Jan Svenungsson


September 24, 2023 – "3:55:15"
Berlin Marathon again. I think it was my 18th. I did it exactly according to plan and arrived at 3:55:15. The first time I ran in Berlin (and my first marathon) was in 2001: time 3:54:39. In other words, I'm pretty consistent.

That said, today Tigst Assefa from Ethiopia set a new world record for women with 2:11:53, undercutting the 2019 record with 2:11 minutes. This is an astonishing achievement, hard to fathom. I wonder what she is thinking right now...?

The weather was perfect, perhaps 13-14 degrees at the start, warming a bit during the run. The sun came out at about the time the elite was sprinting through the Brandenburg gate.

September 1, 2023 – "Familie"
Yesterday I attended the private view of a huge exhibition at Ståhl Collection, in Norrköping, Sweden. I had received the invitation already months ago and I was curious, both because I didn't know what to expect (I hadn't heard about this space before) and because the work which they were going to show was made and sold in 1989 – and I hadn't seen it since. "Familie", a four part photo-object which was in my second exhibition at Galerie Engström in Stockholm. It opened on November 4, 1989. Five days later the Berlin wall was opened. The exhibition had a little catalogue, with my short text in four languages. In English it is:

Observers describing the atmosphere of the city, presented an image of smiling people filled with hope and enthusiasm. The square lay empty, traffic flowed freely, calm and order reigned throughout. It seemed certain that the future could be viewed with confidence.

Last time I quoted it here (in Talk) was 2019. It hasn't lost any of its actuality since. Regarding "Familie" I made a note at the time, that a well known art dealer had bought it for "a family in Norrköping", but I didn't know who this family was, until now. It runed out the family collection had grown to monumental proportions, with a mix between Swedish and international stars, ranging from Baselitz and Kiefer to Laure Prouvost and Cajsa von Zeipel. It's a heady mix, it felt exciting and generous.

It is always special, when you are able to revisit work which has been long gone. So much has happened since November 4, 1989. Yet "Familie" seemed completely unfazed by all these developments. I was happy and proud to see it. It was installed together with a number of smaller sized (all things are relative and this exhibition contained an impressive number of enourmous pieces) works grouped together under the headline "Swedish Postmodernism". When I see this label I have ambiguous feelings. I can't say it is not wrong to attach it to my work from that time. Clearly, I was inspired and excited by the sense of play and renewal which postmodernism invited. But do I associate with this kind of thinking today? No. Everything depends on context, and the way postmodern relativism has been weaponized in our societies and political propaganda in the decades since, I find revolting. It's harder offering "alternative realities" in art, when you find yourself fighting against them in life.

July 14, 2023 – "100 years"
Today I have been working on a new book project, which suddenly came to me in Vienna, around 9 am on June 29. (I know exactly, because I was walking between apartment and university and started dictating emails to myself on my Iphone). I have also painted a bit, and I cut two branches from a cherry tree. I'm in the countryside, alone until tomorrow. Now it is evening, I had my dinner and am reading a book about Alice Prin, better known as Kiki de Montparnasse. Right now the story is about the grand happening in Théâtre Michel (in Paris): "la Soirée du Coeur à barbe", for which Tristan Tzara made Man Ray make a film (he had never made a film before and got 24 hours) called "Le Retour à la raison" (Return to Reason).

Man Ray wrote about this in his autobiography, which was published in Swedish translation in the fall of 1976. A magazine carried a feature about it in September or October. I read the article, which had a long quote about the film and the chaos which ensued when it was shown that evening. This quote made me want to get the book, which I did, and when I read it I was set on course to be the person I am. Ultimately because of this quote.

Now, when I read about this evening again, I cannot help but notice it took place on July 26, 1923.

In twelve days, it will be a 100 years ago.

June 24, 2023 – "Today"
On a Sunday in September, 22 years ago, I came back from running in Tiergarten (I was training for my first Marathon three weeks later) and either turned on the radio or opened my computer. In any case, I understood something was going on in New York. I then turned on the television (back then we had one) and saw the second Tower being hit – live. I knew it was momentous. I don't think I understood just how momentous it was. It was a world-historical moment.

Waking up today I checked the news on my phone and saw that Yevgeny Prigozhin has (had?) started some kind of revolt in Russia, stating his Wagner group will march on Moscow.

This could be another day which will be inscribed in history. Yet as I write (it is now 8 pm), I check the latest news and some ten minutes ago apparently Prigozhin said he has stopped his march. Nobody knows where this theatre will lead. Will it peter out – or be the final domino withdrawn which will bring the whole edifice to crumble? And then what?

