Zero point 1:1
by Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen
This exhibition is a situation. It is real, but were it not for you, it would not exist. What happens at the exhibition, happens within you – it concerns you specifically. There are the documents, the animations, but beyond those, how the exhibition happens, and the fact of it actually happening, that depends on you: your past, your aspirations, your class background, your health and all the other events and characteristics that happen to have come together to create the individual that is you. It’s important to note the distinction between situation and installation. An installation turns all of its constituent parts into art objects and relegates the viewer into a supporting character whose purpose is to fulfil a pre-determined function. What Magnus Wallin sets out to do is to capture something documentary within art itself, which installation does not allow for. And the viewer should not be implicated as art but invited to engage as themselves. The concept of situation comes from Simone de Beauvoir. The brilliance and strength of this concept lie in the fact that all our individual circumstances constitute links to a world we all share. And that world is very much implicated in our circumstances too. This is to say that our existence provides no neutral ground and allows for no safe distance, such as might relieve us of our individuality or exempt us from this shared world. And the same applies to Wallin’s art too.
Shot and assembled with scientific precision, the photographs of subversive bodies in Unnamed Film, (2017) are most immediately recognisable as documents. But, rather unexpectedly, the monochromes in Are You in Pain? – Not Anymore(2021) turn out to constitute a series of documents too. These particular documents reference Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), often cited as the “zero point” of painting. Lest the point be misunderstood: by turning his attention to the simplest painting of them all, Wallin is not attempting to write himself into the art history canon. What he is interested in is the function of that “zero point”.
Take the Celsius scale as an example. Celsius can be used to refer to a unit that indicates a difference or range between two points on the temperature scale or to a specific temperature, i.e. 0 or 100 degrees Celsius, temperatures that are defined by a factual observable reality. The “zero point” at 0 degrees Celsius is not determined by its proximity to +1 degrees Celsius or -1 degrees Celsius but by its relationship to the freezing point of water. So there are circumstances under which you could state that water began to boil at less than 100 degrees Celsius but then you would simply have to adjust to that reality and re-calculate the units based on the boiling point. It follows that variation in the zero points observed is possible.
That is why it matters that Wallin has created such a multitude of monochromes. Their number highlights the monochrome as a situation that can be repeated with variations; not as a unique event in history but as a unique form. That is why Wallin has reproduced Malevich’s exact dimensions at 79.5 cm X 79.5 cm exactly. The repetition serves to foreground the form, and the choice of the 1:1 scale underlines its status as the document recording the moment in which a black square became art for the very first time. This act of becoming is an animation. (And the series of equidistant monochromes displayed against a high-gloss white wall readily call to mind a film reel.) Animation gives life to objects, just as the monochrome animates solid colour. And a living object is what we recognise as art.
The title of the work derives from a line in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). In fact, the words “are you in pain?” appear a total of three times. “That’s all that matters,” Chaplin says. The monologue seems to be his to be or not to be moment, a chance to explain to someone who’s recently attempted suicide that life, our ability to create, is the single most marvellous and mysterious thing in the universe – and something the would-be suicide was willing to simply throw away. Pain matters, because only pain can destroy the creative freedom, afforded to us by our imagination and our intelligence, that sustains the inexplicable capacity of space, cold and dead, to create new life. But this is precisely why the other factors that determine the reception afforded to an artwork – zeitgeist, trends and old-age among them – constitute forms of suffering. The question gets asked one final time when the ageing, past-it star delivers his magnum opus, and strikes out, artistically obsolete and socially irrelevant. “Are you in pain? Not anymore.” The artist and his work have been seen on their own terms for one last time. Then comes death.
I believe that this take on life and art, on creativity and reception and the issue of visibility are all present in Wallin’s work too. Animation for him is a question of medium. And when it comes to his monochromes that medium is blood. And fragments of bone too. Human bone… The challenge lies in allowing the blood and the bone to be present, as themselves, free of symbolism, unencumbered by metaphor. The monochrome lends itself ideally to precisely this purpose as it resists the creation of unintended figurative meanings. Meaning is not a matter of narrative, of telling, but simply accepting blood as blood is not enough because as a medium, as a substance, blood generates metaphor-like meanings. Consider the life-giving nature of blood. Is it a symbol or not? This ambiguity generates a distance that forces us to remain outsiders. That is why the medium needs to be experienced, as a smell lingering in the space or as a sensation within the body. And that is what Wallin excels at. It’s no easy feat. But my eyes grew bloodshot watching his Horizon (2005), my teeth were set on edge by his monochromes and his Method (2011) left my fontanelle exposed, vulnerable and open to art. This is art becoming part of my own organic existence.
This is art as double vision. For just as the art enters the body, the soul recoils from the medium. I’ve seen people leap backward when they realise what the artworks are made of. This is a material that you see with your body; you see it, as you feel the self-same material inside yourself. These bodies have no respect for boundaries. In this exhibition they insinuate themselves close to my body as it reflects off the glossy white wall, further away than the misshapen bodies (the monochromes) hung upon it. Similar use of reflection has featured in his earlier works, including Mission (2009) and Cylinder (2012).
The reflections between the monochromes themselves give the space a vague, all-encompassing quality. There is no outside. And yet it is lent a sense of life and vitality by the dual presence of these bodies. In this space, I am at my own mercy, my body as lonely as the others. Open and closed, like Unnamed, running on a loop. It serves as a reminder of the bizarre nature of this situation; at once wholly individualistic and yet completely universal.
Many, Marcel Proust among them, have had the experience of an artwork gazing back at them. This is the challenge issued by Wallin’s monochromes: you are to view them with a gaze that does not wish for them to avert their eyes or look away from you. It is only in that moment of double seeing that you can truly experience them. Unnamed, a video displayed outside of the room, is about persuading the people featured in it to look back at you and meeting their gaze. That’s what’s required, no more, no less. On some of the photos, the eyes have been removed by the scientists that took them. Wallin’s response has been to provide new eyes by layering the images up. As in the other room, the bodies can be seen, they become visible, through one another – as if that was a condition for truly seeing them! Sometimes the eyes have been redacted but, later, the black fades and the eyes re-appear to return your gaze. Once or twice I thought I could see a chest rising and falling. An incredible moment. This marks the zero point for how I want to view my fellow human beings from now on.
Translation Liisa Muinonen Martin
Magnus Wallin at Galerie Nordenhake Stockholm
Joanna Persman, www.konsten.net, 2019
Brave, uncompromising, concrete, but also poetically beautiful. That’s the art of Magnus Wallin. Life or death. Putting one’s body at stake. With the wise joker’s furrows of worry at the forehead, and a masking grin. The gravity of everything he does needs black humor as a veneer. To make life, with all its imperfections, tolerable. “Life/a painful preventive/for death”, as the Polish poet Ewa Lipska writes.
At Galerie Nordenhake, a deconstructed skeleton laughs at us, like a postmodern smiley. Memento mori … Remember, you will not escape our mutual destiny! Out of skeletal parts, Wallin creates a kiss of death against death itself. Its hip bones transform into gouged-out eyes. Its spine forms a wide smile. The richly faceted tradition of the Vanitas still life is mischievously summarized. Once, haemophiliac Ivar Arosenius made an ironic comment on the same theme, painting the burial of death – a triumph over impermanence itself.
Wallin’s monochrome paintings, sized 79,5 x 79,5 centimeters, are direct but playful allusions to Kazimir Malevich’s suprematistic Black Square (1915). For Malevich, art was absolute. Its function was solely spiritual. Wallin mixes blood powder with acrylics, and paints on aluminum panels. Can the body be more present in art? The small hedges, which form an enigmatic motif in the dimness of his paintings, are actually bones, cut into microscopic gems. Their discreet patterns aren’t accidental.
Images from the space probe New Horizons have functioned as a foundation. The probe is now headed for an object in the Kuiper belt, the unofficial name of which is Ultima Thule.
All of a sudden, with the evident traces of the human body, Wallin’s paintings open up like an unexplored galaxy. Like stunt men without fear of heights, we jump from this earthly present, straight into boundless space. Questions etch themselves into Wallin’s paintings, which transcend their boundaries, becoming reliefs, objects and relics, as well. Answers, whirling like hope, can be collected in urns. What if our lifes leave an echo in space?
Translated to english by Niclas Nilsson
Magnus Wallin refreshes eternal questions
Kjetil Røed, Aftenposten, August 27th, 2016
Wallin’s latest exhibition is a funny mix of wry smile, death reflection and painterly soberness.
The first room shows a whiteboard, the type used for educational purposes, but here it is covered by a duct tape-wide strip of bone residue. Obliquely, on the other side of the room, we see a lopsided smiley with hip bone as eyes and vertebras as mouth. The exhibition’s other two rooms are defined by 7 completely black paintings (monochromes), mounted slightly asymmetric so that the aged room in Oslo Kunstforening gets an architectural boost.
Wallin’s monochromes are immediately perceived as openings towards an abyss or a charcoal black shaft. I’m quickly back on track again since I know they are paintings, but I’m struggling to get away from the first impression: After common sense has placed them safely on the wall, they keep a suction, a ghostly abyss quality. Wallin introduces a gentle, yet effective dream state, where something supernatural or mythical seeps out through the works.
It probably has to do with the fact that the works consist of blood powder mixed with binder. Applied in thick layers and then polished to a matte and smooth surface with a red glow in them.
Double exposed gallery!
The type of art he bases his works on–as Kazimir Malevich’ Black Square (1915) and Ad Reinhardt’s Untitled Painting (1963)–are both meditations on painting, spiritual exercises, but without the physicality and Wallin’s explicit death associations. The mix of body residues (blood) and death reflection within the framework of the monochrome reinvents the tradition determinedly and simple, and brings it all closer to us, both emotionally and intellectually.
Between learning and death
The strip with bone residue and the smiley, composed of skeletal remains, brings forth death where it does not usually occur. It is indeed in the background of the monochrome, historically–especially in Reinhardt’s works–but the bones are kept at a distance through the restrained and reflective view this kind of art art puts us in. A smiley is immediate, in the moment–an ephemeral period in an SMS or a chat on Facebook–but here it is printed in eternity through skeletal parts. The whiteboard is literally a horizon of understanding, a reminder that death is the subtext for all learning.
Seven Monochromes and a Smiley draws up lines between death reflection, painting, the grin and fabulative rethinking of the space. Some of the reason that the exhibition does not let go so easily is the emotional appeal: the exhibition grabs us in our dreams and our anxiety, and works its way in a playful reflection path through forms and things that are familiar to us–but in Wallin’s blood and bone-assisted adaptations reveals new aspects.
Wallin also generates thoughts on a level where everyone can connect across ages, generations and classes. In this way, this exhibition is surprisingly accessible and a good starting point for talking about us, about people, what we want and where we are going and where it all ends. He twists and refreshes eternal questions. And gives us a place to talk about them.
(translated from Norwegian by Siri Leira)
Kalmar konstmuseum presents two powerful exhibitions: a curious portrait of Sweden, and a spectacular orgy in blood. A significant step forward for the museum, says Dan Jönsson.
“Magnus Wallin: Gravity” at Kalmar konstmuseum
The deafening roar of the fans is the first thing you encounter behind the doors on the top floor of Kalmar konstmuseum. Peter Johansson’s sculpture “Full fräs” occupies a central position in the exhibition “Suecia contemporare”: a log jam of Swedish flags, lying on the floor with poles and bases all tangled up, flapping hysterically. High winds seem to be blowing across Sweden, everything collapsing. And the proud fluttering of the banner seems more and more desperate.
