1999.06.11. 7 C ́s / VENICE BIENNALE / CURATED BY HARALD SZEEMANN / TEXTS BY SUNE NORDGREN AND PIER - LUIGI TAZZI.
”Entering the exhibition through the lemon arcade is like a ritual passage. The narrow arches, hung with lemons, are the single entrance and they guide and force you into the centre of the exhibition. The scent of the fruit and the physical pressure of this ingenious steel construction also make of it a commonplace manifestation of that Italian icon: the lemon. One can almost hear Beniamino Gigli singing ”Una furtiva lagrima” in the background, tasting the bitter tears from the spitted yellow fruit.
From the circular Meeting Point at the centre you and your incidental company overlook the whole display. Prominent is the background of the numerous intimate, highly personal diary drawings. From this distance they appear as a powerful grid of wooden frames. We pass two house-like Constructions which are furnished with noose-like handles for all ages and conserved branches of fir-trees from some childhood Christmas. The Storage House retains its traditional and practical form of necessity in keeping its contents dry by letting the walls slope inwards and the rain run off as though from an umbrella. But the equipment is reminiscent of a camp with people tightly packed together, awaiting their fate. Sealed memories. The child’s ability to see, feel and experience without the adult’s logic but with an ever fertile imagination.
We are confronted by the two Chairs which are involved in an insoluble social interplay. A game of attraction and waiting, of approach and of distance. Every Swede will feel at home on discovering the ”school chair” with runners that everyone has sat on. The first stackable chair, a revolution in birch and plywood which Sven Markelius designed, inspired by Alvar Aalto, and which has subsequently been mass-produced for decades. The chairs give the sculpture a human dimension but they are still governed by a computerized super-power, sentenced to an interminable robot existence. In the heavy Circle on the floor we discover the opposite of this existence: human contact, the spark of life, cast in iron and just cooling from the glowing kiln. Released from the mould, the closed ring is the inspired moment of creation.
One climbs the Venetian bridge to the theatrical stage of the old Cinema where we can view the endless Collision of vital parts from the previous works in the exhibition. An act of brutality but also of beauty and another image of resistance and eternal life. The violently smashed items are indestructible like everything that is common: there is always another chair, another fir-tree …another human being. And at the moment of departure there is the Child that recently learned to swim. This is the artist’s daughter at one of those illuminative moments in life, her body flying through the water as she wishes you farewell. Eight seconds of risk but eight seconds, too, of total liberation and faith.”
Curator Sune Nordgren
(part of the text, the complete text by Sune below the text by Pier Luigi)
CATASTROPHE CHAOS CONTACT
By Pier Luigi Tazzi 1999
Whenever he returned from any of his numerous voyages – voyages that nearly always took him to the very same ports of the great wide world – he realized the decrepitude of the house in which he lived. It was a spacious house in the center of a small village in the flatlands, where the populace was mostly malicious.
His emotions were always stirred when he came back into sight of certain features of the landscape. His house was the only thing that troubled him, with its odors and disorder. And he couldn’t grasp the relationship – which surely would have been quite clear to anyone else – that existed necessarily between his absences, his desertion of the place, and the growing dereliction of his home.
Everything was ever more seedy. Many things no longer functioned at all. Now he discovered that a couple of rooms had gone irretrievably astray, overwhelmed by trash, filth, and abandoned objects which surely once had served some purpose, or once had been of importance, in an era that predated his birth. Perhaps they had been brought there from other houses. But now they lay in heaps and in utter disarray, and could barely be distinguished from refuse, which indeed they had grown to resemble.
