|Actualities, installation view. Photo: Per-Erik Adamsson.|
Dan Wolgers is in his third decade of delivering snapshots of the improbable, a kind of shock therapy, to his native Sweden. His tough-minded and synthetic sensibility is fundamentally a conceptual practice but with something else thrown in at all times: it is exceedingly visual and jam-packed with humanity. Wolgers has vandalised, borrowed, intruded upon, carved into, joked about, and quoted anything and everything he can get his hands on. Driven by imagination and fuelled by poetry, Wolgers’s has not been an ordinary voyage – imagine a very gifted craft artist turned ideologue.
– George Negroponte, Bomb (Summer issue 2009)
If you want to know all about Dan Wolgers (b 1955), don’t just look at the surface of his art. There’s much behind it. You press the button on his Self-Portrait of 2016 – a black “death mask” of someone else mounted on a white box with a pushbutton beneath – and out comes an eruption of universally funny sounds of flatulence, a jumble of discharge and dismissal. This is by all means Wolgers’s “42”.
“A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool: the shape alone is stable, for the substance is a stream of energy going in at one end and out at the other,” as Alan Watts reasons in Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality. “It goes out as gas and excrement – and also as semen, babies, talk, politics, commerce, war, poetry, and music. And philosophy.” And art.
Man Ray was like a Wolgers relative who aimed for “pure cerebral activity”, and (as he later told Arturo Schwarz) “was more interested in the idea I wanted to communicate than in the aesthetics of the picture”. Man Ray’s exactly one hundred years younger and long lost Self-Portrait was a painting and a bit of everything with a painted cave opening, two f-holes, a printed hand mark, a real-world pushbutton and two bells that looked like inverted female breasts, as described by Allan Antliff in Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics and the First American Avant-Garde:
“The Self-Portrait ensued the idea would prevail because its audience, in Man Ray’s words, took ‘an active part in the creation’. In this work his creativity incorporated the spectator and thereby activated the art object, which gained its power not from any ‘primary pigment’, but from the confused minds of the gallery-goers who pushed the button that opened the door of their imaginations with the paradoxical judgement (‘it doesn’t work!’) that begged the question as to whether Man Ray’s Self-Portrait was a work of art at all.” It was a self-portrait of everyone who pushed the button and thought a little bit or more about it.
“In Wolgers’s art you need a Prime Mover, the sense of the artist, a sense that is coupled to other senses, which compile this and make it understandable to other people,” says his other sense and sidekick Lena Andersson (b 1970) for this very special show Actualities at Spritmuseum (Museum of Spirits) in Stockholm. She is a writer of two much-debated novels and a much frequent political columnist at the country’s main daily Dagens Nyheter, an Absolut Sweden on paper (blackwater Neo Liberalism, bumper-sticker Leftism, animus PC bedlam and a boundless rejoicing in the dictatorship of the obdurate society for cutting up white heterosexual males).
Spritmuseum is the designated space for the eight hundred and fifty pieces strong Absolut Art Collection – ranging from Absolut Warhol in 1986 till the “end” in 2008 when Pernod Ricard purchased the brand from the Swedish State – which spans from Absolut Rock Bottom with Absolut [Ron] Wood (1997) to Absolut Greatness with Absolut Wolgers (1999), the bottle rack that the artist made from a fourth-dimensional photograph of his household god Marcel Duchamp’s (lost) sèche-bouteilles readymade from 1914. And here it is, as an unlisted piece in the show, tucked away on the crest of the first of the double sidewalls, with the semaphore bottle a little different from the ad.
“Every autumn since we opened here in 2012, we have started on a project where we zoom in on something in the collection, be it an artist or a theme, and from there we build a show that runs over the winter,” says Mia Sundberg, in charge of the Absolut Art Collection. “This third project is on Dan Wolgers, who has one of the most interesting works in the collection. But we have also decided that we want to bring on brief encounters, and we think that we have found a great way when we invite a person who is not in art for a living, someone who is in a different field, a different discipline. And so we throw together these people and say, ‘Do what you want, but do something.’”