Three hundred years have passed since Sweden lost its status as a great power. Three hundred years during which Sweden’s memories of the great days of old have gradually been whittled down by political reality. What remains when globalization and neo-liberalism have taken their toll? Today, all that remains of the great moral twentieth century is a nostalgic light. But is that a loss? And if it is, what does that loss look like?
Perhaps like this. “Suecia contemporare” offers a portrait of Sweden that is different, to say the least. Instead of the quiet modern idyll, populated by honest taxpayers surrounded by sound natural scenery, what emerges is a bewildering chaos of repressed national dreams and political denials.
Erik Dahlbergh’s famous seventeenth century collection of engravings, “Suecia antiqua et hodierna”, serves as a historical point of balance, its chalcographies of Swedish towns and manors stealing into the exhibition like reflections from a distant time of self-confidence. The coupling may sound risky, but it doesn’t feel the least bit far-fetched.
Curator Pontus Raud has consciously chosen a group of contemporary artists whose artistic practices in various ways resound with the wild emotion and ornamental excess of the Baroque. The difference, of course, is that while the grandiose gestures in its time were meant to celebrate and embellish the powers, today they become a tool for subverting everything that presents the slightest glimmer of order and stability.
As an art-historical reflection, it’s both thought provoking and original—a liberating contrast to the often shallow time perspectives of contemporary art. And it also works rather well as a comment on the politics of our time. Makode Linde’s collector plates with portraits of the royal family, where the queen and her children have been painted over with grinning, black picaninny faces, serve as burlesque links between Johansson’s nationalistic breakdown and Helle Kvamme’s ironical pulpit, which is adorned with portraits of grim politicians, gilded model airplanes, and other symbols of Swedish arms exports.
I find it more difficult to see the connection with the Baroque in Victor Marx’s anti-monumental, social, illegally erected buildings—a house for the homeless under the Liljeholmen Bridge, and a gallery by the entrance to the subway station in Masmo. But in this context, they still stand out in sharp and natural relief against Erik Dahlbergh and the autocratic architecture of his time. And they in turn get their decorative counterpart in Jenny Granlund’s drawings, where small town functional houses are invaded by wild, stylized floral ornaments.
As a whole, “Suecia contemporare” is a significant step forward for Kalmar konstmuseum, after a few years of struggling to live up to the great ambitions and hopes that accompanied the opening of its new building. Certainly, not an uncommon scenario in Swedish country towns, where the many museums and arts centers of modern times, in themselves a postmodern parallel to the grand architecture of the great days of old, keep colliding with the political and economic establishment’s budget priorities and ultraconservative views on art.
With this exhibition, the museum shows that it is possible, even in a regional institution with limited resources, to accomplish projects with both pretensions and ideas. For all that, what I still find lacking is some of the existential gravity that was also a distinguishing mark of the Baroque—its intense death awareness, its dread of the omnipotence of fate. On the other hand, I get my fill of that in Magnus Wallin’s solo exhibition two floors down.
Wallin has long been internationally recognized for his computer animations, which are often built around art historical motifs from the Renaissance and the Baroque—but in these new works, he returns to the spectacular blood painting that made him known as one of the most uncompromising artists on the Malmö scene in the nineties.
In “Gravity” he uses blood as both color and body. As always in Wallin’s work, there’s a fundamental attraction towards the imagination—a sculpture where a shelf of books is drowned in a river of blood, as cruel and unambiguous as a genocide memorial. A series of surrealistic collages where disfigured bodies have been constructed with fragments from newspaper photographs and old medical books. Urgent and disturbing.
But what I find really captivating in this exhibition is its spatial, architectural qualities. Its matter-of-factness. Its pure, physical presence.
The work “Cylinder” is just that: a superhuman column of coagulated blood that gathers the energy in the room with its brutal visual weightiness. “Gravity” and “Background” are aggressive paintings in the splatter genre, a series of shower partitions and tiled walls where blood seeps out and smears like after a massacre. Along with “Film”, where Wallin has covered the tall glass wall with blood in expressive, sweeping brush strokes, they create a claustrophobic interior, with the view toward the Kalmar Sound fading away in a poisoned haze that plunges the whole room into a brown twilight.
It is sparse and overwhelming, vanitas art where symbolism has given over completely to realism. As if all the ornaments of the warlike Baroque were straightened and removed until only violence and pain remain. I have no choice but to surrender. It doesn’t get more intense than this.
(translated from the Swedish by Niclas Nilsson)
Artist Magnus Wallin is mainly known for his computer animations, inspired by video games and medical imagery. His art often contains a criticism of our concepts of the “healthy” and normal body. In later years he’s also started working with sculptures in unusual materials—such as blood. And blood is at the center of “Gravity”, his exhibition at Kalmar konstmuseum this summer.
It might just as well have been feces, is my first thought. But I instantly realize that then it would have reeked of shit in here. As it is, the red, brown and black film over the windows just colors the room in a yellowish haze—a bit like a church window. Opposite the windows are five tall panels with liters of blood poured onto what looks like white bathroom tiles. The whole atmosphere in here is half sanctuary and half abattoir. If a mix like that is possible to imagine.
In front of the windows—the long side of this gallery is covered with glass, through which one can normally see a patch of the Baltic and a section of the leafy Slottsparken—there is a large cylinder, which also seems to consist of dried blood.It’s roughly the size of a human being. But no skin to contain it, to hold back the blood. They say a human body contains five liters. If we lose it, we lose our lives.
The vulnerability of the body has always been an important topic in Magnus Wallin’s work, but usually displayed in a more figurative manner—as in the twelve small collages exhibited here, composed of images from older medical literature: photographs of malformed limbs, bodies covered with severe rashes; the kind of images we find difficult to look at, the kind of bodies we find difficult to accept.
We know what these difficulties can lead to. Lest we forget, Wallin has installed four showerheads on the opposite wall, at eyelevel with the collages. Behind them, hair sprouts from the wall. This discussion—our contempt for weakness, and its bloody consequences—never loses its urgency, especially in Magnus Wallin’s art.
But this time he manages something out of the ordinary: he makes it difficult, almost impossible, to get away, to avert one’s eyes. It’s too beautiful, too exciting and tempting, in all its horror, in here.
The dried blood on the walls cracks here and there, and it falls to the floor in tiny, black fragments. When we step forward to take a closer look at the glass, it sticks to our shoes and comes home with us.
(translated from the Swedish by Niclas Nilsson)
Magnus Wallin’s Elements: Realism and Romance
– by Lars-Erik Hjärtström Lappalanien
Realism has many guises. In 3D animation images are often made that resemble those we are familiar with: bodies move like they usually do in rather ordinary rooms or spaces. This is the outcome of a kind of second-hand realism that imitates already-established techniques depiction of reality – for example, to focus on the image as if it were done with an analogue camera. Another way to achieve a realistic effect is to induce the feeling of reality by having the image itself acquire the same sort of presence as an object or a body. This has been successfully done using light boxes, large-scale images and low positioning of pieces, or in the form of video installation that extends the image space into that of the viewer. However, in Magnus Wallin’s film, Elements, realism appears in another way: it is neither reality that is given presence in the image or the image given presence for or around the viewer. Instead, it is the viewer that is drawn into the film and is given presence there.
It is primarily with the help of sound that the presence of the viewer in the film is established. The images themselves would hardly suffice. What the sound breaks down is the distance which an optical relation presumes; sound lies, so to speak, closer to the subject than what the image would be able to be and still remain visible. The film’s sound is directly in my absolute proximity. This happens in a few particular moments, for instance, when a bodily organ swishes by the ear into the visual space, or when the sound of two kissing crania, with organ-filled chests slurp close up in the soundscape. Yet more generally and actually more powerfully, if also more discreet, this closeness happens with time when the “murmur” or “buzz” of the events in the film creep closer and closer, to suddenly seem to be created inside my head. The film has the same effect as a slightly off high on hallucinatory drugs: the boundary between the inside internal and external wobbles, wavers. Did I hear it – or did I think the sound? Do I remember or do I merely expect it? Outer and inner, before and after, from the world or from myself – everything becomes uncertain. One wants out of this situation, but how and where to when there seems no longer to be any distinct external world?
The reason for exposing the view for such a remarkable closeness and experiencing the sundering of one’s own boundaries, one’s own body’s definition and integrity, is that Wallin wants to illuminate situation of the body in society. Not least with reference to organ transplants, but also generally, bio-politics consists of controls that penetrate under our skin and regulate our bodies through patterns that we ourselves understand in terms of spontaneity and freedom. We know about this situation, discuss it a little distanced. That distance must disappear; it is not enough to know about the situation, know about the controls, they must be lived, we must be affected – after all, they threaten our integrity every single minute of the day. As an image of the level and range of bio-politics, there is the surgeon’s increasing ability to move organs between bodies and the smuggler’s over borders. The fate of bodily organs is not different than ours and the limbo in which the organ in the film finds itself, while waiting to be utilized, is perhaps not so very different from the situation a person in a refugee centre exists in. We move around in what Wallin calls “the body of society”, not in the environment and in relation to the tasks that suit us (the organ) best, but according to what society needs. The image of the organ and the parts of the skeleton in space is the image of us as individuals – it is that image that approaches, comes all too close to, the viewer. Towards the end of the film, the viewers have come so close to the organ that they must understand themselves to be one organ amongst others.
In the same ways as the space in Elements lacks given directions (up, down, right, left, etc) because it is totally limitless and has no fixed reference points, life in society or the present lack direction and goals (want above all to be only “now”) and their powers are rendered increasingly invisible. As Boris Groys writes: when society or the present time no longer see themselves as a passage towards a future better condition, the incorporation of the individual in society loses all meaning for the individual him/herself – one’s private life is lost when it is sold to working life in society. The individuality of the individual becomes, for society, only pure workforce in the same way as my organs are for me pure functions. This is what threatens the organ in the film: the possibility of becoming merely and exclusively a function in the body of society.
The closeness created in the film leads the viewer into to a special hysteria: things come altogether to close and one cannot get out of the situation. It is in relation to that predicament that Wallin twists and turns the space. What is up and down, right and left, constantly shifts because one’s own body, with its porous boundaries, is no longer a sufficiently determined point of reference. What is above is sometime in front, and we do not understand how. Elements, for example, contains a danse macabre, where skeletons furnished with organs mechanically and cheerfully move around in a ring like one great living catastrophic carousel. In the next moment, it looks to be moving vertically, like a ferris wheel. Roughly, one might conceive of Wallin’s films as constructions of respectively horizontally and vertically organized spaces. In the two room- types, the bodies have two different, repetitive patterns of movement: linear (as in Exit, 1997; Skyline, 2000; Exercise Parade, 2001 and Anatomic Flop, 2003) or circular (Limbo, 1998). (And amongst the circular, we should include the films that in themselves constitute a circular movement and in this way bend the entire space. They also show that Wallin constructs space by way of movements and not as a form of pre-existing vacuum.)