All of this left him perplexed and dejected, as well as inclined to abandon himself to flights of delirious fancy through which he hoped to skirt the abysses of depression into which this situation always threatened to consign him. But the final result was always the same: he remained transfixed where he was, in an almost mindless torpor, doing virtually nothing for a period of time which he couldn’t so much as measure, and then he’d boldly depart again, gladly accepting the next engagement. He asked himself at times if this circle held the meaning of his life; and he also wondered how ”the others”, whom he very well knew to be guided by different stars, managed to live in conditions so clearly more worthy, or in any case acceptable, than his own. But he also wondered – and never found an answer to his doubt – if that was truly the way things stood. He wondered if ”the others” as well might not be suffering, or already have suffered, the loss of something in the course of the lives they lived, those lives which in any case counted as so much more normal than his own. The reasons for which this doubt arose had nothing to do with any need to look for consolation for his various failings and the various repercussions to which they led; he wanted to discover what the meaning of life might truly be. Of his own life, no less than the lives of ”the others.” Perhaps his life was always somewhere else. But the question that necessarily followed always remained unanswered: where?
The whole room is occupied by reciprocally independent parts, connected only by the unity of the space in which we come to find them. Each is less to be thought of as an individual work, than as an autonomous component of a set, which in turn doesn’t constitute a work, if a work is to be thought of as something that possesses a unity of its own, resulting from the sum and relation of its parts, as well as an internal coherence that’s able to signal a clear distinction between itself and everything that forms no part of it.
There are, yes, connections, correspondences, references, and resonances, but not of an order that would constitute a distinct and integrated unit.
Unity of place is itself concerned with the container, and not with what it contains. The space inside the container is analogous to the space outside of it, and the ”objects” contained within it by no means establish its alterity. This situation of internal fragmentation gives rise, in fact, to intervals, lacunae, and empty spaces that cause the space to fall apart to a greater degree than they make it in any way cohere. From a linguistic point of view, it might be said that the individual parts – which have different metaphoric and symbolic valences, in addition to forms and dimensions (a series of drawings, a machine in movement, constructions, projections) which have nothing to do with one another – don’t find resolution within the system of any complete or organic proposition. They present themselves, instead, as a kind of aggregation, of which the syntax – if any such syntax in fact exists, or might be recognizable – would lie beneath the sign of schism and dissociation (Spaltung). Such discord, yes, is indicative of a penury of structure, which I will attempt further on to define, but it also permits the emergence of a primary force which is free of all apparent control. We find ourselves in the presence of materials that rest on a rich substratum of culture, of which the amplitude and temporal span extend beyond the precincts of established histories and traditions.
The signs that arise present themselves as primitive, infantile, different, and disturbing, indeed uncanny, as well as formally excessive, and they don’t reduce to the categories that modern culture insists upon. And it isn’t a question of the residues of something that once existed, and which now exists no longer, or which continues to exist only partially. It’s a question, rather, of signs or traces of a force that belongs to the present. They are bizarre and ambivalent, characterized by dissimilitude and aesthetic impurity, and these qualities prevent their assimilation. So we’re faced, on the one hand, with a revelation of the weakness of linguistic systems – the structural penury to which I referred above – and that weakness is shared by the forms through which demands and desires ought to be channeled and made comprehensible; but the road lies open, on the other hand, for the manifestation of a primary force that substantivates those demands and desires. Whenever the codified forms of a language are no longer capable of guaranteeing the pre-eminence of precisely such substance, this sort of disgregation is inevitable. A conflict is underway, and aesthetic solutions are without the ability either to relieve or suspend it.
Let’s imagine a continuity that extends from language, regulated by codes, to the work of art, where there’s a different kind of control, the idiolectic control established by the artist – at least in the phase of civilization to which we ourselves belong; and from the work of art to the manifestation, to the stark eruption, of the realm of primary forces, of desires and fears, of pleasure and pain, where personal identity, which our culture so highly values and so persistently encourages us to pursue, begins to fade away: where the guiding principles of gratification, so frequently invoked in the name of individual security, are abandoned; where enjoyment – Roland Barthes’ jouissance – imposes itself by bursting through the bounds of all historic and conventional hedonism, in infinite and insatiable research (erotic research), free of all finalities. Modernism made it possible to pursue this continuity in both directions. From language to primary force, and from primary force to language.
