Jan Svenungsson

Meschede, Friedrich, "Burning, Building and Beyond – Jan Svenungsson's ceramic smokestack sculptures", in: Schornstein - Katalog - 1992 - 2003, Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2004

Jan Svenungsson has chosen a very complex motif to express his ideas about sculpture: the smokestack. In 1992, Stockholm was the site of his first, ten-meter-high smokestack; to make clear it was art, he built it beside the Moderna Museet (the appropriate place for sculpture being next to a museum). In 1994, this first sculpture was demolished to make way for an extension of the Moderna Museet. By then, Svenungsson had formulated his concept: each new smokestack was to be one meter higher than the previous one. By now, five more works have appeared at various sites around the world, and the latest is fifteen meters high. In its location, each smokestack is distinct; at the same time, independent of its site, each asserts its own individuality through its unique proportions and height. A seventh version, sixteen meters high, is now under discussion for two possible locations: one beside the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin; the other at various possible sites in Ludwigshafen, an industrial city on the Rhine.

The smokestack motif is a clear representation of metaphorical contradictions in contemporary German: in order to say that work is being done again, that an economic upturn is coming, the German vernacular (not the voice of the people) says that "the smokestacks are smoking again." This is an expression of the historical faith in industrialization. Here, the smokestack is the vertical vent for the combustion processes that produce the energy for everything. At the same time, though, the voice of the people complains that "too much is forced through the smokestacks"; here, the general combustion process is a symbol of the wasteful destruction of capital. Whether positive or negative, a smokestack is always connected to the idea of a fireplace; whether physical or metaphorical, it is an abstract container of multiple interpretations and motley images.

If we now consider the smokestack exclusively as sculpture, Svenungsson has succeeded in finding a perfect form: stripped of its functions, this fragment allows him to transcend the human-figurative scale by adopting the proportions of architecture, while also presenting an ideal on the basis of geometrical order, both in the works' internal structures and as completed sculptures. The outline of each smokestack is a circle, so it has neither front nor back and looks the same from all sides. Each one is based on the geometric standard of the individual bricks, which in turn act as a module in so many ways that the vertical-tectonic form is harmoniously reborn. The process of putting brick on brick to create the form means each work looks complete and produces a graphic pattern through its alternation of joints and volumes.

Svenungsson's material is thus connected to its prior functionality: brick, which is Backstein ("baked-stone") in German, is burned in order to be used in construction. In turn, this ceramic transformation from earthy clay to burned earth symbolizes a process that became an industrial motif in the form of smokestacks. This makes Svenungsson's smokestack sculptures, which do not smoke, seem like relics of an epoch of ideals and social utopias. The fact that smokestacks no longer smoke has led to other, subsequent ideals, namely of a more developed industrialization capable of generating energy without smoke. The sky over industrial sites is blue today, soot-free, because pollution is now invisible. Combustion takes place elsewhere.

In this functionless and formal "purity," Svenungsson's smokestacks seem like contemplative mental constructions, dream structures whose smoke swirls in clouds of associations. Suddenly, the idea of "being forced through the smokestack" seems central. The smokestack becomes an image of luxury: something that cannot burn burns. We squander fantasies: something that makes energy for the imagination burns. The smokestack shelters ideas in its hollow shaft, in an invisible channel marking two directions: up and down. We imagine dark emptiness inside, which only exists because a strong shell contains it. As a motif, the smokestack is both an inside and an outside, and always presupposes them. In Svenungsson's drawings, smokestacks become abstract figures: they stand, lie, lean, breathe, disintegrate, fall, and attract other motifs, creating their own network of images, a world conscious of its own connection to surrealism. Svenungsson knows how smokestacks developed a world and are thus important in developing the contemporary world further, with ideas from the intellectual energy of art (another old utopia).

Svenungsson's first smokestack was destroyed to give way to a museum. The Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin now contains an imaginary version of another, as well as an actually built structure. The history of all the smokestacks Svenungsson has built is hidden behind its rounded wall. They are landmarks; they are seen that way wherever they mark a new site. A constructed, imagined segment in the museum's exhibition space raises the issue of what was there first: the smokestack to be preserved (as an industrial monument) or the museum to preserve ideas expressed in unusual forms. What do we see Svenungsson's smokestacks as? The answer is in the eye of the beholder, as has always been true since the art of the twentieth century. The nineteenth century produced smokestacks; the twentieth century made them superfluous — from now on they can serve the twenty-first century by generating their own ideas – and beyond.

Friedrich Meschede
(translation by Andrew Shields)