1990.06.22. LIFEBOAT / NORDIC ART CENTER / HELSINKI / TEXTS BY HANS RUIN AND JOHN PETER NILSSON.
A CATASTROPHIC DISCOURSE ON ULF ROLLOF
By Hans Ruin 1991
He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected for it is trackless and unexplored
It all begins with a catastrophe. The catastrophe is the turning point, the end of one movement and the beginning of another. The catastrophe marks the limit between the old and the new. Time will first appear as a before and an after, before and after the catastrophe. Katastrepho; in Greek ”turn around”, ”overturn”. Katastrophe; ”an overturning”, a ”sudden turn”, ”the denouement in classical drama, but also a ”subduing”. From the catastrophe issues a compelling violence, not only as a destructive force, but also – as we shall see – as a sort of decree. The catastrophe could become a calling, a calling to start again, as in a reconstruction, but also to begin entirely anew. All of this has its place in the work of Ulf Rollof.
This, however, does not imply that the catastrophe is meaningful. What could be more devoid of meaning than the catastrophe? The catastrophe signifies the end of meaning and of the direction which has prevailed up till now. With the catastrophe meaning itself starts anew. In a note entitled ”On the importance of natural disasters” from 1960, Walter de Maria writes:
”But it is in the unpredictable disasters that the highest forms are realized. They are rare and we should be thankful for them”
De Maria’s fascination was with the meaningless as such. The same year he writes of the ”meaningless work” that it is ”the most important and significant art form today”. This paradoxical fusion of sense and nonsense has its place within the interest that modern art has developed for the absurd, the random and the unintentional, and also for the unreasonable sacrifice. In a time where all endeavors are guided and legitimized by rationality and purposefulness, art has long ago discovered itself through that which does not belong in the calculation. This theme is also present, as we shall see, in the work of Ulf Rollof.
In the winter of 1984-85 Rollof participated in ”Document”, a group installation in a deserted sardine factory in Bergen, Norway. Starting from three different rooms in the old factory he created three thematic units, ”The Catastrophe”, ”The Thief” and ”The Ark”. The catastrophe was shown in the basement of the oldest or, as Rollof points out in the catalogue, the ”first part” of the building. It consisted of three objects; the remains of an old German fighter plane from the Second World War which Rollof had found in a storage room on the premises, the ”Angel Trap”, an object which he had made and presented earlier on Borgholm (an eleven meter long landing strip in black rubber, with signal lights made of old car indicators), and a number of ”defense tools” connected with the trap.
I do not know exactly how Rollof perceived the relationship between these objects, but they do lend themselves to an interpretation which in turn provides a path towards the works that follow. One could, of course, see the objects as distinct. The Angel Trap speaks with a poetic voice of its own, and the placing of the aircraft, a German plane in a deserted basement in once occupied Norway, immediately establishes a dramatic scenery with historical overtones. But if one views them both in relation to the catastrophe they begin to operate in a strange harmony. The remains of the crashed aircraft is a reminder of a catastrophe which has taken place in a distant past. The catastrophe has already taken place; perhaps it has always already taken place. It is found, we remember, in the first room.
The ”Angel Trap”, on the other hand, signifies a preparedness for something which is to come, which is perhaps to come. To create the trap, to unfold it and to turn on its lights, means to prepare oneself for that which is to come. We do not know if we are going to catch sight of any angels, no less capture one, but the trap proves that we are prepared. It could be a threatening coming. That is why we need tools, strange metal objects, apparently without any purpose, but constructed in different ways for all eventualities. We do not know what is going to happen. We do not know the denouement or the turn in the plot, but we are prepared. We are prepared for the catastrophe.
The aircraft signifies that the catastrophe has already taken place, the ”Angel Trap” that we are prepared for the unforeseeable. They apparently constitute two mutually contradictory situations, but the situations are actually one and the same; namely, the intensified preparedness of attention. Not a resolve, as if we knew exactly what was going to happen, but something much more uncertain, as the creative moment itself.
The ”Thief” also has its place within this staging. The theme of the thief had its immediate origin in the fact that Rollof, during the Christmas holidays, was unable to gain access to the locked factory legitimately and so decided to break in. Among the exhibited objects were the remains of this burglary, such as a padlock which had been cut in two.
The ”Thief” thus brought about something which had taken place at the actual location. It became an installation which displayed the conditions for its own presence. But the ”thief” as a character also has a much wider significance, which points beyond these particular circumstances and towards a discussion of art and the artist in general. The thief in this case was not just somebody who broke the law, did what one is not supposed to do. The actions of the thief must be seen in relation to the catastrophe and the situation which it creates.
The catastrophe marks a point where it is no longer possible to go on as usual. After the catastrophe all that matters is survival. Ordinary rules no longer apply. Everyone is by himself, and one must save what there is to save for survival. The thief in this situation can no longer be described either as a moral or an immoral character. He acts from within a situation where this distinction has been suspended. The thief is thus also an image of a certain way of action which can not be calculated, and which issues from within the moment.
In the second letter to the Corinthians Paul writes about how the believers should not worry about when the Lord will return, for the Lord will come ”like a thief in the night”. The Lord himself will come like a thief, and awaiting His arrival can only be seen as a preparedness for the incalculable, which for Paul is the same as faith. The image is interesting in many ways. It is interesting in its metaphorical use of the thief which, eventually, can even say something about the ways of the Lord. The thief is reduced to this sign of unpredictableness and action beyond the human order. But the image is also interesting in what it says about the right attitude, considering the situation in question. A catastrophe has taken place. The Son of God has been killed by humans. Now they await His return as the savior. Paul speaks in the interval between the catastrophe and the possible salvation. And he stresses that in this interval there is no certainty, no stable order to rely on. There is only this peculiar preparedness.
The comparison must not, however, be drawn too far. Rollof’s thief is no saviour, to say the least. If his thief belongs anywhere in Paul’s story, it is as an image of a possible human conduct in the wake of the catastrophe. To this attitude belongs a certain wilfulness, an ability to see oneself and what the moment demands. When the artist thus appears as a thief he also indicates an attitude towards history as well as towards the future. Only what really profits life deserves to be saved and recreated. There can be no concern for nostalgic or antiquarian values. The past ceases to function as a regulating norm. In the face of what is coming we must gather what we think will be needed. Thus the stockpile of the thief must be a strange collection of objects, at the same time disconnected from every stable order and having its own inner necessity. Rollof’s thief showed scattered objects and junk which he had found on the spot, wilful constellations gathered according to their own logic. Among other things, he created a calendar of sardine tins, arranged in straight rows on the floor.
As a motto for the essay ”Gathering the Limbs of Osiris”, a text which emphasizes the importance of precisely such a practice of theft for the poet, Ezra Pound writes: ”The poet must first of all create his own world”. Rollof has listened to this calling. Ever since the beginning of his artistic activity he has carried with him remains and traces from every phase, work and situation into the next. As the thief, or the bag people which inhabit the large cities, he travels with his belongings like a tramp from event to event, picking up what he finds, always prepared to put something from the bottom of the bag into action again. Thus he builds a world and an artistic expression, by means of repeated cross references which condense into a language. A sort of madness, yes, but driven forth by a necessity which belongs to solitude.
Rollof likes to refer to the recluses in the history of art, people like the Swiss Adolf Wölfli and the Swede Johan Erik Larsson, or ”Lim-Johan” as he was also called. For both of these artists art was also an ”art of survival”, a way of gathering torn or menaced inner worlds. In the case of ”Lim Johan” this was especially apparent. He grew up in a simple peasant environment, without any contact with the official art world. In his early twenties he was struck by some sort of mental illness, and he spent some time at an institution in Uppsala, after first having been locked up by his family for some time. Even though he was soon able to return home, he never found his way out of the disorder. For the rest of his life he remained an eccentric, a stuttering brooder haunted by visions of terror and paradise. But out of this situation there grew an artistry and an original expression, which used whatever was at hand; carving, painting, and later on also photography. He was unable to rule over his own catastrophe, but from within the solitude into which it threw him, he created his own saving world.