Today, however, when the very notion of modernity has been called into question, and the modernist project – at the level of both its effects and its premises – has long since gone into crisis, this continuity shows incongruities in its own interior, in addition to the presence of obstacles that prevent its pursuance in both directions. These internal blockages and incongruities are the source of a sense of insecurity – at the level of the individual, no less than at the level of the group – that weighs on the sense of life, of reality, and of personal identity. Corrosive streams of uncertainty and instability scumble the divide between reality and non-reality: reality as the factually given, and non-reality as consciously perceived for exactly what it is, yet not for that reason rejected; between death and life; between the Self and the World; between the sense of personal autonomy and the feeling of belonging to something that surpasses individuality, no matter the form that something takes. When this situation reaches its point – the critical point – of no return, its effects take on the quality of catastrophe.
The elements that determine such a situation are partly to be found, and it can’t be denied, in environmental and contextual forces (the culture of an era and an area, the social base to which this culture gives expression) no less than in personal circumstances (the psychology, background, and education both of the group and the individual); but they lie as well, and first of all, in much more general factors that belong to the whole of human culture as a part of the evolution of the species. Some of these factors are constructive and positive, but always appear in the company of others which present themselves as destructive and negative. As far as art is specifically concerned, the prevailing characteristics of the 1980s – especially in Europe (I am thinking of artists like Reinhard Mucha, Anish Kapoor, Thomas Schütte, Jan Vercruysse, Jean Marc Bustamante, Juan Muñoz, and Thierry de Cordier, simply to mention those who continue today to enjoy a privileged place on the art scene) and sporadically in North America (from Rodney Graham to Christopher Wool, simply as examples of a couple of names that still remain exemplary) – were those which are constructive and positive, even if charged with the melancholy of the artist/constructor, with his or her sense of solitude, but nonetheless untouched by the workings of ”post-modern” disenchantment. These are artists in whom the positive force of love takes the upper hand over the negative force of aggressiveness.
A sense of uncertainty and of something precarious grew more conspicuous and widely spread at the end of the decade. And Ulf Rollof – since he’s the artist we’re talking about, even if till now his name has remained unmentioned – is particularly indicative of this shift in the spirit of the times. Still, however, the change implies no real supersession of the positions those artists had indicated as a possible model; one simply notes that at present they haven’t been realized, or still remain to be realized.
The fracture (Spaltung) has in fact remained unhealed, and distance and estrangement grow more marked. The Other which had constituted one of the poles of the tension – the second being the Self, the Self of the subject, of the artist and the observer at the very same time – both objectified itself and simultaneously grew abstract. This is to say that the Other becomes a term of relation more than a term of tension; having grown abstract, it can be interiorized as an object. The artist finds himself in the situation of being involved in an intense relationship in which it is of vital importance, if chaos is to be avoided, precisely to determine the nature of the message (the abstraction) that reaches him from Things, from the World, and from the Other (in the form of an object), so as then to be able to formulate an adequate response.
But what the artist effectively deciphers strikes him as contradictory, which makes for a situation that questions his very capacity for discrimination. Reality thus turns into a paradox, and the work of the artist becomes paradoxical. The separation between the Self and the Non-self, between the internal and the external, between humanity and things, takes on the quality of a split (Spaltung), and the artist sites his work in the gap that the split produces. Tension turns into availability: an unlimited availability that opens out to unknown territories where the very ideas of beauty, form, and eros, just like the categories of space and of time, grow indistinct. Citromax, Circles, Construction, Chairs, Calendar, Collision, Child (”7C’s”): in each of these parts, of these autonomous components of a composition that finds elaboration beneath the sign of a split (Spaltung), what is called into play is contact. Citromax. Lemons are fixed onto spikes along the length of a steel portico, a current rendition of ancient propylaea.
