Jan Svenungsson

Valjakka, Timo. "Parallel Versions. An Interview with Jan Svenungsson",

in: Siksi, # 2, 1992

Jan Svenungsson, a Swedish artist, makes photo-objects, paintings, installations and text-works. He also produces elaborate catalogues of illustrations and stories, which bear no obvious reference to his work. He has never allowed critical texts to appear in any of his catalogues. I met him in Stockholm to ask him why.

JAN SVENUNGSSON: I feel very strongly that it is not my role as an artist to commission somebody to explain my work. I produce images, installations, texts, which are a communication from me to you, to the audience. This is first-hand communication, which at the time of its presentation should not have to be explained, because that reduces its power.

TIMO VALJAKKA: Have you ever written about your own work?

JS: I have written a few texts which have appeared in my catalogues. When I produced a catalogue for my show at CREDAC in France in 1989 I wrote an atmospheric piece, which establishes a certain place and a certain action - or, rather, what is left after an action has taken place. It is in no way an explanation of the work, it is a parallel to it. Together they create an image, a statement of place and intent.

For the Aurora 3-catalogue (1989) I wrote a text about two military patrols spying on each other before finally deciding to work together. Since they were watching one another they realised they could do things more efficiently that way. Again, this text was a kind of parallel track to the work I had in the show.

TV: And now you have produced a whole booklet, A Commissioned Readymade, as you call it.

JS: I invited four people to write from the same starting point as I was doing the work. They were completely free to go in whatever direction they liked, and to make any statement they wanted. I told them that I would publish their texts as my work, with their names under their own pieces, but with my name on the cover.

The first text, by Kay Heymer, is a poetic play of associations. Each of the nine dates, the nine years I gave as a starting point, is linked with an event in history or arthistory. It opens with a beautiful statement that Brancusi wrote on the wall of his studio: "Don't forget that you're an artist! Do not lose courage, be afraid of nothing and you will achieve your goal."

TV: That's good!

JS: The second text, by Kathryn Hixson, is an elaboration of the same idea as Kay uses. It is a very ambitious theatre play which deals with the American history of this century, closely following the years I had listed up, together with references to works of art in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute. It is a well-researched and energetic text and has a strong American flavour.

The third piece, written by Gertrud Sandqvist, deals with the way, in his Rosary chapel, Matisse uses sketches for the believers instead of detailed images, because a sketch has to be filled out with the projection the believer makes of his faith. She draws a parallel between that way of working and the way I present these nine years.

The fourth text is very dense and beautiful. Written by Frédéric Valabrègue, it makes references to the Cabbala which are hard for me to follow. But it is written in a language which brings it extremely close to the roots of all my work.

When I wrote my first text for Siksi in 1988, I used a language heavily influenced by the way Giorgio de Chirico writes in his novel Hebdomeros, which was a great inspiration to me at the time. This last text is written completely in the spirit of that book, which Frédéric has never read!

TV: You just gave him the dates, the years?

JS: I gave him the years, but they are an invention of mine, and have nothing to do with de Chirico or Hebdomeros.

I believe in a sort of fate. When you work as an artist and do things based on intuitive choices, you have to be very critical of your intuition afterwards. I feel very strongly what I must do. And I believe that if my belief is strong enough it will prove to have some value. I construct my way of walking based on intuitive choices and afterwards I find out what made me walk that way.

TV: What made you choose those particular numbers, those nine years out of this century?

JS: Four or five years ago I wanted to make a piece using a specific year, which had a special status at the time, an aura for me. I decided to put my year into the simplest possible scheme. My year had a four at the end. So I took all the years of this century ending with four except for 1994 which has not arrived yet - and put them in chronological order. Now I had something which is an object in itself, something which is a perfect trigger for ideas to happen and for thoughts to be thought.

TV: You're well known for your smokestack-photos. How do they relate to all this?

JS: I use the smokestacks, because they are like tools for me, they are very good actors.

I am interested in the opacity of the photograph and in the way it can be made into an object. Also, certain pictures, certain motifs can be used to say something other than what the picture itself seems to represent. In that way my picture-objects become actors in a play devised by the artist, or perhaps by the viewer. I definitely regard my smokestacks as ambitious actors, who have now taken part in several plays and who have just got new parts.

TV: You have a show coming up in Helsinki?

JS: Yes, it is a curious play written by a computer. It consists of 43 almost identical paintings of a face, eight different smokestacks and the nine years silk-screened on the wall.

The dates are in chronological order, but the number and location of the paintings and smokestacks were determined by a random model. I set up a game, gave it certain rules and ran it on the computer.

There will also be a catalogue, with no text, but which reproduces the whole show in the order it appears in the installation. This means the show exists in two versions: as an installation and as a book. Neither is a reproduction of the other, they are alternative and, again, parallel versions of the same thing.

Timo Valjakka