Jan Svenungsson

Mayerhofer, Susanne; Utermöhlen, Bernd; Frerichs, Klaus: "The Seventh Chimney", in: A Whiter Shade of Pale - Kunst aus den nordischen Ländern an der Unterelbe, Landschaftsverband Stade 2005

Jan Svenungsson – An Overview
Jan Svenungsson’s works have received international attention in over one hundred exhibitions up to now. What particularly fascinates the artist is photography, because of its relatively great independence in relation to the author. In a manner similar to Duchamp with his readymades, Svenungsson conceives of selection – the decision in favor of a (present) photograph – as a fundamental artistic action. Furthermore, he edits photographs so as to simulate chimneys at intended locations, or he manipulates them by means of a dark frame adapted to the motif. Thus he creates 'photo-objects' which convey their own presence but also, by means of the epitaph-like appearance, take as their theme the absence of the photographed object.

In oil paintings with the title "TEST-paintings", he feigns expressionistic representations of spots of blood. It is only upon a close perusal that the meticulous style (based on models) can be recognized, whereupon the shocking objectivity becomes subject to question. In other experimental series, the artist explores the divergence from an original on the basis of drawings which he copies again and again until new aspects of signification emerge.

Svenungsson writes texts, produces artist’s books and has translated Giorgio de Chirico’s novel "Hebdomeros", published in 1929, by making use not only of language but also of visual methods, e.g. photographs of the 'scenes of the action.'

The motif 'chimney' has appeared in Svenungsson’s oeuvre since 1988 in various media (photography, drawing, graphic reproductions, painting, bronze casts, video, Internet). The first constructed 'chimney' is raised in 1992 next to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet as a ten-meter-high tower made of bricks and standing alone, set up according to a photograph. Following upon this object conceived as an image of an image, there are further tower-like sculptures in urban spaces or in the landscape at the Expo in Korea as well as in Finland, Germany and Sweden. Each is one meter higher than its predecessor. "Der Siebte Schornstein" (The Seventh Chimney) rises up in Buxtehude to a height of sixteen meters as an ideal-typically and upwardly striving, unmitigatedly 'beautiful' sculpture. The numerical indication in the title refers to the network of 'chimneys' which Svenungsson has spread out over various countries.(1)

In spite of construction in accordance with the standards of craftsmanship, the artistic practice of isomorphism (identical form) does not create a unity between the imagistic domain and the everyday world, but instead brings out the fundamental difference between the chimney sculpture and a genuine smokestack.(2) Svenungsson’s three-dimensional images – expressions of our time, not documents of a bygone era – do not have the function of chimneys. They will never emit smoke.

In his works, Svenungsson concerns himself with questions as to the potentiality inherent to copying and the essential nature of the image.(3) He alters the view of the city by means of the visual object 'chimney,' which requires a readiness to switch one’s perspective. There arises the new quality of a public space which can serve for aesthetic contemplation and exist as a mental space engendering various interpretations.


Chimney and Industrialization
With his sculptures in the form of factory chimneys, Jan Svenungsson makes reference to the history of industrialization.(4) The form of the round, conic tower – this is how he himself describes these sculptures – corresponds to the form which was developed through experience and calculation for the high conduits for drawing off smoke. As independent structures, the large, freestanding chimneys represented at the beginning of their development a fully innovative type of construction. Gustav Lang (1850-1915) describes them in 1896 as slender, tower-like structures.(5) He cites the drawings for Thomas Savery’s steam pump of 1699 as the oldest illustration of a freestanding chimney known to him.(6) Smokestacks visibly changed the cityscape for miles around and became a characteristic sign of industrial cities.

Industrialization was not only deemed to be a menace. The industrial cities also promised work and prosperity for the rapidly growing population, which could scarcely find work in the countryside any longer. From this point of view, the smoking chimneys may be seen as a symbol for modernity. Thus urban views by Friedrich Gottlieb Müller (1816-1908) do not depict picturesque nooks and corners, but instead modern structures and industrial concerns.(7)

With the emergence of new technologies in the twentieth century, in many places smokestacks disappeared from the urban landscape. At this time in Buxtehude there are only three chimneys, which are not, however, any longer in operation.