Transparency (of nordic light, and as well of the modern spirit) unites with a heavy substance of odors, colors, and matter (from a south both real and imaginary, at one and the very same time). And the work is completed by the insertion of nature (here evoked – through metonymy, more than through metaphor – by one of its most beautiful fruits) into a primary technological construction (a bachelor construction). Pronaos of the temple (of catastrophe, of chaos, and of contact) and Caudine Forks through which we’re to pass in humiliation. Circles. Two circles in each other’s vicinity. One above our heads, a true and proper conversation piece, ironic and disenchanted. We can take hold of its handles while pausing to pronounce a word or two, before lapsing back into silence; or where we hold our silence while waiting for something else to ensue. Off to the side we see another circle lying on the floor. A circle of arms not very different from our own, with which we reached up to grasp the conversation piece. These arms, however, are casts, and therefore sculptures. And here in the representation, or in the fantasy of the representation, they make contact with one another. Chairs.
A machine (a bachelor machine) for contact: two chairs – one with a slow and regular movement, the other that rapidly advances, and then abruptly stops – approach one another. But contact is perpetually deferred, since as soon as it’s about to happen, either the one or the other withdraws, and everything starts anew. Construction. A bit further on, adjacent to the silhouette of a house that’s reminiscent of ”the traditional storage house (fäbod) of the farmers in the north with the slanted walls to keep the snow from dripping in”, we find another construction that’s decked with the severed limbs of a fir tree. The tree of the nordic forests, as well as the Christmas tree: the tree that is lit with lights to brighten the obscurity of the nordic night at the moment of the winter solstice. The boughs are hung head down, and have been drenched, like the little spheres attached to them, with Mexican latex. Corpses (hardly exquisite); saponified skeletons of a nature and a culture that memory has reduced to fetishes; perverse and miserly emblems where abstractness and materiality unite in a funereal embrace. And here, art briefly offers a glimpse of a landscape: a sentimental landscape, the sentimental landscape of poetry, no less than of poetry’s sterility. On the wall that faces Citromax, at the entrance, the final backdrop of Calendar. A calendar of daily life, of the effort of living it, of the thousands of variations that life presents, of its dreams, obsessions, and fantasies; and also of its joys and happiness, even if only as presentiments, but here fully objectified in the fluidity of the drawing. And the drawing is an undeniable fact. Ears that listen. Homunculi (between Klee and Benjamin, at least). Apes. Wounded apes. Apes that transform into polyps. Sheep (hypnagogic) skewered on spits (of insomnia). Arms that embrace one another. Maternal bellies charged with life. Balloons: containers with the most fragile of skins. Tombs: the tomb of the father. Trees, including the fir tree, the Christmas tree. Hands that reach out to establish a contact. Boats, crocodiles: the river upstream towards Conrad’s Kurtz. Polyps clinging to the crowns of trees. Angelic and demonic figures: can we truly distinguish them from one another? Humans and animals, displaying their sexual attributes. Portions of landscapes and underwater visions. Memories of other events, and of other organisms that surface in figuris from the depths of impersonal memory (who’s there?). Interior visions: figures of desire and pleasure, of anxiety and pain. Figurative Rorschach blots with which to play, and with which to measure oneself: but will they really be able to tell us something? Will they be able to point us toward the road of a possible truth? Will they finally have a therapeutic effect? The figures emerge from the profound depths of the sheet of white paper and mutate before our eyes. Uncanny figures, to which the drawing nonetheless confers a positive quality, a limbo positivity, a liquid limbo in the dripping colors. Impressions of a new world, figures from a dream which were lost and then recovered. The calendar is all of these things, and more, incessantly. We love the living of our lives, even when life runs away through our fingers like sand in an hourglass. Collision. On a higher level, which once was a stage, the locus of spectacle, a film presents a slow-motion ballet of collision: a chair (the found object), a Christmas tree (nature as symbol and emblem), the fäbod replete with handles (the work of the nordic constructor) – all of these things which already we have seen below – are propelled one after the other at the speed of fifty-three kilometers per hour against a white wall. The sequence incessantly repeats itself. Contact is here collision, violent and without illusions. We can go. But at the exit we discover, off in a corner, the image of a little girl – in the video entitled Child – immersed in the transparent water of a swimming pool. She has just learned how to stay afloat and briefly paddles her way toward a pair of arms that reaches out to receive her. The water of myth, and amniotic fluid; the fragile figure of incessant rebirth; a viaticum of propitious fortune; and the secret center of the sacred nature of the temple.