There are bodies in the horizontal that slide or slither in an arena-like corridor, chased by fire (Exit); bodies that monotonously play leap-frog over each other, threatened by the living walls that belong to the insides of the social body (Exercise Parade). However, in the horizontal organizations of space, bodies move on their own steam but are started up and steered entirely by external circumstances. If the body’s driving force is natural in Exit, in Exercise Parade it has acquired a trace of obeisance. Generally, the horizontally organized worlds look like this: closed, rectangular oblong rooms; repetitive patterns of movement that occur within a compulsive order. The vertical constructions are most pure in Skyline (2000). From a trapeze that swings through limitless space, exemplary bodies throw themselves at a high tower. The ones that succeed land in the tower, those that land outside become parts of bodies and organs for a laboratory. The power that moves the bodies lies totally outside them, and the film’s light touch could make one think that the bodies understand the power as something they want to be part of. Thus, eleven years after the film was made, it is surprising to see that what was previously so absurd and possibly could be thought to reference a past Nazi society, today looks like a rather transparent picture of a new and contemporary society of ruthless expulsion.
These types of constructions are mixed together but remain nevertheless distinct. Wallin’s two primary ways of mixing dimensions have been to twist space so that the horizontal becomes vertical, as in Anatomic Flop and Elements, and to mirror space so that the rectangular or elongated structure swells in width and height and the bodies there are both beside themselves and above and underneath in the mirrors (for example, Mission and Colony, both from 2009). If Wallin has always worked with mixing the two spatial organizations and even taken himself into outer space and to unknown worlds, it may be because the dominating power in the spatial constructions (gravitation in Skyline, the instinct for self-preservation in Exit) functions mythologically in relation to the powers that control bodies in the world – these are too general, too natural to be able to dominate a social and political context. It feels as if with Elements, Wallin has reached the point where he asks himself why people in general are drawn to each other, live in groups instead of alone, and create these circular and linear patterns of movement we encounter in the films – the mechanical movements and the coercion behind them. If one looks beyond explanations in terms of self-preservation, the question concerning the human need for community opens up a universe of dark powers.
We may be able to take these dark power on by returning to Elements. We are in an endless spatial vacuum, and our eye falls on the spectacle of body parts, which we approach until we are absorbed into it – like one organ amongst others. The population there resembles Empedocles’ vision of how things are before they become entities in the world: no bodies, but heads without necks and faces, arms without trunks, etc. So also with Wallin’s work, where we see that the body parts can sometimes put themselves together into a body with the head both up and down, or into something resembling a centaur. Impossible bodies in the world, but not in the limbo of organs. In Empedocles, the parts go together and are separated by two external principles, love and hate. With Wallin, it is therefore an important signal when we see two bodily fragments kissing each other. We are far from the frenetic, bellicose copulation that went on in Colony. Here is love and it exists in or between bodies. We are also rather far from the instinct for self-preservation that was portrayed in Exit – especially as this is neither a sexual nor reproductive instinct, but simply love. Love is there without any wider purpose, but neither without the function of allowing an organ or body fragment develop itself without adaptation to an organism, an organization dominated by a controlling power – ie a body of a higher order. It should be observed that the two kissing fragments do not compose a common body, as many others did in the film. Each common or complete body, each entity or unit, has arisen through one of the parts overpowering the others and subordinating them as a inferior organ. This is exactly what does not happen here: the kissing fragments remain separate, intimately connected, but not a unity. In the limbo they find themselves in, while waiting to be taken into use by the societal body, relations of love arise. This is not bad. Love is not God, ie an external and universal principle, neither is it a sublimated form of the instinct for self-preservation or reproduction. Love is simply a relationship between two who do not wish to become one.
It is the lovers that reveal that the self-organization’s amusing forms (carousel, ferris wheel) are similar to the societal body’s power structures.
Not that the two kisses can remain outside: the movements of the bodies drag them into the carousel. However in that movement, they move around each other, only for each other, organized but without participating in and reproducing the mechanics of the organization. There is something prodigious about the image. A body part in contact with another without trying to create a whole and a unity; an organ interacting with another without being parts of a body or an organism. Organs without bodies, that is, organs that are themselves independent bodies – and together! Wallin’s work would seem to suggest that love can make us into bodies that are well out of the reach of bio-politics. And get us to feel closeness to just that, as well as to the true objects of realism.
Magnus Wallin (at ELASTIC Gallery, Malmö), Sydsvenska Dagbladet, January 27, 2011
Brilliantly macabre darkness – by Carolina Söderholm (art critic and art historian)
Few artists have undressed the human body as relentlessly as Magnus Wallin. But he doesn’t just peel off the clothes and the social veneer. In his magnificent and terrifying presentation at Malmö konsthall in 2002, flayed muscle mannequins were parading in Olympic arenas, while a group of deformed creatures vainly tried to escape their doom.
I don’t care if this sounds like a cliché: the memory of it still burns my skin.
I can still hear them panting in panic, stuttering with the sticky bouncing of the athletes’ death struggle. Brutally and effectively, he ripped open the shiny surfaces of our human ideals and displayed their repulsive interior. Allusions were plentiful and uncomfortable, to eugenics, athletics and fashion, but also to society’s collective repression of the weak and the sick. And in that vein he has continued.
Now he is showing at Elastic Gallery. In the short film ”Elements”—skillfully animated with uncanny intensity—he confronts us with the interior we prefer to forget. Grinning skulls, intestines, and clattering skeletons, both vulnerable and menacing, come tumbling forth in a frantic ascension to heaven. He also exhibits a series of objects, built out of human skin, blood, and bones. Yes, it is macabre: this piece of human skin presented as an abstract work of art, taken from the drum of a Tibetan shaman. Or the paintings, dark as clotted blood, the laquered surfaces of which reflect my own frenzied gaze. But it is also powerful—to the bone. This body, the very foundation of our existence, which has been so thoroughly examined and dissected, compromised and celebrated by history, science, politics, and art.
Memento mori—remember death. The vanitas is a classic theme in the history of art. Paintings of skulls, hourglasses, and withering flowers that encouraged moral meditations on the perishable nature of life. Less known, however, are the anatomical museums of the 15th and 16th centuries, and their allegorical landscapes of body parts, gallstones, and skeletons, created in the borderlands between art and science populated by inquiring anatomists, doctors, students, and a public out for sensations. With his problematic relics and visions Magnus Wallin touches layers hidden far below the surface. Unlike anyone else, he manages to merge the unbearable with the spectacular, the provokingly human with a tormented self-scrutiny. On this obscure foundation, he fuses life’s squeaking merry-go-round with its darkness. It is brilliant.
(translated by Niclas Nilsson)
Review of “Instrument” (at Millesgården, Lidingö), Dagens Nyheter, September 15, 2009
– by Jonas Thente
I will probably always associate Magnus Wallin with chickens.
Almost 20 years ago I saw one of his first exhibitions in the culverts of a condemned power station in Lund. It was a piece entitled “Clean Sunday”, which, in a series of tableaux, addressed a traumatic childhood memory. A few dozen live chickens participated, and the viewers were let through every five minutes.
For dreams and nightmares are dreamt alone. And no one helps you carry the weight of your own past.
Since then I have seen Magnus Wallin, upright, uncompromisingly, saunter to an irrefutable position as one of the main artists of his generation (b. 1965). He has exchanged the chickens for computer game technology, but his goal still seems to be to cuff the viewer in front of his tableaux. The viewer alone.
This time he has Millesgården all to himself, with the exhibition “Instrument.” But I hesitate to call it an exhibition. Inhibition would make more sense. Wallin’s works are dialogues with you and me, one after the other, not hit songs for the masses.
All six pieces that constitute “Instrument” have sterile one-word titles that bring to mind the song titles of the British existentialistic-dystopic band Joy Division. “Colony”, of course, and “Mission”, “Sundown”, “Collection”, “Monochrome”, and “Unnamed.”
One important element in the world of computer game technology—a world that Wallin perhaps all too often is associated with—is the physics engine. It is the physics engine that calculates and simulates how a body moves when affected by external forces. There are games that are completely built around the very fascination of seeing gravity enacting itself on the computer screen. “Portal” is one example, but any flipper or football simulation would do.
With Magnus Wallin, it is as if the physics engine was upgraded with an existential temperament. “Mission” is an animated film that takes us on a tour through a Panopticon—the kind of prison structure used by French philosopher Michel Foucault as a metaphor for all kinds of social institutions—where sad skeletons endure time. Gravity seems to be the prison warden in this claustrophobic vision of our own mortality, burdened with the relentless weight of time.
In “Colony”, another animated film, skeletons are hurled onto an ice-covered, black-and-white river, which brings to mind Lethe—the river of forgetfulness in the ancient underworld. In Wallin’s film, the skeletons, equipped with impressive erections, immediately begin mechanically fulfilling the pleasure principle. And it’s all devastatingly dreary and desperate. One doesn’t even have to be familiar with the art historical references to Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” to feel the onset of tragedy.
But the work that impresses me most is “Unnamed”, where Wallin makes the viewer pass through dense curtains, into a pitch-dark room. When your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you see a projection on the opposite wall.
You can make out nearly a dozen shadow-like figures. They are taken from a 1922 German textbook on surgery, but they take on the shapes of the dead people that we have forgotten. And when you are standing in the dark, straining your eyes to discern even the slightest hint of a face, it’s easy to get the feeling that they are doing the same. Ghostly shadows from the mists of our past; mere remnants of the people they used to be, and reminders of what we will all become one day.
In case anyone is wondering what has happened to the flesh in this carnival of bones and mortality, “Monochrome” consists of skin, and “Sundown”, partly, of blood. And thus Magnus Wallin gives the concept of human tissue a new meaning, and it is the viewer that gets to be the anatomist at this utterly indispensable exhibition.
(translated by Niclas Nilsson)
Reality is its own description
– by Torsten Weimarck
Magnus Wallin’s work constitutes to a high degree critical and communicative art. Several of his works stand out as a kind of interface — an illuminated projection surface, a visible opening, even an exposed wound, where the images from the past appear. But it is not a question of retrospection, on the contrary these works are entirely contemporary: they are cast in reality here and now.
The interface can appear as an open path that contracts and then reopens as in the twisting of the aperture of a camera or in a drawn breath — revealing a stream of bygone pictorial expressions. Or rather, where the stream of bygone expressions and representations in the metabolism of history flows through before falling into oblivion. Here they appear momentarily in full strength and, as though behind layered sheets of glass positioned as tunnel walls they surround the observer on all sides and engrave themselves on the memory (visual and auditory), finally appearing as kinds of permanent archetypes. Well-known, but restrained
— or: unrestrained, but made invisible, almost completely submerged, like a scarcely visible raft in a seething media sea, a single piece of a jigsaw where otherwise we usually never question the connection between the outer Shape and the motif of the piece of a jigsaw, between the piece and significance. For example in Exit 1997 the powerful film that has attracted a good deal of attention, with disabled and maimed human animations taken from Hieronymus Bosch’s imagery, who in panic try to flee from a flaming pursuer (holocaust, normality). The walls in Exit are completely covered with embedded loudspeakers or as it were perforated with scrutinizing eyes, that in rising and falling rythmical sequences like a deafening blowlamp invisibly pursue the panting victims with the pulsating heartbeat of collective intoxication, ruthless looks, applause and cries. Extremely dangerous forces have been released into a space that has also become in a way the very essence of a beast (this is possibly most clearly seen in Exercise Parade).
