Pendulating fir tree in concrete bowl. Photo by Lars Gustafsson.


By Bart de Baere,
December 14th, 1994, Gent

When Ulf Rollof let five christmas trees ride over a circular railroad track in Tijuana, the realisation of that project was as public as its result. On that open piece of land both were more public than an exhibition in Slovenia will be. Even the large glass window of Mala Galerija is unable to resolve the contextual border between two specialised functions, the one being walking-to-somewhere-else, the other relating to art. At best, Mala Galerija can lure some additional people to deviate from their goal into its proposal, like shop windows do. The piece in Tijuana was -besides being art – part of the local community. It was never vandalised. It was being used. If it was accepted, part of that acceptance may have been the result of its gradual insertion into that context during its production, experience sewing it into reality.

In Ljubljana that self-evident deployment will not happen. Does it mean that the reception of the result has to be split from everything else? Or can a phased introduction be constructed, articulating a wider part of the conversation between Ulf Rollof and Ljubljana into a publicly percievable field?

Part of his development has been private, has been what we consider today as necessarily acted in the seclusion of the ”studio”. The initial reflection and the conception – including a coloristic setting – need an inwardly directed setting, as did to a certain degree the search for technical solutions influencing the formulation. In the latter phase it is only a little circle of collaborators who form a mirror for the desire. But between that and the reception there is still a big gap, one which is often reduced to a non-event. It is the casting of the sculpture, the technical follow up after the form has been decided upon.

For Ulf Rollof it is an important phase. It is filled to the brim with the activity which he wants his works to remain entangled in. It is also the period during which the project adjusts itself to its being real. Even if all the decisions have been taken already, they still have to find out how they will be echoed by the environment, how their resonance will sound, how they can be (communicative). The production is another movement of awareness and openness. It doesn’t fix down, it continues.

This movement too may be turned into an explicitly activating one. Even if the activity still apppears to be intimately linked with the individual preparation of the artist, it is in fact a pivoting point. It is the movement in which the inward is dressing up to turn outward. It is part of the Slovenian side of the watershed.

As an attitude and complex awareness, it can be compared to the nineteenth century artists studio. It was a mixture including many more elements than we are now depicting a studio to include. It was a mixture between private and public domain, between creation and exhibition, between working site and luxurious cosyness. Works could be ”on show” pretending to be ”in process” or be in process still but already on show before the eye of the camera and the patron who is visiting.

It was a whole environment in which elements were included which are intruders to our image of the studio. They are scenic elements which suggest warmth (as coming from a homely interior) and quality: carpets, plants, furniture. They can take upon themselves many different contents. The nice chairs may be the artist’s throne as well as his place of reflection, equally signs of a quality of environment dignified for art as hints to the interior of the buyer and the added value art might give to them, a resting place for visitors as well as a place for conversation, coffee and selling.

This kind of mixture of private and small scale public space, might be reintroduced now in the museum and therewith give a setting for a conversational aspect that point as well as a validation of its momentum within a larger whole. It accentuates the museum of contemporary art as a centre and a place which is stimulating the generating of art and reflections about it. Even if the realisation of such a setting is unavoidably to a certain degree a forced brooding, this can only succeed by ”letting it happen”.

The museum can only stimulate that by making the potential ingredients readily available and by preparing the setting for the setting. Rollof should not be ”on show” but should be able to develop a space which is semi-public only, where the visitors feel they should question their own behaviour even if they may feel at ease and find a spot where they can sort of hang out. Finally it is Ulf Rollof only who can realise this kind of reality, otherwise it becomes a theatrical fake. There can only be a result if he can ”appropriate” the museum and turn it into a nice space for himself and his encounter with potential visitors.

The museum thus can literally become what it ought to be, a place where the artist feels at home, an institution which is there to give him possibilities.

By highlighting this element of production instead of letting it get lost between the folds, the ties between the work of Rollof and Ljubljana can gain in complexity and presence. If the exhibition in Mala Galerija opens in January, linking itself back to the production by the inclusion of the moulds, it will link itself back to Ljubljana. The memory may be a shared one, not one offered by the artist to the voyeurs.

By Bart De Baere

It is true that the necessity of art is not obvious. How did it come about that we decided to publish this book and that I wrote the text for it in a hermit monastery? This was to be the finalisation of a series of projects by Ulf and the beginning of a book. There had to be a text, to start with.

Sunday, the sun is making the snow melt.
Here art is put to rest, at least in these early hours with their overwhelming silence.

