Jan Svenungsson

Berger, Tobias. "1+n Chimney Stacks 9+n Meters High (n=n+l)", in: Skulpturbiennale Münsterland 2001

Der sechste Schornstein, (The Sixth Chimney), thus the title of the 15 meter high work of art by Jan Svenungsson, will be erected in the spring of 2001 outside Emsdetten, a good kilometer from the village Hembergen, on the edge of a small forest.

In the beginning, the Swedish artist photographed chimney stacks solely for his photographic objects, misshapen picture frames on which cropped image excerpts could be seen. Again and again, the same chimney stack in Stockholm served as a motif for these frames.

On the occasion of the exhibition Rum Mellan Rum (Space Between Space) in 1992, the first real chimney stack, 10 meters in height, was erected next to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Afterwards, chimney stacks arose in Taejon (South Korea), Kotka (Finland), Drewen near Berlin and Norrköping (Sweden). While the first chimney stack was torn down after two years, the ones which followed have remained intact on a long-term basis.

In these outdoor sculptures, Jan Svenungsson unites industrial architecture and landscape architecture, two apparently opposing branches. Through an introduction of the chimney stack into the landscape, the artist redefines the entire surroundings. Although his interventions take up a relatively minor amount of space, and only a small area is actually built upon, the intervention transforms the setting into an environment. A structure, like a mark in the landscape, becomes the dominant point of orientation which occupies the entire surrounding landscape, defining it anew. That this occurs is not least due to the fact that the sculptures are never developed in a site-specific manner, but rather operate according to their own system: bricks always serve as the building material, the height is predetermined by the number of previous structures, the current structure is always one meter higher than the previous one. The decision not to respond to the location and to consciously erect an autonomous, alien structure at different locations in this world is the specificity of Jan Svenungsson's work. Chimney stacks exist throughout the entire world. This makes them so visibly invisible. Individual chimney stacks in landscape settings, however, are disturbing and ultimately lead to a new definition of the building structure and its surroundings.

It is not only since Hilla and Bernd Bechers' documentary architectural photography that we know of the beauty and temporality of the buildings and constructions whose aesthetic and duration of existence is dictated almost exclusively by the practical, the profane. During the last third of the twentieth century, reducing things down to the essential has contributed to a clarification of view, especially as an antipode to the ornamentality of post-modernism. Which on the one hand led to an aesthetic of "less is more", but on the other also gave rise to a continuously progressing (non-) aesthetic of the home improvement store. It remains indisputable that industrial structures have considerably influenced general taste and virtually every form of twentieth century architecture. On a formal level, the chimney stack is reminiscent of minimal or land art sculptures. Objects reduced to pure presence become points of observation and orientation. Jan Svenungsson's chimney stacks can thus be located among Per Kirkeby's brick sculptures, Michel Heizer's land art projects or Walter de Maria's Lightning Field. These are sculptures which, through their reduced form, influence not only the landscape, but also open up entirely new impressions and possibilities for spatial orientation to the viewer.

When the practical purpose no longer exists, when the structure is reduced to the purely aesthetic, then it is either a work of art or an industrial monument - usually both, for nearly all monuments are art, and vice-versa. The building without a direct purpose becomes, just as the industrial monuments arising in many places do, a location for memory and research. because it is distrubing, the work Schornstein can open up discussions and investigations whose intellectual or sociological inquiry can be interpreted as a sign of a new way of thinking and working. It marks the step from the age of industry to the age of information, from the smoking chimneys to the smoking heads.

In this age of information driven by dot.coms and shareholder values, however, the fantastical, the unusual, the unreal which cannnot be calculated in numbers, the surreal do not usually get their fair share. What is remarkable is that it is precisely the chimney stack which turns up again and again in the fantastical and surreal poaintings of the beginning of the century, whether in René Magrittes paradoxical dream images or on Giorgio de Chirico’s abandoned plazas. With their tendency towards the phallic, withntheir proud, smoking pose reaching up into the sky, chimney stacks are charged with multiple meanings which go beyond the Freudian manner of interpretation. This, along with the fact that Jan Svenungsson has translated de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros into Swedish, demonstrates then artist’s interest in Surrealism. Through the provocative, irrational act of building the chimney stack, Jan Svenungsson can on the one hand ring in a new age of non-smoking chimney stacks and, at the same time, articulate a poetic criticism of a society which is becoming more and more rational.

The fact that the height of the cchimney stacks is respectively increased by one meter can be interpreted as a criticism of the building contractors' ambition to always aim higher than the highest extant structure. A spectacle without end, one which in 1997 reached its temporary Babylonian pinnacle with the 452 meter high, one million square meter Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Higher, faster, further - not as an Olympian challenge, but rather as a marketing end in itself on the part of megalomaniacal building contractors and governments.

But perhaps Jan Svenungsson's chimney stacks are not as seriously intended as the discussion about sex, marketing, Babylon or Minimalism. It takes a lot of chutzpah to put a chimney stack in a landscape. Some find it amusingly meaningless, others are happy aboutthe annoyance posed to some Philistines, and in the end, it is possible to have wonderful arguments about it all. There is some fun in it for everyone - and what other work of art is a match both for dreamy, romantic Surrealism and pragmatic Minimalism?

Tobias Berger
translation: Andrea Scrima