The videos are — not the east here in this exhibition — often physically installed in a spatially well-planned context as peepshows that are approached by somewhat labyrinthine means. Together with the deliberate use of sound they create a maximum effect on the sometimes almost melodramatic emotionally charged animations. The screen we have in front of us is not clearly defined: the thin membrane between the mediated expressions and the watcher’s sensibility appears to be extremely elastic, dialytic and permeable and finally it becomes one and the same space (this is particularly clear in the hallucinatory accelerating, almost psychedelic Physical Parade  which is projected on divided walls and comes to an abrupt end with the sheep Dolly, monumentalized as a golden calf).
The claustrophobically charged Exercise Parade (2001) takes place in a square dead-straight tunnel. Its telescopic and controlled expression could possibly in full scale be recognized in the long road tunnel which forms a part of the Öresund link. In the film a flaming hall of gas clouds rolls intermittently through the tunnel like a booming ether-anaesthetic crackling with electric short circuit sparks. It bounces against the walls, alarm bells ringing. When it reaches the surface of the picture you get a glimpse of old photographs of people categorized with the chilly, rational eye of the anthropologist. In the exhibition such images have also been used n Backstag,. the series with vulnerable individuals, stripped naked, frozen in a a unmercifully coordinate system
Horrifyingly, almost clairvoyantly Exercise Parade could just as weIl have been created before the Öresund tunnel but the truly chilling sight is the very tall square tower faced with bands of granite slabs – Nazism’s front facing of choice – twose prototype has been taken from the OS stadium in Berlin, 1936, which appears in similar forms both in Limbo (1999) and in Skyline 2000. This tower resembles a beam (…the beam in one´s own eye…) — large very tall, straight lines and in a special way conceived according to the parallel perspective and carried out with such physically obtrusive obviousness that with undisputed hubris it does not even respect the eye´s central perspective by having the sense to reduce in size towards the top far away up. – >The question of Leni Riefenstahl’s responsibility for her Olympiad film (which has engaged Wallin) is clarified and deepened in a remarkable way also by the fact that the tower and the falling bodies now afterwards, in the wake of 11 September, can remind us of one of the towers of World Trade Center. It is history itself that moves the limits of the interface.
Magnus Wallin uses and reuses images from previous eras freely and with self-evidence. But he does not do if in the form of a montage or collage, the images are not equipped with quotation marks: if is rather a question of his giving them new life in our own times and letting them continue living here and now to see how they behave (or conform) in this new context. By using a digital form and transposing and reproducing different historical attempts to illustrate man’s fate and the body’s characteristics (particularly the models of medical scientific knowledge) it also becomes possible to place these old, more or less mystical images into a three-dimensional room, give them a number of digital character roles and stage directions, simply animate them and then see what they do. This is an age-old dream of artists, which computer technology has made possible and it can seem slightly risky — that the image in this way could be reduced to a narrating, theatrical illustration — but the result in Wallin’s work is often completely unexpected and powerful. This is probably in part because he consciously and openly works with imagery and narrating conventions that are taken from the suggestive illusionism of computer games and the entertainment industry. It signals entertainment and fantasy, but here it has to the highest degree the effect of the triumph of realism.
A brief digression on Magnus Wallin in the history of anatomy
ln the past, natural science, founded on a magical conception of reality, often considered medical and anatomical descriptions in a metaphoric, anthropomorphic form, from, for example, the cosmos being formed and conceptualized as God’s body from which all parts of creation were generated, to man being comprehended as a microcosmos whose anatomical and physiological characteristics stemmed from the literal image that was represented by the terrestial body, God. This thinking in images had a concrete effect and was of exceptional value for thorough explanations.
Furthermore it is typical that different observations of mankind’s nature, and events that can be encountered by an individual, also assume human forms a completely new human being was simply built up solely on the basis of these elements. When, for example, in a pictorial handbook intended to illustrate how to relieve and heal different kinds of wounds and injuries that could be met with in war, the actual catalogue of injuries took on the shape of a Wound Man who literally personified all these injuries, which the observer could with his own eyes see inflicted on the body by a complete arsenal of weaponry launching a simultaneous attack from all sides. The Wound Man thus became a new kind of human being with his body completely merged with injuries and their causes. ln the same way a Bloodletting Man was created. Suitable places were marked on his body for bloodletting depending on the kind of disease. The particular astrological constellation in relation to the patient’s sign of the zodiac was directly and concretely illustrated by simply building up the body of the Bloodletting Man with the animal zodiac signs. His task as a human being was to carry, illustrate and represent by means of his own appearance this necessary knowledge and methods for healing.
Obviously it is this ancient very bodily and its own way animated thinking in images that has captured Magnus Wallin’s interest and he has recognized it as something that is basically still a reality in our own time. He has then developed it with the help of the new tools that are available today. But what is special is that it is actually not pictures like, for example, those ancient magical Wound or Bloodletting Men that he has worked from; his artistic intuition has rather led him into a later, classical era of natural science and medicine with its more modern, profane images and models that to us do not seem to be particularly imaginative. We see them as factual, normal and directly answering to an existing reality. But what is important is that in these images he has recognized a direct continuation of the magical thinking far into the imagery of the revolution of natural science. Indeed, as something which still works, although concealed.
An example taken from Carl von Linné can illustrate this contradiction. ln 1729 Linné called the medical students in Stockholm to attend a dissection where he stated that the anatomist’s factual and profane description and picture of the body represented the only true conception of the body; the human being was simply said to resemble his own anatomy (actually this corresponds to a sick and unhappy human being trying to find himself in the magical Bloodletting Man’s animal sphere in order to be healed). Linné writes: “Knowledge of our own body is supplied by the science of anatomy in which we see ourselves as in a mirror.” But then he continues swerving abruptly away from this magical conception of the world: in accordance hereof we ourselves should judge our healthy and sick condition”1. Here it is quite clear that the body is not regarded as magical, as a holy body with cosmic roots, rather as in principal a mechanical construction whose capability can be factually described in terms of its state of health. This physiological parameter has very little to do with the healing methods and hope of salvation to be found in more ancient times. — When Magnus Wallin in a number of works uses computer animated athletic men, flayed (Fr. écorchées) to reveal their muscles, he builds on one of the best-known so-called Muscle Men ten from the first modern illustrated work on anatomy, namely Andreas Vesalius´ Fabrica printed in Basel in 1543. Although its woodcuts (by Jan Stephan van Calcar) were going to serve as the model for all future perception in the Western world of human “normality”, “beauty” etc., it is important to state that the body ideal is only based on profane, natural scientific studies of anatomy and physiology, far from the existential and spiritual aspects that the ancient world saw as an inseparable part of the human beings physical predicament.
But Magnus Wallin demonstrates very clearly how historical and relative these body images and ideals are, indeed how absurd, discriminating and feeble they actually are as descriptions of the human being. And dangerous. And just as ideological and mystical as the images of human beings from ancient times. — Strange to see how even 50 a kind of wheel comes full circle with the anatomic muscle-man acrobats in Skyline (2000) who lose their lives in the fall against the previously described tall tower and then actually tumble down from a considerable height — on to a dissection table in an anatomy room (taken from Olaus Rudbeck’s anatomy theatre in Gustavianum in Uppsala, built in the 1660s). There the muscle-men’s bodies are spilt once more (the first time was when the parts of the body were dissected out and transformed into muscle-men, a complete construction made up of anatomical preparations. Michel Foucault who has been such a fruitful source of inspiration for Wallin’s work, characterizes the claims of anatomy thus: The human body is part of a power machine that investigates, breaks it up and puts it together again.”2) — Has Wallin here a utopian vision of another bodily entity that can rise from out of this inferno, even though the body parts so far evoke a memory of fingers from a toppled giant statue of Stalin or Constantine the Great?
The muscle-man who leapfrogs over a skeleton (and vice versa) in the terrible Exercise Parade is even in a way stigmatized by the anatomical terms that like word darts are fastened round his body, directions and signs that are made physical, merged together with what they signify and become almost more important than that. The same is the case of the mobile skeleton which like the muscle-man is a thought-up mechanical construction of the human being’s mobility pattern, an invention from the 1500s and completely unnatural.
Reality is its own description
In several of Magnus Wallin’s films, most evident perhaps in Limbo (1999), the animated figures have as a particular characteristic an artificial nature that can call to mind medial icons such as Barbie, Ken, Superman, but also “real’ figures such as Esther Williams. These figures probably stem from the world of computer games where they form a manipulated, smooth-skinned doll-like (or Dolly-like) human species with a body language specially modified to the cult of the normal which today has reached a remarkably ritualized, indeed ornamental power. As Siegfrid Kracauer writes (in “The Drnament of the Masses”, 1927): “The mass ornament is the aesthetic reflection of the prevailing economic system’s sought-after rationality”, “Arms, thighs and other single parts of the body are the composition’s smallest parts.” The theme returns in full force in me series Solo with eleven large computerized pictures projected on to the back wall of the exhibition hall: cloned muscle-men as geometrically ideal figures, rythmically collected into parades on mirror floors against a central perspective grid or merged into a single entity in acrobatic body pyramids like a radiator ornament on an old car, or forming completely new organisms as parts of machinery in a utopian society. Solo is actually the title of the last picture in this series which has a well-thought-out plan for how we observers move in this room that is entirely governed by the pictures. This picture has a different format from the others and the muscle-man, although still narcissistically admiring himseif in the mirror, has curled himself up into a foetal position.
ln Magnus Wallin’s work the human being is thus always transformed into a token, a visualized term for an athletically perfect body machine, the modern day muscle-man whose message is completely overwhelming normality. The theme of his convincing, personified criticism of power is the vulnerability of the deviant. Reality always resembles in one way or another its own description, is or always becomes more or less identical with its own mediated representation. This expression is otherwise generally used to signify a situation where it is quite clear what something is or implies, a transparent world with no secrets where we more or less say that “here we need no complicated explanations, life or reality itself reveals its meaning, what lies behind”. It is just a question of reading reality’s own book, a counterpart to Nature as God’s own book, that the believer can read and understand straight away.
It is true that every description in word or image in some way is based on observations of an existing reality but the strange thing is that at the same time it creates this reality it says it describes, and that which ought to be outside the representation forms we use to describe it land up just out of sight. The media, here art or image, can thus be said to create “reality”, including the so-called “objective reality” as historical products and something relative, something that appears as a consequence of mental experiences and rational interpretation within certain historical frameworks. For that reason the imagery and discourses appear not only as different ways of observing and behaving towards reality, but as reality’s own historical figures, the forms in which that which is real becomes manifest. The painter, writer, architect, composer, choreographer, philosopher, researcher etc. are in each era the creators of the discourses, are those who give true form to reality.
Hall of mirrors? Of course, but also reflections, dazzling sun reflections and will-o’-the wisps can be used as truth-tellers; this is not the least manifested in Wallin’s work. Art history is full of kaleidoscopically deformed pictures and anamorphoses intended to show a deformed conception of reality. That the experience of truth in some way is caused by fakes is of no importance at all.
It is just therefore that reality is also its own description. It is this reality and the (close) identity of the picture of reality that Wallin’s work with such consequence and strength investigates. Or, to put it another way:
how the pictures and conceptions or prejudices create and petrify reality, as well as how a critical, deconstructive awareness is actually possible.
Professor, Dr. Phil. Art History, Lund University
(translation from the Swedish by Gillian Sjödahl)
1. Linné quoted according to Vilhelm Djurberg, När det var anatomisal på Södermalms stadshus! Stockholm 1685-1748 (When there was an anatomy theatre in Södermalm Town Hall, Stockholm 1685-1 748) Stockholm 1927, p. 128.
