by Sven-Olov Wallenstein
David Svensson’s works range from the maximally expansive – public space, the city and our social relationships – to the minimal and contracted – the almost empty page of a book and the barely perceptible way a sheet of paper speaks to us. But in all of this we can detect a pervasive set of themes: seeing and perception, and not just in the sense that all art anywhere gives us something to see – albeit, at times, only in the form of a negation of seeing – but seeing as a process dependent on the light and the setting, on the apparatuses, supports and grounds, something that always happens between objects and consciousness.
Perhaps we could say that this is an exploration of a “phenomenology of perception”, a practice that carries on the thinking, now in visual form, about the ideas sketched out by the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This type of philosophy is often described as a way of getting back to a primal seeing, to a place where objects are already whispering meanings to us, as Merleau-Ponty himself sometimes said in his most nature-romantic framings; but it is more a matter of a seeing that takes place in the space in between, in the interstice, the reversal, the chiasmus and the intertwining, between things and words, between subject and object, so that it is neither something direct and immediate, nor something that is quite simply an effect of the situation. This, and not some idle dream about the unmediated, is the true theme of the phenomenology of perception: an intertwining of actual light in its physical manifestation, lumen, which ultimately can become an object of study for science, with light as it is given for a consciousness that is directed at the world in order to understand it, lux.*1 Seeing and the visible already arise in things, in the world, but specifically so that we ourselves are part of it, so that we ourselves are both the subject of that object and are interwoven into things, but so that the space in between them never disappears.
With David Svensson this space in between frequently takes the form specifically of a meditation on light – the light that surrounds things, and which allows seeing to take shape, the light that our gaze confers on them, but also the light that emanates from things themselves when they are incorporated into our everyday use. “Without use there is no complete seeing,” he observes, “for nothing accentuates the beauty of the thing so strongly as its proper use.”*2 Everyday utility objects – lamps, carpets, candelabra, cloths, walls – they are all part of a poetics of everyday objects and interiors, which invests them with a special presence.
In the painterly tradition, especially from the Renaissance and onwards, we find an almost inexhaustible reservoir of ideas about light, and in many of Svensson’s works he re-uses these themes. One recurring motif in several earlier paintings is the black, glossy surface that reflects the surrounding space, as a way of extending the picture into the viewer’s space and of allowing our own presence to be a part of the work – a figure of thought that gets its classical form with Velázquez, whose Las Meninas places the viewer at the point where all of the picture’s systems converge,*3 and more closely to us with Rauschenberg, whose White Paintings (1951) mirror everything around them and thus make it so that it is the viewer who fills them with content. But mirroring also has the potential to mirror itself, to be duplicated endlessly and to create a mise-en-abyme of representation. In this way there is always a potential disorientation in mirroring, an insanity and a vertigo of seeing itself, which became a central theme of the baroque.*4 In Reflections (Absent Rooms) (2008) we encounter a series of mirrors, taken from the collection at Malmö Art Museum, in which the space is reproduced in a prismatic way: visibility is duplicated, it begins to contemplate itself – “The mirror,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “emerges because I am a visible see-er, because there is a reflexivity of the sensible; the mirror translates and reproduces that reflexivity.”*5 In Anamorf (2009) we are faced with neon mirror writing that is reversed in the surface of water: “Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning.” T. S. Eliot’s words (from Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets) also point to the temporal dimension of this process: reading begins over again when the fragments on the water’s surface merge and the surface becomes still, but are just as quickly split apart again.
Another development of this theme of reflection is found in Relight (2011), in which spent fluorescent tubes that have been joined together into new sculptural objects stand on a black glass surface that gives rise to a number of spatial mirrorings. Viewers (2009) explores the reflection in a different way: on the surface of a black wall-to-wall carpet there appear the shadows of various viewers, like a reflection stored in the material. Are we looking into the picture space, or is it looking back at us? The surface of the carpet captures the light and transmits it back to us, at the same time as the patterns that appear depend on our position in and movements around the space.
These painterly problems that occur at many central junctures also become raw material for Svensson’s project of using light to create environments, as in numerous of his installations and public works. En route to these more extensive investigations – a route that is definitely not a chronological development, but in which the themes, techniques and figures of thought recur and are overlaid – the light in a series such as Illuminators (2003) takes on sculptural form, and the shapes enshrouded in cloth and lit from within are transformed into active agents that take possession of the space, like human figures with whom we could almost converse.