That silencing of art has nothing to do with the presence of spirituality. It is the result of simple conditions: the lack of noise; the lack of visual pollution (even if there is some, the images on the wall having hung here to please us visitors, becoming decoration rather than meaningful references); the basic food, the lack of any urgent necessity to move physically as well as mentally ; the sudden awareness that it might be nice to perhaps make a movement from a real standstill; and the knowledge that this equilibrium is a very worldly, shallow one compared to that of the people at the other side of the church.

The movements we normally make are rarely movements which have their own speed and self awareness. Rather, they are reflexes within a continuous turmoil of gestures and contradictory energies, reflections of the normality there seems to be in making noise.
They echo, imitate, believe and make us believe that movement is a sign of contact with life.

In the context of this monastery the activities of Ulf Rollof become distant.
But do they?

They are as devoid of humility as they are of hubris.
They assert themselves. If not drawings that are meant to be a conversation with the self, they take over the space. They do so as a consequence, not as a goal. They don’t see themselves as a finality. They can’t help it.
They deviate as any proper action does; they reach out but build their own necessity as a project that is only life size. They accept the mental scale that gives them life. The uniqueness of the action is only itself.
Even the biggest of the ’Bellows’ has the character of a one person experience. They are instruments for individual experience, even if forged by a team. They constitute an act rather than an anima, and a moment rather than a process.
They are actions magnified into shapes.

Although they start from a source that is so interiorised that it may be called silent, Ulf Rollof’s work is very worldly. In this respect it is like all proposals that have to deal with the term ’art’ in order to come into existence. By their sheer awareness of the destiny they will serve, they are unavoidably affected by it. They will have to be met by society this society and accommodate themselves to it, in one way or another.
Ulf Rollof turns this awareness to advantage. He doesn’t purify but puts himself squarely into the banality of contemporary culture. He advances and picks the materials and techniques that are abundant in both his daily life and in the situation in which the works will be conceived as art.
He is an artist but he is still a Stockholm citizen. Drives with a car. Puts on the heating. Doesn’t forget he has been accustomed to aeroplanes when he is working in an abandoned sardine factory. Doesn’t forget he is in a former canning factory, either. Looks at television while he is making wax objects in a tiny Mexican village. Makes an electrical vest with car lights to explain human anatomy to a fish. Out of his experiences in the tropical forest he produces a metal cage in Sao Paulo. Draws cows in a byre rather than a meadow. His experience is never pure. It is always complicated, affected by constructed environments, filled with preconceptions, guided by instruments. These complications, in fact, are his possibilities.
His art is self consciously urbane, even if it aims to be different and has the appearance of mythical, unsettled gestures.
He refuses or is unable to leave the urban mental context when he develops the main projects which provide the skeleton for his work. He constructs his phrases within the pressure of an overcrowded daily reality. He recuperates elements of the noise for his own sake. Instead of producing a romantic restoration, he shapes constructions that abide in the detritus of frenetic thoughts and actions.
It is as if everything else that could be done was tried out before, and these projects are a desperate finale, the moment of silence, after the storm, in which only an absurd point can be found to start all over again.
All the forms, all the grammar, belong to a culture that has been judged in a void. It is, however, the familiar one. In fact, it is the only one to hand, since it has subdued other possibilities and continues to functionalise them or isolate them and render them harmless. Therefore it is the only one in which seeing is made possible, in which an outwardness can be established.
The starting point of the work accepts the damage done. It accepts that people from Sweden today can only exist in a mental space pervaded by man made inventions, however clumsy and grotesque these may be in comparison to the delicacy of organic data..

Nature as a vital energy never comes into play. In making the very decision to process it, it is tamed and the access to its primal energy is lost. Household kittens will never be tigers anymore.
Neither, in a cultural perspective, will tigers even be themselves.

The works of Ulf Rollof opt neither for household kittens nor for tigers. The first have been made too harmless, the latter would lead to a grandeur all too romantic. His works might in a certain way be seen as dealing with tigers caged for the circus: the potential of danger is still somewhere around but in the ballet of culture it is only a vague memory of what it once was. The works start from images which contain nature, in a desire for its greatness but in an awareness too of the failure that can be read in them.
The Christmas trees are removed from the Swedish forests even before Rollof has made his first move. They imply a household cosiness, they are filled with sentiment, they drown in kitschey sentimentality. Most often they are merely props and even if they are allowed to be trees, their rows in which they are planted refer rather to gardens and cultivation than to the nature they originally came from. This sociology is not what interests Rollof primarily. They also have an annoying character. Their needles prick.
Rollof’s nature is a tragic one. It is in a situation of loss of the tiger’s potency. The fish for which he developed a huge project to try to communicate with them, are apparently characterised by a metamorphosis that can be seen as coming towards us. After four years, some of these fish, the axolotl, crawl on the land with their legs, breathing through their skin. It is an impressive image, but its main consequence is of a more ordinary nature. Since they are unable to eat on the land, they die. The axolotl is also not god, not axolotl, not the young Aztec god who chose this fish as his last disguise and was killed in it. Nature is not even the assignable magic of the monster, but something else, still less definable.

