Jan Svenungsson

Heymer, Kay; Svenungsson, Jan. "Oscillation Between Poles", in: Be, # 4, 1996

Berlin, January 20, 1996

JAN: We have known each other since 1992, and I have now asked you to write me a catalog text which will be printed without pictures.1 We are meeting today to prepare for that, and I have read a number of your earlier texts, which I want to discuss with you, while I show you some documentation of my own work. I am recording our conversation in order to get material for a text in BE. It's supposed to be like collecting sounds which can later be formed into a picture ... We are speaking English, and you will turn my edited version of our conversation2 into a German original version – which Andrew will then translate into English.

The editors of BE have discussed the theme of the next issue, and they have arrived at a very abstract idea, which deals with "The End of Time" ... and apocalyptic tourism.3

KAY: Apocalyptic tourism?

J: It's something about Westerners who visit the Third World as tourists and expect a simulation of their Western environment to be constructed for them – and about people from the Third World who migrate to the West – something about cultural exchange ...

K: Perhaps we could declare you a Third World artist from Sweden visiting a "First World" country?

J: Maybe that would be good for something ...?

K: No, definitely not. I no longer believe that the world is divided into different parts, and I no longer believe in national artistic identities either.

J: How can you hold such a position?

K: It comes from my study of African art and its meaning. I concluded that all these questions about the context and cultural meaning of these objects, and about the alienation of African sculptures in the Western context, represent only a certain, analyzable stage; what's left in the end is the object which is there and which exercises a certain power, and it does that independent of its origin. I think that all these people who want to engage in transcolonial discourse and cope with this situation do not really communicate with the objects right in front of their eyes. They seem to be more occupied with themselves.

J: Yes, one takes a position in which one observes oneself hearing or seeing. But didn't you once end a text for me with the words: "It's all a matter of how often one changes one's perspective"?4

J: What happens in this text5 is that you produce a connection between two words which are certainly very important for your way of thinking: the importance of "expertise" and your interest in "deviations" ...

K: Yes, certainly.

J: And it's best when a single person has both of these characteristics ...

K: This text was the trigger which led Förg to ask me to write about his work6; I consider this a very clear coincidence.

J: I have never appreciated Derain, but I really liked him for a moment because of this text. At the same time, I think that you were irresponsible towards him, using him for your goals.

J: It seems so simple; you take a theme, her theme7; you look at it, make your connections and associations, formulate them one after the other, without much fuss – and that's it then! Most of your texts have a very beautiful conclusion with one sentence which is so clear and apt – these sentences appear again and again in my notes!

K: It is very important for me to have a good conclusion; a text has to begin somewhere, and at the end it has to either come together with the beginning or arrive somewhere else; these are the two possibilities; but that must be clear at the end; one cannot simply stop somewhere ...

J: That works real well here. I find the structure of this essay similar to the structure of the Peter Halley text8, which I found uninteresting, except for my observation that this minimalist approach works for Trockel because of the ambivalence of her pieces but does not work for Halley as his work lacks ambiguity.

J: You say9 there are, in his flood of images, pictures which have a special stability. Most of them are photographs, but if I understand you correctly, you also say that there is a kind of general image of paintings which does not vanish.

K: Yes, one can also imagine, for example, a master version of the lead paintings, and one won't forget it. You've figured out the system to a certain degree. I think that certain paintings stay in your head in precisely the same way that certain photographs do, but it is easier to describe in the case of photographs, and therefore I mentioned the two photographs, the one where he himself fell down the stairs and the one with the lady on the steps of the Villa Malaparte. I think these two pictures will become famous.

J: I once went to Capri to see the Villa Malaparte – just because of this photograph ...

K: What's with this text in the little black catalogue?10

J: It was written in the summer of 1989, and both the exhibition and the catalogue begin with the words "November 1989." Now I am in Berlin, and I have been showing this catalogue to people for whom November 1989 is very important. In fact, the text wanted to imply that something overwhelming was about to happen by saying the opposite, like Orwell's Newspeak. At that time, I was depressed, I felt like I was about to start having problems, and I wanted to express this feeling, which I did in the text, which is 100% optimistic, and which thus unconsciously completed the transformation from the personal to the political ...

J: I went to Iceland11; I schlepped along all this equipment, and then I took all my photographs with too many filters in front of the wide–angle lens – and it took me a while to notice that they were much better that way: because of the mistakes, the exhibition looks much more interesting in the reproductions – as if it were seen through the porthole of a submarine.

K: It looks more real, because it looks as if it were being observed by a spy; and, as with the naked eye, there is this very similar effect when one looks at something and observes the edge of the field of vision while doing so. It's nice, of course, that it happened unintentionally ...

J: It would have been pretty dull if I had had the idea to do it that way in advance. One of the most important impulses of my artistic activity is that, while I work a great deal and prepare lots of exhibitions, accidents tend to happen again and again, lending my work a value by introducing new and unplanned contents.

K: It's similar when I am writing a text.

K: ... and Barnett Newman is to a certain degree religion, a religion which gets its justification from how the paintings are made – one can really see and describe this – and that's where the sincerity is; it's a very free religion which does not force people to think in a certain way ...

J: For me, that was always too open, too large, too free ...

K: Too free? Aha.

J: Too sublime ...! Have you written a text about him?

K: No.

J: Then I can't find out whether you found any deviations in his work.

K: I think I would never find a deviation in Newman, and so I would never write about him. I think he would come up if I were writing about other artists ...; in my essay on Förg12, he appears as a pole which Förg can pervert, which makes Förg interesting ...

J: I think you don't write about Newman himself because then you would have to find something perverse in him, in order to make him interesting, and that would be a perversion of your interest in Newman.

K: You use the exact same distance between the pictures when you hang the Test series. Is that not something that people might not notice at all, especially not the effort you have had to put into it?

J: That's quite likely, but I think they will notice a peculiar, unnecessary order, which certainly unconsciously contextualizes the manner in which they see the work – as I wrote in my Shonen Knife text13: it's a concealed content: at the end, I notice that I cannot write anything reasonable about Shonen Knife, but that I can write about how I can't write about them, and so all the material that I have collected about Shonen Knife disappears from the text but remains present as a concealed content.

K: Just as one can hide content in a computer.

J: My computer is full of versions of my texts. I never read them, but I do save them.

J: I used an old–fashioned steel pen because, as a matter of principle, I want to have mistakes. I even want to have a rather large number of mistakes.

K: That's a very painterly attitude!

J: I play here with different systems ... but if I design a waterproof system, nothing will happen at all. What interests me is the creation of unexpected meaning. In order to trigger the creation of unexpected meaning, one draws up a systematic mechanism with several specific inherent errors, sets it running, and looks at what comes out. The larger the error sources in the system are, the more meaning is created. But if they are too large, they will ruin the system, so that no meaning will be recognizable, because everything will be meaning. In the first drawing of this series, I made a large spot by mistake, which then grew and grew because the following drawings were copied from each other.

K: I believe, that's more ... how shall I put it ... idiosyncratic.

J: This word has always escaped me up until now. What does it mean exactly?

K: Something like focused on yourself, autistic.

J: Artistic?

K: Not artistic, but autistic! But that is a good pun. You should remember it ... "not artistic, but autistic" ... write it down immediately so that no one steals the copyright.

K: This is either/or ... one can exchange it, or it can hover, oscillate ... one of my favorite figures is oscillation ... I got it from Carl Einstein ... his basic idea is oscillation between poles.

J: Who is Carl ...?

K: Einstein was an author who wrote the first book about African art in 1915.14 He was a rather influential critic, and I admire his texts because he was not at all scientific ...