In the spring following the ”Document” installation, Rollof travelled to Mexico. He had been there before. During his teens he lived for a time near the border on the American side. This time he went there to stay for an extended period, for work and reflection. In September 1985 the great earthquake in Mexico City occurred, a catastrophe in every sense of the word. Together with a friend, Rollof travelled down to the destroyed city. He wandered around among the ruins, rescue crews and repair works, documenting what he saw in drawings, photographs and words. Some of this material was later included in the exhibition ”Dormimundo” in Malmö in 1988.
For Rollof this catastrophe had many aspects to it. First of all, of course, the personal anxiety and horror; friends with whom it was impossible to get in touch, to know if they were dead or alive, and inside the city painful images of crushed and smelling bodies being dragged out from under the rubble. But here was also that other catastrophe, the catastrophe with which he had been preoccupied and for which he had been preparing in his mind and activity, which he had already narrated. The catastrophe as a link in a personal narrative. The catastrophe as destiny. Is not destiny precisely this: life being at the same time reality and narrative? Reality as narrative. Rollof had sought a destiny. He had prepared himself for it, and when it suddenly struck him, he seized it.
In September 30, 1659, Robinson Crusoe wrote in the first entry of his diary:
”I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, came on shore on this dismal unfortunate island, which I called ”the Island of Despair ”, all the rest of the ship’s company being drowned and myself almost dead. All the rest of that day I spent afflicting myself at the dismal circumstances I was brought to, viz., I had neither food, house, clothes, weapon, or a place to fly to, and in despair of any relief saw nothing but death before me, either that I should be devoured by wild beasts, murdered by savages, or starved to death for want of food. At the approach of night, I slept in a tree for fear of wild creatures, but slept soundly, though it rained all night.”
The following entry reads:
”From the 1 st of October to the 24th. All these days entirely spent in many several voyages to get all I could out of the ship, which I brought on shore, every tide of flood, upon rafts. Much rain also in these days, though with some intervals of fair weather. But, it seems, this was the rainy season.
The quoted passages are the first two entries in the diary that Crusoe establishes after having spent some time on the island.
Or to be more precise: they are the first two entries in the diary which Defoe in his narrative lets Crusoe establish. The description is a fiction, but not just any fiction: it is the narrative of the recreation of Western civilization from within one man, a stranded and lonely man in the wake of the great catastrophe.
At the time of great natural catastrophes, the sense of culture suddenly becomes intensely visible. In the very moment when the material network which upholds civilization is torn apart, this civilization also becomes transparent. Suddenly it must be recreated from within man’s memories, drawings and expectations. What took many generations to slowly develop must now be done again and narrated anew. This interval is a period when civilization is at once a sad memory and an acute calling. After having experienced this clearly during the days in the wrecked city, Rollof moved up in the mountains in the Western part of the country. In the distant little village of San Bartolo he managed to rent a house, consisting of one room with no windows. In the catalogue to ”Dorminundo” he writes about this period:
”Not noticing the lack of animal noises or the light of the day, I usually awoke not knowing the time of the day. I never ate before noon. The midday heat stopped at the walls of the room. A long period of sleep passed. During my waking hours I opened the door, lit the lamp and made drawings. I found many new materials in place. From these materials, usually entirely organic, I made various kinds of tools and drew all kinds of survival equipment. I then started producing instruments which, by their sheer impossibility, are only fit for use in a kind of existence entirely different from our present one […] This type of work is a kind of preparation and adaptive training to life after disasters such as frost, heat, flood, drought, etc. ”
Placing the two diary entries so close to one another, one a classic fiction, the other authentic, could appear as an irony. But the intention here is not to deprive the ”real” diary entry of its authenticity. It is rather a question of exposing itto a comparison and a certain echo, that brings forth the fusion of reality and fiction which always belongs to destiny. The period that followed was an important period for Rollof In a sense he repeated a narrative, but thereby he also established one of his own. He sought a destiny and he found it.
The tools mentioned were made of rope steeped in beeswax, and they served the purpose of, among other things, searching for spirits and light. They were created as a preparation for the catastrophe, but also in its wake. Their precondition was a sort of existential zero point from which culture had to be invented anew, a preparation for what was to come. It was essential for this ”art of survival” that it included both that which was most close at hand and the most distant and ”impossible”. One problem was the dark room. It required a work light, but it also gave birth to the notion of a tool to search for light.
Another problem was the humidity and the persistent rain. Various attempts to keep himself and his works dry led Rollof to hear of the ”rubber man”, an artisan who drew his natural rubber directly from the trees and who had his workshop far up in the mountains. As if on pilgrimage Rollof travelled up to this distant place where he learned a craft which he has carried with him thereafter. The raw rubber is drawn from the rubber tree by means of cutting a notch in the bark, and it is then diluted with ammonia. It can be used as color to paint on canvas, which Rollof has used in a number of works. When it is liquid the rubber is milk white, but when it dries it becomes transparent and disappears into the material, depending on how thickly it is applied. Apart from the impregnation and painting on canvas, Rollof also experimented with rubber conservation of cactuses and blackberries, a technique which is also used in the Lifeboat installation.
During this highly active period in Mexico, Rollof also developed an interest in bellows as a tool. He made a series of bellows in rubber impregnated cloth. The longest one, a four meter accordion-shaped tube, was later used in Sweden to build a large electrically powered bellows which was shown in Stockholm and Malmö in 1988. Its explicit purpose was, as was the case with the smaller tools, to catch spirits. The large bellows, with its sophisticated technical apparatus, also signified a return to and a rediscovery of that technical civilization which Rollof had intentionally fled.
One could be tempted to see this object as a symbolic bridge between a more primitive and ”spiritual” Mexico and the technological and secularized West. But rather than such a cultural synthesis, I think it should be seen as a stage in an exploration of the cultural as such, which from the zero point that seclusion establishes recreates civilization as a world of one’s own.
This recreation, however, is not – as should be apparent – an artistic representation of some sort of Hegelian process of formation. The issue is not simply to track down the vicissitudes of the spirit through history in order to bring this journey up to a conscious level. It is not, in other words, a question of once again repeating Crusoe’s stay on the island, either concretely or symbolically. What this project shares with Crusoe is the experience of waking up after the catastrophe and beginning right there, and building a world. Crusoe knows what he needs. He only has to find a way to solve a number of practical problems.
Rollof’s stay in Mexico and subsequent activity has no blueprint, no clear guidelines. Its interest in creation of culture is not restorative. It does not wish to lull us into security by making that which has already taken place understandable. Rather, it is a question of working from within, and thus representing, the uncertainty and preparedness which is required in order to survive.
It would thus seem proper to leave the comparison with Crusoe at this point, but the power of this modern myth and its variations continues to reaffirm itself in the face of Rollof’s work. It permits us to open a question concerning a specific aspect of the Mexican experience. What Crusoe recreates on his island is the entire Western culture from its beginning, which is nature. The starting point for Crusoe’s adventure is one man facing pure – i.e. uninhabited – and threatening nature, which he has to conquer in order to survive.
The catastrophe is the beginning of this relationship. What characterizes the Mexican experience (that of the Mexican, but also of the visitor) more than anything else is the catastrophe in the form of one culture having conquered another. This turning point in the history of the continent is something which both belongs to and is separated from the history of the present culture. Ever since the last century the new Mexicans have labored intellectually to incorporate this whole sequence into one history of Mexico, as the history of two cultures which together form one new identity.
But something always remains. Beyond the heavy Spanish baroque they suddenly stare into our eyes, those mute stone faces, snakes, birds, death masks, sacrificial altars, of whose name and function anthropology can tell us long stories, but which nevertheless preserve their alienness. They were here when we were not here, they were here before us, between us and this nature. If Crusoe’s adventure in some way is the story of how culture emerges from the encounter between man and nature as an original datum, then the Mexican experience is the story of how even nature is always incorporated, lived, spiritualized and spiritual, inhabited by spirits, in short, by the dead. This experience could become a reminder that life has not only one way to travel over nature, not just the already completed way of civilization. For before European civilization incorporated the continent, a life had already claimed it.
