Great IDEA? The Art of Not Conforming
With their remarkable ability to hijack the news agenda it’s becoming increasingly apparent that in 2014 Europe’s more reactionary commentators represent a potent presence in the continent’s political landscape.
Suggesting that Europe has changed, the immutable certainties that governed the establishment of the EEC in 1957 and the desire to cooperate, and move once and for all beyond European conflict, seem to have given way to an EU which is fractious, poly-national and territorially far more extensive than could ever have been imagined, when it was originally established.
There can be little doubt either that the mobility of labour so central to the EU’s governing doctrines has had a fundamental affect on the nature and the feel of social organisation on a local level. I am delighted (and a little bit proud) to report that my children now attend a school, whose student body (quite normally for London) represents children from 31 different countries. I live in one of the world’s most diverse and tolerant cities but this melding of cultures remains challenging and developmental, it is not achieved seamlessly, particularly in a country, like the UK which doesn’t necessarily expect incomers to integrate. Perhaps, as with all grand political plans, the hybrid and protean characteristics that govern the coming together of different national groups render the European project, perhaps permanently, a work in progress.
Beyond the shrill voices calling for British, German, French or Swedish jobs for British, German, French or Swedish workers, I would contend that another Europe is taking hold, a Europe of variable geometry and different, simultaneous and overlapping realities – one in which, for example, a large community of British people now live (more-or less permanently) in France, and where (unexpectedly perhaps) a similarly large community of French citizens now live in London. To move away from the Anglo-centric world-view so beloved of British political commentators, we now live in a Europe where, as is elegantly expressed in in the exhibition Good IDEA?, a substantial community of Germans has taken up residence in Sweden.
I’m writing this essay, shortly after returning from a visit to Stockholm to visit the artists Thomas Raschke and Tobias Hofsäss, with the aim of discovering more about their exhibition. We’ve programmed the show already; Thomas ‘remarkable evocations of the world in wire armatures and Tobias’ elegant, otherworldly, negatives, which present the most anodyne images of day-to-day life in Sweden, intrigue us. However no one in the curatorial team at the University of Hertfordshire Galleries really knows what the hell the show is about!
And the question ‘why is a British audience going to be interested in what two Germans feel about living in Sweden?’ has been central to our discussions. The answer perhaps lies not in narrow nationalistic interpretations of how one culture gets on with, and can integrate with, another but more in the general question of uprootedness (or rootlessness), different hegemonies, and the feelings of dislocation that can result from the process of trying to integrate with a host culture.
I spent two years living in Southern Germany (1981-83) and three in New York (1990 -93). These were pivotal and hugely formative experiences, but I remember being driven to distraction (and feeling tightly constrained) by the requirement to do things in ways,which seemed, unnatural and unnecessary. As an outsider, and particularly as an artist, however one can also take on the role of savant, sagely exploiting a lack of a proper understanding of the rules of engagement, seeing conjunctions where the host culture sees none and making connections where, to others, none are apparent.
So how do the Germans see Sweden? Clearly there are differences between the two cultures: the Swedes (like the Brits) persist in the reassuring historical anachronism of Monarchy. Otherwise, from a British perspective, there might not be all that much difference between the two countries: both are full of attractive, thrusting young people, both are paragons of post-war democracy, both are ridiculously good at sport, both are closely associated with the brands we love: VW, BMW, VOLVO, Electrolux, Siemens, Bosch and SAAB. Clearly there are some differences in popular culture: Sweden’s musical culture has global reach and some of coolest bands in the world (First Aid Kit, The Blacknuss All-Stars and of course Abba!) but then again Germany has Kraftwerk and Berlin’s Jazzanova can fill dance floors the world over.
So there are similarities and differences, but as our conversation develops I am increasingly surprised at the feelings of tight constraint, which the artists report in trying to conform to Nordic rules of engagement. And strangely it is the apparently benign, clean cut, eternally practical, systematised, sometimes invasive and possibly pernicious characteristics represented by IKEA the very Icon of Swedishness, which provides a key to the ‘dis-ease’ with which Hofsäss and Raschke apprehend their current surroundings.
It becomes apparent that the happy, smiley one-size-fits-all view of the world is not by any means restricted to IKEA ‘Where does your interest in the ‘transparent’ or the ‘see through’ come from?’ I ask them as we sit in Tobias’ garden in the spring sunshine.‘Well, for a start’ they tell me in Sweden ‘no-one has curtains’ and because this is a society legally committed to openness. You have the right to find out almost anything about anyone - what they earn, where they work, who they are married to’. And yet for all its apparent ‘transparency’ in the artistic imagination of Hofsäss and Raschke Sweden is also rigidly conformist and operates within a set of structures which are universally observed- a sort of socialism by consent.
