2017.06.22. - 2018.01.14. URGENT / MODERNA MUSEET / CURATED BY IRIS MULLER - WESTERMANN.
ULF ROLLOF: URGENT
The exhibition URGENT comprises Ulf Rollof’s artistic oeuvre from his early 20s until today. To select works from such a prolific and broad practice spanning nearly 40 years is not easy. The guiding principle has been to present the power of Ulf Rollof’s artistic range. He expresses himself in many ways, in many different materials, techniques and formats. There is no characteristic style. It is interesting, however, that the retrospective overview that this exhibition offers for the first time, reveals themes and subjects that run through his entire artistic career.
Ulf Rollof was born in Karlskrona in 1961 as the youngest of four children. His parents got divorced when he was two years old, and he did not see his father regularly again until he was seven. At ten, his oldest sister, Pia, died. His mother’s grief left a void, where Ulf had to encounter the world on his own. After school, he filled the void with odd jobs in odd workplaces, where the efforts of a ten-year-old would be appreciated. He moved to Stockholm on his own at the age of 16, and after the summer that year he left Stockholm for San Diego, eager to see the world. There he attended high school for one semester. Rollof soon realized that he did not want to continue in this school, so he instead enrolled at a South Western College in Chula Vista, where he met the artist Michael Schnorr, 16 years his senior, who became his friend and mentor. Rollof travelled across the border to Mexico with Schnorr, as his assistant, for an art project. In Mexico, Rollof encountered Latin America – a fascinating world that was totally different from the one he had grown up in. That was when he decided to become an artist. In his art, Ulf Rollof highlights existential issues such as powerlessness, loneliness, and life’s impermanence and unpredictability. He portrays both natural and social catastrophes against which we are unable to protect ourselves. He explores who we are as human beings, and our relationship to nature and its forces, not forgetting our relationship to a greater reality than the one we can perceive through our senses. Rollof examines things from different angles and assumes different viewpoints than the usual ones. Being an artist, is for Rollof to constantly expand one’s perspectives. Ulf Rollof always bases his artistic process on an urgent situation that he is in – in a here and now. Creating art is his way of understanding what he is confronted with, be it external circumstances or something within himself; this is his inspiration and he deals with it inquisitively, openly, and bravely. Instead of being judgmental, Rollof examines whatever captures his attention, and the artistic expression is thus shaped by the situation. In the artistic process, the obvious is inverted and becomes something else, something bigger and more complex.
This catalogue begins with pictures from a trip to Mexico. The contacts and dialogue with the diverse Mexican culture as well as the overwhelming scenery, impacted profoundly on the young, Swedish artist. Rollof often refers back to these formative years in Mexico, where he lived from 1985 to 1987 – whereof one year in Mexico City, and one in the countryside of the state of Michoacán. The exhibition Urgent is thematically rather than chronologically arranged. It begins with an inner voyage, CALENDAR II (2000), which we can follow in 114 large water colors. The work spreads over three walls in the gallery and is shown in full here. Several of the images are covered by transparent foil with text. The artist has explained that the series began during a deep depression. Periodically, Rollof would make several water colors in one day. Each sheet is dated and numbered, and not one work has been discarded, all are of equal value. Keeping track of time, creating a structure, an overview, has preoccupied the artist frequently over the years. The series starts with a black boat running over a tree where the tree top is a glans penis pushed down. The boat is carrying penises that are firing guns. We journey past alluring breast landscapes with snakes writhing among body limbs. Power symbolized by penises gives way to impotency. In the course of the series, a state of stagnation, disconnection, and confusion seems to transition into movement, and eventually into a rebirth out of a tree, which is the beginning of a slow way back. Breast shapes and humans with their backs turned to each other are eventually replaced by humans standing in a circle, holding hands, a road opens with two walking figures. In the final picture, the voyage continues. The text fragments do not explain the images; on the contrary, they generate one more layer, offering yet another opening for alternative readings, for instance, “Desert wind”, “Cavemen live in the House”, “House is Fire”, “The Cave is Closed”, “Tree is Crying”. The contact with his own inner creativity led the depression to gradually lift both internally and externally. An iconic work by Rollof taking up the theme of cold in a more direct and physical way than Calendar II is REFRIGERATION COAT from 1989. This kind of winter coat, that Rollof’s father wore to keep warm during the Winter War in Finland, is enclosed by refrigeration tubes that produce ice. The frosty protective layer does not invite us to approach. Instead, the sculpture is impervious and stakes out a world for itself. The viewer feels the physical rejection through the icy cold.
