Jan Svenungsson

Gertrud Sandqvist's text from A Commissioned Readymade

When Matisse created the Rosary Chapel for the nuns of Vence he gave them devotional pictures that look like sketches. Rapidly drawn on white porcelain tiles, a woman among clouds, the queen of heaven. The child's body in the shape of a cross. Beside the altar a suggestion of a priest, in his hand a book, The Book. The three are faceless. Instead of faces blank ovals. Matisse has drawn that structure, at once temporary and universal, which the believer fills with meaning. He lets the images be tinted by daylight refracted through the stained-glass windows. Blue, yellow, green rays of sunlight shimmering across the tiles, floating above and through the drawing, ungraspable moods, not colour but light, the painter's dream that the illusion should itself be real.

Is it merely the context of place that invites the interpretation of the simple figures of Matisse? For someone wholly unfamiliar with the Christian religion only the universal would stand out, the signs for a man and a woman with a child. But the allusion to a promise of a broader context than that of everyday life would disappear. The cross on the book and the cross of the child's body would be merely repeated figures, not the association "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" and further to the mystique of light in John which abbot Suger of S:t Denis translated into stained-glass windows as an image of God's relationship to His creation. The cloud formations would not offer the mother with child a promise of a share of the cosmos, the man in the cowl would not be a priest and therefore a follower of the intermediary between heaven and earth. For the contextless, the images would lose both time and timelessness and tumble down into a present, a now. But this now can be a deliverance for the dreamer, a small piece torn off from the great unreal.

How does an arbitrary structure, let us say a series of years, work? Suppose that there is so much planned randomness in the series of numbers that regularity is emphasised. Would we accept its meaninglessness? Would we, like the ignorant visitor to the Rosary Chapel, only see the universal? Or would we, like the true believer, take the series as a promise of hidden contexts, perhaps by taking one year as a departure to use the series as a rosary for prayers, repentance and hope? The second use for the series of numbers is probably the meaningful one, allowing the structure an effect... in the same way that man understands context by attentively watching signs, tracks.

The difficulty with the series of years presented by Jan Svenungsson is that references to meaningfulness are disturbed. The simple fact that he uses years refers simultaneously to a break and a continuity which to many has lost its relevance. Our chronology takes as its starting point the event which the Rosary Chapel was built to contemplate, God's intervention in the history of mankind. Without it our chronology becomes a practical but arbitrary convention.

Another way of construing meaningfulness is to replace a divine relationship with other values. If they are absolute they lack relationship and relevance to human life. During the past two hundred years we have had plenty of absolute values, from the freedom, equality and brotherhood of the reign of terror to the belief in progress of the industrial revolution. Special cases are formalism's belief in an absolute art or the esperantists' hopes for an absolute language. The arbitrary nature of the structure as a protection against meaninglessness is related to the degree of its fragility. It would be tempting in this context to refer to the institution of art as such a structure. A framework, firm and solid, protective, holding and closing against the temporary nature of the image. Or the conventions of language collected as grammar.

But the series of years is neither a language nor an image. It places itself at a crossroads. At such boundaries there exists the possibility of meaningfulness in crossing over. We can talk of transcendence or magic or suggestion depending on purpose and position. Whichever quantities we place in relation to this boundary, its very existence is a promise of another side, The Other. The viewer has the breathtaking possibility of deciding the meaning. The relationship is given. As in the faceless oval in the chapel at Vence. As in the faceless image of a criminal in a newspaper.

The series of years becomes a framework for genius loci, spirit of place. But it refers to time, and thereby to other spaces, ungraspable.

Gertrud Sandqvist
(Translation by Lars Werdelin)