The relation to nature is distanced though respectful and longing. Obviously it is not that of a love that is or that has been, and neither that of a love that might be. It is a craving elegy. Even in the midst of nature, man has become blind. Rollof attaches a yearning importance to it, but starts to look before the road to the wilderness ends and is aware of the luggage that keeps him trapped.
The remaining pieces of nature may be scenic settings only, in which man is a visitor, having turned the boundless energy of nature into something mortal. A personal healing may still be found in it, the body feeling at one with its surroundings, or a personal retreat, cutting out the obvious omnipresence of an artificial context and keeping only some of its tools as minor but comfortable alienations. But it cannot provide the material for an overall cultural healing anymore. It is unable to, simply because there is not enough left in relation to even Swedish numbers of population. This is also the case because the leisure time visitor is by nature like a man walking on the moon, or a deep sea diver. Even if his body feels suddenly at unison, he is all geared into mental and physical instruments that are completely contradicting that unisonority.

The most simple of these instruments is the automatism that validates and functionalises experiences. Successive categorisation prevents sensitivities felt in one area penetrating and contradicting other fields. It is a twisting that turns even receptivity into an action. Empathy with nature is cut off: The passive field out of which it can emerge is in existential contradiction to a society that keeps going by the continuous production and reproduction of itself. In organising our world view as we did, we gave up the possibility of anything being itself. Trees or fish or flies are doomed to be objectified in our eyes, images rather than beings, disjuncts rather than contacts.

Rollof constructs his artworks in the small space between his own body and the cultural barriers against lively, communicative reality.

They offer two different angles of experience.
In the one the work remains an extension of the body, be it Ulf Rollof’s or be it that of another observer. This side is one that at first sight seems to be harmonious and harmonising. The visitor gets an effective offer to participate. His bodily experience is being cultivated. That can happen by offering him a luxurious, even heated, seat. It can be done by letting the space of the works and that of the visitor’s path merge to such an extent that physical contact becomes unavoidable but also obvious. It can be done by proposing a visual logic that explicitly includes a far reaching visually functioning bodily action, as is the case with the smelling device for Warchau or with the stairs mounting both sides of the front waterfall of Norrköping.

The second angle is that of the violent, nearly physical clash between the wall built out of transparent descriptions turning experiences into a limited Other , and the futile but elaborate means of the artworks aimed at piercing through this helplessness.

The elaborate machinery scarcely leaves place for the aura that substances might develop for themselves. It is an overwhelming presence. It is King Kong’s hand, simply wanting to move, but as a result frighteningly imprisoning the initial imagery. Whether they want to heal (as in ’Axolotl’) or catch (as with the flies in ’Bellows IX’), they fail. Healing and catching are two metaphors of the desire for communication. But the lighthouses of the Axolotl project were not even allowed to float on the lake, through lack of money to bribe the mayor. If they had, probably the fish wouldn’t even have noticed the light through the pollution in the lake. Also ’Bellows IX’ became a completely self centred result. The flies were not only not caught, they were virtually absent even around the giant flytrap of the bellows, save for the shape of the construction itself. The Christmas tree projects turn their subject into an object that has to behave with the same basic immobility as the barrels or other metal structures they are fitted into. They become wheels between the other wheels of the construction. As such they can move, but they are isolated from the context of continuous growth and adaptation from which they come.
The projects fail, because they do not succeed in establishing a communication between man made energy and living substance. The approach is theoretically sound but completely alien to the intricacy of its goal. It is an idea that went berserk.

Technically the pieces work perfectly, but they only meet their goal as absurd accidents. They do so because they take seriously the descriptions of which the images have been composed. They unmask them by developing and augmenting them.

The main thing in the works is not that which is.
They don’t produce but establish links in the very failure to deliver.
They make a wishful choice. They orient.
They present something through a resonance which is aware of the fact that it is only a representation. They succeed by failure. They accept the harsh impossibility and culminate it by trying to overcome it.
It is not the overcoming, but the culmination that will be effective. Since any factual presence would immediately be integrated into a system of hollowness, would be soaked, would be functionalised in its turn, it is only the oriented lack that can be effective.
Instead of soothing the lack through images that may function as momentary ersatz, the failure of the image as an isolated representation is highlighted. It is taken for what it is, as an instrument in a cultural construction. It is revealed as such by its inclusion in a mechanistic context in which it is a bare item of information. Any atmospheric chiaroscuro is erased.