Experiences of cold and isolation have their opposite in the heat of the monumental work THERMAL SUN (1989), standing near Refrigeration Coat. In Thermal Sun three glowing wires forming a Y rotate slowly and give off physical warmth. Viewers entering the room immediately feel the heat and energy. In one way, Thermal Sun represents nature – solar power with the potential to generate both life and destruction. Under the heat of the magical thermal sun, things change, nothing remains stable. The artist refers to his experiences of extreme cold and equally extreme heat during his years in Mexico, where he lived in a small mountain village: “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.” Two other works sharing the room with Thermal Sun allude to change and how it is handled by mankind.
ATMOSPHERE OF THE ORIGINAL ROOM (1982) was inspired by a demolished house on Södermalm in Stockholm that fascinated the artist. Materials that Rollof found when walking among the ruins were transformed into exquisite, mysterious objects. The series, which originally comprised nine wall objects, consists of parts of the walls from different rooms in the house. The artist has drawn the floor plan of each room in pencil on the respective wall elements and glued things he found in the room, such as wallpaper and bits of fabric, on them. In this way, he reconstructs the rooms and preserves their memory. Rollof initiates a transformation, where something abandoned and derelict provides a starting point for something new. The series is like an invocation of a lost time on the brink of oblivion. This is his earliest work in this exhibition, and it has only been shown once before, at Galerie Ahlner in 1982.
On the wall opposite Atmosphere of the Original Room hangs DESPUES DEL 19.9.1985 (1985), an installation consisting of 16 light boxes with black-and-white photos taken by the artist after the earthquake that shook Mexico City in 1985. Rollof had moved to Mexico that spring. He was returning from San Diego to Mexico City when the earthquake took place, and decided to wait a few days before visiting the area that was hit. Rollof arrived in Mexico City nine days after the catastrophe. He was deeply affected by moving through the city that had changed almost beyond recognition. The birds had stopped singing, a world of desolation had taken over and the smell of death hung like a dark cloud over the ruins.For a month, he wandered at night around the most demolished parts of the inner city and took photographs, sleeping during the day. His pictures look like stills from a horror movie. However, after time seemed to have stopped for a while, the survivors began to rescue people from the ruins, and rebuild the city, humbly and empathetically. Life goes on, the newspapers deliverer gathers up today’s papers, and the survivors are grateful to be alive, despite their sorrow. In the midst of the debris, a young man sits at a table blessing the food before him – a Mexican custom that is honored even under exceptional circumstances. Después del 19.9.1985 is Rollof ’s memorial over the unfathomable natural disaster, but also over man’s inherent strength that is mobilized in situations of crisis.
In the middle of the monumental and enigmatic installation LIFEBOAT (1990) stands BELLOWS VII, which consists of two large bellows, of which the larger, orange one is a high-tech computer-operated machine hanging on a huge metal structure. The bellows breathe and pump air through a tube to the other, yellow, and more animal-like shape, which opens when the air streams in, revealing an organic side. It is like watching a resuscitation. One form expands and deflates, like the lungs of humans and animals, and even the sound resembles breathing. Opposite these high-tech breathing machines, 365 lifeboats – one for each day of the year – are mounted on the wall. Previously, these boats have always been shown standing on the floor. They are made of wax, and stuck to the outside of their hulls, like invocations, are Swedish blackberries. The work was originally made for an exhibition in 1990 at Suomenlinna outside Helsinki. Suomenlinna (Sveaborg in Swedish) was built in the 18th century when Finland was part of Sweden, and is one of the largest sea fortresses in the world. It was also Sweden’s most expensive defense project ever. But to no avail: by the early 19th century, Sveaborg had become a Russian garrison. The work takes our imagination in different directions. Can we really protect ourselves against disasters? Even today, the lifeboat as a symbol of rescue is highly relevant, in a world with so many wars. The boats in the exhibition are installed for each month of the current calendar year (2017), emphasizing that this is happening currently. Our thoughts go to all the people who are fleeing at this moment from war and poverty in their countries, and who are trying to save themselves and their families by setting off hazardously across the open sea, hoping to find a safer place to live. The present refugee crisis is the biggest catastrophe, in this century so far. In Lifeboat Rollof sets different perceptions of reality against each other, navigating through existence: in the high-tech construction of the bellows we find an analytical and materialistic approach to reality that believes technology can replace, or even surpass, nature. It inspires the hope that respiration can be reconstructed mechanically to save lives. The boats operate on another level. They are like a plea for help for every day of the ongoing calendar year, in the attempt not to perish on the voyage of life. Rollof has used bellows in several monumental projects. Incidentally, he had the first bellows made in Mexico, while the boats were made in Sweden. It is as though he wanted to introduce a different way of seeing the world in relation to the dominating one in the respective countries.