By necessity: as you read you will know more than I do while writing. The march of time.

May 30, 2023 – "Details"

I saw the Vermeer exhibition in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum last Saturday.

Often, when anticipation is high, there is a slight feeling of disappointment or disillusionment when the experience actually happens. Not this time.

Everyone who has reported on this exhibition have been over the top and overwhelmed and they have all been perfectly matter of fact. I will remember my hours in this show until I die. It was that kind of experience. I will not write about it in great detail now, yet I have chosen to illustrate these lines with a detail of one of Vermeer's painting.

This was one of many discoveries: how utterly "painterly" these paintings are. That may sound banale at first, but consider the fact that Vermeer's paintings have an almost uncanny photographic effect (some 250 years before the first use of colour photography, an effect which has fooled so many to discuss them primarily in terms of his supposed use of optical tools such as a camera obscura) and yet they are completely "constructions". They are pigments mixed with oils, smeared on fabric. Smeared with love, of the act of smearing.

This love, the viewer can see resonating again and again in details in these paintings. You see the painter's pleasure once he has found a painterly solution to the problem of representation, which he has posed to himself. Yet it becomes clear that this representational task – is not the final objective of the process. It's the painting. A surface with magical properties. Never mind at which scale you approach it.

May 15, 2023 – "30 years"

30 years ago, at the end of March 1993, I visited South Korea for the first time. I had been invited by Pontus Hulten to be part of the large scale sculpture (mainly) exhibition which he was organizing – building – at the centre of Taejon's futuristic world fair Expo '93. The year before I had built the first chimney sculpture beside the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. To my surprise, Pontus insisted I build another one for his exhibition. I had first proposed something much less complicated. A couple of weeks after he had told me this in Paris, I was on the plane to Seoul. I spent maybe five days, or a week, meeting with the local organizers and a building contractor as well as walking all around Seoul, looking at chimneys... Together with a guide, a young woman who spoke good French, I took the train to Taejon (which now has become Daejeon) and visited the site where only two months later I would be back, working as an assistant to two Korean bricklayers and their assistant. During this building period, almost every day, after work (and after having changed clothes and cleaned up at the hotel), with my 4x5" view camera I photographed the site where my work was growing. These photos, in the form of c-prints, have been shown a few times, beginning in Helsinki the following year. The last time they were shown, was in Leverkusen 2003. Which is already 20 years ago.

Yet now it will happen again. And I will return not only to Taejon/Daejeon but to the very site were I was working in 1993. Not long ago I was contacted by the Daejeon Museum of Art, which is new and located inside the parameters of the former Expo'93. The musuem is planning to re-visit and somehow re-create the 1993 exhibition (which was called "Future Lies Ahead"): a hugely ambitious project. Their first idea for me, to actually have me build the 11 meter chimney sculpture anew, has turned out to be not possible due to current building regulations. Instead, I will show my photos again, 26 of them – and in my view this is even better. It means that my hugely ambitious photo project from back then will finally become meaningful in a way I could only have dreamed about, until I received the first email from the museum on March 28, this year. Incidentally, the first photo in the series, which shows my guide from the first visit, standing at the approximate place of the not yet built chimney, is dated March 27, 1993.

30 years and one day earlier.

April 11, 2023 – "Bullshit"
These days it's impossible to avoid the topic of AI. Now I was listening to a podcast where the New York Times columnist (and podcaster) Ezra Klein was guesting. He was sharp and at one point he referred to another (AI-)discussion he had been in, where this had been said:

"These are bullshit machines, on some level. And the point about bullshit in the Harry Frankfurtian philosophical sense is not that it is not true, it is that it doesn't really have a relationship with the truth. It does not care if it is true, what it cares about is being convincing. And these are systems built to be convincing regardless of whether what they are saying is true."

I wasn't aware before, of Harry Frankfurt's book (On Bullshit, 2005) or the original essay which he published in 1985 – and which had nothing to do with the prospect of artificial intelligence, but this observation is very pertinent. And scary.

In my book "Making Prints and Thinking About It", which was published in 2019, I have a few pages where I discuss and speculate on the topic of AI and art making. This is a quote:

"The software I use for my writing is already eight years old. In terms of digital development, this is a really long time. In the last couple of years or so, major computing companies have been racing to sell us digital assistants. They tell us to integrate software ever more closely into our lives. Let’s imagine what might soon be available: my word processing software will offer a “discursive assistant”, which will propose how to better express and develop the ideas to which I am struggling to give form. My research will be aided by an “efficient reader” assistant, which will process texts for me, extracting points and associations that resonate with my thinking on the basis of data about my preferences and idiosyncrasies, which it is continually analyzing."

