September 15 – October 9 2016
What is the act of buying a fruit?
It proclaims nothing loudly and yet it controls the world. Capitalism that is. It is hard to imagine it could be any different. Theorists and critics such as Frederic Jameson, Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher have already told us that. The latter with the icy statement: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” The words stem from Fisher’s idea of capitalist realism, which in short proposes that in a capitalist reality there is no room for imagining alternative social structures, only for modi cations within the system itself.
Art though, has persistently tried. It was a more or less stated mission of the avant-gardes to transform society and put an end to the existing socio-economic system which trapped subjects in an inane, trivial everyday life. Art was seen as a possibility, as a passage to another, freer world in which individuals could gain control over their own lives.
As known, the avant-gardes did not succeed to phase out the dominance of capital. The project (this hyper current activity format with roots in utopian representations) were driven into an all-or-nothing radicalism where the abandonment of art at the same time stood as a last pride and the nal submission. Since then, anti-capitalism in contemporary art has been more nuanced and less vociferous. Perhaps for the reason that the end of everything appears to be more realistic, as Fisher puts it.
Kristina Bengtsson’s solo exhibition, Footnotes, at Melk in Oslo, is a photographic and sculptural staging of a vacuum where uctuation always returns to a status quo – as if capitalist reality has achieved the status of natural law. Attempts at resistance generate backlashes and as high tide is replaced by low tide and vice versa capitalism and criticism sling around each other in an intimate, symbiotic choreography. You can dance or not. The latter stands on your own account.
There is a sense of impasse haunting Bengtsson’s works, of attempts to come to terms with a reality which should be different, of trying to nd ways to exist if the alternative is not to exist. There is an ongoing cultivation of a material language which can express the complexity of Bengtsson’s observations of everyday life. Subtlety seems to be the language that Bengtsson has embraced. Generally, from the choice of materials and colour palette to compositions and titles, there is a subtlety that ensures that the works do not close in on themselves but retain an openness. Perhaps caution is what some would say is the negative tone of subtlety. There is something right about that. But an artistic orientation towards the subtle is no less interesting in those optics. In addition to being an image of a condition, subtle language forms a resistance against rapid, reductive digital communication, for example, as a way of ying below the radar, like poetry.
The photographic series Composition Status Quo is a good example of how perceptions of a complex reality and subtle critique of capitalism are expressed in Bengtsson’s works. She has photographed fruit and vegetables while travelling and placed them in tight and beautiful compositions with cardboard packaging that she has picked up from the street. She has done so over a period of several years, hence the serial format. Although initially appearing simple, there is much to read out of the eleven collage works, which besides being images of consumption and waste also testify to a dry, yet humorous approach to the question of what to do with(in) capitalism.
Bengtsson has established a number of obstructions for herself, little rules and systems which she meticulously follows. She goes to the marketplace and buys the least marketable fruit or vegetable in one of the stalls. She photographs it and then she eats it. These immediately meaningless actions bring direction and targeted navigation into the day. Also, they emphasise the indisputably necessary action of them all: eating.
By rendering the basic absurd in this way, Bengtsson critically points to the much greater absurdity surrounding us all the time. She points to a sense of not being able to navigate even in the smallest things, for as Bengtsson asks: “What is the act of buying a fruit? Should I buy locally? Which working conditions am I giving my consent to somewhere else in the world?”
Capitalism does pretty much the same. It equips actions with a higher meaning, so that it becomes attractive to perform them. Capitalism has always had the need to do so; to renew its action motivating ideological justi cations in a way so that criticism subsides and workers’ dedication and commitment to production is upheld.
Universal de-narrativisation, modern loss of faith and a growing feeling that the world is defactualised and false create a (highly marketable) desire for meaning and authenticity. This is a large, truism-loaded and nauseating subject, hard to get around without calling on canonised literary works. That Bengtsson’s sculpture work Three hats in a conversation in a gallery can be read as an image of postmodernity as a non-historical, post-political condition, fragmented and poor in context and meaning, should not be trivialized though. The work must, as goes for the collage series, be read in its critical and satirical foot- notes, so to say. The three hats, which are made of white concrete, are replicas of an old gentleman’s hat that Bengtsson has bought at a ea market. Each hat has been cut into ve pieces, which are presented on a raw MDF pedestal. True as it may be that there are shifts in the organisation of power and that neither god nor king has much to say anymore, but the white male still does.
Through those optics, the fragmented hats become bankers, businessmen and other nancial types with tie and creased pants. They discuss important matters regarding the world. They do so in a gallery, on a staircase, even on a red carpet. The latter location expresses something more homely, perhaps as an image of cognac and cigar sessions in the very inner circle. They control everything, the hat men. Even art and other oppositional actions ultimately belong to those with economic power. When for example a digital creative nomad lays in a hammock on Koh Phangan (this is currently the great idea about free life), shelter for the night is still needed — and the hotel industry has spotted a good business in marketing itself as base for this so-called independent consumer type. No need to say that the old love affair between money and freedom has not ceased to exist.
Perhaps this is also what is at stake in Bengtsson’s It’s just my job. Hanging from the wall in a rotatable frame, is a photo of a bucket and a mop left beneath a wall decoration by Swedish artist and designer Sigvard Olsson at the City Hall subway station in Stockholm. Whether it is cleaning work or the art installation being referred to in the title is unclear. Maybe it is both. In that case, a certain self-criticism nds its way into the already very nuanced critique in Bengtsson’s practice. The role of art in a capitalist reality is brought into question.
It is reasonable to think that Bengtsson points to similarities between the worker and the artist. Or to go further, that she allows herself to imply that more is expected from art than what art is actually capable of doing. To come back to Fisher’s theory, art in times with no imaginations of alternatives to the dominant social structures is closer to being a kind of labour, as all it can manage are modi cations with- in the system itself. That art is just a job seems understated though. Displaying absurdities and bringing forth important questions is still very much at the core of contemporary art.
/ Maria Bordorff
Kristina Bengtsson (b. 1979) lives in Copenhagen. Working with photography, text and sculpture she explores the intersection between language, society and identity. Recent exhibitions include Dislocating Surfaces, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo; La Maison du Fada, Breadfield, Malmö; I don’t think what you are saying is rational, Danske Grafikere, Copenhagen; The devil is in the detail, Westwerk, Hamburg. Recent publications include The Ravished Image: Or How To Illuminate by Alteration, Publication Studio; No particular future in mind, Hour Editions; We Look and We See, in collaboration with Lotten Pålsson, Sailorpress. Bengtsson is also the co-founder of the publishing house and curatorial platform Hour Projects/Hour Editions. Footnotes is Bengtsson’s first solo exhibition in Norway.