When Jan Svenungsson places a sculpture in the form of a factory smokestack in the old part of the town, he is creating a sign which plays with the memory of the early industrial phase in Buxtehude’s history.

Applicable in an aesthetic sense to this artistic work – corresponding exactly to the viewpoint of Jan Svenungsson – is the rule which is formulated by Gustav Lang with respect to chimneys just as all functional structures: That which has been designed in a functionally appropriate and statically correct manner also satisfies the exalted sense of beauty.(8)


Form/Gestalt and Function of an Object-Image
The principle which is said to be characteristic of classical modernism in architecture and which states that form follows function has guided the production of tools or Zeug (a general designation for 'general equipment' coined by Heidegger)(9) since the beginning of human artifact culture. The intended function allows a certain degree of free expression to the design but dictates the fundamental form which is necessary for the fulfillment of the function. Because of this interconnection between the form and function of an implement, semiotics (the science of sign-process = semiosis) was able to add this statement: [the] form signifies [the] function.(10) Because form follows a particular function, the form indicates this function. As a rule, it is true that the form of an implement also renders its function recognizable when the tool is no longer, not at this particular moment or not yet being used. Since there is a correspondence between function on the one hand and not only the form, but also the material composition of the implement as well as its customary or – in the case of unique items – singular placement in the artifact-world on the other, I have expanded the quoted semiotic formula as follows: The perceptible gestalt (material and form) as well as the placement of an implement indicate its function.(11) It is a question of an indication in the semiotic sense, inasmuch as gestalt and placement refer to function.

Whoever perceives a chimney recognizes it, on the basis of its gestalt-and-placement within a larger functional context (e.g. a factory), as something which has functioned, now functions or will function as a chimney. An object in the shape of a chimney which is freestanding in every sense of the word will, on the other hand, at the most be perceived as something which once functioned as a chimney and has maybe 'survived' as an industrial monument, or it will be seen as the precursor of an industrial facility of which it will be a part. If both interpretations can be excluded on the basis of the placement of the object – and that is certainly the case with "The Seventh Chimney"–, then it becomes clear that it is a matter of an image of the gestalt, but not of the previous, present or future function of a chimney. The gestalt thereby suddenly loses its customary semiotic character, but receives with equal suddenness another one: the object reveals itself to be an image. In the emphatic sense of philosophical aesthetics, something is then an image when it (exclusively) serves the purpose of contemplation – more precisely, when it has been produced in order to be regarded pensively, hence has the function of being an object of contemplation.(12) 'Contemplation' unites 'viewing' and 'reflection'.

The gestalt-and-placement of Svenungsson’s 'chimneys' refers to their function as images. In accordance with the aforementioned definition of 'image', they do not, however, exhaust their expressive possibilities simply as images of smokestacks. The "Seventh Chimney" is, like all its six predecessors, an image, because it invites contemplation through its gestalt-and-placement.

Even more than in the case of its predecessors, No. 7 is marked by a verticality which is further emphasized by the proximity of the more heavy-set Marschtorzwinger. Its conic form, the vertical tapering which fulfills a function in the case of industrial smokestacks, imbues the artwork with a character of 'upwardly striving' or 'reaching for the heights'. This reference 'up above', past its own limits, which places the chimney in what is not only an aesthetic but also a symbolic relation to the nearby tower of St. Peter’s Church, is not added extraneously to its gestalt but rather arises upon contemplating the gestalt itself. The gaze which lingers upon the sculpture leads from simple regarding to considered reflection. In the contemplation of the gestalt-at-this-place(13), the function of the image-object is fulfilled.


(Translations by George Frederick Takis)

Dr. Klaus Frerichs, Director of the Buxtehude Museum
Susanne Mayerhofer, Scholarly assistant at the Buxtehude Museum
Bernd Utermöhlen, Municipal archivist of the city of Buxtehude