In other words, there is no virgin nature. However, neither is there any virgin culture, which is an important point in this context. The precolumbian culture can not serve as a model for a return to something more original. It can not become an origin for us. It was never Rollof’s intention to connect to Aztek and Mayan culture with his spirit catchers. To encounter Mexico with such a vain expectation would imply blinding oneself to a deeper insight and experience, namely that of culture as a hall of echoes and mirrors, and of how the abyss of history can engulf even the future in its enigma.
In the novel ”Friday or the Other Island”, Michel Tournier varies the theme of Defoe’s book. He lets Crusoe repeat his adventure of civilization, the domestication of the island and of the black man. But instead of the triumph, Tournier emphasizes the mono maniacal in Crusoe’s character, the blind need to repeat an order in a foreign territory. It is brought to its limit in the encounter with the savage man who does not permit himself to be subdued, but who in his reluctance instead breaks down Crusoe s image of himself. For a time Crusoe sinks down into vegetative depression, but ultimately it is Friday who leads him back through his example. Between Crusoe’s two alternatives – chaos and order – Friday displays a playfulness, which also includes a sharper attention to the situation and the moment.
The end, however, marks a significant turn. If the conclusion was simply that Crusoe found his clarity in Friday, civilization in the primitive, the book would have been just another romantic tale of lost origins. But when the ship of civilization finally arrives and Crusoe declines to return, Friday instead sneaks aboard. The wheel of civilization must turn, every adventure has its time and its place. The salvation is always something new, something unexpected. Neither the proper, nor the other, but perhaps something which can occur there in between.
With these different ropes and ends at hand it is perhaps possible to approach the multi-layered Lifeboat installation with the attention it deserves. Lifeboat was created with a specific place in mind, the old fortress Sveaborg outside Helsinki, but it is also a work which to a great extent develops and commentates on a series of earlier pieces.
Sveaborg is nowadays a cultural and artistic gathering point which houses a number of institutions, among them the Nordic Art Center which had invited Rollof. Once, however, the fortress was the principal defense structure for the eastern part of the Swedish baltic empire, located on a number of connected islands in the entrance to Helsinki. (The Moderna Museet is probably the closest one would get to a corresponding environment in Sweden, which is a happy coincidence.)
The construction began in 1747 under the direction of Augustin Ehrensvärd, as a protection primarily against Russia, and as a main station for the Swedish fleet. When the Swedish-Russian war broke out in 1808, Sveaborg was considered to represent the highest level of contemporary fortification. Nevertheless it capitulated after only a few weeks of siege without a single shot having been fired. The skilful Russian admiral managed to have the Swedish commander Cronstedt believe that the Russian forces were too superior. The loss of the fortress thus signified the end of Swedish rule in Finland. During the Crimean war it was exposed to gunfire, and in Finnish memory it also lives on as a painful reminder of the civil war, when it was used as a prison camp.
In other words, it is a highly historical place, a place which has been at the center of catastrophes and sudden turns. It is also a place which in a very literal sense gathers the threat and the rescue. It is in the fortress that the outcome will be decided, where it must be decided. It is against the fortress that the threat is directed, and it is on the fortress that the salvation depends. It depends on the fortress whether or not the threat will turn into a salvation.
Rollof’s installation consists of three distinct parts, a series (12) of lit up drawings, a construction of two communicating bellows, and finally a large number (365) of identical lifeboat models. The separate parts must be considered one at a time, but first one can note the overall structure. It can be read as precisely a continuation of the pattern which was articulated in ”Document”, whose two outer limits consisted in the catastrophe and the ark, or the threat and the salvation. The drawings and the lifeboats thus establish a sort of framework, in which the system of bellows can be seen as an axis around which the whole installation turns. The bellows relate to these two limits, and, as I will try to argue, they even stage the transition from one to the other.
In the beginning there was the catastrophe. Here we find it in the form of twelve images. The hazy red characters are sketches of calves’ fetuses which are malformed in the womb. The prototypes come from a veterinary’s handbook for cattle-farmers which Rollof found in a country store in Mexico. The pictures have been covered by Mexican beeswax and framed in rough steel plates. They are lit from behind by fluorescent lamps, a light which, when filtered through the red drawing and the deep yellow wax, creates an impression of photographs taken inside the womb.
In the arrangement there is an immediate connection backwards to an earlier work. During the time in Mexico Rollof exhibited drawings and photographs from Mexico City as it looked during the days after the earthquake. The material was shown in a monastery outside the city, in a room reminiscent of the room at Sveaborg. In the monastery the pictures were also displayed so that the different accounts of the catastrophe were lit from behind or within by an indeterminate light. The images of the fetuses portray a different catastrophe, whose cause and origin we do not know. Some of them are simply turned around in the wrong way, a catastrophe of nature’s own making, but we can also see their defects and malformations as the result of an accident caused by humans. The harsh light which leaks along the edges of the metal and the persistent sound leads one’s thoughts to nuclear energy and the effects of radiation. Something has happened, that is finally all we know. That is where we begin.
If this event marks one of the limits of the work, the other is the swarm of lifeboat models in synthetic wax. What first catches the eye of the beholder is the exorbitant amount, the repetition of one and the same object. But behind this overwhelming uniformity lies – as is so often the case in Rollof’s work- a complex web of connections and associations. The most immediate connection is of course the given environment. We are located at a fortress at sea, a harbor for ships, but also in itself a sort of lifeboat. Thus the lifeboat becomes a sign for where we are and for the necessity always to use what is at hand. It is a sign which discerns and individuates the place at the same time as it cancels this individuality. The boats become here (like the sardine tins in the sardine factory) a kind of finger which is pointing and saying precisely: here. At the same time unique and repeatable in every new situation.
When the installation was shown at Sveaborg, the boats had been placed in strict rows divided into twelve groups; to be more precise, as a calendar for 1990. For the presentation at the Moderna Museet Rollof chose to arrange them in a more chaotic pattern, so as to emphasize the excessive manifold and the desperation of the gesture. Nevertheless, there are still three hundred and sixty-five of them, i.e. one for each day of the year. In this sense, the boats remain signs of time, for the passing of the days. Both of the solutions have their advantages and their particular significations. However, to begin with I want to stay with the original arrangement, where the calendar structure was more strongly emphasized.
”After I had been there about ten or twelve days, it came into my thoughts that I should lose my reckoning of time for want of books and pen and ink and should even forget the Sabbath days from the working days; but to prevent this I cut it with my knife upon a large post, in capital letters, and making it into a great cross, I set it up on the shore where Ifirst landed, viz., ’I came on shore here on the 30th of September 1659’. Upon the sides of this square post I cut every day a notch with my knife […] and thus I kept my calendar, or weekly, monthly, and yearly reckoning of time. ”
In the catalogue for the ”Document” installation, Rollof writes about the first steps of the thief:
”The thief steals as a consequence of the CATASTROPHE. He is scared. He hoards and collects, building up supplies, making plans. He exploits the factory and steals from it to save his own life: to escape the CATASTROPHE: First he visualizes the CATASTROPHE. The cellar drawn to scale 1:5 marked in blue directly on the floor. He steals rubber and benches. The second phase is the burglary of the room where he chooses to work. He designs a sardine calendar. Saturday Sunday/holiday. ”
Normally we do not distinguish between time as such and time as a calendar. We think of time as consisting of years, months, days and hours. We have faith in this structure, according to which we also live our lives. Somehow it appears to belong to time itself. But when culture is destroyed, when the archives are burning and man once again finds himself to be alone, time reappears as just a formless flow of disappearing life, which has to be gathered anew. Time itself must be gathered anew.
What is a calendar? A series of repeated signs and an initial moment; an act of creation, the founding of a city, the birth of the son of God, a revolution (shortly after the revolution in France, people tried to establish a new calendar), a shipwreck, in any case a catastrophe, a complete reversal of the order of things. Time also begins with the catastrophe. And time must be counted. Everything depends on whether we can keep track of time; the holidays and the mores, but also the cultivation of the earth, the ability to foresee coming catastrophes, rain, cold, the faces of the moon and the eclipses of the sun.
