Jan Svenungsson

Meschede, Friedrich, "City — Forest — River",
in: Wanås 2007 20th anniversary, Wanås Foundation, Knislinge, Sweden, 2007

When Jan Svenungsson built a sculpture in the form of a chimney right next to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1992, he probably did not realise then how much this one piece would influence his work as an artist in the years to come. Although this first sculpture had to make way for an extension to the museum building a short time afterwards, in 1994, the very absence of this work serves to illustrate the concept of the project as a whole. The first chimney was 10 metres high; each subsequent one was to be measured against this and be built one metre taller than the last; thus an 11m-high chimney was built in 1993 in Korea, a 12m-high one in 1995 in Finland, and so on. Only the first one had to be demolished, and to this day it remains ‘unrealised’ as the conceptual prototype. Jan Svenungsson is gradually coming round to the idea of rebuilding the first chimney so that it does not get lost in conceptual dogmatism. But before that he has to build the “Eighth Chimney” – as the 17m-high work is officially titled – in the grounds of the sculpture park in Wanås, and with this work the artist is continuing the process he began 15 years ago in Stockholm.

From a formal point of view, the chimney motif represents an almost ideal sculptural form. The sculpture is built up stone by stone upon a circular base. While the form of the chimney remains the same, a series of works emerges in which each sculpture gains its individual character from being taller than the one before. The interaction between the geometric modular form of the brick and the tubular form of the construction as a whole creates a structure where the alternation from joints to stones and from lines to interior surfaces provides visual variety. The narrowing of the chimney towards the top, which is required for structural reasons, lends the form a certain elegance despite its architectural density.

As Jan Svenungsson’s chosen motif, however, the chimney should not only be considered from a formal point of view; in fact it evokes a host of associations which are specifically determined by the surrounding environment, above all in terms of their interpretation. Thus the first form is also a sculpture precisely because it was built next to the museum. Something that is created in such close proximity to a museum building is accorded the iconographic significance of this context. The urban iconography of the 14m-high chimney, which was built in the middle of a body of water in Norrköping, functions in much the same way. It appears to be a reference to industrialisation, as it is located very close to where a real brick chimney stands. The architecture of the surrounding warehouses gives the impression that this is an industrial area, to which a chimney has to belong – even if it is no longer functioning. Here, the sculpture is interpreted as a kind of monument, a recollection of bygone eras. Jan Svenungsson’s chimney sculpture is thus assigned a second level of association, but one that has always been attached to sculpture as a public building project.

The sculpture in Norrköping is therefore situated in a direct visual dialogue within the panorama of the surroundings. It is only in the relation of the two chimneys – one as an industrial structure, the other as sculpture – that the whole ensemble seems to give an account of life then and life now. And if Svenungsson’s sculpture appears to be descending into the water, then this interpretation also serves to illustrate a past era. At the same time, the sculpture with its apparently surreal location must be regarded as being so devoid of any functionality that in the end it can only be understood as sculpture. Here the conceptual aspect of Jan Svenungsson’s sculptural work becomes apparent, a feature that is revealed above all in the nuances and differences. The form is always the same; its varying height is an intangible quality that can only be identified in combination with all the other works in the series. As such, the locations and the whole of the surrounding area are of crucial importance in order to be able to understand the singular conception, the singular form and its contextual dependency, as a concept of variety.

Jan Svenungsson has now been invited to produce another version of his concept for the sculpture park in Wanås. In 2007 the “Eighth Chimney” is being built to a height of 17 metres in a woodland area. Looking at Svenungsson’s projected image – a photograph onto which the planned sculpture has been painted – you get some idea of the location, which can hardly be described as a ‘park’. The new chimney sculpture is being created in the middle of a wooded area that reveals certain impracticable features. The planned work for Wanås represents a particular challenge in terms of the levels of interpretation; the more so as visitors who wish to see it will first pass by a brick sculpture built in 1994 by the Danish artist Per Kirkeby. Since the mid-1970s Kirkeby has become known for his brick sculptures in public space; his forms are frequently borrowed from the ancient cultures he researches during extensive travels. Kirkeby’s works evoke monumental architecture and structural forms from architectural history, and at the same time they illustrate the variety involved in the skilled tradition of the art of bricklaying. In this way, too, his brick sculpture from 1994 in Wanås with its open cubic form has the appearance of a landscape temple, with all the romantic associations evoked by this motif. Kirkeby’s brick sculptures are always expressive. The brick sculptures of Jan Svenungsson, on the other hand, avoid any form of expression. They are positionings. Underlying his notion of sculpture and space is a conceptual idea based upon the series, the identical motif and its standardised construction combined with the open-ended dimension of height. Every form of expression is avoided because expression and meaning is to be derived from each respective new location.

Walking through the trees in the forest at Wanås, there comes a point when you will catch sight of this red brick sculpture. The rigid verticality of its architecture deviates from the naturally grown, towering forms of the tree trunks, which in their multiplicity define the verticality of the panorama as a whole. At first the sculpture is all only vaguely discernible amid the dense woods. In combination with the trees, Svenungsson’s sculpture marks a place or a site whose meaning remains open but appears surreal. It is in the nature of a thick forest not to identify any particular place, but rather to express a certain lack of orientation through the concentration of nature. The forest has no direction; it provides no paths and can cause you to lose your way. With the addition of Jan Svenungsson’s sculpture, this open, unbounded area has suddenly been given a site that is marked, one whose position has been set. It is a sculpture that is always perceived initially from afar, a work that has to be approached gradually with searching steps across the forest floor, because it forms the destination point of a route that is in itself undetermined. This is the phenomenon of Svenungsson’s sculpture in this hitherto unknown context, that it first of all marks a distant place, a remote, even concealed site which has to be approached gradually. With each step towards it the sculpture grows in size, achieving monumentality the moment you stand before it and turn your gaze upwards to the sky. The “Eighth Chimney” becomes a landmark. With the juxtaposition of architectural motif and trees on the one hand, and the above-described way of approaching it on the other, the sculpture takes on a magical quality in this setting; it begins to tell a story. Rather than recalling a particular industrial history, as the piece in Norrköping does, it evokes in this natural context the possible existence of fantastic creatures which could have built it or left it behind in this place. Never before has one of Svenungsson’s sculptures been so inaccessible in terms of its meaning. The brick sculpture’s surroundings in the forest at Wanås lend it an enigmatic quality that was not evident in the previous versions created by the artist. He has deliberately chosen a site outside the actual sculpture park; the location seems to open up a whole new area in order to extend the artistic scope of this collection as a whole. Unlike artists who might choose to work with the natural materials found in situ, as a kind of continuation of land art, Jan Svenungsson asserts himself here as a sculptor within his own tradition of thought, precisely because of his signature chimney motif, by asserting himself in the expanded context with this place which itself is ultimately the embodiment of an idea.

Friedrich Meschede