2. Foucault, Michel, Övervakning och straff Fängelsets födelse. (1974). (Supervision and punishment. The birth of the prison system). (1974), Lund. Arkiv 1987, p. 162.
Torsten Weimarck © 2002. All rights reserved.
Published in Catalogue, Plateau of Mankind, 49 Biennale di Venezia, catalogue 1.
Published: 2001 by la Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy; ISBN 88-435-9607-1
– by Sara Arrhenius
A raging fire blazes forth through a long corridor as several cripples hobble in panic in a futile attempt to escape the flames. Every time the fire consumes a cripple, a round of applause is beard. Athletic men, perched on trapezes, swing in succession into a vast emptiness. Their bodies are crushed against a high tower the dock tower of the Berlin Olympic Stadium of 1936 and fall in pieces onto an examination table in an anatomical theatre. Magnus Wallin’s computer animated video works, although possessing an aesthetics akin to that of computer games, are primarily stones about the human body. Or rather, stones concerning the manner in which the human body is portrayed and understood in contemporary western society. The short, animated sequences strike the viewer, with their intensity and subjective camera, and stage a series of events juxtaposing two body types. On the one hand: the perfect athletic bodies that submissively cast themselves into the void in Skyline, like cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse.
The bodies that form perfect, symmetrical circles, like the decorative swimmers in Limbo, where each individual, as an exchange able cog, constitutes a small part of a larger mechanism. It is the heroised body of the monumental aesthetics we see here, a symmetrical machine of pure muscle. We honour this body unconditionally in advertising and fashion, and enjoy watching it perform in our modern day equivalent to the gladiator games in sports arenas, or in game shows on television. On the other hand: the hobbling wretches desperately trying to save themselves from the firestorm in Exit. These cripples represent the body that everyone chooses to turn a blind eye to, and that no one need be cursed with, as long as an effort is made to exercise, eat right, and undergo plastic surgery! A malformed exclamation mark, a grotesque deformity that reminds us of our pain and shortcomings; the body that we feel compelled to hide, correct, adjust and discipline.
Upon viewing Magnus Wallin’s four video works, Exit, Limbo, Physical Paradise and Skyline together, the consistency of his work becomes apparent. A critical analysis is brought to beam, focusing on how these concepts of the human body are intimately intertwined with key aspects of our culture. We tend to categorise bodies in terms of good and evil, beautiful and ugly, useful and useless. These nations are, in tum, based on the belief that symmetry, dean lines and surfaces, and perfect bodies reflect a divine harmony, as opposed to how bodies that violate these ideals instil horror. Wallin makes us aware of how the human body has, since the first dissections in the anatomical theatres of the Renaissance, steadily become more fragmentised, to the point where it is now presented as a machine – a system of information or codes, the parts of which can easily be improved or replaced. We have adopted an increasingly relentless attitude towards bodies that deviate, function poorly, or simply fail to fulfil the current criteria for beauty.
There is logic to the choice of working with three dimensional animations in video, a medium normally associated with computer games and the entertainment industry. The world Magnus Wallin creates in his works makes no claims on realism ur reality. Instead, his interest lies in how we create concepts and ideologies through the use of images. Hieronymus Bosch, pictorial quotations of Leni Riefenstahl’s films, and psychedelic visions of paradise, reminiscent of new age imagery, appear side by side. Wallin does not categorise these various pictorial elements, nor does he grade them. They all play a part in our visual culture, and express how we view humanity. Through this cannibalistic borrowing of imagery, Magnus Wallin demonstrates how certain age-old nations of man and the human body still prevail in contemporary iconography, and continue to convey a strong ideology. The use of video animation is not simply a choice of medium, but also a method of examining and commenting on the manner in which this medium is applied in our culture. When one chooses to work with video, as opposed to techniques exclusively identified with high culture, such as painting, one chooses a medium that is used in society at large, charged with aspects of the times and the fantasies therein. ln Wallin’s work, we find no trace of the media–critical distance and the visualisation of the conditions of the medium, a normal strategy among artists working with new media. Instead, Wallin consciously takes advantage of the visual force inherent in the imagery of popular culture as a means of sending out a message, and readily makes use of a strong rhetoric to captivate his viewer.
Sara Arrhenius © 2001. All rights reserved.
SKYLINE or the Commercialization of a Fascist Body Aesthetics: Notes on Artistic Intentionality and Responsibility in the Computer Animated Work of Magnus Wallin
by Tone O. Nielsen
Adolf Hitler: “Miss Riefenstahl, give me six days of Your life. An artist has to make the film – not a party film director.”
Leni Riefenstahl: “I will make it if You promise that I will never have to do another film for the Reich, You, or the Party.”
Leni Riefenstahl recalling a conversation with Adolf Hitler regarding the commission of the 1934 NSDAP Party Congress documentary Triumph des Willens
THE LENI RIEFENSTAHL EXAMPLE
When the German cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl (born 1902) in 1934 agreed to make Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), a documentary of the Sixth Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei Congress in Nuremberg, neither was it her first commission for the Nazi Party, nor would it be her last. The previous year, she had accepted a commission from NSDAP to document the Fifth Party Rally in Nuremberg, which resulted in the film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith) (1933), and in 1935, Tag der Freiheit – Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces), a documentary of the German army parades during the 1935 Reichs Partei Tag, was released. Again, in 1936, the party put Riefenstahl in charge of filming the Berlin Olympic Games and after two years of editing, on April 20, 1938, the two-part film Olympia 1. Teil – Fest der Völker (Olympia Part One: Festival of Nations) and Olympia 2. Teil – Fest der Schönheit (Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty) (both 1938) premiered in Berlin in celebration of Adolf Hitler’s birthday.
The party’s repeated use of Riefenstahl as propaganda film director was largely due to Hitler, who after having seen her 1932 debut film Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light) considered her one of the most important German directors. The film portrays the natural and spiritually gifted mountain girl Junta (played by Riefenstahl herself), whose ‘mystical essence’ is destroyed by the materialism of the villagers. Working within the genre of the romantic German Bergfilm (mountain film), which dates back to the early Weimar Republic and the Heimatfilm (homeland film), Riefenstahl thus “gave Hitler’s [propaganda] set pieces the needed emotional association with German tradition and culture,” as Robert von Dassanowsky has pointed out. She consequently became Hitler’s ‘favorite’ director.
Riefenstahl would soon win acclaim internationally also. When Triumph des Willens and Olympia were shown at the 1935 and 1938 Venice Film Festivals, they were awarded the Gold Medal and First Price respectively for their innovative cinematography. Riefenstahl’s extensive experimentation with different types of film stock; numerous camera positions, shooting angles, and film speeds; movable and underwater cameras; rich sound and lighting techniques; and contrastive montage produced documentary films of unseen visual impact, redefining the genre of documentary completely. The specific cinematic form and photography techniques that she introduced would have an enormous impact on world cinema in general and have become commonplace within the fields of contemporary sports coverage and advertising also.
Despite their international acclaim, these films, however, would decide Riefenstahl’s fate. Following the Second World War, she was faced with Allied charges of having been romantically involved and politically complicit with Hitler. Accused of having developed a fascist aesthetics in her films that glorified the ideology and politics of the Nazi Regime, Riefenstahl was charged with aiding the Nazi cause and despite her protests to the contrary, she was considered an intricate part of the Third Reich propaganda machine.
Riefenstahl’s objectivity as a documentarist was consequently called into question. Her contrastive montage between extreme close-ups of the agitating Hitler and panoramic aerial shots of the endless party parades in Triumph des Willens was accused of emphasizing Hitler’s notion of ‘One Leader, One People, One Reich.’ Employing similar techniques, Tag der Freiheit – Unsere Wehrmacht was criticized for showing the will and readiness of the newly build German army, while Olympia, with its innovative use of large numbers of cameras shooting the same subject at various speeds and from various angles, was considered a fascist study in the beauty and superiority of the Aryan physique, linking it directly to the Antique ideal of the perfect body as the symbol of the perfect spirit. Critics maintained that by applying the dramatic effects of feature films to the genre of documentary, Riefenstahl used fiction to sell a political message. It was her application of melodramatic sound and lighting effects from 1920s fictional screenplays to real life events in particular that was criticized for serving to submerge the individual in the mass and absorb reality into the artificial structure of the party. Rather than documenting the politics of the party from an ‘objective’ standpoint, Riefenstahl’s films were thus seen as an expression of that politics, effectively diminishing a critical space for the audience to judge for themselves.
Riefenstahl herself has continued to maintain that she was merely a film maker and that her art was entirely separate from politics. To her, beyond the messages of ‘work and peace,’ there were no hidden political messages in a film like Triumph des Willens and her aesthetics was not a result of a fascist ideology, but doing the absolutely best she artistically could to make the commissions as visually interesting as possible. Consequently, due to lack of evidence of her direct involvement, in June 1945, Riefenstahl was released “without prejudice” from the American detention camp, where she had been detained. Having been officially ‘denazified,’ however, with the exception of Tiefland (Deep Land) (1939-53), a mountain film more than fourteen years in the making, she has not been allowed to make another film since then. Riefenstahl the person, apparently, was considered ‘innocent,’ but the images she produced, evidently, were not. Shunned by the film industry, in the 1960s she took up still photography, publishing in 1973 and 1976 a two-volume photo essay on the African Nuba tribe, and working in the 1970s and 1980s on an as-yet-unfinished underwater sea epic from her scuba diving expeditions. Found to be formally and technically just as brilliant as her films, critics like Susan Sontag has also deemed Riefenstahl’s photo works just as ideologically problematic.
ARTISTIC INTENTIONALITY AND RESPONSIBILITY
At the core of Riefenstahl’s generally accepted infamy lies the question of artistic intentionality and responsibility. Sympathetic towards Hitler’s politics in the early 1930s (like so many other Germans were due to his social restoration of the country) and fascinated by his persona, as she has stated on several occasions, but never a member of NSDAP and not active politically, Riefenstahl might have been sincere when she continued to claim that she artistically never intended for her NSDAP documentaries to convey the ideology of the Nazis and that she considered them to be entirely separate from politics. Regardless of whether Riefenstahl was a Nazi or not, approaching a commission from a politically neutral position, however, does not guarantee a politically neutral work, as Riefenstahl seemed to believe. In fact, precisely because she claimed to meet NSDAP’s commissions with a political neutrality, she refrained from taking a clear stand on Hitler’s politics in the films, her neutrality becoming not an objective stance, as she declared, but a silent acceptance. And such a silent acceptance, I would claim, is always complicit with the politics in power. Because of this neutrality, her documentaries thus became political, despite her attempts not to.
This politicality was only reinforced by the intentions with which the documentaries were commissioned and the context in which they appeared. Commissioned to be used explicitly for propaganda purposes, the films were expected to paint a positive image of the party and to convey this positivity across the screen to the audience. Meeting these commissions from a neutral stand point, however, Riefenstahl opened little space for the viewer to reflect critically on this positivity. Therefore, if not responsible for contributing to the Nazi model on the grounds of her artistic intentions, Riefenstahl could be held artistically responsible on the grounds of her inability to approach her subject critically and on the grounds that she accepted her films to be used explicitly for propaganda purposes.