Organic energy meets its mechanical counterpart which is as merciless, amoral and senseless as nature itself. Thus the image becomes the border itself, the clash between non intelligible being and cultural constructions.
The overriding presence of the mechanical act makes a fresh reading possible of both the setting and the objects of desire. In the light of the invasion of decision, their own character is erupting as alien to it. There is no communication.
Because of the overtness of the impossibility and, due to its self centred logic, of the mechanical act, the natural component can remain afloat as a sensitivity, uncaged by verbalisation or depiction.

None of the five exhibitions exists only as such. They are each also the moment after the act which evinced that all encompassing desire, akin to a murder or sexual intercourse. The series of projects proffers itself like a toolbox of brutal ontological manipulations: Each of them takes, and hence the murders. Each of them is the desire to communicate with the magical because living object that is the Christmas tree, to let it merge with one’s own dreams, and even to let these dreams be affected, guided, haunted by it, to find a modus vivendi with it. But since the action (even of observation) takes, the result is that the possibilities of affection and guidance have been exterminated before the beginning. Any remaining life can only be depicted in lacking realisations, in mirages.
Haunting is the only option left open as far as anything related to something that is proper to the Christmas tree is concerned and alien to our preconceptions of it. In the exhibitions its body is being manipulated with the chill attentions of a medic or a scientist. It is undergoes an inquisition, is brought within measure, hung upside down, moved around.

The movements are those of the primal observer. The trees are made to revolve, like a slave or a horse that is examined from all sides before being bought. In the last project the mass of the forest seems to be re established in its interrelations. In fact the roots have been replaced by scientifically calculated stabilisers and it is the visitor who initiates the movements of the trees in their windless showcase. He can play around with them, they in their turn can only go backwards and forwards by his movements.
The observer creates a specific distance between him and the object through his manipulations. He brings himself into control. The whatever of the observed is a harmless sub section of the wider view of the observer. This situation is established at the moment the visitor enters.
The basis of the act is there. The final observer, the visitor, finds himself part of a set game. The works are the binoculars of a vision. One is assigned a place as soon as one enters, transfixed as much as the trees are, and in just as attentive and caring a way. In Warchau the heated chair, linked to the central heating system, is turned away from the open window. It is as free and caring as the heated rat trap in the corner is. In Mexico the chair is welded to the line of trees, so that the horizon is unclear even when sometimes visible half of the time horizon, half of the time US border wall , while the Christmas trees are fixed to the visitor in the dead centre. In both of these projects the perverted offer of a place for the observer, becomes only perceived while considering it a step beyond the initial generosity. In Norrköping the theatricality takes on a circus like aspect. The whole mechanism of the frame is visually aimed at climbing up and making a precarious, even impossible, balancing act on the rotating log. In The Hague and Ljubljana there is a refusal for a space which allows distance. The observer intended to be a hair’s breadth away from physical contact.
These two projects, in which a setting of contact is being displayed, are the ones which deal most overtly with the death of the trees. In The Hague they hung like executed bodies. In Ljubljana they are embalmed, sealed off. The visitor is continuously harassed but derives no satisfactory naturalness in return. He touches the image, not the green. The landscape painting can be experienced but ultimately remains a landscape painting. The path one seems able to take, leads up the stairs to finish again into the machinery of the production process.

The whole set up is a negative in which the substance is cast. The autonomous, idealistic observer is as non existent here as the ingenious individual artist is. Both of them are out of the picture. The observer is offered a clearly stated proposition and with that come the limits that are augmented unacceptably in the prescription of a position. It provokes.

The projects are the moment after the action, but the seats and other prescribed modes of behaviour are at the same time potentially the moment before another one. The reflection they offer can be a pivotal point for a continuation of the reflection just as the position of the observer is one that has to be left in order for the observer to find his real self, so is the totality of the moment of the project. As with a membrane, once you overcome the resistance and push through it, suddenly all the energy is released that was pent up by the initial resistance. It is in the liberation from the limits of the project that a truly embodied relation to the subject matter can become sensed. The denial of the limits, the negation of the truth represented as being encompassing, is the trigger for the continuation of the reflection. The focal point is a labile encounter, it is a problem to be re edited, continued and expanded by the participant.

