Jan Svenungsson

Haerdter, Michael. "System and Chaos - Some observations on the work of Jan Svenungsson", in: Baltic Ikonopress '97, Szczecin 1997

"So God created man in his own imaqe, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (1). Thus the words of the Genesis, describing not only the crown of Creation, its consummation in the making of man and woman as our forefathers have seen it. At the same time they mark the beginning of an endless story: of the history of repetition, of copying. As Moses' sentence exhibits the symmetry of a mirror image, the question suggests itself as to the priority of image and mirror image. What is it that the mirror reflects God or the human being? Hen or egg? Thus history begins with a puzzle. God, imagined in human appearance and presented as the author - following His own image of man who imagines God in human feature the copy of a copy of a copy.

Consequently, we discover repetition, imitation, reproduction or copy as one of the fields of force of history or, let's say, as one of its genetic impulses, maybe its most essential one. The line of ancestors in which we all represent transient elements, is it not from time immemorial the example of an overwhelming vital process that generates a copy from a copy from a copy..., or to say it with a Christian intonation that generates God's image from His image from His image, all equalling each other and yet differing from each other? And does that dialectic of copy and original not apply to all living beings, animals or plants? And is it not true that this repetitive principle rules to a large extent our doing and actions as well, that progress in the course of our progressing in time is, not least, a result of those deviations and errors made possible by our imperfection or being a gift of life.

"Basically, the work of art has always been reproductible. What human beings have made could be imitated by human beings", Walter Benjamin states (2). In his famous essay the author analyses the fundamental mutations the artwork has undergone by the influence of the technical means to reproduce it, mainly by photography and movie. Former idealistic positions and claims of the artwork its authenticity, its uniqueness, its sublimity, its transcendental quality - do not withstand the impact of those modern media granting to the artwork alternative functions. Benjamin, finally, refers to the aesthetic quality politics have been endowed with by fascism on the one hand, and the political function communism has imposed on art on the other hand.

At the end of our century of destructions, transformations and mutations, beyond the dual order of modernism we realise that not the artwork alone, that the artist has adopted a new identity, quite different of his legend still haunting popular imagination. The young Swedish artist Jan Svenungsson is a most interesting contemporary artist by two outstanding features of his artistic practice: by his, so to speak, scientific attitude and by the ambivalence in his experiencing the world. Considering the various phases of his work, one becomes sharply aware of how ambiguous, diffuse and questionable the actual state of our consciousness and mind, hence of our time, is as reflected and filtered by the sensitivity of the artist. A study of Jan Svenungsson's blood painting ends with the sentence "All depends of how often one changes the perspective"(3). The artist titles this series of works "Test". We are indeed confronted with a research situation, its subject being painting. Painting had been declared as impossible or even as dead by artists conscious of the fact that our world can no longer be represented by this medium which for centuries had been devoted to its representation. Between August 1992 and August 1993, Svenungsson produces a large series of chronologically numbered paintings that seem to represent vehemently splattered blood, results of presumed violence. Yet, these paintings are made in the most accurate, slow and minute technique of traditional masterworks. By carefully copying the modelpaintings or details of them one unto the next canvas, the artist lets evaporate all meaning of his subject, its allegedly spontaneous and violent content. "With his blood paintings, that are not what they seem to be", Kay Heymer says, "Jan Svenungsson has found a way to paint pictures even today in a situation when painting seemed to be hopelessly corrupted. As all authentic pictures they are, too, figurative, nonfigurative, expressive and neutral".(4)

Jan Svenungsson is a most alert and conscious artist who adopts various positions, perspectives and angles, uses different techniques to approach a problem in order to get behind its secret with the patience and persistence a good scientist might be proud of. "l am not a painter, photographer or sculptor", Svenungsson says of himself, "l am an artist working with ideas that take shape by my becoming temporarily a painter, photographer or sculptor. By this division of labour the artwork gains an inner dynamic".(5) It is only consequent that one of the artist's tools to confront a problem is reflecting and writing. The very text quoted above is introduced by the following statement: "l am interested in systems. Systems are designed to lead to a desirable result. When a system works it provides a sense of control and security. If the system is improperly realised the result will deviate from the plan. Sometimes I dream of creating a system so perfect that no deviation is possible. This system I pursue beyond its limits. In the breakdown anything can happen"(6). Svenungsson is aware of the omnipresence of failure, of the loss of control or concentration, of deviation and error that haunts all systems. But he is far from being desperate about it. "l am interested in the creation of unexpected meaning. In order to trigger the creation of unexpected meaning, one draws up a systematic mechanism with several specific inherent errors, sets it running, and looks at what comes out. The larger the error sources in the system are, the more meaning is created"(7). The artist knows of the vital charms inherent in chaos.

Another one of Jan Svenungsson's repetitive systems based on copying is currently displayed within the Ikonopress exhibition at Szczecin. The following text by Kay Heymer about the artist is not only a perfect description of his procedure, but an equally sensitive analysis of his specific obsession. "Copying plays an important role. Copying produces changes within repetition. My employer recently made an outline drawing of a map of Scandinavia and copied it over and over again in two different ways, each following its own rule until the map was unrecognisable. On the one hand, anything extra could be omitted; on the other hand, that was what was not allowed. The first demands the enlargement and focusing of a detail; the second produces distortions which no longer have anything in common with the original version after a certain stage of the copying. In each case, changes are the result of technical inadequacy; they have nothing to do with psychology. The two series of copies completely combine obsessive control with imperfect procedures. There are rules for everything, and nothing quite corresponds to these rules. My employer's activity apparently consists of the continually repeated attempt - in different experiments - to find and maintain an equilibrium between extremes: copy and original, discipline and violation, external control and internal control, invention and discovery, working and putting to work, reason and intuition... Every moment, something can be seen in the light of conflicting possibilities and demands. To enrich a phenomenon with this perspective means to bring it to life. I work on something only when it is interesting or seductive enough."(8).

We may also speak of freedom and predetermination. The oscillation between these poles (a term I am borrowing from Kay Heymer who borrowed it from Carl Einstein) seems to stake out the field of Svenungsson's artistic and existential investigation; copy and copying as the measuring line of our enigmatic lives.

Michael Haerdter