In the poetic ANGEL TRAP (1984) Rollof again leaves the rational approach by inviting invisible beings to earth. This is a key work in Rollof ’s oeuvre, but it has only been shown a couple of times previously. Also, this is the first time the eleven meters landing strip, with its blinking lights to guide the angels from the celestial spheres down to earth is shown suspended, with the arrival circle on the floor. The work also comprises a kind of pilot instrument, placed like an imaginary scout on one’s back. In art, anything is possible, even a landing strip for angels. The only limit is our imagination. Perhaps beings from higher states of consciousness are needed if we want to escape the anxiety, confusion, war and suffering here on earth. A place that we are destroying with our materialist ways of behavior. Maybe the angels can give us new perspectives? It is about time that we expand our view of reality. But the artist’s decision to call the work a trap raises the question of whether these beings that are invited from an- other dimension have to be kept here forcibly against their will. Perhaps it is too onerous for them to stay here voluntarily? And then, is it even possible to capture immaterial beings? Does the artist really want to catch and imprison angels? The title may instead allude to our rational and scientific way of examining the world. To understand, we trap animals, dissect, and categorize them. Even if there is no way for us to scientifically prove that immaterial beings exist, we cannot entirely exclude this possibility either.
In SCOUT (1989) another kind of creature comes out of the wall, as if from an inferno. It is far from clear whether this is a human or a cyborg, and if it wants to help or threaten us. Boundaries of various kinds are a recurring theme for Ulf Rollof; boundaries that people construct within themselves, or external boundaries. People’s powerlessness in relation to the border between Mexico and the USA has led the artist to create a series of images and works on the subject, including ABANDONADO II (1992). “Abandonado” means abandoned in Spanish. Together with Michael Schnorr, Rollof engaged in a project in Baja California, Mexico’s most north-westerly state, with Tijuana as its largest city. Tijuana is situated on the Pacific coast and shares 24 km of border with the USA; it has merged with San Diego on the US side, into an urban region with several million inhabitants, of which some 1.8 million live in Tijuana. The border is crossed daily by 300,000 people with visas. But many people also try to get into the USA illegally, especially at night. If they fail, they wait for a new opportunity. The children are often left behind in Tijuana, however, because the ordeal of getting across the border is too brutal. In September 1992, Schnorr and Rollof acquired access to a vacant lot measuring 33 by 75 metres, just 30 metres from the place where many undocumented immigrants tried to get into the USA, while ordinary families on their way to the beach were lining up outside the ice cream kiosk in front of the installation. They built and reshaped the lot into a topographic map of Baja California. Rollof constructed the works Fire Sofa and Fire Chair, a curved chair made of concrete and bricks that people can lie down on and look at the ocean and the US border and whatever is happening around them. As soon as the sun sets the winds get cold. To give warmth to the reclining person who has no shelter, a fire can be made inside the chair, to make the wait a little less uncomfortable. The A3 photographs in plastic sleeves, documenting the project, demonstrate the absurdity of the US-Mexican border. The subject is highly topical today, when US president Donald Trump is planning to build a big wall along the entire border between the USA and Mexico. It is as though the whole world is sleeping – DORMIMUNDO. Compared to the many thousand years old, highly-evolved pre-Columbian culture of the Mayas and Aztecs, the young US nation looks very much like a puny upstart. Is it possible to keep people out? Is separation the solution to this social catastrophe?
