Shonen Knife for some time already, it seemed like a good opportunity to use the occasion to take a closer look at their work. At the same time I hoped that in this essay it should be possible to establish a hidden layer of meaning which now and then would cast some light on the original subject.

After some hesitation I decided to exclude my own enthusiasm as a motivating factor in the text, at the same time avoiding a first person perspective with digressions and references of a personal character. It was imperative I thought, in order to allow for multiple layers of meaning, to leave out the word art altogether, as well as any open reference to the world of art. I hoped my essay would gain from an element of surprise, creating a positive effect of alienation when put in its context.

illustration: Shonen Knife, smiling, with balloons and hats (photo: Sony Music)

My aim was to use a dry, objective language to discuss different aspects of Shonen Knife`s intentions and results, as if an interest for the group was already well established among my readers, and the article a contribution to an on going analytical discussion. I wanted my text to be comprehensive and logical, but still allow the hidden layer of meaning to be fragmentary and spontaneous; accordingly, all its details would not need to be planned out in advance.

I had a carefully thought-out strategy to realise a well defined task. The one thing lacking was the realisation. And this is where problems usually arise. This occasion was no exception.

I wrote and wrote. I collected a huge number of interesting observations and reflections regarding different parts of Shonen Knife`s work. But when I put these thoughts together there was nothing. That creative effect of fusion leading to a convincing artistic "gestaltung" being born out of parts that one by one never anticipated the end result – just never happened.

Intuition plays an important part. Planning and good intentions will never be enough, at some point intuition must take over and create an opening through some unforeseen combination that one is alert enough to use.

In my article about Shonen Knife this never happened. The text never felt engaging and necessary. What can then be done, when execution is not able to fulfil what intention has started?

First, one must question the shape of the text that is; write more; cut out; try to carry out the same idea again ignoring the recent failure. With some luck one will discover formerly overlooked possibilities; but if nothing happens exhaustion will join desperation and the text will soon get painfully held up. Artificial resuscitation does not help. The idea that seemed so promising never flowered. This was not possible to find out in any other way.

It becomes necessary to once again let traffic flow freely through the brain, hoping for a new idea to introduce itself. However, in this phase of a work-process mobility is less good and access to promising suggestions severely limited. The interrupted development of the former idea lies like a suffocating lid over everything. Unfortunately, the knowledge that this lid can be eliminated only by finishing the work already begun, does not increase the flow. Ideas tend to thrive only in relaxed environments.

The deadlock must now be broken.

I tried in a couple of different ways. For example, I experimented with the idea of assembling a collection of quotes, where I, through the borrowing of statements from identified persons, should have been able to speak directly about the impossible subject. But this project too, fell through, because my favourite quote, an instruction by Giorgio De Chirico, was unquotable. Either I would have had to cut it too abruptly, thereby missing the poetic power built up over more than a page – which is the reason why it caught my eye in the first place – or I would have quoted enough to be sure to be convincing – including content with which I disagreed...

illustration: Giorgio De Chirico – drawing "Calligrammes 230", 1930, (electric sun on easel)

I also contemplated taking the quote in its entirety and rewrite it to become "correct", but the ingratiating character of this idea finally made me recoil.

This is when I meet Ernst Billgren, one of the editors of the anthology. I told him about my troubles. When in a tight spot it may be useful to leak some information, hoping to find a new track, but also in order to compromise yourself so that later it will be more difficult to back out. Ernst now proposed I simply write about one of my own experiences of making "good art".

– Write about something you did which turned out good!

Well, that sounds like an obvious suggestion, I thought, but if something is good, does that also mean it automatically qualifies as "good art"? I remembered asserting to a critic visiting my studio in 1987, that my photographs in specially made frames – my "photo objects" – were all based on an affirmative attitude. I said my intention with the frame arrangements was to designate not what the pictures "represented" but the photographs as themselves, with their deviations and disturbances. I was curious to find out what would happen at the promotion of photographs that in traditional circumstances would have been seen as mute, meaningless and defect. But at the same time it was true that a majority of my photo objects used historically loaded – thereby romantic – subjects, which made my position somewhat peculiar.

illustration: JS – "Untitled (Brandenburger Tor)", photo object, 1987

My assertion of an affirmative position was in seeming opposition to contemporary art`s dearly held principle of a critical attitude. My credibility as an artist in front of my visitor therefore depended on a mutual understanding, that while insisting on the possibility to be neither critical nor ironic, in actual fact I was making a subtly ironic statement. A fully non-ironic position could have been held only by a totally naive artist, which I had proved not to be by bringing up the idea for discussion...

illustration: portrait of Ernst B. (photo JS)

Ernst Billgren had explained to me that the anthology with my text was going to be used for his teaching activities. Myself, I have noted that there are similarities between the act of teaching talented students, and the completion of work on a piece. The material is there, and it is now time to carefully consider and analyse the function of what is already in existence. With a student`s material, I experience a sense of freedom in that the final responsibility is not mine. With my own material, a feeling of freedom is born out of the fact that new, intuitive knowledge has already come into existence, motivating the work – and what is now left is to follow the logic already established to its fulfilment. It may still be a winding road, this should not be denied. In both cases the essence of the work momentarily escapes my control. I perform the functions of a manipulative observer who from a distance says yes or no to additions and changes on the framework already raised. The goal for my own work is to finally be able to contemplate it with a kind of elevated indifference, meaning that the work has started to live its own life and no longer needs me. I can proceed to new tasks.

The suggestion that I should write about my own experience became the catalyst that eventually gave both the idea and the intuition, enabling me to finish my article. I no longer tried to write an essay about Shonen Knife, but chose instead to write about my failed attempt to formulate this text. All the drafts and analyses worked out in several versions during long hours, now finally became of use, not as parts of the text, but as a hidden content.

The much longed for moment when the words finally started to fall into place occurred during a train journey to Moss in Norway. Usually I do not work when travelling – it`s like I don`t need to because I`m already in motion...– but this time was different. When I got off the train my text was far from completed – but for the first time I felt confident my efforts had not been in vain.

Something had happened.

illustration: train at full speed in landscape (photo SJ (Swedish Railroads))

Stockholm, July-August, 1993

Jan Svenungsson