In Havanna (2007) the glass chandeliers are wrapped in cloth, this time, so as also to tell a story, about their Cuban origin during the Spanish colonial era. Are they embalmed to protect them from the destructive force of time, or to give them back the possibility of travelling (old chandeliers are considered to belong to the Cuban cultural heritage and are not normally allowed out of the country), are their vestments cocoons that protect them while they are waiting for metamorphosis? The packaging, the encompassing membrane, the tissue, the textile and all such encircling material in itself always has a vague ambiguity about it,*6 and points to corruption and an inevitable, albeit temporarily arrested loss, but also to a preservation that evokes a tenderness towards things. It is as if the act of wrapping up always engendered contrary meanings, which in Havanna become even more complex than in Illuminators, in that it conceals an object with another origin, another history, but which is thereby also brought to a new luminosity. In Black Tear (Lágrima Negra) (2005) the elegiac tone comes out even more clearly: the elongated ceiling light that hangs down towards the floor has been painted over with black car enamel and, like a teardrop or a container of tears about to burst, it creates both an expectation and a relationship with an encapsulated past, a light that is enclosed, at the same time as the reflecting surface captures the viewer and the surrounding space.
Other works start from light sources of a quasi-readymade character, for instance, Light Plan (2006), 107 fluorescent tubes of four different lengths and eight different shades of white. Here perception becomes a slow process of habituation in which the white slowly reveals its multiplicity and complexity. With their starting point in the geographic variations in daylight, the rows of lighting devices create a two-dimensional portrait of the world, a map of the shifting environment of seeing that covers an entire wall and creates an almost overwhelming spatial effect. Yet another aspect of the readymade is found in Inner Light (Absent Images) (2001), a series of portable projection screens from the fifties and sixties, which have been taken out of their frames and mounted on painting stretchers. That which once was a neutral ground and bearer of visual images has now become the picture itself, not just so as to show material aspects of seeing and memory, but also to take us back to an experience of our own selves, which at the same time, is something universal. In their shifts of colour these pieces of cloth become, on the one hand, time capsules, empty screens on which someone else’s memories were once projected, but because of their special quality, also reflecting surfaces for those of us who stand in front of them today. All the possible, but in the present moment closed-off pasts become bound up with the viewer’s own present, which in itself is equally variable. As countless philosophers have observed, “I” is simultaneously the most individual and the most universal and empty of words: individuals is what we all are, but each of us in our own way, so that the word always points specifically to the person who utters it.
The most concise expression for this investigation of the simultaneously private and collective character of memory is perhaps the collages Dedicated (2009–2010) and Absent Stories (2009–2012), together with the book Mot mitten and försvinnandet (Towards the Centre and Vanishing, 2010). The collages bring together pages from books, the first pages of dedications, the others blank. In both of them the shifting patina of the ground is important in the same way as in the projection screens, in that it gives us a feeling of time, like the dedications to people who may well be dead, or at least unknown and inaccessible to us. The French text on one of the pages of the book, “Entre centre et absence”, and from which the book’s title also derives, points to this movement between a dedication directed at someone, at an individual, and the disappearance that ultimately shrouds every appeal in forgetting. We do not know these people, but we sense that they have once been at the centre, perhaps totally crucial for the creation of these, for us now, anonymous fragments of script. But like the at once both totally precise and perpetually elusive word “I” they invite us to fill in a narrative, perhaps to project ourselves into it, but in that case also as beings who ourselves will one day be absent, in another future, together with those who once existed, but have now disappeared, and yet are here with us today in the form of a dedication. These inscriptions are “not only honor a past but also herald a future,” writes Judith Hoos Fox. “The book is the vehicle for transporting the story; the blank page is in fact not blank at all.”*7
The six graphic prints from 2012 approach the paper and the book page from opposite starting points. The ground is still old, patinated leaves from a book, but the book’s entire content has now been gathered onto a single page, as in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, or Mayakovsky's A Cloud in Trousers, in which individual words can still be read, but the visual impression is predominantly one of maximal compactness: a world that has contracted into a surface, but is consequently also about to be unfurled before our eyes.