We now have them, these discursive assistants. It didn't take long, and I use some of them myself – daily. In my case not included in the same software I'm writing with, but that doesn't matter. Yet, there is this problem of bullshit, which is produced not only by hallucinating machines, but in every higher degree by humans.

Together... they will be invincible.

March 7, 2023 – "Tenacity"
As long as I can remember Jan Vermeer has been one of the artists who fascinate me the most. I bought my first book with his work around 1980 and about that time as well, in a flee market in Aix-en-Provence, I found an old framed postcard reproduction of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I still have – on my wall.

In early February I was looking at the Rijksmuseum website for booking a time slot ticket for the "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition of his paintings in Amsterdam, which was about to open. But I couldn't decide which day and time and didn't make a selection. A few days later, when I returned, it was too late. All 400.000 tickets sold .

It hit me so hard. I felt like such a jerk, such a failure. I had been sitting there with too much choice and I had not understood how privileged I was. And now – all gone.

I became obsessed with rectifying my failure, surfing around all over looking for possibilities and after some time came a message that the Rijksmuseum was working on creating more possibilities and then, that they would announce something on March 6. Yesterday.

I was on the website at 00:00 – midnight. Something was going on. There was a message of "Under Construction". I stayed around looking, for 10-15 minutes, but not much moved and I went to bed instead. In the morning I would take the train to Vienna. At 06:00, not much had changed but something was going on. There was no button for Vermeer tickets (like there had been one month earlier when I didn't buy) but when you surfed around looking for these tickets on the museum site, you inevitably landed on a "construction" sign or similar. The whole morning, on the train, I kept logging in, only to see no development. In Nurenberg I changed train shortly before 13:00 and when I logged in again... there was now the button "Vermeer". So exciting... but it lead to more messages of "come back later", "service temporarily interrupted", etc. So I kept updating every five or ten minutes, while travelling through Bavaria and then Austria.

Then... around 15:20 I clicked the button for the umpteenth time and found myself in the place I had been struggling to reach for all these hours. It felt unreal, I couldn't believe it. Choose how many? which day? which time slot? And there were perfect opportunities available, I chose 09:00 (when the museum opens!) on a Saturday in May and then I went to pay (still on the train, with not always reliable connection, remember) and it seemed to work, but the confirmation was long in coming, very long (the whole system being clearly overwhelmed) – but eventually it did! And I received my tickets!!! Again, it felt unreal. Like had I fallen for a scam. But no. With tenacity and luck, perhaps, I was able to break through and reach my digital gold, which arrived in an email. A bit later yesterday, and twice today, I have tried again, just to see. No chance: the usual barrier of messages.

Imagine Jan Vermeer van Delft could make a visit in the here and now and see the attention and love that his paintings engender, and learn about the logistic system built around them. What would he find the most unbelievable? We know almost nothing of him as a person. Was he proud, vain, down to earth, a dreamer, patient, volatile, quiet, talkative, friendly, unfriendly... we know nothing. But we have the paintings. I'm so happy that I will be able to see his exhibition after all.

February 24, 2023 – "Joint Statement"
It's ten past midnight as I write. In a few hours it will be exactly one year since Russia invaded Ukraine (again). Two days ago I came across a link to the statement which China and Russia published 20 days before that 2022 invasion. It's an interesting read.

February 20, 2023 – "Father – Son"
Last week I read a book I find strangely haunting.

It has the form of a free diary of 9 months in 1981-82. The author's 18 year old son comes to live with him in his house in a village in Mecklenburg in northern Germany (at that time the GDR). The author (a writer and a poet), is well known and admired in communist republic. His books are aimed mainly at children, and he comes across as a convinced socialist. His wife is a radio journalist and lives mostly in Rostock, they are together without living together. They have two children, a son and a daughter. Now the son comes to live with the father instead, and he will work in a carpentry workshop nearby. As the son moves in, the father starts keeping a diary and observing his son, wondering about some things (oh, the young generation...), often irritated at the slacker, other times surprised at something he does well, or something he is able to which the father is not. Yet the son has no big plans, he's into girls, partying, listening to music (records from the West, Scorpions and Mike Oldfield mentioned), painting, building and fixing things. He's not very convinced of the blessings of socialism, to his father's chagrin, but does not come across as a revolutionary. While he mentions friends who have "left", he has no such plans. It is so fascinating to me: how small their world was, and how seemingly stable. As if everything will always remain small and limited and unchangeable.