Since the act believes itself to be focused on the objects be they air, rats or Christmas trees it is that alien quality which is the central lost potential.
Because the acting observation is absolute, the relation between actor and object becomes reversed, in the same way that the one between master and servant might be. The anthropocentrism cracks.

The heavily plated construction around the basic substance shows itself explicitly as a grotesque deviation, a reductive idea and an economic action based on it. Not necessarily wrong but certainly not right. Even looking at the ”tree” is already the denial of it.
This looking can only be kept meaningful by destabilising it and the most simple and basic way to do so is by over adorning the act to such a degree that the act becomes a frontal clash with the realities it aims at, and therewith loses its claim to truth.
The desire is shaped within its rawness, a rawness which neutralises itself in its blindness.
The ensemble of the projects is based on feeble conditions. The constructive act is the organising force but it is so overtly defective and clumsy in its approach that the counterparts, which are denied their own existence, become a match for it.

The substance can leak through the fissures of the icon. The wind in the ’Bellows’ series fails to animate the bellows that contain it in a closed circuit. And nevertheless the bellows contain a wind from the North, which might be turbulence, void, might bring with it storm and rain, may destroy and move.
Just when the energy nearly fades out, its full potential is synthesised. It is in the beginning, at the peaks and at the end of something that its character may show itself beyond all the practical relationships that fit in with it. Rollof opts for the end, the last sigh.
The Warchau ’Mask’ offers the memory of an experience of nature in its Christmas setting. The ingredients are being cooked and becoming an incense that is offered as a drug. It is a concentration of facts that lose themselves but are intense in their evaporation. At the moment form ceases to be a container of substance, its whole force is remembered, devoid of a narration that shows it. It is a moment in which everything can happen, even if probably nothing will.
Only tiny but insistent expressions remain, burlesque presences like the Christmas trees that function neither as themselves anymore, nor as an effective cultural datum. They have the dignity and the quality of presence of the single prisoner of war. Even when under complete control, and having ceased to be what they were, they are impossible to deal with.
Nature as describable and depictable information, serves as a shadow of a desire. The contours of these shadows in themselves are improbable characters. They are storybook figures that might have acquired epic dimensions in a world in which the factualness of knowledge would not destroy any chance of magic as immediately as it does today. Now they are only crippled giants, redundant might have beens, possibilities slaughtered because they couldn’t be the figure that would turn them into something surpassing the level of banality.
The energy out of which the trees come forth, is seeping through the narrow frame. The cage is the failure of the cage. The trees that fit into it, don’t fit. They become active ghosts, denying the setting; a vibration which is physically in line but alien to the system of alignment.
The Christmas trees, skinned, strangled, squared in, cut from their roots, torn from their ground, display their force nevertheless. With a homeopathic absence of power they deny the sense of the act. Their proposal is only in the air. It is not shown in the work, it is guessed, desired, sensed, left perhaps to be.

The rats in their absence are the perfectly encompassed and encompassing rats. Through the tiny but scientifically analysable detail of them that is brought into memory through the experiment with warm colours, they are turned into richer beings than we would ever be able to see them as. But since they are elsewhere, perhaps the experiment is not hitting the right point, perhaps also it is only accidentally making us aware of the probable omnipresence of these rats, inconceivable rats.

The unknowable shows itself as such. The installations of Rollof exist in a very human feeling of continuous collisions, of a bass note that can hardly be perceived. They are guardians of desire, not the communicators or mannequins of it.

Solo Exhibition ULF ROLLOF at Moderna Galerija (Museum of Modern Art), Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Curated by Bart De Baere.

Dipping the fir trees in bees vax in the cold winter.
Bees vax.
1995 "12 JANUARY 1995". Dimensions variable. Wood, steel, wax, paraffin, pigment and concrete. Photo by Lars Gustafsson. Collection Moderna Galerija.
1995 "12 JANUARY 1995" at Mala Galerija, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Dimensions variable. Wood, steel, wax, paraffin, pigment and concrete. Photo by Lars Gustafsson. Collection Moderna Galerija.
Happy :-)
Fir tree branch dipped in bees vax. The installation smelled like a mixture of a church and like in the forest Kamniska Bistrica in Slovenia .
07.01.94 - 12.02.95. Ulf Rollof Catalogue, 29 x 20.5 cm, 176 pages,
texts by Bart De Baere, Daniel Birnbaum, Philip Peters, Dave Hickey & the artist,
graphic design by Stefan Lidström, photographer Lars Gustafsson & the artist,
published by the artist (Mira Förlag), Stockholm, Sweden, 1996.
Images from Ljubljana.