The movement back towards the viewer’s individual experience thus also includes the opposite movement, in which the light has to leave the sphere of the self, the closed-off space and the interior, and become a whole environment, bound up with the city, the architecture and the communal. In Old Worlds Rise Again (2012) and Towers (2013) we see a dreamed city as a model, radiating light. The modelled city incorporates a utopian dimension, which we find in the early-modernist glass-architecture projects that constitute a clear reference here, but also the memory of the ragged and rejected: the radiant city is made out of pressed-glass lampshades, discarded material found at flea markets. The glass towers in Towers are made of the same material; it is as though Mies van der Rohe’s visionary glass Friedrichstrasse skyscraper from 1921, which in itself was also a fantasy and a collage, had been returned to a state in which its utopian perfection was no more than a matter of cutting and pasting, and was compelled to take account of its origins in the everyday objects that are there around us without our noticing them.
In Shine Together (2010), the light becomes an entire social scene. Already in the previous year, in Save Our Souls he had staged a meeting in a gallery space between lamps from various parts of the world, in which they send SOS signals to each other, like a message about reciprocity and solidarity. In the succeeding, more expansive work this coming together moves out into public space. On a square in Helsingborg nine street lights from all over the world meet their indigenous counterparts, and lights from Italy, China, Mexico and the USA are mingled to form a strange intimacy in the street space. The colours and personalities of the lights seem to be engaged in a conversation in several languages, voices that intersect with each other – perhaps an image of enlightenment and the universal, but also a reminder that such a light of enlightenment cannot be uniform, but must always embrace the polychromy of light and the polyphony of voices. Lumen, the objective light in which we all bathe, can never be without lux, the subjective light we give to the world – and vice versa.
Sven-Olov Wallenstein is Professor of Philosophy at Södertörns Högskola and Editor-in-Chief of Site.
1) The attempt to overcome the dualism of lumen and lux, the objective and the subjective, as an aid to analysing our being in the world, is significantly enough the very starting point for Merleau-Ponty’s first work, his doctoral thesis La structure du comportement (Paris: PUF, 1942). It was only later on that Merleau-Ponty would come into contact with Heidegger’s ideas about man, who is both dependent on and the bearer of a “clearing” (Lichtung), that is the precondition for consciousness being at all able to direct itself at objects, but the figure of thought is already there in his first texts. As regards terms such as the space in between, intertwining, the fold, chiasm etc., see primarily “The Intertwining-The Chiasm”, in The Visible and the Invisible (Northwestern Univ Press, 1968)
2) David Svensson, work notes, quoted in Gertrud Sandqvist, “Materia till tankeflykt”, in David Svensson, 2003. The argument goes back to Soetsu Yanagi, “Teets väg” (the way of tea), Paletten 4/99.
3) The classic reading of this motif is found in Michel Foucault, in the introduction to Les mots et les choses, in which Velázquez’s investigation of all the paradoxes of representation end by pointing to a place in front of the canvas where all the lines are bound together. In Foucault’s analysis Velázquez’s light is lumen naturale, the natural light of Cartesian reason, which would then fall to pieces, into the subjective and the objective.
4) See Christine Buci-Glucksmann, La folie du voir: De l'esthétique baroque (Paris: Galilée, 1986). Buci-Glucksmann, like Merleau-Ponty, starts from the duplication of seeing, seeing that sees itself, or in Merleau-Ponty’s own terms, a “Seeing” that becomes “visible” and only for that reason, in a chiastic inversion, can it approach the thing.
5) Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind”, in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting (Northwestern University Press, 1993)
6) For a rich collection of example of this poetics of envelopment – the shell, the round and encompassing form, secret drawers, cupboards, wardrobes etc. – see Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de l’espace (Paris: PUF, 1957). Bachelard’s aim is to develop a phenomenology of habitation and the house with its starting point in literary examples, but his theories could be developed in the direction of visual art. Also relevant here is a Freudian perspective on envelopment (whose fundamental starting point is foreign to Bachelard’s basically archetypal models, even if in his concrete analyses he covers the same terrain) in terms of melancholy and grieving. In this sense the act of wrapping the object in cloth, a membrane etc., would be a way of positioning it at the distance where melancholy – not being able to get free of the lost object, and thereby keeping it wrapped up inside oneself, protected, but basically unworked on – may possibly go over into grief, so as to ultimately to learn to love the object specifically as something lost, and thereby to attain a free relationship with it.
7) Judith Hoos Fox, untitled, in David Svensson, Mot mitten och försvinnandet (Åhus: Kalejdeskop, 2010), no page number.