Developing a series of works based on their impressions of the habits, traditions and iconography central to Sweden’s ‘self – mythology’ the artists have paired Hofsäss’ ghostly negative photographic prints of organised leisure activities - tea dances for the elderly, the Vårdcentral (state medical centres), and the flower garlands that are essential summer wear for little girls with Raschke’s fascinating wire sculptures inspired by the same impressions.
As they put it, this reduces what we need to understand to the barest visual essentials tricking the eye and allowing the passage of light through an image or object with the aim of exposing the conformity of our assumptions and habits.
Presenting their shared artworks with some of the furniture and designs which we consider quintessentially ‘IKEA’ Hofsäss and Raschke combine artists’ insight with the kind of practical but irreverent good humour evinced on the website IKEA Hackers (www. ikeahackers.net) evoking what we hope is an amusing take on the difficulties we experience as we try to conform to someone else’s rules.In the end I don’t think this exhibition is in particular about Germans, Swedes or Brits, and I wonder whether the experience of uprootedness might be interchangeable. I wonder what the results of their struggle to come to terms with the way we do things in the UK might be if we were to invite them to undertake a residency here – ghostly images and wire sculptures of a dimpled beer glass perhaps?
Perhaps this struggle to conform (or not to conform) is a good thing; perhaps it evidences the impossibility of our ever developing the kind of bland, interchangeable and nebulous European identity, which so terrifies the vocal Eurosceptic fringe.
In articulating these ideas, I’ve come to some interesting and relevant conclusions about what two awkward and irascible Germans think about life in Sweden and suggested how we might respond to this from the vantage point of the UK. What I really want to know however is ‘what do the Swedes think’?
Matthew Shaul is Artistic Director at the University of Hertfordshire Galleries
Seeing More Than You Can See
Three days of rain. Shadowless, oppressive. In the end it’s all about light, without light nothing works; neither the basic building blocks of life on this planet, nor art. The Germans (German artists included) travel to Italy, supposedly for the light, it’s different there. Apparently they also go to Sweden, for the long twilight, the midnight sun.
In the science pages of the local newspaper, there’s an article about the microscopic cosmic particles, which penetrate the earth seemingly without meeting resistance and I am struck by the contradiction. The smallest things, the things we can’t see at a subatomic
level, demand a vast amount of our imagination. The visual information we receive about the world uses only the minuscule part of the spectrum that we can discern visually. Yet, since the beginning of time, our eyes have received rich descriptions from the structures and forms around us wherever light is reflected.
The painter Georges de Latour once painted a girl holding a candle, her other hand is placed between the candle and the viewer, protecting the flame. The light of the candle is clearly visible through the red glow of her translucent fingers.
Like Goethe, the Germans in Italy sought not just light, they wanted to know something about the construction of the inner life. In 1895 the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays, a name, that even today still sounds like something from science fiction. Röntgen never imagined later generations would turn his invention into a verb (I X-ray, he X-rays, go to X-ray please). His discovery shows us, at least physically, something of our inner life and the kind of screws that Grandma has in her leg after her operation. X-rays are something magical. With a slightly guilty conscience, we enjoy having overcome nature and seen something that was not intended for our eyes.
At the end of the film The Silence of the Lambs in the darkness of his cellar, the criminal mastermind at the centre of the story wears a pair of night-vision goggles, achieving tactical advantage in the film’s final violent denouement. This disruption to the rules of night and day, gives him the upper hand in his fight to the death with Clarice Starling. Are we permitted to have the desire to see more than we can actually see? Art was allowed to.
What kind of light are two German artists with their X-Ray vision looking for in Sweden? The light of the city, or its opposite? Tobias Hofsäss is a photographer making images, which investigate the inner life of his chosen home Stockholm. The black and white negative, which we only usually see in 35mm format disappears in Hofsäss’ images as they lose their instrumental association with photomechanics. The negative is used consciously as a medium with different insights, sensitivities and qualities. It reminds us most of X-Rays. They impart the detail that we may seek, but also put distance between us and Stockholm – a site of urban longing, a 20th century style icon, a world centre for design and culture and a model European metropole, which avoided the horrors of two world wars.
The more that Hofsäss’ photography concerns itself with the landscape, the more clouded our vision becomes. One catches oneself reading landscapes in reverse: day and night become confused. Perhaps as a citizen of central Europe, one needs to experience the Artic Circle, the clear presence of the earth’s 23 degree axis and its orientation to the sun, to understand the suspension of 69 the learned habits of day and night and the effects this can have on day to day experience.
For this exhibition two artists living in similar circumstances in a foreign country established subtle and hidden similarities in their way of working. Thomas Raschke’s three dimensional wire constructions make wry and direct comments on Tobias Hofsäss’ photographs, although they neither illustrate nor directly contextualise them. The combinations of works are effective and patently transparent. Both artists’ pallettes are reduced to black and white and Raschke is dealing with broadly the same themes as Hofsäss.