The importance of the calendar was perhaps never more emphasized than in the cultures of precolumbian Mesoamerica, the Toltecs, the Aztecs, and especially the Mayas. Despite the fact that they were never even able to make use of the wheel, their calendars displayed an infinite refinement, with cycles interwoven in cycles and complicated patterns of profane and sacred time. Those who possessed this knowledge were the priests. To preserve the calendar and to count the time was one of the duties that defined the priestly as such. The significance of the calendar for the continuation of culture was profoundly experienced. For he who guards the calendar also guards the pattern which regulates the life of society. Counting the time, cutting a notch in the post, arranging sardine tins, to mould a boat; in all its forms, it is an original gesture, a preserving and saving gesture.
That the signs are spread over the floor does not change this basic pattern, it only emphasizes the desperation of the act. We do not know why, we do not know for what coming event, we mark the passing of the days. We just know it has to be done. A calendar is not primarily directed to the present or the past. It always points towards the future in a peculiar way, as a time when the present will be past. In the calendar the present ticks, carves, etches and molds itself in order not to perish in a future which it does not yet know. Life says ”here and now”, knowing that it is already a ”there and then”. The notch is a message enclosed in a bottle thrown out into a sea of times to come. One could see it as a small vessel of life, a life-boat perhaps. The ropes along the gunwale of the boats contain blackberries molded in rubber. They are provisions for the future, but also preserved moments and memories.
THE GREAT RESPIRATION
In the center of the whole installation we find the large system of bellows. It is an extraordinarily dense and significant machinery, referring backwards to previous works and linking the other two elements of the installation. It consists primarily of two bellows. One is red and shaped as the trunk of a large animal. It hangs horizontally from a stand and is operated by means of a system of computer regulated pneumatic valves. The other is light yellow and rests in an aluminum construction shaped like a carcass or the hull of a ship which expands when the bellows are filled. The two bellows are connected to one another by means of a black tube, so that the air from the first slowly fills the second.
The title is ”Bellows VII”, which clearly marks its position within a series of earlier works, the foremost of which was the one previously mentioned. The subtitle of the latter was ”Spirit catcher”, a tool for sucking in spirits that are said to exist in the air, to keep them there for a while – perhaps to get acquainted with them – and then let them loose. Spirits are hard to catch or grasp. One could perhaps even say that it is part of their essence that they can not be grasped. They are signs for the evasive and secretive, which is why the sheer mentioning of them causes a certain tension and anxiety. He who claims to stand in communion with the spirits, he who claims to see or hear them, is consequently inscribed in the same circle of evasiveness. The spirits are always connected to a certain wilfulness which does not permit itself to be caught and incorporated, as was the case of ”Lim-Johan”, whose life was an ongoing dialogue with strange apparitions.
One could perhaps think of the spirits as belonging to that same interval-region which Rollof’s work was said to thematize, the field of tension between the catastrophe and the salvation, the interval where art occurs. This was earlier described as a zone where the distinction between morality and amorality is suspended (which was expressed in the activity of the thief). In a similar way one could perhaps think of this as a zone which also suspends the distinction between the sacred and the profane, as well as its secularized counterpart, the spiritual and the material. The difference, the clear distinction and the unequivocal account, has not yet taken place. They are continuously being redistributed according to the demands of the moment. I would like to see Rollof’s work in such a way. It allows for a combination of respect for its own secrets together with a certain liberty in interpretation.
The bellows machinery in Lifeboat is a powerful generator of ideas and associations, in particular when it comes to thinking about the passage between matter and spirit. I want to try a few of these suggestions, intended or not, to see where they may lead. What is a pair of bellows? It is a mechanism for compressing and guiding air currents. It is an ancient way of imitating and strengthening the effect of the human respiration, for example to keep a fire alive in a forge. From the respiration to the spirit there seems always to have existed a passage. Man lives as long as he respires, as long as the lung bellows are working. With the last breath life ceases and the spirit disappears. The respiration is the first as well as the last sign that the body is capable of surviving. The respiration, in a sense, is the force of life itself. In primitive tales of creation one often finds the image of how life is blown into innate matter, clay or earth, by means of the respiration of a god. In the Jewish-Christian story of the creation it is written:
”In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. ”
The Hebrew word for spirit is ”ruach”. Its concrete meaning is ”wind” or ”respiration”. In the Greek translation the word is ”pneuma”, which carries the same double sense; ”spirit”, but also ”respiration”, ”current” or ”wind”. Already from the beginning the spirit has perceived itself, and thus grasped itself, by reference to the human respiration.
Rollof’s bellows are powered by a very advanced system of pneumatic valves, of the kind used in industrial robots.
Pneumatics is an important element in modern industrial culture. It is a common power source for running tools of different kinds, especially in damp areas, and in the proximity of inflammable substances. However, the most elementary form of pneumatic tool is precisely the bellows. Every single pneumatic valve can thus be seen as a bellows in itself. An extraordinary metaphorical and material ”spin” occurs here, very characteristic of Rollof The object which recreates a lung is made as a bellows which in turn is powered by a series of small bellows. At every stage air is being compressed. The most primitive, the panting respiration of the beast, is operated by the most refined instrument, which is also the ultimate link in a development of tools which have their origin in that very organic movement.
But if respiration is the earliest manifestation of a spirit which, furthermore, this advanced apparatus aims to approach, we realize that the compressed history of pneumatics is in fact already inscribed in a broader account of the spirit, in short in a pneumatology. As a designation for a doctrine of the soul or the spirit the concept is sometimes used in the psychology of the rationalist philosophers, but also among theologians up until today. In the work of Rollof, pneumatics and pneumatology were never quite distinguished. Can one thereby conclude that Rollof’s bellows are about” the spiritual? Can one say that they somehow ”represent” or ”portray” these phenomena? Neither of these formulations appears to be appropriate. It is noteworthy that the two earlier mentioned objects which explicitly related to spirits were tools to catch them (that is also true of the ”Angel Trap”).
In other words, they were objects that neither thematized nor described, but which lurked and watched for something which just might show up. This is also true of the bellows in Lifeboat. The pneumatics do serve the pneumatology, but not from any preconceived certainty as to the content of this pneumatology, but rather in order to create a passage or a region where the spirit may be halted for a while.
The primary purpose of the bellows of the lungs is to inhale air in order to get oxygen into the blood, and thus to keep the machinery of life running. The expiration is in this sense only a byproduct, what remains after the body has drawn its nourishment from the air. But when speaking of the connection between the respiration and the spiritual, we must not overlook what expiration also is; namely the power and substance of speech. Human speech is the air of expiration which is set in motion by the vocal cords. The lungs preserve the spirit of life, but they also enable the body to sound. Without the air of the lungs man would be mute, without voice and words. The word is an expiration. To form words is to form throat, tongue and lips in order that the expiration achieves quality and form. And, as we know, the word is also spirit. The first lines in the Gospel of John can be read as a strange comment to the previous quotation from the first Book of Moses:
”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”
How do spirits appear, if not as voices? Those who claim to be in communication with these evanescent beings rarely claim to see them. Spirits are something that you hear. They speak to you. The spirit is a voice which suddenly takes on form in the interior of man, as an inner and foreign respiration, vibrating through one’s own body. He who is thus addressed must listen. The voice can neither be seen, nor grasped, it can only be heard. It is at once entirely fugitive and compelling. It is everywhere and nowhere, as the air itself. The respiration in Rollof’s machinery has not yet condensed into words. It screeches, rattles and howls like the madness of the earth itself, waiting for a throat or a voice, perhaps an ear.
The machinery can be read and interpreted. But more important, it can be listened to. It could become a place where voices gather and begin to speak to those who are prepared to listen. Like the objects of Duchamp, which were always generously left by the artist for the beholder to ponder and interpret, this could become a machinery of ideas and inspiration. But why speak of ”inspiration”? The concept rings out of tune, it would seem. The commentary has so far circled around pneumatics and pneumatology, that is in the field of association which issues from the Greek origin of the spirit. But the Latin also offers an exit, perhaps even a salvation. Ruach -pneuma – spiritus – spirit; thus the movement appears when Latin is inserted in the previously established sequence. Spiritus once again ”spirit , respiration”, air , but also ”inspiration”, a neologism from a Latin root. The verb is spiro or inspiro: ”respire”, but also ”live”, ”recover” and give and ”receive inspiration”, as an inhalation of divinity or spirit.
