Jan Svenungsson

"Building Chimneys", in: Norden, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna 2000

It is the year 2000. I am preparing to build a permanent 15 m brick chimney in central Vienna.

To introduce this project I would like to start at the beginning of my story. In the late 1980s I was dealing with the manipulative possibilities of picture frames. I was making specific frames for found black-and-white photographs. These frames would, for example, isolate certain parts of the image, changing the meaning of the original photograph. One aim was to deny the photograph its transparency, so that the viewer would have to clarify his or her own position before judging it.

I then began photographing an old industrial brick chimney that stood in the heart of Stockholm. When I isolated its solitary shape with irregularly built frames, strange and powerful objects were born. It was very interesting to study the reception of these works: nobody could ever agree completely on what they stood for. Nobody could agree – but everyone had their ideas, which ranged from various aspects of Freud over to a critique or a celebration of industrialism, then on to a sublime Vanitas image and further, on to the hell of concentration camps. It was a perfect image, one which could be manipulated endlessly, and which would trigger a variety of responses from the viewers – myself included.

Invited to a show in 1992 at the Stockholm Moderna Museet I proposed that not only would I build an installation of framed chimney photographs in my section of the exhibition space, but I would also build a 3-dimensional ‘representation‘ of their subject just outside the window. The sculpture was to be 10 metres high, slightly lower than the building itself, thereby emphasizing, I thought, its non-utilitarian function. I was wrong, however. During the two years of its existence I came to realize that many people who saw my sculpture never even reflected upon the possibility that what they had in front of their eyes might be a work of art. The recognition value of its ready-made form was much stronger than its close proximity to a museum of contemporary art, or, for that matter, all the details that indicated that it would have been useless as a functional chimney. It was a strange revelation: I had created an invisible monument. A few days before the opening a guard approached me. He was worried, he told me, because when the chimney would be put into use the ventilation system of the museum would suck in the fumes and all the valuable paintings would be destroyed!

One person who did recognize it for what it was, was former Stockholm Museum director Pontus Hulten, who invited me to take part in a large exhibition of site-specific sculpture, to be created right in the centre of the "Expo '93" world exhibition in Taejon, South-Korea. Hulten expressly wanted me to make another chimney. After some hesitation I accepted.

Construction in Korea proved to be more complicated than in Stockholm. The most important difference, I soon found out, was cultural. In Korea my sculpture would certainly not be read in the same way because no round industrial chimneys made of brick existed in Korea. Industrial chimneys were all made of concrete. After some deliberation I decided to stick to the European shape, introducing a new form rather than changing my reference. Later, I returned to the Expo as a visitor, joining the masses who had come to see its vast range of futuristic visions. In the centre of the grounds was our sculpture garden where many of the visitors passed through – all seemingly oblivious to my 11 m sculpture. Invisible, again, despite the cultural disparity.

At the end of 1994, while scouting the Finnish town of Kotka where a sculpture project was due to take place the following summer, I came across a large yellow functionalistic apartment building which stood adjacent to an empty plot situated right in the middle of the city. Now Kotka is surrounded by high and fully functional brick chimneys – several of them visible from this site. The temptation was irresistible. In my mind it was logical that a Third Chimney should be 12 m high, the building was perhaps 25! In May 1995 the construction was completed. An elderly woman living in the yellow building one day calmly asked my workers whether the construction we were building belonged to a new crematorium, one that would be built as soon as the chimney was finished. A man who lived across the street became a friend. I was invited to look at my work from his apartment. There I found my sculpture could measure the time: it had become a giant sundial.

The Fourth Chimney was initiated in 1996 when I was invited to show the photographic documentation of my chimney work at an international exhibition that takes place every summer in the small village of Drewen, some 100 km north of Berlin. For this occasion I made an imaginary project (or so I thought) for a 13 m high sculpture at an ’ideal‘ location in the middle of a pasture. Little did I realize that this manipulated image would spark a process that three years later, after several false starts and a legal process, would lead to the completion of a sculpture.

People from the art world tend to see this project as a didactic reference to German history of 1933–45. My position is that whilst this reference does exist, it is just one of many. My work does not exclude any concern. I could argue that the project is just the continuation of an open-ended series of sculptures each one meter higher than its precedent. Their impact will change depending on the circumstances, but physically they remain similar. The self-reference of the series has thus become its main weapon to reach potentially subversive positions in reality. In its local context the Fourth Chimney has not been met with this discussion. There was an attempt to stop it in court, but this was because of opposition to ’modern art‘. In the course of time I have had many conversations with people in Drewen regarding the project, and not once has the Nazi angle been brought up. Instead, the prevalent interpretation seems to be one about industrial age versus rural idyll. Would it have been different in the West?

The landscape surrounding the Fifth Chimney could not be more different. This chimney was a public commission from the city of Norrköping, which was one of the first industrial cities in Sweden. Factories had already been established by the end of the 17th century, drawing power from the river which divides the city. In the 1960s and 70s prosperity came to a sudden halt when all industries went bankrupt, turning a large central area of the city into a ghost town. More recently, this area has been renovated and groomed to house the industry of tomorrow, such as IT startups and university institutions. It is a very beautiful place now; one view in particular has become emblematic of the city and is one of the most photographed architectural sights in Sweden. The site of my chimney is in the river, right in the centre of this panorama.

As usual I worked as an assistant to the team of professional builders. Being on site gave me the opportunity to engage with passers-by. Local newspapers made much of the project, fuelling a public debate between those who were outraged by my concept and its physical manifestation and others that loved it for its daring. One interesting point that emerged from the debate was whether the chimney should be seen as ascending from the water or descending into the water – as a symbol for the city's rise or its decline.

Like Kotka, Norrköping is a city with several large chimneys. Many people wanted to know how it could be justified that we build another one using public money. My answer was that this particular chimney was radically different from the others, it was, in fact, unique. Whereas the existing functional chimneys had been built to dispose of waste from industrial production, my chimney was the first to belong fully to the information age. It was built only to provoke thought and stimulate the mind – the absolute opposite to the other chimneys in the city.

One thing I have learned through these projects is that I can neither predict the final impact of my sculpture in its new surroundings, nor what the dominant interpretation will be. I make every effort to find the most suitable site for every new project, but the moment it is finished it begins to radiate ideas and stimulate discussion in a way which surprises me. Which is why I continue.

At the time of writing I have not yet been able, for various technical reasons, to take the final decision about the exact site for the Vienna Chimney. I am looking at a few alternatives – consulting with engineers and others – but ultimately I will have to use my intuition. What I do know, is that the Sixth Chimney will be 15 m high and that construction will begin as soon as possible.

Jan Svenungsson