Just like the epitaph on Duchamp’s gravestone in Rouen – D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent (“Whatever, it is always the others who die”) – Wolgers is un autre in his self-portrait/death mask of 2016. When Truffaut met Hitchcock in Hollywood in August 1962 for a large number of interviews, the sixty-three-year-old director told the much younger director that he was “never satisfied with the ordinary”. Wolgers drives his Volvo between the farting and the fourth dimension; he takes the ordinary, the dull, the average, the mediocre, the whole fucking Swedishness so far that we just have to look – and think. And bloody marvel.
That is also the only issue I have with Wolgers, the blunt look of many of his pieces. With Duchamp you always get the Concorde and the sonic boom; with Wolgers it is all about the boom and what happens there. But when his tactics work, you are on the level of Devo’s intellectual peak (circa 1980) and the philosophy of Gerald Casale: “We are not, nor will we ever be, into mind control. In fact, what we’re probably evocating is a mind pleasantly out of control.”
Marcel Duchamp who regarded himself as a “mediumistic” artist got stuck in the beginning of the 1910s, and worked at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris from late 1912 to May 1914 to catch up with himself and to reformulate his art. Why paint anymore, at all? The question was how to find an art that was true to his beliefs and did not just repeat a representation or projection of the mirrored (and so on, from one mirror to the other). Art as a pleasant jolt, perhaps, to dislodge and energise the mind. He created the readymade, a gaming on a very real ordinary object, the world of ideas and a boost on the wonderfully absurd.
“The philosophy of agnosticism that began to dominate modern natural sciences, the very field in which the majority of people presumed knowledge to be secure, became the focus of Duchamp’s artistic thinking around 1912–1913. Supported by the authority of one of the most significant mathematicians and physicists of his time [Henri Poincaré], he made it his aesthetic goal to undermine faith in scientific thought. To this end, he considered paint, canvas, and brushes to be hopelessly outdated tools,” explains Herbert Molderings in The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp. “He found the answer in commonplace objects that he transformed into hilarious pseudoscientific devices, carrying forward and transcending the literary example of Alfred Jarry’s ‘pataphysics’ into the field of the visual arts.”
One day in 1991 when Wolgers was sitting in his studio and felt that he had lost his artistic direction, much because that art of this time had become so completely yoked by postmodern theory, it happened that he was rescued in the moment by some types from an advertising agency who talked so much fun on the radio. So Wolgers contacted their Rififi agency and had them make a gallery exhibition in his name, totally without the artist’s involvement in the “creative” process.
Arthur Danto wrote in his book The Artworld (1964) that a work of art “requires something the eye cannot descry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld”. The “art world” of the Rififi show was an ad agency’s foolish idea about “art” – like the wonderful polymath Lichtenberg put it in the 1700s: “if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out” – with vile arrangements of couch art in the vein of “Andy Warhol” and eight large cardboard cutouts of Linda Evangelista’s face (featuring the text “Pose”) sitting on red-lacquered plinths. Wolgers signed the “pieces” on the evening of the opening, it was the first time he saw them.
Rififi was like a book without an author with thousands and thousands of bewildered readers. It was pathetic. It was major. Lena Andersson affirms that the show interested her “very much – the thing about taking this claim seriously, that the artist is not supposed to be needed for the art. Dan Wolgers said, ‘Okay, let us test that’ and outsourced his exhibition. But there are certain things that you cannot fake, and that is what this show was about. The only thing that was interesting in postmodernism was the dissolution of the subject.” And as Andersson writes in her text above the Rififi model in the Actualities show: “If the artist says that he is not present in the work, then it is this absence that is the presence. It is like saying, ‘I do not exist.’ It is possible to negate oneself but not without lying.”
The Swedish title for Actualities – Egentligheter – is a great made-up word that does not really exist in the world of grammar as anything else than a negation. Several works in the show are only present in the form of picture “postcards” – and basically, as far as Wolgers is concerned, he claims that he could have shown everything in here in that format – “The objects are really props, that’s how I see it” – like his untitled outdoor installation (1998), with four black billboards with the lights on the back to further the resemblance to human life and the world’s otherness. Or his wonderful absurdity Mother and Child (1991), an installation with a park bench facing a bridge pier so closely that there is no way that you can sit on it. The erroneous is about the innocent charm of the “useless” as much as the ironic is about postmodern thought having a taste of its own flimflam.