What is inspiration? Is it not ultimately that strange experience of how one, from within muteness, suddenly receives a voice? How one obtains a voice which is at once one’s own and somebody else’s. We need not stay with the image of the classic poet calling on the god or the muse. The experience is older than that. And since long, it has understood itself by reference to the respiration. Inspiration is about being filled with the foreign element, as when the lungs are filled with air, but also about participating in a process which is at once oneself and something alien. It becomes particularly clear in Swedish where the verb is passive. Respiration is not something that man does, but rather something which he is exposed to. There is no one who ”respires” (”andar”), only someone who ”is respired” (”andas”). Inspiration can not be controlled. In the face of inspiration one can only, in a strange fashion, abandon oneself, as in relation to the rhythm of the heart and the lungs, in some sort of confidence, may it be in a god, a spirit, or the body itself.
It is no coincidence that artistic creativity has sometimes also thought of itself in the sense of pregnancy and giving birth. She who is pregnant at once generates and is being generated. The body is an instrument which she can permit to be used by a force which is beyond her control. She can take all kinds of steps in order to be pregnant, and all sorts of precautions to guide the process, but in the end it is incalculable. She can never know in advance if it will turn out a catastrophe, like the malformed calves’ fetuses. The pregnancy, like the creative process, is always located in the tension between threat and salvation.
In Rollof’s system of bellows all of these aspect are intertwined: the respiration, i.e. the ex- and in-spiration, but also pregnancy and birth. The force issues from the massive lung of the creature. It could be seen as an animal force, demonstratively connected to the earth. In any case, it is a foreign force which, through the connecting tube, flows into the other bellows, shaped like the hull of a boat, or an animal carcass lying on its back. As the canvas in the hull is filled with air the cooperating forms appear more clearly. The structure expands and becomes, at the peak of inspiration, a boat, but also a chest. The bellows itself becomes a filled lung, a floating cushion, but also a womb. In a remarkable, poetic condensation all these different forms of life appear intermingled. The boat is a lifeboat and a possible salvation, just as the filled lung and the swelling womb.
But the passage between the bellows is not just a passage within the machinery. It also ties together the different parts of the installation, formally and thematically. The animal body is found in the fetuses on the drawings and the boat hull refers to the lifeboats, but also to the wombs in the pictures. By means of the bellows in the center, the two outer limits enter into formal connection with each other. But what occurs in this passage, apart from a harmony of forms and shapes? What is the system of bellows in this constellation? How can it be read together with the other parts?
The pictures and the boats establish two outer limits, the threat and the salvation. They delimit a territory, an interval characterized by attention and preparedness. Here the past is recollected, here the future is prepared. It is a time of waiting and suspense. Waiting for voice, for word, for spirit, waiting for something to be born. It is a threatening and promising moment. Dare we say: a moment of spirit and of inspiration? Perhaps we do, precisely right here, knowing that we have already consumed all metaphorical resources, and that we have approached the limit of exhaustion where one no longer is able to watch one’s words. Knowing also that this effort, in the end, has something vain about it, a heavy respiration, a breathless speech about that which can not be given form, but which is nevertheless constantly formed and created, the creation itself; this strange moment, here.
THIEF IN SAN BARTOLO
By John Peter Nilsson, 1990
WHEN HE WAS sixteen, Ulf Rollof travelled to the USA as an exchange student, coming to San Diego in southern California right on the Mexican border. He attended high school there but after six months the staff wanted to send him home as he spent all his time in the photo lab when he ought to have been preparing his lessons. Shortly before, he had met Michael Schnorr, an American artist who was painting murals in San Diego’s Mexican quarter, and he moved in with Schnorr. By travelling to Mexico and obtaining a tourist visum he was able to leave the school and his host family yet remain in San Diego and work on a mural that was reaching completion under Schnorr’s supervision.
After a further six months in the USA, Ulf returned to Sweden, moving immediately to Stockholm where he graduated from high school. But his stay in San Diego meant that he already knew what he wanted to do in life…
During the summer of 1980 he paid daily visits to Pusten 1, a derelict building on Stockholm’s Hornsgatan next door to what is now the Scandic Crown Hotel. The 200 year-old building was in a poor state, having been unoccupied for 17 years. Yet many traces of the building’s former uses remained. Claes Hultgren, a good friend of Ulf’s, composed a work for saxophone dedicated to the building. Stefan Boye produced a film about it and Ulf made a photographic record of the rooms as well as creating a number of objects from bits of the building.
”I wanted to put on record the atmosphere of the building. It contained various signs, markings made by the current owner showing what was to be demolished and what was to be spared. I was fascinated by these markings, not least because I found them totally unintelligible. I broke off various bits of the rooms and on these I made scale drawings of the rooms from which I had taken them. I wanted to describe, to conserve the special and individual atmosphere of each room. It was so obvious to me that the atmosphere was different in different rooms, that the emotional charge varied. The building was a place in which history was visible.”
IN 1982 ULF ROLLOF returns to San Diego and starts a three-month trip to Mexico. He travels round, more or less tourist fashion, until, in due course, he reaches the little town of Patzcuaro where he has the opportunity of taking part in a fireworks competition. Annual competions for the most remarkable fireworks are hold both in Mexico and in Spain. In Mexico there are firework towers which are built in the various villages by specialized craftsmen. Every last surface, every projection of these towers treats biblical stories and the display normally concludes with Jesus sitting on top of the tower. A crown unfolds and starts to revolve and the whole thing ends with Jesus literally flying off to heaven.
On his way to Mexico, Ulf had bought Nepalese prayer ribbons, thin sheets of paper pressed together, which can be unfolded and used as required. He used these papers for making ’diary entries’ during the journey; sketching things and events he met with during the trip and making ’atmospheric plates’ of the type he had used for recording the derelict building in Stockholm. He was principally interested in conveying atmosphere, especially a very obvious ambivalence: for example, how one and the same room can change its character without anything actually being physically altered. This is, perhaps, a condition that can be compared with the extreme clarity of Mexico s socio-economic state. Corruption is rife in Mexico, as is abject poverty and differences in material standards are vast. Yet the people cannot readily be classified. For there is also a spiritual, inner life that can be enormously rich in spite of the fact that material attributes are painfully limited. And sometimes the reverse obtains.
AFTER THE THREE months in Mexico Ulf returns to Sweden. Ulf had enrolled at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in the spring of 1982 and Bård Breivik, professor at the Academy, arranged for him to visit Hästveda gjuteri (Hästveda Iron Works) in Scania, Sweden’s southermost province. He spends five months there, learining how to cast iron. He is mainly interested in the process itself, though traces of his visit to Mexico are also to be detected in his work here. For example, he casts a model of the volcano El Chicon, close to Villahermosa which erupted while he was in Mexico 1n 1982.
Later in the same year, 1983, Ulf rents extensive premises on Kvarngatan in Stockholm. He has previously had a number of illicit studios, mainly in derelict buildings and these have often resulted in visits from the police. He is invited to take part in the largely outdoor exhibition, ’The Fifth Element’ held in the summer of 1984 in the ruins of Borgholm Castle on the Swedish island of Öland. The other artists are Curt Asker, Olle Bonniér, Bård Breivik, Björn Hedlund and Björn Wessman and there is also a musical installation by Måns and Pål Wrange.
For his contribution Ulf chooses a dark and mysterious cannon chamber. In the room he builds an ’Angel Trap’ a sort of landing strip for angels with signal lights and an open runway…
”The ’Angel Trap’ made use of my early experiences of Mexico. It is, quite simply, a landing strip made of rubber. At the time I had just become fascinated by rubber and I had got together enough money to buy 11 metres of wonderfully smelling, rubber cloth. I then visited innumerable scrap yards and bought endless quantities of car lights in order to be able to pair them off and mount them along the edges of the rubber mat. The lights are ignited in pairs, drawing one to the end of the runway where there is a ’capture circle’ which brings movement to a stop by means of two circles that blink in opposition and which, so to speak, freeze the previous movement. There is angelic ’bait’ at the ’capture circle’, in this instance, a mountain.”
