Charlotte Johannesson, Hardy Strid and Leif Eriksson; to this partial list of art luminaries from Southern Sweden whose work has been offered for reconsideration this fall in the Malmö-region, the name Vassil Simittchiev must now be added. Only a few years removed from his survey show Documentations and Sketches 1979-2012 at Moderna Museet in Malmö, Simittchiev’s eponymous exhibition of new work at Lunds’s konsthall has an oddly retrospective feel. Which is to say that of an artist, now in his late 70s, mining decades’ worth of artistic output for proven gestures and untested ideas.
Since moving from Bulgaria – where he worked as a sculptor on monuments celebrating the communist regime – to Malmö in 1975, Simittchiev’s actions, and temporary installations in public space have drawn comparisons to contemporaries such as Christo (a fellow Bulgarian) and Robert Smithson; affinities with the work of Michael Asher and Daniel Buren are also clear. Simittchiev, however, seems less concerned with entropy or the dynamics of institutional power than with historical processes, often activating symbolically-charged sites and opening them to contestation.
The in-process and the unfinished hold prominent places in this show, whose mezzanine floor is devoted to thematically-arranged didactic displays of the artist’s past projects. This includes video documentation of performances and actions, as well as sketches and maquettes for public projects, both fanciful and actual. Evincing conceptual continuity and methodological commitment over the years, this puts forth an oeuvre startling in both its rigor and coherence. It also, however, has a rather stifling effect on the new works (all 2017) exhibited on the ground floor, many of which register as faint echoes of the work upstairs.
An installation without a title, for instance, covering the floor of the konsthall’s inner courtyard in plate-glass – under which a set of white coveralls is pinned flat – rehashes the artist’s notorious action from 1985 The Glass Quay for which he covered Hjälmarekajen in Malmö with 6000 square meters of glass which was then broken by heavy trucks. Likewise, in the main gallery Untitled (Draft Proposal for Rebuilding the Garden), a mechanical model proposing to build-out the courtyard as a transparent, retractable exhibition space, evokes not only the artist’s mirror cubes from the 1970s, but also his proposal to preserve the mausoleum of communist leader Georgi Dimitriov in Sofia (by bisecting it with a wall of glass, no less). Nailed to the wall opposite, a replica of a t-shirt that Simittchiev made for students during his time as a teacher at The University of Art, Craft and Design in Stockholm, upon which the phrase is printed (in Swedish): “art is always something else.”
Just so, many of the new works register allegorically – pointing toward each other, as well as to historical figures such as Duchamp, Einstein and Manzoni – in a somewhat wistful play of correspondences. A looping video of the artist’s hands turning over a large lump of clay finds an analog in the sculpture Mona Lisa’s Hands; the swaying green boughs in Life, a four-channel video projection, recrudesce in massive, gnarled oak branches installed in the rear hall and given the title, Destruction. Handwritten on an adjacent wall, mathematical notation for the theory of relativity.
The big questions these works ask about (space-)time, knowledge, and eternal returns of the same, feel appropriate for an artist looking to cement his place among Sweden’s foremost conceptualists. But for those less concerned with art-historical patrimony, the quasi-metaphysical musings on view fall short – particularly of the transcendent claims made by art critic Dan Jönsson in his catalog essay. “Pure energy” they are not.
It is something of a surprise, then, that one of the show’s most direct works is also among its most generative. The photo-mural Untitled (You Are Here), is an aerial map of Lund on which the konsthall is encircled in bright orange spray paint. A superfluous gesture, except perhaps for those wanting to go elsewhere. By suggesting another destination, an unnamed location outside the white cube, You Are Here points toward the potential of the city – and by extension, the everyday – as a site of aesthetic experience and transport. As in Simittchiev’s most compelling and urgent work, urban space is reinstated as a field of composition; the art, it would appear, is somewhere else.