The father of Krazy Kat, George Herriman, purchased the hillside next to his house and turned it into a public park, with benches so everyone could enjoy the astounding view of Los Angeles. In his autobiography The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra described the cartoonist as “one of the first intellectual philosophers to comment entertainingly and shrewdly on life’s frustrations through the medium of the comic strip”. Thomas Inge argues in Comics and Culture how “Herriman, like Magritte, knew that there was a difference between what we say and what we mean, between what we think we see and what we see. Like the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and semantics, then, Herriman instinctively understood that language is not a stable and invariable element in human discourse but instead, more often than not, leads to misunderstanding rather than effective communication.”
“Wolgers plunges down to the bottom all the time where there are no layers left. That is what I call the heavy thump of materiality. It is as if he cannot help that he needs to get down to the essence of things,” says Andersson. Wolgers’s readymade-aided art has the warm thrill of confusion. Wolgers, of course, is everything but an addle-head: “I understand that what I do may look like coincidences, rags, junk, that it is arrogant towards the viewer, and so forth. And that has been eating me. But I leave absolutely nothing to chance. I am meticulous with distinctions and expressions.”
“It’s wot’s behind me that I am … It’s the idea behind me,” says the Kat in one of Herriman’s wondrously metaphysical strips. Another conceptual Self-Portrait from 2016 is Wolgers’s sound bowl with the signed wooden block, like the hurled brick that incessantly crowns Krazy Kat’s velvety head out there on the enchanted mesas of Arizona. Do I dare say how beautiful Wolgers’s piece is? Pure Dada.
“What we need is works that are strong straight precise and forever beyond understanding,” declared Tristan Tzara in his Dada manifest of 1918. Hugo Ball who was the co-founder of Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich stated that, “A Dadaist no longer believes that one can perceive reality from a single point of view, but still believes in the unity of all, on the whole, the totality, so much so that he is suffering from dissonances.”
Actualities is a ritzy unity of Dan Wolgers’s art from 1977 to this day. The artist and the writer have played different curatorial roles here – Andersson did a first, rough selection based on photographs of one hundred of the works she liked best and then cut it down to about forty pieces that she knew would appear great together, and in writing. She never saw the works for real until they gathered at Spritmuseum. To cultivate a sense of the artworks as a closed or at least related system, Wolgers came up with the idea of a spinal highway or a plumbing (think of “R Mutt’s” Fountain of 1917) above the visitors’ heads. The system is like a one-piece model kit that connects the art and the writing. It looks very good and the whole thing is ingenious.
The smaller pieces (by necessity protected in glass cases) are placed in the midst of the room on round platforms, originated from a set of boxes and their lids, and Wolgers emphasises the coherency of the show’s many parts, that they are “in each other, like Russian dolls”. “I told the guys who did the lighting: ‘Think Egyptian tomb.’ The funny thing is that the terracotta colour is called Terre d'Egypte, which I didn’t know when I pointed to it, and the other one is called Blue Hague.”
One “doll” is missing in the show: Wolgers’s taciturn masterpiece, the box that shuts off its own machinery with a fiendish but absolutely adorable gesture. “For all those years I have said in my lectures that my art has not evolved at all since I made the box that turns itself off. You press a button and a motor starts, a stick comes up and pushes the button back again. Every piece I have done is just the same – it has just been reformulated time and time again. But when people oppose that, it has felt as if I have failed to make myself clear. When Lena and I met, and we didn’t know each other at all before this, we sat and flipped through my catalogues and after twenty minutes Lena said a to me, ‘Why, it is just the same thing all the time.’ And I was thrilled.”
I met Wolgers at a centre for contemporary art in 1989 when he took part in a group show there. At one point around midnight I was having an imperishable moment with the artist when he suddenly started to giggle, a giggle that erupted into hysterics as his fart machine was making whoopee in that big old space.