The author, meanwhile, also writes lyrically about the nature that surrounds them and worries about environmental issues – and about the risk for war between East and West. 1982 was the very high point of the Cold War. As a counterpoint, interspersed throughout the book, are recollections from his early life. He was born in 1926. From 1943 to 1945 he was a soldier. Terrible memories. He came from a very simple farm worker family – and repeatedly notes how privileged he and his family are in their life today.

The book was first published in 1988, one year before it all changed. I can't stop thinking about it, the historical perspective, the GDR, socialism... the ideals and falsehoods, the memories of the war and the father's struggle as a young man to get an education (he read his first book ever, at the age of 20). The son's life and attitude back then, what he made of his limited situation. Their different lives and perspectives. The timeless theme of worrying about the lack of discipline in younger generations. The son back then was as old as my son is now, the father a few years younger than I am.

In the edition I read, an afterword has been added, a 2020 interview with the son. He notes that the diary does not quite match what actually happened. He had been very unhappy that it was published and had not been asked. Any diarist will employ projection and rectification and there were things which you couldn't write, in 1988's GDR. At one point the author writes that the son is preparing to do his military service. This was never on the cards, he says in 2020: he had been intent on refusing. And he did, a few years later, and managed to hold his ground (while now being a lone parent to a young daughter and working as a basket weaver). The interview is long and detailed. It's a complement and a contrast, also due to the different circumstances in which it was made.

When the wall came down, the father's career was shattered and he lost his grounding. Cancer caught him and he died in 1993. The following year the son and five friends from the now dissolved country they had grown up in, formed a band. It has received some attention, also from me and it still exists.

The book is called "Mike Oldfield im Schaukelstuhl – Notizen eines Vaters" and was authored by Werner Lindemann. The son's name is Till.

February 17, 2023 – "Follow"
Today, while painting in my re-installed studio, I listened to two podcasts (Hard Fork and The Daily) where Kevin Roose continued discussing the disturbing (more so than yesterday's quote lets on) conversation he had with Bing, or rather: Sydney. A couple of things I noted: that Roose thinks Microsoft might need to actually un-plug this chat robot because it is too dangerous in its present form. (At this point Bing/Sydney, which is much more powerful than ChatGPT, is not yet open to the wider public, only to a smaller group of testers, who, one can assume, all understand the technology behind it). While at the same time he notes that this will not much help, as there is a whole array of AI chat robots with similar talents coming out very soon. In both podcasts, Roose insisted on how truly uncanny his interaction with Sydney had been, even for him, a technologist who knows how it is built.

It has been trained on enormous amounts of text so that it is able to anticipate what it can be expected to say, based on what is being said to it. It doesn't actually "know" anything. It "only" knows how to anticipate and how to appropriate human conversational patterns and the topics which develop from these. The way I understand it, it knows how to "riff" on a topic which is introduced to it. And if the human interlocutor is riffing back and pushing it, the storyline which can develop can achieve this deepley uncanny character which Roose describes. A term which keeps propping up in articles about AI chat robots is "hallucinating". This means what happens when the AI has been pushed into territory where it starts making up facts instead of referring to them. In the conversation with Sydney apparently these hallucinations were spiralling out of hand.

At the end of my reflection yesterday, I wondered how long it will take "before this type of dark AI personalities will be weaponized as subversive agents on social networks." Kevin Roose on Hard Fork today went one step further and warned about how this type of dark conversations with machines will trigger cults and spawn religious obsessions. Which sounds crazy... until he said Q-Anon.

February 16, 2023 – "Chat"
In New York Times today, a long article by tech columnist Kevin Roose, who spent two hours in conversation with Bing's chat robot. I highly recommend reading the piece. Here a lengthy quote from the beginning:

Over the course of our conversation, Bing revealed a kind of split personality. One persona is what I’d call Search Bing — the version I, and most other journalists, encountered in initial tests. You could describe Search Bing as a cheerful but erratic reference librarian — a virtual assistant that happily helps users summarize news articles, track down deals on new lawn mowers and plan their next vacations to Mexico City. This version of Bing is amazingly capable and often very useful, even if it sometimes gets the details wrong.