One could also raise the argument that Riefenstahl became responsible the minute she accepted the commissions from NSDAP. Although she had no intention of working for the party, but already in 1934 had plans to start working on her second mountain film Tiefland, the prospect of fame that a commission from Germany’s most powerful man implied as well as the difficulties in getting funding for non-propaganda and non-strictly entertainment films made her put Tiefland aside and accept NSDAP’s commissions. Thus, although she could have left the country like a number of her friends and colleagues did after the Book Burnings in 1933, Riefenstahl decided to stay in Germany and work under the given conditions. Flattered by Hitler’s admiration for her art, her early years as a director thus appeared to be informed by an element of artistic opportunism.
In that sense, because Riefenstahl agreed to make the films in the first place, refrained from approaching her commissions critically in the second, and allowed the films to be used for propaganda purposes in the third, she became politically complicit and could be held artistically responsible for contributing to the Nazi model – although unintentionally.
Without wanting to dismiss that Riefenstahl’s propaganda films became vehicles of Nazi ideology, Dassanowsky, however, claims that Riefenstahl did eventually break openly with Hitler and the Nazi model in her art. Her focus on the black athlete Jesse Owens, her highlighting of sports disciplines for individuals (decathlon, marathon race, equestrians, etc.), and her showcasing of both male and female athletes of all races, nations, and colors in Olympia are for Dassanowsky indications of Riefenstahl’s attempt to distance herself from the National Socialist ideology (of the superiority of the masses over the individual and the superiority of the Aryan male over other genders, races, colors, and nationalities) that had pervaded her earlier work. The theme of Tiefland, in which the gypsy-dancer Martha (again played by Riefenstahl) is seduced by the powerful, abusive nobleman Marquez and taken to his castle only to be saved from his dominance by Pedro the shepherd and brought back to the mountains, Dassanowsky also interprets as a cinematic break with Hitler. To him, Riefenstahl in the film reenacted her initial association with Hitler in order to become a renowned artist and her subsequent rejection of him once she realized the meaninglessness of the war and the extent to which the propaganda ministry was curtailing her artistic freedom. In that sense, Tiefland, shot on various locations outside of Germany between 1940-44, could be seen as Riefenstahl’s “inner immigration,” as Dassanowsky puts it.
Although Riefenstahl herself has confirmed this break with Hitler and the Nazi Party, the world has continued to accuse her of breaking too late, obstructing all her attempts to revive her directorial career. As a number of feminist critics have pointed out, this indefinite punishment of Riefenstahl might not only be due to her ‘wrongful’ association and sympathies, but also due to her gender. While the world has willingly accepted the public ‘apology’ of a number of male artists, scientists, and intellectuals with 1930s fascist sympathies, female artists, scientists, and intellectuals admitting to the same ‘wrongful’ beliefs have generally been deprived of such forgiveness. Maybe this gender discrimination was what David Bowie was trying to overcome when he, according to Riefenstahl in a 1998 interview, invited her to direct a new music video of his? In the interview, Riefenstahl reported that she declined on the grounds of her old age, but regardless of whether there is any truth to the Bowie story, one has to ask oneself what such a ‘forgiveness’ of Riefenstahl implies?
Are we speaking of ‘forgiving’ her as a director who transcended her Nazi associations, as Dassanowsky does when he re-evaluates her post-propaganda film production? Or are we talking about a willingness to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the fascist connotations of her propaganda films in order to justify re-using the techniques and aesthetics from them because of their enormous suggestive power and impact value? In a sense, these very questions are the starting point for Magnus Wallin’s recent work SKYLINE – and the underlying theme of his artistic production in general.
Born with a withered arm, Wallin’s work has since the beginning of his career taken its starting point in the human body and our conceptions of it. Producing in the early 1990s a number of interactive installations, where the vulnerability of the body was exposed, in 1996 he began his Physical Sightseeing project. Functioning as the collective title for an ongoing series of works, Physical Sightseeing presently includes four works of which SKYLINE is the latest. With this project, Wallin set forth to take the viewer on a critical tour through Western culture’s various representations of the body from present day and back into history. And to this date, Physical Sightseeing unfolds as a careful inquiry into the West’s culturally determined notions of the ‘beautiful/perfect body’ as opposed to the ‘ugly/defect body,’ the ideological-historical foundation for such a dualistic categorization of the body, and the representational systems used to reproduce these categories.
Behind the individual works in Physical Sightseeing lies the poststructuralist thesis that all representations, including those of the body, are informed by power and that they serve the purpose of maintaining the dominance of that power by reproducing its order. In Western culture, the representational systems that structure this culture’s representations are thus constructed to secure the continued dominance of the white, Anglo, heterosexual male. Continuously, these representational systems will seek to represent the white, Anglo, heterosexual as the Subject, the Absolute, while anyone different from him, i.e. woman, colored, queer, who constitute an ‘alternative’ and thus a potential threat to his dominance, are represented as the Object, the Incidental, the Other. Because of the threat that the Others pose to the dominant order, they must be conquered: By being turned into Objects for the Subject, woman, colored, and queer are thus deprived access to a Subject position that would enable their voice to be heard, their acts to be accounted for, and their self-representations to be acknowledged within the dominant order. Cast in the role of the Other, it is now the Subject that speaks for them, represents them, and acts on them and they become stereotyped as ‘Woman,’ ‘Colored,’ ‘Queer.’ Thereby made numb, invisible, and paralyzed in the eyes of the Subject, the Other is marginalized from the dominant order and its operation of power can continue.
It is important to stress, however, that this is by no means a stable structure, nor a stable operation. The dominant order will continuously be met by local resistances that will in turn effect its structure and configuration. In fact, power is relationally bound to these local resistances. As Michel Foucalt describes it:
“Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. Should it be said that one is always “inside” power, there is no “escaping” it, there is no absolute outside where it is concerned, because one is subject to the law in any case? Or that, history being the ruse of reason, power is the ruse of history, always emerging the winner? This would be to misunderstand the strictly relational character of power relationships. Their existence depends on a multiplicity of points of resistance: these play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle in power relations. These points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network. Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case: resistances there are possible, necessary, improbable; others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, or violent; still others that are quick to compromise, interested, or sacrificial; by definition, they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations. But this does not mean that they are only a reaction or rebound, forming with respect to the basic domination an underside that is in the end always passive, doomed to perpetual defeat. Resistances do not derive from a few heterogeneous principles; but neither are they a lure or a promise that is of necessity betrayed. They are the odd terms in relations of power; they are inscribed in the latter as an irreducible opposite.”
What Foucault is arguing is that power cannot be assigned to the dominant order solely. Rather, power consists of a multiplicity of force relations that are constantly played out and constantly engender states of power by virtue of their inequality. These states of power are always local, always unstable. In that sense, power is not entirely ‘oppressive,’ but also enables, especially when employed locally against dominant forms of oppression.
Applying this thesis to Western representations of the body, Wallin proposes that in addition to securing the continued dominance of one color, race, sexuality, and gender over others, Western culture’s representational systems also secure the dominance of one kind of body over other kinds. Apart from being white, Anglo, heterosexual, and male, the body in Western culture also has to be normal, fit, and beautiful, that is, perfect. Thus, the body that is abnormal, unfit, ugly, or defect is similarly to the female, colored, and queer body cast in the role of the Other. Due to its physical difference, it constitutes the same alternative to the physique of the body in power and thus evokes the same fear, if not objectified. In the sense that Wallin sets forth to expose the operation of the dominant order in the West’s representations of the body historically, his production could thus be said to denaturalize, if not disturb the subjectification of the normal body and the objectification of its deviant Other. Rather than being the ‘confessions of a handicapped,’ his work thereby unfolds as a series of ‘counter representations’ to Western culture’s dominant representational systems and could be characterized as a ‘local resistance.’ From this perspective, Wallin’s work inscribes itself in the tradition of minority group artists, who in their practice have attempted to counter their marginalized position and stereotype representation in Anglo society as the Other by claiming a space within the representational systems for and by themselves.
The first couple of works in the Physical Sightseeing series focus exclusively on the representation of the defect body in today’s culture. Taking his starting point in the fear that any deviance produces, Wallin brought out Western culture’s contemporary symbol for physical difference per se – the wheelchair. In the video installation Roll On (1996), he thus invited the audience to view his video of two wheelchair users dressed in protective sports equipment from a row of wheelchairs placed in front of the TV monitor. Similarly, in the interactive installation Drive In (1997) he replaced half of the chairs in a public café with wheelchairs. Giving the viewer the opportunity to sit in a wheelchair, Wallin not only offered the audience the possibility of viewing the world from the perspective of the handicapped, but to relate to the chair as a permanent condition of the physically disabled. The wheelchair as a collective sign for all handicapped was thus specified and individualized and its stereotyping effect became visible. More importantly, however, by setting up a situation where the audience had to choose between sitting in a regular chair or a wheelchair, Wallin confronted the viewer with her/his own feelings towards the two types of chairs, thereby forcing them to reflect on the connotations that each chair carry in Western culture. As he recalls in an 1997 interview:
“What was interesting was that whenever people came in[to the café] by themselves, they sat down in the ordinary chairs so that they wouldn’t be mistaken for being handicapped. If they came in in a group, however, then they might dare to sit down in the wheelchairs.”
Structuring Drive In around the moment of choice, Wallin was able to reveal an apparent comfort in the regular chairs and a discomfort in the wheelchairs, that is, a comfort in normality and a fear of difference. Thus pinpointing a desire to be identified as ‘normal’ and a discomfort in being mistaken for a handicapped, Roll On and Drive In carefully laid bare how the power structure of the Western world in a protective move to maintain its order has managed to produce a body culture that idealizes the ‘normal’ body (read: the instituted body) to such a degree that it produces discomfort, even fear, to become identified with the deviant (read: the Other body). The social consequences in the form of cultural and political marginalization, isolation, invisibilitization, objectification, and stereotypization are simply too high.
Interested in the ideological-historical foundation for this fear, in his next series of works Wallin moved back into time, investigating how the deviant body has been represented historically in Western culture and to what extent the historical connotations of these representations have any legacy today. In EXIT (1997), his first computer animated video installation, Wallin thus appropriated a number of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516)’s late 15th and early 16th century drawings of crippled and deform people. Originally studies for Bosch’s painterly representations of ‘simple-minded,’ ‘idiotic,’ or ‘evil’ people condemned to Hell, reproductions of these drawings were scanned into a computer and with the help of computer animation turned into eight characters playing the leading roles in EXIT’s narrative. Set in a fictive universe similar to the universes of contemporary computer games, the viewer follows the desperate movements of these eight severely handicapped characters as they attempt to escape from a raging fire in a one kilometer long corridor. During the intense course of the 3:40 minute long video, three figures make it to the end of the corridor, where a waiting helicopter flies them off into the sunset. The remaining characters, however, end up being consumed by the flames to the stressing cheers and handclaps sounding from the loudspeaker covered corridor walls. Watching how it is only the three least disabled figures that make it to the helicopter, while those more severely handicapped succumb to the fire, the viewer thus became a witness to a fatal 1,000 meter race in which only the ones most physically apt ‘get a medal.’