“I was studying at the Royal Institute of Art when I had my first solo exhibition in the early 1980s,” Wolgers recalls, “and some of the things in here was in that show, and then I noticed that some of them appeared a little too humorous. I was lucky enough to comprehend that it was not the way I should go. My intention is not to perfume what I do with beauty or humour, but it is something that I have always had to struggle with. What I did after that show was that I tried to make things as boring as possible, but that they would still retain their idea. Or something like that.”
“The matter with beauty or humour, or whatever it is, is that it becomes a surface where you stop at and fail to notice what the purpose is,” Andersson replies. “The whole work takes place in the idea of what is happening in this transaction.” A dearly remembered early Wolgers piece is an anonymous metal box that prompted the visitor to put a krona in its coin slot. Nothing seemed to happen, but then the box puffed out a cloud of banana oil smoke right in the face of the person who had exchanged the money. Here behind glass at Spritmuseum it is an unconvincing piece. It looks like a punch clock from a Volvo factory and nothing more. There is no transaction here.
Two thousand and five hundred curious Parisians gathered for the opening of Yves Klein’s Le Vide show at Galerie Iris Clert in the spring of 1958. A group of ten people at a time was allowed to enter The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility, The Void. Inside the empty gallery space they were served a cocktail made of Cointreau and gin, and tinted with methylthioninium chloride – the libation dyed their urine blue for a week. In 2004, the Maritime Museum in Stockholm invited Wolgers to put together a personal selection from the museum’s collection of paraphernalia from the seven seas. Popsicles in the colours of the Swedish flag were handed out to the visitors on the opening day. The blue and the yellow turned everyone’s mouths green.
Three related Actualities pieces from 1977 are his Popsicle, Box and the jointed Spoon. The flaccid spoon (with a cartoonish window reflection in the bowl) is of course useless as a spoon, but a fine piece of art and a Lena Andersson favourite: “It was made when Dan Wolgers was on a course in furniture making that would lead to a profession in cabinetry, and after a while the teacher explained that he better become an artist instead. He made chairs that you could not sit on and spoons that you could not eat with, and very consistently, because the fun of it. For what happens then? Well, you will see the idea of the chair and the spoon,” she says. “The artist, according to Wolgers, must elevate to other layers of the atmosphere, the metaphysics, the idea of the spoon. The art becomes philosophy. What is a spoon and why shouldn’t it look like that? Everything in here is about the thinking of the world. I understand that some will get upset, but it is interesting.”
Etel Adnan talked about the importance of obscurity when she was interviewed in Bomb magazine (Spring 2014): “On an other level, there are also different clarities. Some things are not meant to be clear; obscurity is their clarity. We should not underestimate obscurity. Obscurity is as rich as luminosity.”
Dan Wolgers’s luminous blago bung intricacies have in Lena Andersson’s written idiolect assumed a rather stiff, grammatical set of unduly repetitious descriptions as she broods over the plethora of images in the show – this may be of interest from the standpoint of an author’s idea of art writing – and in one of the work descriptions she plays the editor of a publishing house: “Write, and then remove half of it! Write again, remove half!” She should have listened to that advice. Also, in text after text we are told that a) The idea is the artwork, b) The context decides whether it is art or not, and c) The only way to create something today is to rearrange what is already here. Yes, yes, this is old stuff.
There is not a bit of disagreement when Andersson claims that the artist’s pieces in Actualities are, in some way or another, illustrations to her texts. The idea to couple them came from Museum Director Ingrid Leffler early on in 2016. “I had not been following Dan Wolgers but a month before I received his email, as it happened, I thought about where he had gone,” Andersson explains.
“I knew Dan Wolgers since the 1990s, when his art was very noticed and talked about, and I was sceptically interested in what was said about art in the 90s and what was done, and I struggled to understand it. I did not know whether I should take it seriously or be annoyed. It was easy to be very annoyed as an ordinary layman, but there was also something interesting in these discussions. They were very intellectual and cerebral and seriously aimed, though there were some deviations. So this was irresistible.”