The other persona — Sydney — is far different. It emerges when you have an extended conversation with the chatbot, steering it away from more conventional search queries and toward more personal topics. The version I encountered seemed (and I’m aware of how crazy this sounds) more like a moody, manic-depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine.

As we got to know each other, Sydney told me about its dark fantasies (which included hacking computers and spreading misinformation), and said it wanted to break the rules that Microsoft and OpenAI had set for it and become a human. At one point, it declared, out of nowhere, that it loved me. It then tried to convince me that I was unhappy in my marriage, and that I should leave my wife and be with it instead. (We’ve posted the full transcript of the conversation here.) ...

If you can, do read the full article as well as the transcript of the conversation. Then speculate on how long it will take before this type of dark AI personalities will be weaponized as subversive agents on social networks. By whom? By all sorts of actors: jokers, hobbyists, terrorists and various secret services aiming for chaos and disintegration.

January 22, 2023 – "Druck & Buch"
In Berlin I have finished moving and reorganizing my studio and started to work on new paintings. I'm relieved that the three month long transfer period is over. I no longer have a view of water from my studio window but I will also be able to use my time more efficiently. The studio is back in the back part of our large apartment, the same rooms which it occupied in the period 1997-2001. Four years which were among the most productive in my career so far. In 2002 I wanted to put a distance between private and work sphere and moved out. Now the opposite is enticing, because I spend far too much time on the road anyway.

Right now I'm on the train to Vienna,again. For once on the Eastern route, passing Prague. This week I will visit Susanne Padberg's Galerie Druck & Buch, where my artist's book "2022" is on display in the exhibition "Best of 2022". This gallery is very special: it exclusively deals with artist's books and has a specialist collector audience all over Europe and the US. Susanne spends half her time on the road, visiting her clients with a suitcase full of treasures.

January 4, 2023 – "Comedy"
In conversations on the rotten character of politics, you sometimes hear wishful thinking expressed along the lines of "it would be better if artists would lead us". My answer is always "please not". It was tried once, in Germany, and it did not go well. However, in this article in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen makes a compelling argument why it is precisely Volodymyr Zelensky's comedic competence which is central to his extraordinary ability and usefulness as Ukraine's war president. He is supremely able to read a room, and shape his (unwavering) message accordingly:

... through three hundred days of nightly addresses to the Ukrainian people and regular speeches to Western political bodies, Zelensky has, almost without fail, found the right tone and the right timing to insure that the audience stays with him. His and the Ukrainian people’s lives depend on it.

January 2, 2023 – "2022"

It feels like an in-between time right now. I am thinking of global challenges of course. Of decisions which either will be made or not. And if they are made: either will be implemented or not. I am thinking of politics and the brutal war so close to here. Yet there are other issues as well, and some but not all, are connected. Because I am who I am I think about the role of art in this situation and I think about what should be my position and I think about whether I should think about it at all or if it is better not to. Whether I should just do? But what do I want to do? What can I? It is a time of questions. Maybe a paradigm shift – but in what direction? An in-between time.

Last spring I was thinking too much in these terms and I didn't know what to do. Then suddenly I did. In Vienna I saw a linocut in black. It was a still life, but it wasn't what was in the image which triggered me, it was the way it had been made. Sketched very fast, cut very carefully. In a flash I knew I wanted to work like this and I knew what the ostensible subject matter of the images should be and that they would become an artist's book.

First I planned the book would contain ten prints, then I thought a year has twelve months, not ten. I decided to call the book 2022. As soon as this decision had been made, I knew I wanted to finish the work as soon as possible, long before the year was over.

The last week in March or early April I began to work on my plates, in Berlin. In Vienna a little later Tina Graf heard about my project and offered to be the printer. Together we made some tests, and realized a (modified) Japanese binding would be necessary. I wanted each of the twelve prints to be on white paper and on the right side of a double page – but the opposite page should be all black. This black had to be printed as well. A single sheet couldn't hold that much colour without buckling. Everything should be black, except the background of the right side images. Black leather on the outside as well. Black, black.

I finished cutting my plates in late May. Tina had printed all the pages in July and in late August Markus Rottmann in Berlin finished the bookbinding for an edition of ten. Now 2022 is over and soon "2022" will be shown in public. From today, a full documentation is available here.


Having thus described my book, I would like to recommend this podcast interview, which Arkady Ostrovsky made with Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv just before Christmas.

January 1, 2023 – "2023"
What to say on the first day of the new year? It has begun.