Since 1990, Ulf Rollof has suffered from a serious and wrongly diagnosed disease that caused him pain. When his legs were more or less paralyzed in the early 2000s, he began working on several pieces about learning to accept a seemingly inescapable situation – yet another kind of boundary. These works speak of reevaluation, of eventually breaking away from limiting conditions and perceptions. The installation TABLE II (2007) is a clinically sterile reconstruction of a high-tech operating theatre. The table is theatrically illuminated from above by the cold, unforgiving light of a hospital lamp. This is accentuated by a green wall-mounted surgical cloth with strip lighting behind it. On the green glass surface of the table lies a ribcage. The surface is intersected by chrome pipes linked to each other and emanating in a smaller pipe funneling liquid into a bowl. The thought of hard metal penetrating a human body sends shivers up the spine. Even if back surgery can resolve problems and end suffering for many people, Ulf Rollof’s drainage system resembles an instrument of torture, sapping the patient of bodily fluids and life energy. The precision of this instrument inspires confidence and promises success, while the installation as a whole epitomizes inhumane healthcare, where patients are forever exposed and forced to relinquish all control over their situation. They are regarded as machines to be fixed or restored, not as human beings. The work is based on a personal experience but nevertheless conveys a frightening picture of how our attitude to technology has won at the expense of a more humane view of mankind. Again, in ANESTHETIZED (2005) the human being is robbed of any influence on the situation.
Anesthetized is a series of ten diptychs where Ulf Rollof pairs a photograph from a shoulder operation that he attended, with another image. The second picture seems at first to be unrelated to the surgical photo. It can be an interior with a bed in a palatial chamber, or an image of people using their healthy arms. After studying them for a while, secret links between the pictures are revealed. These connections are never logical, but can involve, for instance, similarities in shape, in colour or composition, raising the question of how we see and read the world around us. Rollof introduces associative connections between events and destabilizes the presumed universality of our habitual perception. New ways of seeing the world appear just as viable.
The sculpture MADOPARK (2007) looks like monkey bars with two steel doors, one closed and the other blasted open with great force. The way out is now open. Madopark is also the name of the medicine the artist was prescribed after finally being correctly diagnosed, and which opened the door back to life and mobility after a long period of illness; the blasted door thus marks the beginning of a new chapter. On closer inspection, however, we see that the explosion took place on the outside, not the inside! The world is not black or white. Here, the latest research and drugs have been able to offer help in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Another violent act has led to the next work, where well-aimed gunshots have brutally destroyed the beautiful, shiny, smooth surface of the large triptych from the series RGB (Red Green Blue). The bullets have shattered the glass. A closer inspection of the bullet holes resulting from an act of violence reveals an unexpected beauty: behind the insular surface, surrounded by the cracks radiating across the glass, we see an opening into an unknown dimension. It is cloaked in darkness, but it could also represent a way out of this very darkness.
Boundaries and limits are thematically dealt with in the series SOUVENIR (2014). But where the previously mentioned Madopark is about blasting through limits, regaining power and responsibility, Souvenir consists of a series of cyanotypes of fences and barriers in banks, businesses, and prisons in Sweden, aimed at limiting access and keeping unwanted people out. The exquisite ornaments that appear in the blueprints reveal a beauty and purity that contrast remarkably with the purpose of the barriers.
Many obstacles need to be overcome on life’s path. In the series DREAMT (2005) the artist focuses on his dreams. With the same presence of mind as when awake, Rollof observes the images and situations that arise in sleep. We encounter them on traffic signs that we recognize from road works. They block the road ahead. Only when the unconscious becomes conscious and acknowledged is the road once more opened. Then life can flow more freely again. And that is precisely what happens in the artist’s latest work, a series of paintings in large light boxes, where the motifs are only visible when the light is switched on. Then, the observer can step into a magical, surrealistic world, where anything is possible. Here, the artist has freed himself from any limitations; in the world of painting, imagination, color, and images flow and flourish. Rollof has landed in himself here and is in harmony. The feminine and the masculine dance with each other instead of being in combat. The painting PRISON BREAK (2009) is like a pause from the prison and limitations of the body. Here, balloons rise towards the sky and life is a party. But being able to see this is a choice. In PINK PIRATE from 2017 we encounter a pirate figure in a white and magenta striped jumper. She whirls her polyp arms and uses the open, red toolbox in her dance to master life. In BEACH PIRATE (2017) the figure wanders along the shores of the imagination, deeply self-absorbed. A dog lives inside her. Finally, in Lost City (2017), the viewer is sucked into a wooden knot that reveals a city and an entirely fascinating world that is waiting to be dis- covered. The works were inspired and partially made in Los Angeles, the city where everything is said to be possible.
Art is Ulf Rollof ’s companion on life’s journey. Being acutely alert and present in his life, without having too many habitual and limiting ideas about how things are connected, is fundamental to any exploration of existence. Based on his personal experiences, Rollof’s works are also a universal meditation on man’s fragility and his potential and power to repeatedly explode boundaries and barriers.
Solo Retrospective Exhibition at Moderna Muséet Malmö
Curated by Iris Müller-Westermann