With and About
by Judith Hoos Fox
At the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary not so long ago, my mother sought an explanation for her sudden diminution of vision. High-tech fluorescence imaging yielded colored images of her eyes that appeared three-dimensional, like a fuzzy moon or planetary form, or like an embryo in its earliest stages, a slightly amorphous marble one could fondle in one’s palm. This orb is what she needs to see, to look out at the world around her––a world inside her head to comprehend the world surrounding her. Objectifying what surrounds us and what is within us is what David Svensson’s work is about.
In Svensson’s art, he elegantly states and poses philosophical theorems about seeing and being seen. He creates a dialogue between idea and object, medium and content, means and commentary. Between volume and atmosphere, viewer and viewed, object and surroundings. His work moves seamlessly from inside to out, using light to communicate with and about light.
Svensson loves color and its nuances. In Light Plan, 2006, the various lengths of fluorescent tubes he uses and their range of colors, from warm to cool, become his brushstrokes and his palette. Set in parabolic lines, the light describes the schema of the latitude, a two-dimensional rendering of the three-dimensional earth, a view that few of us will ever see, yet one we recognize with ease. We simultaneously stand looking at curving lines on a flat wall and hover mid-air viewing a depiction of the planet. Svensson merges actuality with image, reality with illusion.
This duality is literally embedded in Svensson’s carpet pieces. He captures the fleeting shadow of a branch through a window or a figure passing by a doorway by drawing with his fingers and other tools, precisely manipulating the nap of broad-loomed carpets. Svensson’s images are elusive, emerging and disappearing according to the angle of light and position of the viewer.
Capturing the moment and the act of seeing requires an instantaneous action. Photographers, with their cameras and lenses, do this. The click of the shutter is the moment of capture, the noose jerked tight around the prey, yet it also the moment of creation. Not only does Svensson make looming and luminous images, but he also gives material form to the ineffable. He has found in the rural landscape a form and subject that perfectly match his concerns.
The agricultural methods of Sweden profitably extend a short growing season through the use of industrial greenhouses made of translucent glass and powered by cheap, wind-generated electricity. In Light House, 2006, one in a series of large-format photographs, Svensson transmutes these intangible elements of light, heat, and membrane into seemingly palpable sculptural forms. Light becomes volume; its journey from warm yellow to cool blue across the long greenhouse structure tracks the kinds of plants being cultivated, each with its own ideal conditions. In Svensson’s images, the greenhouses are nearly mythic, like John Paxton’s Crystal Palace designed and built for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London or the glass cathedral in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda of 1988. The artist has re-seen these quotidian views of rural Sweden for us, showing us their epic potential; indeed, to lengthen the day is a deed of epic proportions.
Blanche DuBois––in Tennessee Williams’s 1951 play A Street Car Named Desire––asks the obliging Mitch to put a colored paper lantern over the light bulb, saying, “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” Mitch answers, “I guess we strike you as being a pretty rough bunch.” It is no secret to David Svensson that softness, theatricality, and advent of event can be orchestrated with light and translucent materials. For a glass-paneled, clean modernist skyway linking a new conference center with the town’s assembly rooms in downtown Örebro he has designed and created sheer curtains that by day are in the up, or open, position. As night falls, so do the curtains, controlled by light sensors. The coming of evening is heralded as a theatrical scenic event. Like a veiled bride, the glass walkway will be cloaked, swathed in mystery, our view of it softened. When theatergoers enter the passageway, they will not feel exposed, but elegantly swaddled, enclosed, protected. From within Light Box, their view of the city will be screened. Outside, from below, their figures will be seen only as shadowy outlines.
In his film works, Svensson fuses his interests in color and light. Layers of sun control film applied to plate-glass windows alter the experience of viewing into and out of the space the windows bound. Night Vision, 2005, operates just as its title suggests––it comes into play after dark, when the effects of the film become visible, making the immaterial appear volumetric. Is it a vision? In English, vision can mean both the act of looking and the object of looking—both what and how we see. And Night Vision is both.
A highlight of Svensson’s recent visit to Chicago, Illinois, was his first experience of Robert Irwin’s Discs of 1966 to 1969: As Irwin remarked: “The question of the discs was very simple. . . . How do I paint a painting that doesn’t begin and end at the edge? In other words, I no longer felt comfortable with that sense of confinement. . . . I mean, we ordinarily start with a canvas as a fact, as more than a fact. We start with it as a truth so deeply hidden that we don’t even question it. It’s simply there, or it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has” (quoted in Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees [Berkeley, 1982]).
This is the legacy on which Svensson builds his work. He can assume the results of Irwin’s intellectual journey as a given. The canvas holds no place of reverence in his practice. Instead of seeking to make boundless art that fits into the environment without disturbing it––like Irwin’s Untitled (Filigreed Steel Line), 1979, on the Wellesley College campus, or the sheets of glass he set in snow banks for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics––Svensson challenges himself to capture and contain the unattainable, the immaterial.
Another historical precedent for Svensson, and a most unlikely partner with Robert Irwin, is Marcel Duchamp. The French artist’s coining of the concept of the Readymade––a work of art made from manufactured objects––plays an important role in Svensson’s work. Duchamp commented in 1961 that “another aspect of the ‘Readymade’ is its lack of uniqueness . . . the replica of the ‘Readymade’ delivering the same message, in fact nearly every one of the ‘Readymades’ existing today is not an original in the conventional sense” (http://www.peak.org/~dadaist/English/Graphics/readymades.html). When Svensson searches secondhand shops for historic light fixtures and the portable home movie screens of the 1950s and ’60s, he is, in a way, continuing Duchamp’s tradition. But instead of eschewing all aesthetic considerations in the manner of his precursor––who selected a shovel or a wine-bottle-drying rack––Svensson demonstrates an innate predilection for elegance. The Italian lamp known as Glo’, designed by Danilo de Rossi, is the literal foundation of his Black Tear, 2005. Suspended from the ceiling, nearly reaching the floor, this attenuated pendant lamp is transformed by a perfectly applied coat of black automobile paint into a sinister, menacing form, and looks as though it were about to dissolve into a puddle that will spread across the floor. Its convex surface reflects and comically distorts our inquisitive faces. We are implicated in the act of looking, integrated into the object seen. Instead of emitting light to illuminate the space around it like other of Svensson’s pieces, Black Tear emphatically focuses all the attention on itself, a startling slash through the atmosphere.
Svensson again creates a conversation between Duchamp’s Readymades and Irwin’s Dot and Disc works in Inner Light (Absent Images), 2001–06. The screens on which family vacations and childhood birthday parties were once projected were initially made from an amalgamation of glass-like beads. Svennson liberates the material from the heavy metal framing and adjustable stand, and, in a characteristic reversal, transforms that which received the image into the image itself. Mounted on stretchers and creating a patchwork collage against a white wall, the reflective material in Inner Light (Absent Images)––its tints varying slightly on account of aging or manufacture––requires natural light to come alive. A cleaned and straightened-up Merzbau? A 21st-century Malevich? A sparkling Ryman? The piece is rich with references yet completely original. Like all of Svensson’s work, it inquires into the assumed roles of viewer and object. It helps us see and think about our surroundings with fresh acuity and sharpened senses.