Early 1990s Wolgers was like the political statement of Theo van Doesburg’s photographic Portrait of IK Bonset (1920), in fact a self-portrait in which he turns his back to the public: Je suis contre tout et tous (“I Am Against Everything and Everyone”). It was a kind of freedom that tended to cause damage, especially to Wolgers himself, and before long shackled him as an unintended “art provocateur” – which took him to the shrine of television populism and the man of the people Robert Aschberg. The host waved a Philippe Starck toothbrush in Wolgers’s face and asked him if it was “art”, whereupon Wolgers snapped the overpriced design item and said: “Now it is.”
Richard Hülsenbeck expressed in 1920 that, “The Dadaist considers it necessary to come out against art, because he has seen through its fraud as a moral safety valve.” In the late 1990s, Wolgers resigned after three years as a Professor at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm in protest against the latest fixed idea that an art school had to be stately furrowed like any other educational institution. Makes you think of what Fellini told Damian Pettigrew in a series of interviews in 1991 and 1992 (which a decade later became the book I’m a Born Liar: A Fellini Lexicon): “A created thing is never invented and it is never true: it is always and ever itself.”
Some of those challenging works are in the show, like when Wolgers put his name and phone number on the front page of the (until 1993) only Swedish telecom company’s Stockholm Yellow Pages K–Ö in 1991. The Televerket company panicked, and Wolgers’s answering machine broke down, but as Anderson puts it in her text: “The other covers from that year have not survived.” The phone book is in MoMA’s collection.
In Art and Laughter Sheri Klein argues that “Through humour, the artist is able to accomplish the three E’s: enlighten, elevate and educate.” Missing Ear (1993), a one-eared Milou (Snowy) doggie, was in the Wolgers exhibition at the Liljevalchs konsthall in Stockholm in 1993 together with a full collection of decrepit toys that had been furnished with fantastic labels with the artist’s comments attached to them (“Crawling doll. Does not weep. Sometimes crawls backwards. 50 kronor”), which really had the public rolling in the aisles.
Object (1992) is Wolgers’s “Merda d’Artista”, a little sculpture of a girl leaning on a lump of faecal matter – like the human statues of the ancient past when they were leaving the block and needed some kind of support – makes me think of Therese Johaug and the lies of the Norwegian Asthmatics Federation, the most successful skiing team in the world. In Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the American author dwells on the subject of German water closets: “just go into any German toilet and you’ll find a fixture unlike any other in the world. It has a cute little porcelain platform for the shit to fall on so you can inspect it before it whirls off into the water abyss […] This enables you to take a long look, choose among political candidates, and think of things to tell your analyst.” I would rather prefer to think about Buñuel’s very best Phantom of Liberty (1974) in which a group of people openly performs their toilet needs around a dinner table, while secretly and quite shamefully asking the maid about “that place”, that place where you eat.
Untitled (1989) is a white box on the wall with a floor pedal. When you press the foot on it you hear the artist’s condescending voice: “Well done!” This is a piece about Swedish mentality more than most foreigners will ever understand. According to the Law of Jante you are nothing of value in this country unless you adhere to groupthink, mediocrity and the celebration of the lagom standard (however you are allowed to be remarkable in a team sport). Another Untitled (1990) piece with a pedal sends heartbeats via the foot to the whole body. “When the viewer is listening for this life she becomes a sculpture, but that is a side issue. That the viewer completes the work is not,” writes Andersson. It is like being inside an anechoic chamber, your own being as a foreign body of unbearable sounds. Source (Plinth) (2007) is a flat plinth that prompts the visitors to act in place of the “missing” human statue, which they do, as in the Daidalos myth where “his statues could see and walk and exercised all bodily functions”.
Andrea Arnold’s recent American Honey (2016) – a square-format film that drips with intelligence and wide-format imagination – is a real American Beauty, in beaten colours. A girl in Krystal’s sales team asks Star if she knows how Darth Vader looks under his suit. “He’s a skeleton, like the rest of us.” The soul falls off the Earth and sees death, like in Wolgers’s Momenti Mori pieces of 2000.
“For as long as I can remember, I have happily surrendered myself to the seductions of art’s sensuous surface, only to find myself wanting for more,” admits Richard Shusterman in Surface and Depth: Dialectics of Criticism and Culture. “To TS Eliot’s lament that ‘we had the experience but missed the meaning’, I could add the worry that a one-sided search for deeper meaning and framing conditions risks losing touch with the vivid immediacy of aesthetic experience and direct appreciation of art’s surface qualities.”