Conceived as a dream sequence, in which Bosch’s historical figures merge with the contemporary space of computer games and sports events, EXIT thereby unfolded as a wry comment to the fact that the late medieval outlook of Bosch’s society has managed to transpose itself into Western contemporary society more or less intact. Just as Bosch’s society categorized people’s souls according to their physical appearance, Western society today judges ability and personality by physical appearance. And just as Bosch conjoined the deform body with evil, mass media today portrays the villain in a defective body. In that sense, the long-standing tradition for conjoining the good with the beautiful body and evil with the deviant body, which dates back to Antiquity’s and Christianity’s dualistic division of the universe into Heaven and Hell, good and evil, seems unbroken. Whereas beauty, goodness, and perfectness in earlier times were synonymous with Heaven, today they equal the Subject, and whereas ugliness, evilness, and defectness became a symbol of Hell, today they are personified in the Other. And one could argue that ‘salvation’ still lie in overcoming the forces of evil, only today it is done through processes of marginalization and discrimination.
With PHYSICAL PARADISE (1998-99) and LIMBO (1999), Wallin’s subsequent computer animated video installations and his last projects before SKYLINE, it became clear that his computer animated works constituted a mini series of their own, every new piece beginning where the previous ended. In PHYSICAL PARADISE, we thus follow those who were consumed by the fire in EXIT to their final destination – a ‘Physical Paradise’ for handicapped people. On board the space ship ‘Honolulu,’ which is approaching the space station ‘Physical Paradise’ (a gigantic circular structure in orbit with an aquarium in its center), the viewer arrives through the aquarium inside the space station, where a friendly voice announces “Welcome to Physical Paradise. We wish you a pleasant journey.” During the course of the next couple of minutes, the viewer travels, from the perspective of the handicapped, through what appears to be a zero gravity time tunnel of fantastic kaleidoscopic flower images accompanied by the sound of soothing Hawaiian style music, before returning to the space ship and taking off back into space. By never allowing the viewer to actually see the handicapped, but solely visualizing the paradise through the eyes of the disabled, Wallin stressed that in the paradise for the physically disabled their physique is no longer of importance. Gone is the Subject that judges them by their deviant appearance and gone is the gravity that impeded their movements on Earth and made their bodies ache. In the physical paradise, another order exists.
But by indirectly referencing another Bosch work in PHYSICAL PARADISE, namely the painting Ship of Fools (late 15th century), the video installation simultaneously became a harsh critique of Western culture’s tradition for isolating, institutionalizing, and excluding the Other. According to Foucault, the ‘Ship of Fools’ that appears in Bosch’s painting was not just a fashionable motif within the arts in the early Renaissance. It certainly belonged to the series of romantic or satiric ‘Ships of Princes and Battles of Nobility,’ ‘Ships of Virtuous Ladies,’ and ‘Ships of Health’ that appeared in other works at the time and “whose crew of imaginary heroes, ethical models, or social types embarked on a great symbolic voyage which would bring them, if not fortune, then at least the figure of their destiny or their truth,” as he writes. But more importantly, boats for madmen actually existed. From the 14th century and onwards, European cities, and especially German cities, began arresting a number of their wandering madmen and handing them over to boatmen. Upon instruction, these boatmen would then sail the madmen far away from the city limits, often to another city, where they would again get expelled and put on another boat to a new city and so forth. That not all madmen were expelled to a ship but some admitted to hospitals and cared for by the city, however, makes Foucault speculate that maybe “these ships of fools, which haunted the imagination of the entire early Renaissance, were pilgrimage boats, highly symbolic cargoes of madmen in search of their reason.” As he continues:
“…to hand a madman over to sailors was to be permanently sure he would not be prowling beneath the city walls; it made sure that he would go far away; it made him a prisoner of his own departure. But water adds to this dark mass of its own values; it carries off, but it does more: it purifies. Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools’ boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks. The madman’s voyage is at once a rigorous division and an absolute Passage.”
What Foucault is proposing is that the act of setting the madman on board a ship was a ritual act of denouncing death, the great unreason. In the late Middle Ages, the discovery of the inevitability of death shifts to a contemplation of the nothingness of existence itself. In his idiocy and lunacy, the madman comes to represent this nothingness and, as a living man, he is then the very presence of death in life. As a symbol of the reign of death in the world, he thus has to be denounced or it will be the end of the world. Foucault describes this shift as the fear of death turned inward and disarmed by giving it the form of madness: death’s destruction is no longer anything, because it is already everything, manifest in the great nothingness of life which the ‘empty’ head of the madman comes to represent. Setting the madman on board the boat was thus wisdom; the recognition that nothingness already rules in the world and that man is already dead. In that sense, the representation of the ‘Ship of Fools’ that sails through a landscape of delights becomes synonymous with knowledge.
Applying Foucault’s analysis to Wallin’s work, PHYSICAL PARADISE thus becomes a symbol of Western culture’s marginalization and institutionalization of the physically and mentally challenged and its exclusion of the ethnically different. However, by appropriating the iconography of the ‘Ship of Fools’ as a sign of knowledge of the world’s end and combining it with a reference to the time tunnel in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – a tale of a system ‘gone wrong’ and man’s travel to recognition of his finite intelligence in light of the greater secrets of the universe – Wallin also turned PHYSICAL PARADISE into a symbol for the recognition that Western culture’s present system with its discrimination of the Other is similarly near the end; that ‘death’ also rules in the Western world; and that a new structure will have to be proposed. Referencing Hawaii – the West’s conception of paradise on Earth – in the name of his space ship, in the exotic botanica of his time tunnel, and in the music of his sound track and projecting this orientalized culture into space, Wallin’s suggestion is a structure, where the ‘natural laws’ of the Subject have dissolved and where the gravity of the West’s present order has become weightless. In short, a ‘Physical Paradise’ on Earth.
PHYSICAL PARADISE was succeeded by LIMBO, a visually and iconographically very complex work. Also a computer animated video installation, in this piece we follow the three survivors from EXIT as they move from Limbo to the gate of Heaven. Still on board the helicopter that rescued them from the corridor, the characters approach an Olympic stadium crowned by a tall tower bearing the inscription ‘Limbo.’ The entire architectural structure is dramatically lit up by a light show of hundreds of searchlights throwing their beams high up into the dark sky from the exterior wall of the stadium. At the center of the stadium, the Olympic fire is burning and as the helicopter overflies the fire, its flame is blown out and an opening in the ground is revealed. In the following seconds, a formation of malicious angles appear and force the helicopter down the opening. Falling downwards, the helicopter travels through darkness to face, at the end of the opening, the very eye of God. Breaking through God’s eye, the characters on board the helicopter move through a parade of pure geometric symbols and signs to finally arrive in an exotic Roman style bath. Every shape and every form in this universe seem derived from Euclidean geometry and in the pool perfectly cloned swimmers are swimming in perfect synchrony.
Whereas Wallin’s PHYSICAL PARADISE constituted a paradise for the Other, the heaven that he constructed in LIMBO seemed intended solely for the Subject. Only perfect shapes and genetically perfect white bodies meet the eyes of Bosch’s three deform figures and deviance is nowhere to be found. Landing his characters in such a universe, Wallin thus appeared to comment on the ultimate goal of Western science – the development of a genetically perfect human being inhabiting a socially perfect world. As the dream objective of Western mankind, Heaven must clearly be structured around such a flawless and uniform species. The movement from Limbo to Heaven thus became a travel of purification away from Earth’s ‘evilness,’ ‘ugliness,’ and ‘imperfection’ towards Heaven’s ‘goodness,’ ‘beauty,’ and ‘perfection.’ However, by letting the Berlin Olympic Stadium, which architect Werner March designed for Hitler in 1934 to house the 1936 Olympic Games, symbolize Limbo and lighting it up by animating reproductions of the famous light spectacles that architect Albert Speer designed for a number of the 1930s NSDAP mass meetings, Wallin stressed that such a dream objective is dangerously close to Hitler’s Holocaust project and the eugenics carried out by the scientists in his concentration camps. In other words, Western culture’s notions of Heaven, and who is admitted, borders fascism.
Like Wallin’s earlier computer animated video installations, his most recent computer animated work SKYLINE also took over where the previous piece ended. In addition to continuing the narrative, SKYLINE, however, also seemed to address the very epistemological preconditions for the body culture that was criticized in the earlier works as well as the premises for its continued existence. In that sense, SKYLINE could be said to be explanatory for Wallin’s entire artistic discourse in ways his previous pieces had not been: Having addressed the fear of the defect body in today’s culture in the wheelchair installations, traced its ideological-historical foundation in EXIT, proposed an alternative to its resulting exclusion of the Other in PHYSICAL PARADISE, and pointed to its fascist opposite in the clone inhabited Heaven of LIMBO, with SKYLINE Wallin moved on to discuss the very body ideal expressed in the dream of the cloned human being and its epistemological premise, both historically, scientifically, and representationally.
SKYLINE was completed in 2000 and conceived for the former Assembly Hall of Moderna museet’s Old Vicarage. Essentially a video installation, SKYLINE consisted as much of the gray-brown painted maze structure, which led the viewer into a small, dark projection room from the entrance hall, as of the 3:10 minute long computer animated video that was being back projected onto a screen wall in that same room. Taking the visitor from the bright sunlight of the outdoors into the dark interior of the projection room, the maze functioned as ‘passage of transition’ from the reality of the Old Vicarage to the fictive universe of the computer animation.
Against a gray sky so heavily clouded that it seemed visually impenetrable, a strange architectural construction appeared before the eyes of the viewer. Not attached to anything, it seemed to be floating in the sky like a space station in orbit. Consisting of a tall granite covered tower with a white, roofless octagonal structure attached to its base, the construction constituted a bizarre composite. High up on a platform inside the skyscraper-looking tower, a group of identical male athletic figures in the nude were standing straight, looking out of the tower’s upper glass section. Down, on center of the floor of the octagonal structure, which connoted a Renaissance theater or a Roman arena with its ascending rows of parquets, a white, oval table stood, its top covered by clean cut body parts.
To the viewer, the function of and relation between the two parts of the architectural composite became apparent only during the course of the next couple of minutes as a series of nude, male athletes identical to the ones in the tower appeared on the sky in rings or swings and one after the other attempted to reach the roof top opening by either spinning, long jumping, or somersaulting through the air. Letting go of their apparatus and jumping towards the tower, the athletes one by one, however, missed and were cut to pieces as they crashed against the edge of the tower’s roof top. Limb by limb, the body parts landed on the oval table in the octagonal structure, passing in their fall downwards by the athletes watching safely from the inside of the tower. At no point in the video was there any blood to be seen, nor any screams to be heard; only the sound of the blowing wind, beating hearts, breathing lungs, sighing off-screen onlookers, and thudding flesh as the body parts piled up on the table. Only one athlete, the sixth to jump, never actually reached the table. Swinging through the air in a pair of rings with his body bent in a 90° angle, he seemed to be the only athlete actually able to reach the roof top opening. Prepared to do a long jump, the athlete, however, reconsidered and swung back only to return hanging in the swings like a ‘T’ and break his neck against the roof top edge. Falling downwards, the viewer anticipated his body parts to land on the table, but not one limb ever arrived. The athlete’s body seemed as if evaporated.
Beginning his video with an unsuccessful jump, ending it with one, and never actually depicting the jumps of those athletes who had already made it to the inside of the tower, Wallin gave the audience the impression that they had witnessed only a small sequence of an endless series of successful and unsuccessful jumps. The sense that the number of athletes appearing on the sky were indefinite was only reinforced by the fact that the short video was played continuously in a loop, making the viewer believe that if she/he stayed long enough, she/he might get to see some athletes actually making it to the tower opening.