In many respects the ’Angel Trap’ represents a summing-up of Ulf Rollof’s work as an artist up to that point. The installation related partly to the place, representing a sort of reaction to what the cannon room represented in the castle ruin and partly marking the beginning of a dialogue with concepts such as spirits and angels, something that had been liberated by his visit to Mexico, but which had originated in a strange experience in Norrland, an experience that Ulf prefers to keep to himself…
DURING THE LATE autumn of 1984, Ulf is invited to work and exhibit at a former sardine-canning factory in Norway’s Bergen. The project was entitled ’Document’ and took place between October 1984 and March 1985. Six artists participated. Besides Ulf they were Raffael Rheinsberg, Steinar Christensen/Svein Rönning, Jan Håfström and Sissel Tolaas. The artists had free access to the gigantic factory and, in six successive exhibitions, they presented extensive installations on the premises, often making use of the materials found there. Common to them was a commentary on history, not least, the history of the industrial era. The exhibition marked a sort of border zone between definitely leaving something old but not knowing what the new is.
”RAFFAEL RHEINSBERG WAS the first exhibitor. He had been working for 10-15 years, for example, collecting and cataloguing and storing things that had been ’left over’. His ’Koffermauer’ for example, was a wall built of cases and trunks that he showed in an abondoned department store in the demilitarized zone. I found being allowed to participate in the exhibition tremendously stimulating, being part of a context with which I was in sympathy.”
Ulf’s contribution officially opened on January 7, 1985 and was divided into three acts: ’The Catastrophe’ which took place in the basement, ’The Thief’ which was shown on the third floor and, finally, ’The Ark’ which was on the first floor. He had, however, been in Bergen for some time in order to survey the exhibition site and, on New Year’s Eve, he literally opened the doors leading onto the fjord for his first act, ’The Catastrophe’.
In a room in the factory he found a German plane from World War II that a flying club had brought down from the mountains. It looked like the head of a cod and he used it as ’bait’ for his ’Angel Trap’ which he had already shown in Borgholm’s ruined castle.
’The Thief’ opened a week later. Commensurate with his usual routines, the janitor had gone round locking up the building for the Christmas and New Year holidays. However, Ulf wanted to work in the building during the Christmas holidays and he ended up by breaking into room after room during the Christmas break and showed different pieces from each room. This is, he collected things from diferent rooms and then placed them in a larger room on the third floor of the building. One thing he produced was a calendar for 1985 made of tins of sardines, seven tins for each week, so arranged that one could, for example, see that July begins on a Monday.
His point of departure is a sort of fictitious natural catastrophe (which can also be characterized as a ’catastrophe of provisions’). By making the most of whatever is available in such a situation, certain moral values are put out of play. ’The Thief’ must be seen as a survival figure. He or she must defend his or her own situation in order to survive. And ’The Thief’ then automatically becomes amoral. When the limit is reached, morality no longer applies.
It is interesting how this more general idea relates to the personal experiences that Ulf Rollof gains from a situation which he has, consciously or unconsciously, fallen into. He was literally in a catastrophic sort of situation in that the janitor at the sardine factory had locked him out of the factory for the duration of the Christmas holiday. In order for his project to survive, he was obliged to break into the building. Thus a metaphoric theme coincides with the unique conditions of the special project, something characteristic of his earlier projects but which was further developed in the Bergen project and which has become a characteristic aspect of Ulf Rollof’s art.
ONE MIGHT SAY that Ulf, in a manner of speaking, eliminates the division between collective and private. What influences the collective also influences the private sphere and vice versa. The accidental in his own life is not used as a measure, rather the problem is one of a sort of divided subjectivity where he uses the accidental as a metaphor for his situation, thereby laying bare the metaphorical meaning of ’seizing the moment’. The question of whether chance in itself determines our situation of whether mankind can control his fate by trying to surprise chance in something with which he does not concern himself. The question cannot be answered. One cannot promulgate rules for the conduct of other people. Every situation is unique, each choice dependent on situation and place.
THE THIRD ACT of the Bergen project. ’The Arc’ may be interpreted as a commentary on the particular situation pertaining to ’The Catastrophe’ and ’The Thief’ at that particular time. ’The Ark’ appears as a metaphor for continuation, a symbol of faith and of hope for tomorrow. In actuality it consisted partly of drawings, mainly of his experiences in Mexico. Here too, his personal situation is woven together with a fictional narrative. For Ulf himself, these drawings represented the fact that he would literally go back to Mexico after setting up the exhibition. But can one then see ’The Ark’ as a sign of spiritual survival? Only the expectation of change can enable one to survive seemingly impossible situations. This inner refuge, freedom of thought, was protected by a ’police trap’.
And as a bait he made use of peaks of uniform caps…
”I can use my position as an artist to touch limits, to put things out of play. I want to investigate, define and, finally, sabotage the boundaries between the moral and the immoral. It is up to the observer to define his limits.”
EARLY IN THE spring of 1985 Ulf goes to Mexico for a protracted visit. He travels round in the countryside looking for a house to live in but fails to find one. Instead he contracts dysentery and is obliged to go to San Diego where he knows that he has a refuge with Michael Schnorr where he will be able to recuperate. On the very day that he has recovered sufficiently to return to Mexico, the television reports that Mexico City has been struck by a severe earthquake. By now he has received a visit from a god friend from Sweden and, with the friend, he decides to travel slowly through Mexico. After nine days they reach Mexico City.
”The city was an inferno. Everything had started to decay and the buildings had fallen to pieces. There was rescue equipment and rescue workers and they were still trying to extricate people who had been buried in the rubble. But, absurdly, the national rescue organization was engaged exclusively in trying to salvage bank registers and suchlike, not people. Those who were digging for people were just ordinary people like you and me. Finally we reached the hotel where I had stayed during my previous visits, Hotel Isabel, in the heart of the city centre. This part of the city had been hardest hit. Almost all the buildings had been levelled with the ground. Our hotel, however, was almost intact and was being used as a base for rescue work. I go out in the night and walk to the district round the Hotel Regis. According to the press, it is this area that has been hardest hit. What I saw that night has had a profound influence both on my life and on my art.”
In an almost sinister manner, Ulf encounters aspects of life in Mexico City that he has previously dealt with on an intellectual level in his art. Recording the rescue operations with his camera for the next month is, therefore, a logical continuation of the ’catastrophic’ theme he has previously been working with.
Paradoxically, many of the photos are beautiful! True, there is a deeply melancholic feeling of something abandoning the city or, when they started repairing the sewers and the electricity supply and thus had to dig deep holes in the ground and install powerful lighting beside the holes; a sort of a symbolic action, digging down into the earth in order to find the evil force that had caused the destruction? But there is often, in point of fact, a contradictory beauty in these brutal pictures. But on reflection, is is not precisely this contradiction between life and death, between beautiful and ugly, which makes the catasdtrophe so tangible?
THE MOURNING BECOMES a lifetime experience and Ulf leaves Mexico City, finding, in due course, a house to rent in the little village of San Bartolo on Lake Patzcuaro. There are not more than forty families in the village and, consequently, the atmosphere is quite different from that in Mexico City after the earthquake. Things were quiet and people knew what they were going to do every day. And they were proud of doing it. This was one of the few places in Mexico where the peasants own their own land.
”In spite of the fact that the people in the village had few material possessions, they were strikingly happy. They had their stories. Dona Maria, at whose house I ate and who taught me Spanish, could relate the most banal events, like the time her son missed the bus. She remembered every detail, every last nuance of the event and what everryone had said and done.”
Ulf records life, or rather atmosphere and moods in the village; ideologically not unlike the ’atmospheric titles’ that he had produced earlier in a derelict building in Stockholm. He makes pictures, for example, of different methods of sowing the fields: precise maps of how the seeds are distributed on the fields followed up, three months later, with documentation of each single seed’s development.