In Raschke’s work we can see right through otherwise unremarkable consumer durables, enabling a view, not only the of contours of the outer shell, but also their inner life. Clearly we are interested in what holds things together, even when we know that there is
nothing much to them. Raschke’s sculptures are much more than a three-dimensional outline, they exist as properly finished objects, simultaneously describing the domestic items that they represent. They are remarkably detailed: lines and complex combinations of lines become visible. They look to all the world like real objects. They have the presence of objects. They occupy space like their namesakes in the ‘real world’, but are simultaneously enigmatic. They represent a transparency that cannot exist in the real world, like a set of Russian Dolls whose consistent parts are all visible although each doll is slotted neatly into the next. As a visitor walking around these objects we are reminded of early computer models and the fascinating opportunities that existed to examine objects from different angels on the signature green computer screens of the 1980s. This example underlines how much richer, more sensitive and more accessible a three-dimensional art object is than anything that can be generated digitally.
We associate these remarkable, technically competent wire images with the ‘real world’. They are equivalents and metaphors for global urban living. They celebrate the beauty of everyday and, with a great deal of humour, our need to examine the inner life of things. They have a slightly abstract, but formal life of their own. It is the inner and personal life of people and things, which is the exhibition’s leitmotif. For Hofsäss and Raschke transparency is a concept and an artistic construct that finds physical expression in their work.
Martin Schick is Director at Galerie der Stadt Backnang
Transparency as an Aid to Perception
For many years, I served as a member of the Jury at the Association of Contemporary Swedish Silver. Consisting of four people from different backgrounds plus the association‘s curator, we used to meet once a year to study the works submitted. These could consist of a body of decorative silverware or jewellery – usually wrought in silver. In effect we were the final hurdle that aspiring silversmiths had to overcome if they were to become members of the association.
Around the year 2000, the materials and material combinations in the submitted works began to grow in complexity. The developments in silversmithing in Sweden closely matched the same developments internationally. Expressions, messages and stories became increasingly important elements of the work and accordingly, we in the jury saw no bar to an artist who worked with iron wire instead of silver plate becoming a member. We were fascinated by Thomas Raschke’s sense of form and how he managed to tame something as rigid and fierce as iron wire into rhythmic, vigorous and vibrant works. Raschke appeared rather as a skilful artist masterfully handling and sketching with his pencil.
These works of art are not about creating something on paper, neither are they massive sculptures of stone, plaster or bronze. Raschke’s material is air and thread. Out of them he creates three-dimensional shapes, precise proportions and rhythmical volumes and all this with an amazing and apparent ease.
The works recall the archetypes or signifiers for a pitcher, a car, a guitar, etc and function in the same way that a child’s drawing of the sun, a house or a face does, highlighting the essence of a thing. Connecting modernism’s quest for an original, universal form and postmodernism’s interest in signs, signifiers and that which is significant, Raschke cites transparency and sketchy expression, as well as the process of investing iron wire with a certain ’nobility’ as his motivators. His parents were goldsmiths and he himself worked as a goldsmith for ten years before he joined the Academy of Fine Arts to study sculpture.
The theme of this exhibition by the photographer Tobias Hofsäss and the sculptor Thomas Raschke is transparency. We can look directly through Raschke’s works simultaneously perceiving the front and the back, their entirety and their volume. Hofsäss’ photographs,
peopled with pale, translucent beings, convey another kind of transparency – a transcendent, ethereal dream world.
The root of the word „transparency“ may be found in Latin. “Trans” can mean both ”rapture” and ”on the other side of” and “parens” is to be visible, to show oneself. Transparency is to look through, to be translucent.
And the modern age, it seems, is obsessed with ’transparency’. Politicians, businesses, economists and the mass media repeatedly emphasise the how ’transparent’ their activities are. Apparently nothing is hidden and everything is open and yet clearly this is not the case. Perversely, the principle of transparency and the volume of data generated by ’openness’ may in fact obscure the information we truly need. Raschke and Hofsäss in contrast make art that is quiet and considered and altogether more honest and humble than the worlds of politics, media, or business. Their focus is the wonder that human
culture has experienced since the dawn of our visual imagination.
The relationship between form and matter, their characteristics and qualities were compelling questions for the ancient Greeks and were deeply considered both in the Islamic world and in Christian Europe. Similarly, for Raschke and Hofsäss’ although they have themed their exhibtion around the concept of transparency and its application in language their aim, in fact, is to expose, interpret and describe the physical and conceptual superstructures they encounter in day-to-day experience.
Like the philosophers of the ancient world each artist in his own way aims to expose and challenge the structures which underpin hegemony and suggest new contexts in which we might think, operate and create.
Kerstin Wickman, Professor em. in design and craft history, Konstfack, Stockholm, Sweden
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