It’s all in the name of the father: ”To my father Captain Yngve Rollof, who sailed the seven seas.” The father as the voice of the Law, in a mythico-symbolic universe, but also the real father: the father, in the words of Lacan, who allows the passage from the register of need to that of desire. His presence is evoked by two images, as though they might be the two opposing visions which, in this particular, personal case, are attributed to him; the two opposing visions which also define his role. In the one case, his gaze is directed toward his ”legitimate” offspring, a gaze towards the earth, towards the summer of the world and of life. In the other, his gaze is turned towards the sea, towards water, towards the tempests, both of the world and of life. On the Seven Seas (seven like the Pleiades which announce the cyclical progressions of the seasons, seven like the stars of the Little Dipper which guide the navigations of sailors, seven like the years of the period of life lived beneath the sign Venus, seven like…) where Destiny is greater than Fortune. On the Seven Seas, where movement is possible in all directions. On the Seven Seas, which hold the secret of the world’s secret wisdom. Mourning for the death of father does not cancel out the persistence of space and increases our embarrassment in the face of it: having lost all knowledge of the Law, every certain structure having grown invisible, every fixed rule ineffective, in what continues to endure. The ultimate homage to the young son (of Rolf), which he too once was.
The sand flowed imperceptibly in the hourglass. Everything had slowed, but no deceleration would ever have avoided the impact of that certain collision. That was how the days went by, each with lengthy intervals, which if all added up would have constituted an excessive span of inertia, of emptiness, of forgetfulness. The miracle would have been for it all to have ended well.
Pier Luigi Tazzi Stockholm and Capalle, in the last spring of the century and the millennium.
By Sune Nordgren
With 7C’s, his contribution to the 1999 Venice Biennial, Ulf Rollof expands his creative fields in a dramatic way, across new, unforeseen borders. Technically, this restless experimentation has been evident in all his exhibitions. But here, in this extensive presentation Rollof undertakes a mental and intellectual crossing of borders in which risk-taking is his true challenge.
And it is clearly evident that both the risk and the challenge only increase when he is confronted by a large, international audience. Few artists invest so much of themselves, few so daringly avoid the safe road at a major exhibition. As was the case at Documenta IX in Kassel (1992) when he constructed his ninth Bellows. This was larger than its predecessors, more complicated, more demanding but also more of a risk and more challenging than any previous bellows. His humour and his chilly irony directed against technocracy and an inhuman ”development” were also at a high pitch of intensity. The world’s biggest flycatcher which, during the hundred days of Documenta, did not succeed in catching a single fly.
For the first time in an exhibition Ulf Rollof’s drawings compose an essential background. They annotate a self-healing diary, essential to his surviving a period of personal adversity which culminated with the loss of his father; a situation in which Logic and Meaning cease to be meaningful and life becomes just a formless flow of disappearing time. But in the end, the catastrophe itself triggers an urge to go on, to reconcile oneself to the burden and to take the next step, in a new direction.
The drawings bring together fragments of reality and dreams, an unreflected sort of automatism, but subjected to his intractable discipline of ”stopping in time”, of never overelaborating. The secret lies in his honest and straightforward address, without explanations, but with layers of intuitively accessible meaning. It is this aspect that surprises visitors to his studio prior to the Venice exhibition, that however painful the images are, they are accessible and often universal.