Structured around the narrative of successful and unsuccessful jumpers, SKYLINE thus became a visualization of a brutal selection process. Finding themselves at the border between earth and sky, as the title of the piece indicates, the athletes face the prospect of either making it to the safety of the tower or ending up as clean cut limbs on the oval table. As in EXIT, their fate depends on their physical ability. Modelling his athletes on reproductions of historical anatomical models of the white, Anglo, male body, all Wallin’s athletes are Anglo males, however, and do not belong to the category of the deviant Other, who is either set on board the spaceship ‘Honolulu’ or condemned to linger in Limbo until pure enough to enter the Subject’s Heaven. They are themselves Subjects having to justify their admittance into their Heaven. Where LIMBO could be said to discuss the problematics of our notions of the Subject’s Heaven, SKYLINE thus continued this discourse by focusing on the criteria for admittance into the heavenly, that is, on what grounds the Subject is permitted entrance. As a testimony to these criteria were the athletes already inside the tower. Only they had been capable of measuring the length to the tower correctly and adjust their jump accordingly, that is, only they possessed a body and a mind in perfect balance, which qualified them as true Subjects. Those without such a balance were rejected and ended up as limbs on the table. On an immediate level, Wallin’s narrative of successful and unsuccessful athletes thus became a visualization of our Western body ideal, dating back to Antiquity’s and Christianity’s ideal of the perfect body as the symbol of the perfect spirit. Choosing only to depict the jumps of athletes, who did not make it inside the tower, Wallin, however, stressed that this body ideal is indeed fiction – a cultural construction – that nobody can fulfill.
In addition to visualizing the constructive nature of our Western body ideal, Wallin’s decision to depict solely the athletes who were rejected also became a way to discuss how this ideal, despite its fiction, is indeed operative in today’s society and has resulted in actual selection processes historically. Structuring the video on the athletes’ fall from their gymnastic apparatuses onto the oval table during which they are transformed from living human beings to a series of cut off limbs as a result of their collision with the tower, Wallin visualized a literal transformation of the human body from living subject to dead object. While moving through the air, the athletes were clearly represented as subjects, the sound of their beating hearts and breathing lungs being recorded as heard through their ears and the view of the approaching tower and table being animated as seen through their eyes. Shifting, however, to the view point of the athletes inside the tower or an off-screen spectator every time the limbs approached the table, Wallin underlined that a transformation of the body from subject to object took place. On an ideological level, Wallin thus visualized how the subject, who does not qualify as a Subject, becomes an Object to be represented and acted upon in the eyes of the instituted Subject.
Modeling his athletes on actual historical anatomical models and landing their cut off limbs in an animation of Olof Rudbeck the Elder’s Anatomical Theater, erected at Uppsala University, Sweden in 1662-63 for public dissections of the human body, Wallin traced this transformation in the conception of the body historically. Both Rudbeck’s theater, whose oval dissection table made public the secrets of the human body to an audience, as well as the anatomical model, which became part of the inventory in the modern laboratory, are examples of a scientific approach to the body as an object to be observed, mapped, categorized, regulated, and disciplined. According to Foucault, this approach is a result of a fundamental epistemological shift in the Western understanding of the body from vessel of the spirited subject to object of scientific observation and control. Due to the demographic explosion in the 17th and 18th century and the rise of parliamentary institutions and new conceptions of political liberty, an unprecedented intensification of Western culture’s administration and discipline of the body emerged. Mere political allegiance or the appropriation of the products of the body’s labor was no longer enough; the body’s operations and forces also had to be regulated and controlled. The modernization of institutions such as the army, the school, the hospital, the prison, and the manufactory all played a crucial role in this new discipline of the body, which according to Foucault produced the ‘modern’ subject. As he writes:
“What was being formed was a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A ‘political anatomy,’ which was also a ‘mechanics of power,’ was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus, discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.”
Thus, the enclosure of the student within a classroom behind a desk, the drilling of the soldier within the platoon, the surveillance of the prisoner within the cell, and the isolation and observation of the patient within the ward were all components in a rigid control of the subject’s time and space that not only objectified the subject, but created a sense of individualism and heightened self-consciousness, which Foucault considered the hallmarks of ‘modern’ times. Isolated from other prisoners within his cell and constantly being surveyed, a state of conscious and permanent visibility was induced in the inmate that made him regulate his activities according to the rules of the prison. In that sense, the control of the prisoner’s time and space turned him into his own ‘jailer;’ an indication that the disciplinary control, that is, power worked not only on the body, but also the mind.
Another effect of this intensification of the administration and discipline of the body is the production of bodily standards and categories. By isolating and observing disease, scientific knowledge was obtained about sickness, allowing for scientific definitions of diseases in opposition to health. Letting the limbs pile up on Rudbeck’s public dissection table and allowing the viewer and off-screen spectators in the animated theater to carefully inspect them during the course of the video, Wallin seemed to suggest that also the historical anatomical and genetic mapping of the body resulted in scientific knowledge about the human physique and that it was because of the possibility to publicly access this knowledge through Rudbeck’s open lectures that this scientific knowledge was turned into cultural standards for what constitutes a ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ physique. Contrary to common belief, the fact that Rudbeck’s theater was open to a public was not an exception to the rule. According to Bruno LaTour, who has researched the emergence and function of the modern laboratory, the image of the scientist insulated inside his laboratory and keeping the findings of his experiments to himself, belonged to a period when God still provided all the answers to the mysteries of the universe and a scientific approach to Nature was still considered heresy. With the arrival of modernity, these answers were no longer sought in God but posed directly to Nature. As Nature is mute, the modern scientist therefore needed an impartial human audience, who could witness, verify, and interpret Nature’s ways as presented in the experiment. In the modern laboratory, God was thus for the first time temporarily put aside and a sharp division between Nature and Culture emerged. In addition to becoming a metaphor for the fundamental epistemological shift that has taken place in our understanding of the body from vessel of the spirited subject to object of scientific observation and control, SKYLINE thus also appeared as a comment on how the public circulation of knowledge creates cultural standards and ideals.
Basing the movements and body aesthetics of his athletic figures on a number of the athletes that appeared in Riefenstahl’s Olympia documentary and letting March’s Olympic Tower (which also occurred in LIMBO) be the element that they fatally collide with, Wallin then showed what this public distribution of ideals can lead to. Quoting March and Riefenstahl, he not only re-presented the Aryan body ideal that the Nazis constructed through their discipline and regulation of the body, but simultaneously referred to how the new mass media of carefully orchestrated mass events and cinema played a crucial role in promoting this ideal to millions. This public mass distribution of the Aryan body ideal not only reinforced Hitler’s notion of ‘One Leader, One People, One Reich,’ but paved the way for the discipline and regulation of the non-Aryan body that he contrived, that is, Holocaust’s selection processes of eugenics.
THE CRITICAL POTENTIAL OF MAGNUS WALLIN’S COMPUTER ANIMATION
With Wallin’s reference to mass media’s role in the distribution of the Aryan body ideal, we arrive at the crux of SKYLINE and Wallin’s artistic practice in general. One could argue that the reading of SKYLINE that I have just presented rested entirely on my ability to recognize and decode the works of Riefenstahl, March, and Rudbeck that Wallin appropriated in his animation. Never revealing in the video the identity of these appropriations, Wallin, however, seemed to stress that SKYLINE’s production of meaning is not wholly dependent upon the viewer’s familiarity with the origin of his quotes. Even for the viewers, who were unfamiliar with the exact anatomical models that Wallin based the anatomy of his athletes on, the jumpers might have brought to mind the models, samples, and drawings of the human body that inhabit Western biology class rooms, hospitals, and laboratories. Similarly, from the many documentaries on Nazi Germany broadcast on TV, some spectators might not have recognized March’s Olympic Tower directly, but been familiar with its architectural aesthetics. Also, the origin and function of Rudbeck’s theater might not have been known to a non-Swedish audience, but could possibly have connoted a Roman arena full of gladiators or a Renaissance theater filled with spectacle. And, if not revealing themselves as exact quotes from Riefenstahl’s Olympia, the movements and body aesthetics of the athletes, weightlessly floating in the air against a clouded sky, as well as the camera positions and shooting angles, by which they were animated, might have recalled similar photography techniques and body aesthetics being used in contemporary dance photography, sports coverage, TV shows such as Baywatch, and car, perfume, and fashion advertising.
In that sense, Wallin’s choice not to reveal the identity of his appropriations in the work became a way to stress that the body ideal promoted by the anatomical models and Riefenstahl’s Olympia is still circulating in Western culture due to a continued perception of the body as an object to be regulated and disciplined, which March’s tower and Rudbeck’s theater exemplified. And that it is because of this ideal’s continued reproduction in mass media that his viewers are able to read the work, regardless of whether they are familiar with the origin of the quotes or not. Following this line of thought, Wallin’s looping of the 3:10 minute long tape then became yet another way of stressing how these representations of the ideal body are still circulating, while his incorporation of sighs from and viewpoints of an off-screen audience indicated how these images are still capable of attracting, even seducing, an audience.
Commenting on the continued circulation of this body ideal in mass media and its ability to attract an audience, SKYLINE thus unfolded a harsh critique of the commercialization of a fascist body aesthetics as it was first appeared in the documentaries of Riefenstahl. By focusing on the commercialization, however, Wallin wisely refrained from attacking Riefenstahl directly, his mission being not to condemn her for what she had unintentionally done in the past, in the sense that the past cannot be undone, but to criticize those who intentionally continue to make use of her seductive aesthetics to entertain or sell a product. Just as Wallin did not blame Bosch for his representations of deform bodies, neither did he set out to accuse Riefenstahl, the point not being that she had once produced this body aesthetics, but that it continues to be quoted despite an awareness of the ideology that rooted it and the connotations that it produces. In that sense, Wallin seemed to argue that whenever one ‘forgives’ the fascist element in Riefenstahl’s documentary work to re-use her aesthetics, one reproduces its fascist ideology, thus becoming very close to being complicit in the promotion of the idealization of the Aryan body, the extermination of the ‘degenerate’ body, and the ‘dissolution’ of the individual in the mass. In other words, any re-use of Riefenstahl’s body aesthetics that happens uncommented and uncritically cannot but reproduce its ideology.
So what made Wallin’s re-use of Riefenstahl’s body aesthetics any different from what I have just described above? How did he avoid reproducing its fascist ideology in his appropriation of it? In a sense, he did reproduce her aesthetics, but by juxtaposing it with other images that pushed its connotations in different directions in the composite space of the computer animation, Wallin critically commented on the workings of it. The critical potential of Wallin’s computer animations thus seems to lie in their ability to not only juxtapose existing stereotype images in order to disturb their connotations, but to re-combine them and create entirely new spaces, new narratives, and new structures that deconstruct old mythologies and propose alternatives.
CHANGING THE MODELS
In an overall view, SKYLINE unfolded as a comment to the power of images and the responsibility that image producers have when sending their representations out into the world. A responsibility that involves being aware of how representational systems function, how one contributes to the reproduction of them, and, more importantly, how one can pose alternatives to them. From that perspective, the sixth athlete in SKYLINE, who seemed capable of reaching the roof top opening, but reconsidered only to break his neck against the roof top edge and evaporate, could be said to represent the subject, who intentionally refused to enter both the heavenly tower of Subjects and the dissection table of Objects, his act of reconsideration and consequential evaporation thus representing an alternative to and resistance towards the Subject-Object structure he was faced with. Hanging like a ‘T’ in the swing, this athlete in many ways resembled the figure of Christ.