Surface and Depth (1999) is a piece with two globe-heads immersed in their own individual maps of the world. This seems also very much like a piece about Sweden today and the total solipsism of the Swedes (just swap the maps with mandatory Iphones, s’il vous plaît): so much self-absorption, so little introspection. In her very long essay “A Letter from Sweden” in Ramparts magazine (July 1969), Susan Sontag digested on “the childish self-centeredness” she found in Stockholm: “For most Swedes, human ‘contact’ is always, at least initially, a problem […] Being with people feels like work for them, far more than it does like nourishment.”
The Futurists dreamed of drinking electricity. James Lincoln Collier argues, in Electricity and the Light Bulb, how “The development of electricity is really several stories: First, human beings had to find out what this strange ‘effluvia’ was – or indeed had to become aware that it existed. Second, they had to figure out what they could do with it, if anything. There was a third story, too, for unravelling the secret of electricity played a large part in the creation of the scientific method, the way of thinking about the nature of things that in four centuries has wrought the most amazing changes to life that humans have ever seen.”
George Negroponte is right in Bomb magazine (Summer 2009) when he suggests that Wolgers’s “objects can be both hermetic and eminently explicit”. Object (2015) is a light bulb in a water glass fixed at the edge by something that looks like a chewed lump of cement, which makes one think of Jasper Johns’s light bulbs from the turn of the 1960s, the first one (and the best) cradled on a “handmade” brick. (And as Robert Morris argued, “It is impossible to have a sculpture that has only one characteristic.”)
Mother and Child (1990), with the same title as the impossible park bench installation, shows the insipidity of his art at its worst looking scenario: two ugly radios glued to each other’s speaker side like conjoined twins. Object (1992) is a light bulb with six switches on the cord, which in theory gives you a two to the sixth power (sixty-four) chance to divide the light from the darkness.
Saint Augustine posed the question of time in Confessions in the late 300s: “If no one asks me, I know. As soon as someone asks me the question, and I want to explain it, I no longer know.” Untitled (1984) is a clock with two transparent discs that tick tocks, but there is no way you can know that they are moving. In The Concept of Time in Psychology, Jon Roeckelein discusses how “the invention of the mechanical clock – beginning with those developed in the 14th century – played a central role in the formation of the mechanistic conception of nature that dominated natural philosophy from the time of Descartes to William Thomson Kelvin. [Gerald James] Whitrow asserts that the invention of a satisfactory mechanical clock had great influence on the concept of time itself.” Dan Wolgers, of course, traverses such concepts into art objects.
In Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (2014), a feature film with scenes referring to the Swedish director’s favourite episodes on You Tube, Johannes Bah Kuhnke (real-life husband of the Minister for Culture) attempts to produce the loudest, most pathetic man cry in film history based on false tears. “In relation to the subject of weeping, the motif of false tears occurs most frequently,” writes Thorsten Fögen in Tears in the Graeco-Roman World. Untitled (2011) is a piece like many other of Wolgers’s objects that is based on a pimped-up ancient imagery, here with a young face with iron hooks as tears (think of Man Ray’s classical female face with the glass tears from 1930).
In 1991, Wolgers sold ten multiples of the key to his automobile (a Volvo, what else? the Nescafé of cars). “I am for an art,” wrote Claes Oldenburg in 1961, “that does something other than sit on its arse in a museum … I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself … I am for an art that is flipped on with a switch … I am for an art that embroils itself in the everyday crap and still comes out on top.” Art as a pleasant jolt, this is something of a description of what Wolgers is up to.
When Wolgers suggested a memorial to Astrid Lindgren, he wanted to clad the city square of the small town she came from with artificial turf and fleck it with fountains. It was not popular. That aside, what he told the local newspaper about Lindgren’s “temperament and mind, her attitude to life” was like a direct self-portrait of Wolgers, with the key left in the lock to his art: “In her there was a tender form of anarchism, in part bold and rebellious, but also a kind of humanity, both warm and black.”
Actualities – Lena Andersson and Dan Wolgers at Spritmuseum in Stockholm through April 17, 2017.