Each drawing is a concentrate, a sample of memory that is as much a diary entry as it is a constructional drawing. Every sculpture, every construction in the exhibition also has its origins in the drawings. This situation mirrors that of the horrendous earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 where Ulf Rollof suddenly found himself an eyewitness in the midst of the disaster. This was a painful, a cathartic experience that radically altered the direction of his creative endeavours, stimulating the preoccupations that we can identify in his work up to the present: saving, protecting, considering, surviving…and likewise capturing, taming, examining, collecting…
Ulf Rollof has frequently chosen to work in countries and districts that are in the process of development, where the conditions of life are hard and not as stable from day to day. He shares the local people’s work, their food and their hardships. With its strongly local roots his art achieves a global validity.
Ulf Rollof has been called both a ”shaman” and a ”discoverer”. In fact he is more an inventor than a detective, more a creator of models and systems than a pure believer. Nothing is random in his work; nothing is left to chance. In 7C’s every construction works perfectly from a mechanical point of view — even though the purpose and profit of the constructions can be discussed. But beyond the possible usefulness, the artistic will and the captivating inventiveness there is the entertainment value — not to be despised — fascination at the game that is enacted before our eyes and the public challenge; just as great as the artist’s own original challenge.
Entering the exhibition through the lemon arcade is like a ritual passage. The narrow arches, hung with lemons, are the single entrance and they guide and force you into the centre of the exhibition. The scent of the fruit and the physical pressure of this ingenious steel construction also make of it a commonplace manifestation of that Italian icon: the lemon. One can almost hear Beniamino Gigli singing ”Una furtiva lagrima” in the background, tasting the bitter tears from the spitted yellow fruit.
From the circular Meeting Point at the centre you and your incidental company overlook the whole display. Prominent is the background of the numerous intimate, highly personal diary drawings.
From this distance they appear as a powerful grid of wooden frames. We pass two house-like Constructions which are furnished with noose-like handles for all ages and conserved branches of fir-trees from some childhood Christmas. The Storage House retains its traditional and practical form of necessity in keeping its contents dry by letting the walls slope inwards and the rain run off as though from an umbrella. But the equipment is reminiscent of a camp with people tightly packed together, awaiting their fate. Sealed memories. The child’s ability to see, feel and experience without the adult’s logic but with an ever fertile imagination.
We are confronted by the two Chairs which are involved in an insoluble social interplay. A game of attraction and waiting, of approach and of distance. Every Swede will feel at home on discovering the ”school chair” with runners that everyone has sat on. The first stackable chair, a revolution in birch and plywood which Sven Markelius designed, inspired by Alvar Aalto, and which has subsequently been mass-produced for decades. The chairs give the sculpture a human dimension but they are still governed by a computerized super-power, sentenced to an interminable robot existence.
In the heavy Circle on the floor we discover the opposite of this existence: human contact, the spark of life, cast in iron and just cooling from the glowing kiln. Released from the mould, the closed ring is the inspired moment of creation.
One climbs the Venetian bridge to the theatrical stage of the old Cinema where we can view the endless Collision of vital parts from the previous works in the exhibition. An act of brutality but also of beauty and another image of resistance and eternal life.
The violently smashed items are indestructible like everything that is common: there is always another chair, another fir-tree …another human being.
And at the moment of departure there is the Child that recently learned to swim. This is the artist’s daughter at one of those illuminative moments in life, her body flying through the water as she wishes you farewell. Eight seconds of risk but eight seconds, too, of total liberation and faith.
Solo Exhibition 7C´s curated by Sune Nordgren, at Ex – Cinema Arsenale next to Aperto Exhibition in Arsenale in the 48 th Venice Biennial curated by Harald Szeeman. Produced by IASPIS.
Special Thanks to Joel Hedgren and Johan Svensson assisting me.