He also make various types of hunting equipment in wax. When the village peasants had money to spare they used to buy candles for the church. Ulf built a machine that could make large candles, but instead of making candles he started making a type of tools. Parallel with the peasants largely manufacturing their own tools for working the fields, Ulf wanted to make his own ’tools’. All of them had some connection with the traps and spirits, tools for capturing invisible things, yet nonetheless present… In the end he had an arsenal of 56 tools made for the place, the room in which he was living.
DURING HIS TIME in the little village on Lake Patzcuaro, Ulf learns that the lake is the home of the remarkable axolotl, an animal shrouded in myth. The axolotl is a species of salamander which lives and behaves like a fish but which, at the age of four, can be metamorphosed and climb up on land. True, this occurs with only a few of them, perhaps one in a hundred, but when it takes place, the whole anatomy of the creature changes. The people around the lake believes that the axolotl develops lungs when it changes it’s way of life. Swedish scientists say they breathe through the skin. A literal metamorphosis takes place.
”The interesting thing is that instead of trying to rebuild the world to suit it, as we human do, the axolotl rebuilds itself to suit the world. The sad thing is that the animal dies when it comes up on land because its digestive system has not been adapted. But that will come too.”
The animal is named after the young god of Aztec mythology, Xolotl. In order to escape the other gods, Xolotl continually disguised himself by changing into other animals. Finally he assumed the form of an axolotl, but since that aniamal is also transformed, the young god was discovered and killed. Axolotl thus means non-Xolotl, that is, the deceased Xolotl.
Ulf buys an Axolotl in the village to see whether it has succeeded in developing lungs. It has not, but having dissected it, he determines to commence a dialogue with this strange species. Dialogue with ourselves, with mankind, seems to lead nowhere. He wants to act as an intermediary between the animal and mankind. And in April 1986 he decides to start a project with the axolotl as its point of departure, to culminate in October, literally on Lake Patzcuaro itself.
”I started by constructing a ’signal-suit’ in order to communicate with the axolotl, an electric waist-coat that uses positional lights to explain human anatomy to the animal. The ’signal-suit’ is stretched across one’s back. First, three with lights are ignited showing the lungs and, parallel with these, there are a red and yellow light for the heart. Then seven white lights are ignited for the intestine and then three orange ones that revolve. Finally the costume is completed with four red lights representing the back. The ’signal-suit’ is waterproof, ready for diving.
Ulf also starts to build three buoys which he intends to place out on the lake. He also produces a series of ’navigational paintings’ which correspond to the signal lights of the light-buoys. The paintings also show possible flight paths for approaching the light-buoys, as well as the strange animals.
”The light-buoys consist of a square top which rests on the surface of the water. In the middle there is a cone filled with salt water and stretching from the surface to the bottom of the lake. Above the cone there is a halogen light which produces both heat and light so that the animals’ breeding is facilitated. My intention was to place the light-buoys in the water in October when the axolotl breeds. On the top of the buoys are signal lights to draw the local inhabitants from around the lake, as well as possiblew spirits, to the light-buoys so that they will discover that the axlotl is the key to change. It encourages change by undergoing change itself.”
However, Ulf was not able to carry through the project on the lake. (He presented it in his exhibition ’Axolotl’ which was shown at Galleri Stefan Andersson in Umeå in the autumn of 1989.) The mayor of Patzcuaro put a stop to everything. Not because the animal was held to be sacred, for the habitants of the region had been the first group to join the con-quistadores against the Aztec. The project was probably stopped for much more profane reasons. It was customary to bribe the mayor with a sizeable sum of money in conjunction with all major events and Ulf had no money.
AFTER EIGHTEEN MONTHS in Mexico, Ulf returns to Sweden. His intention was to return to Mexico very shortly. But for various reasons, principally because he became a father for the first time and was due to complete his studies at the Academy in Stockholm, he remained in Sweden for eight months. He was obliged to complete his project in Mexico, however, and in September 1987 he returns to Mexico for a stay of three months. He rents a former button factory in Mexico City and starts to construct a number of ’catch-canvasses. For these he mainly uses rubber materials.
During his first journey in Mexico it had rained a lot and Ulf had bought rain clothes to protect himself. His works, however, had been destroyed in the rain and this led to his going to a rubber plantation at Palmarita, near to Vera Cruz, to buy rubber directly from the plantation in order to make ’indestructible’ paintings of latex.
One of the very first ’rubber paintings’ Ulf made at Rafael Jimenez’ place. It consisted of two blackberries encapsulated in latex with a string of egg connecting the two berries. And by putting a thicker layer of latex on the lower half of the picture he sought, in a manner of speaking, to draw the spirits upwards towards the blackberries. ”There is no direct symbolism in my use of blackberries. I love blackberries and I think the spirits do too!”
But it is in the former button factory in Mexico City that with his ’catch-canvasses’ he begins to work more systematically both with blackberries and with rubber materials. He makes, for example, a blackberry triptych. Two of the sections of the triptych consist of catch-spirals’ leading to a centre where there is the tail of a rattle-snake which rattles to attract the spirits. The third consists of a calendar for 1987, ideologically related to his earlier sardine-tin calendar.
Ulf gradually comes to love the special cactus fruit, tonas, which is eaten as a dessert. And he produces a species of artefact from the fruit. By dipping the fruit repeatedly in rubber he seeks to perserve them. He creates globe-like objects attatched to rubber strings and the shape of the artefact connects it with the Argentinian throwing-weapon, bolas, which is used for bringing down cows. But in Ulf’s version it is rather the reverse. The artefacts are more like bait. One swings the delicious fruit above one’s head in order to attract spirits.
THAT ULF ROLLOF uses fruit, for example, to attract spirits may, perhaps, be explained by the fact that the Mexican Indians believe that the stomach is the seat of the soul. This belief is made clear in his ’catch-canvasses’ which consist of openings so that humans can climb into the canvasses: an opening at the top for the head, an opening for each arm, four openings for the legs and, above all, a large opening for the stomach.
In this sense one can say that Ulf uses himself and his own experiences and observations as a species of point of departure for his attempts to communicate with spirits. But his attempts can also be seen as a metaphore for a type of self-knowledge; that the spirits and the spiritual do not necessarily have to come from without. We can bear a spirituality within us and Ulf’s work then becomes a catalyst for liberating such a possibility. And if one so will, one can also claim that Ulf lays bare the motivating force of artistic endeavour itself. He unmasks the structures which constitute a work of art. His works deal, literally, with the spiritual in art.
AFTER THREE MONTHS in the former but-ton factory Ulf returns to Sweden and exhibits the work he has produced during the period at Galerie Nordenhake in Stockholm and later at Malmö Konsthall. He calls both exhibitions
”Dormimundo is a bed firm in Mexico City, roughly like IKEA, and has some 10 stores in the city selling beds and bedroom furniture. The stores have a large globe painted on the windows and, above the globe, the word ’Dormimundo’, sleeping world. I travelled round and photographed these windows and in the end one of the shop owners accosted me and accused me of stealing their logo with my photographs. I was furious and, quite simply, stole their doormat and used it as the emblem for my exhibition.”
THE FACT THAT Ulf stole the firm’s logo has its explanation in the name ’Dormimundo’, the sleeping world. The name is undeniably an excellent metaphor for the motive force for waking spirits – indeed for waking ourselves – from a sleeping state. But we live now in a period of extreme rationality. How can one wake people up by building, for example, spirit traps?
What makes Ulf Rollof’s art remarkable is that his Mexican experience confronts his Western roots head on. In spite of the fact that it is obvious that his objects and artefacts don’t ’work’ in an explicable, rational sense, there is something else contained in them: just continuing to believe in something beyond the absolutely visible suggest an inexplicable conviction that we can only capitulate to.
”One can see how The Thief moves something from one place to another, perhaps to a place that needs it. In the village I was a joker who related something of the context I came from for the inhabitants. Now I relate something about the Mexican context in Sweden. Being the link, the messenger, is exciting.
IN THE FORMER button factory in Mexico City, Ulf also started working on a bellows, a ’puffing machine’ which would unite his experiences of both Mexico and Sweden. When he returned to Sweden at the beginning of 1988, he had with him the soft parts of the bellows, the rubber material that he had manufactured in the button factory. The hardware, the engine, he then constructed in Sweden, thus literally fusing two ’technologies’. The bellows was shown for the first time at Galerie Nordenhake in Stockholm in the autumn of 1988 and then at the Dormimundo exhibition at Malmö’s Konsthall in the winter of 1988/89.
”I had previously built two smaller bellows but this was a substantial 6.5 metres in length and 4 metres high. It works by the bellows being compressed using the engine at the same time as a number of weights are raised to the roof. At a certain point the weights fall straight down like a guillotine and the bellows expands and draws in air. lf there are spirits in the air these are drawn into the bellows too for a brief period, only to be spat out again. And if one thinks of spirits moving in the air, then the bellows is suited to flying spirits. It comments precisely on the notion that spirits move freely in the air. In Mexico we never talked about spirits. Their existence was self-evident that there was no reason to discuss them. Most things have a spirit. The bellows explains this to us in Western terminology, by means of the bellows’ technological language.”
CLEARLY ULF BELIEVES that spirits exist. But one should not devote too much attention to this fact. The works can also be viewed in a wider perspective. Not least in connection with the oft recurring theme of catastrophe does one understand that the possible spirit life is not the main thing. Rather, the hunting apparatus and the traps become a species of ’tools’ which one can relate to intellectually. In other words, Ulf’s art is highly dualistic. On the one hand there is a playful ambition, however serious it may be at bottom, to approach something diffusely invisible, to realize the notion of the spirit as physical being. But on the other hand, this serious game also becomes a metaphor for existence, not least for the relationship between nature and culture. ”Religions, for example, have tried explaining natural catastrophes as omens. But I do not believe in that. Natural catastrophes are, quite simply, nature’s way of expressing herself. That is why we need to adapt to nature and not work against her. The artist should make us aware of our particular situation.”
In our enlightened age we may, perhaps, smile at Ulf’s impossible projects. But we do not laugh at them. No, this ’double’ attitude creates an ironic sort of protection against contradictions. We can giggle at the madness. But you never know. . . Thus innocence is protected, a secret that, if we were to lose it, would make life very much poorer; an affirmation of the inexplicable faith in the fact that, in spite of everything, the impossible can happen! Ulf’s projects thus become ritual actions, actions in defence of magic in a society enlightened to the point of agony. The works create a mystical dusk, providing a shade in which to cool the feverish mind.
”If the idea of spirits exists, then the spirits exist… lf something exists in the mind, then I consider that it exists. The same applies to dreams. We can’t rebuild the world tomorrow. It is a very long process. Above all, we need to begin by dreaming about tomorrow. We have to create a dream of something else. We cannot observe laws and rules if we do not have a dream of something. But you can’t force people. Art has a duty to make people dream of things.”
DURING THE AUTUMN of 1989 Ulf takes part in a group exhibition ’Freezone’ at Kulturhus. He builds his own, highly enclosed room in the exhibition hall. He shows two works ’Gloving Sun’ and ’Cool Coat’.
”In San Bartolo I lived in a cold hut with no windows. But when I woke up in the morning and walked through the village I was struck by the intense heat. I wanted to recreate these extremes by confronting extreme heat and cold in the same room.”
’Glowing Sun’ consists of a slowly rotating circular form. Within the circle there are three glowing wires suspended in an Y-shape. ’Cool Coat’ is a coat of natural size, made of rubber suspended on a padded support. The refrigeration system is on the outside of the coat and it makes ice, just like a refrigerator. These two works are adjacent so that one can feel both cold and heat at the same time.
This installation too, relates to a species of catastrophe theme; perhaps not as obviously as in Ulf’s earlier work. For who is it that is to be chilled or warmed? On one dimension one can say that the sun represents nature and the coat is civilization’s (the culture’s) protection against the forces of nature. But one can also see the problem from another angle. F or the sun is also a prerequisite of nature’s continuation and, therefore, of human existence.
Ulf does not offer any concrete ’answers’ in his installations, but he exposes the play between nature and culture. Her discloses the rules of the game, that is, the constant ambivalence of the two states. One cannot simply claim that one of them protects or threatens the other. Both extremes are needed and there is no ideal situation, at least not in the sense both extremes can be subsumed into one harmonious synthesis. Rather, the extremes exist, side by side, without actually meeting, at the same time that they are essential to the existens of each other! Not least the sun is a good example of something which is both a threat to and a prerequisite of existence.
THE INSTALLATION WHICH showed ’Gloving Sun’ and ’Cool Coat’ represented a partial departure from his documentarily orientated descriptions of experiences, states, moods and atmospheres which he had often used as points of departure in his earlier art. True, the installation is, to an equal extent, a mis en scéne which exposes an abstract, linguistic problem. I would suggest that the installation questions the dialectic method of uniting conflicts in the same body and thereby discovering the final solution. Instead we have to try, diacritically, to live with the conflicts. There is not final solution but the solutions are always provisional and change, depending on the situation and the context.
This ’floating’ state requires one to be constantly prepared, literally or mentally, to move on. The fact that in his latest project ’Lifeboat’, Ulf concerns himslef with boats, or rather with the idea of a boat as a life-saving vessel, can, if one so desires, be read as an exhortation to constant preparedness.
”’Lifeboat’ builds on a concise situation. For the first time I am showing a real threat by means of twelve abnormal calves’ foetuses -most of them will never be able to be born – presented as a sort of organic X-ray plates. The boat then becomes both a metaphor for the thought of being saved and, at the same time, the object to be saved, in that each boat contains food; in this case blackberries.”
The temporal aspect is also important to the ’Lifeboat’ project. There are 365 boats cast in wax, prepared in various ways so that, together, they form a working calender for 1990, while there are twelve calves’ foetuses corresponding to the number of months in a year. But the time dimension must not be taken too literally. Rather, the passage of time – impossible to prevent – is made visible. And in a paradoxical manner, the pathos in trying to prepare oneself for something which it is impossible to prepare oneself for, is described! There is something fateful and unavoidable about this disclosure. Perhaps Ulf means that fate is something we have to accept, something we shall never be able to control. But we can prepare ourselves mentally for various states; perhaps even prepare ourselves for the unavoidable?
Once again, the ’double’ perspective appears in UIf’s art. On the one hand, preparations are made for the catastrophe using various survival strategies. But on the other hand, the catastrophe would seem, sooner or later, to be unavoidable. As, for example, in the ’Lifeboat’ project’s mechanical boat. Using six positions its shape can be transformed from something similar to an animal skeleton to looking like a boat and vice versa. Salvation and catastrophe are both present in the same body.
IN SUMMARY ONE may say that ever since Ulf Rollof started making art he has been defining questions about existence. His ambition has been to open a dialogue, to stimulate discussion, not to foreclose on discussion by presenting ’solutions’. And as we have seen, this is not just a question of dialogue between the work of art and the beholder but, equally, between the artist and his motif; and the beholder and the motif beyond the artist’s presence.
He has frequently returned to the question of whether it is nature or mankind (the culture) that poses the most serious threat to existence.
The answer is not entirely straightforward. Certainly one can argue that civilization in itself is the greatest threat to mankind today. But merely to worship nature again is not an alternative either. Ulf’s pictures and objects are, rather, ’tools’ which we can use in our own fashion. Thus he manages to avoid the dogmatic aspects of utopia. He does not force upon us some programatic vision of utopia. He does not not choose one thing above another. Rather, I feel, he seeks to liberate our spiritual talents and then to leave them in peace. He does not wish to control spirituality as such but, rather, to emphasize that we humans are full of potentialities; more perhaps than we realize!
Thus Ulf Rollof exhorts us to an inner dialogue. Perhaps the threat, in point of fact, is to be found within ourselves.
Solo Exhibition at former Nordic Arts Center, Sveaborg Castle, Helsinki, Finland. All photos by Lars Gustafsson. The complete LIFBOAT PROJECT is part of MODERNA MUSÉET COLLECTION.