Conceptual Art: the Geopolitical Reception

One feels close to the art-historical scene of the crime in OEI's thematic issue on concept art in Sweden.

Björnligan, 1972.

Whereas pop art’s traversing of the border between high and low is historic, and minimalism’s style more and more resembles something from an industrial era, conceptual art has remained fresh: it offers living evidence of the work’s theory, criticism, and social relevance. But since the 1960s it has also been clear that «neutral» concepts are gendered, that even a «dematerialized» art has form and materiality, and that conceptualism at some points overlaps a cognitive capitalism. So there isn’t discussion of a transparent or ideal art: furthermore, it is an art that has a place, a site.

Since the exhibition Global Conceptualism (1999) the reception has been characterized by geopolitical perspectives, among other things in response to how the art institution has sometimes confused New York conceptual art with a «universal» conceptualism. A geopolitical angle can broaden such a centralized perspective, open blind angles on other localities, and function as a critique of the specific, social, and political circumstances of art. Conceptualism is now being examined in this way in the East (cf. philosopher Boris Groys’ work with the 1980s Soz-Art scene in Moscow) and the West (a 2008 exhibition in Berlin was called Conceptual Art from California). With the Swedish journal OEI’s thematic issue on the history of conceptual art in Sweden, eyes turn to the north with a series of overview articles, interviews, and bibliographic essays.

J.O. Mallander and Mats B.

Regarding national borders it is tempting on the other hand to pose more or less relevant questions about passports and national culture (what does it mean, for example, that one of the OEI volume’s main people, artist-critic J.O. Mallander, is a Swedish Finn?). The geopolitical is thus also an elementary notion with its own boundaries and limitations. One cannot deconstruct an art form by means of the national or the regional—dimensions which in themselves are arbitrary and require critical treatment. In her essay on the Swedish-Argentine artist Juan Carlos Peirone, Marianna Garin problematizes the geopolitical premise as follows: «To speak of a Latin American conceptual art undermines the possibilities of finding diversity, not least because the term does not take into account the heterogeneities built into the ‘Latin American’». A national inflecting of conceptualism is vulnerable to a similar tension between diversity and particularity, nationality and transnationality. For the critic the challenge consists in going out through this dialectic and articulating productive differences: the geopolitical should be applied loosely, in a certain sense used opportunistically, and must be challenged hermeneutically.

Mats B., Grisalda.

Several of the contributors in OEI ask what became of conceptual art in Sweden, and there are many readings of domestic institutional politics and exhibition history. However, one misses an even stronger approach to cultural criticism. The strength of a geopolitical reading is the analysis of historical materiality. Thus one cannot write about Argentine or Brazilian style in the 1960s without naming the dictatorship. Can one write about Scandinavian art in the same period without thematically treating folkhemmet (the Swedish “People’s home”) and social-democratic modernity? Without discussing what meanings an esthetics of administration acquires in the welfare state? More easily said than done, of course: this theme, unlike dictatorship’s repression, does not constitute an obvious script for critical response—but it surely remains relevant even so.

It was through self-organization and artists’ publications that conceptual art acquired a—marginal—existence in Sweden. According to OEI a key characteristic of Swedish conceptualism is its partial coinciding with the prog-culture: in that connection J.O. Mallander was involved in the artist-operated gallery Cheap Thrills in Helsinki 1971-77; as he has said, he opposed «everything that tended toward institutionalization». The hippie accent on conceptualism in this case is important to assess, for example in relation to New York conceptualism’s strategic attempt to infiltrate the art market with a new conception of the work, or Soz-art’s clandestine existence in Moscow during perestroika. There is an interesting paradox in the circumstance that a Swedish «prog-conceptualism» coexisted with the underground’s project for a life art. But it is also a tricky problematic precisely because it is counter-intuitive and the examples of it are, I think, few. (A couple of times Drakabygget is proposed as a pre-conceptualist project: I strongly doubt that the Situationists’ crea-eroticism and spontanism have any relevance for this genealogy.)

Carl-Erik Ström, Fotografens Makt, 1979.

New empirical evidence makes it necessary to renew the question, «What is Conceptual Art?» Whereas North American conceptual art is often understood in parallel with other new-avant-garde movements like Minimal and Earth Art, conceptualism in Sweden, says OEI, was characterized by concretism, Fluxus, mail art and lettrism. With these precedents conceptualism was versionized between the hands—or between the ears—of artists like Nils Olof Bonnier and Mats B., the artist-group Björnligan, and others. For example, Cecilia Grönberg proposes convincingly in her fine essay on Carl-Erik Ström that this artist’s highly impure practice consisted of «equal parts ritual, Land Art, Fluxus, animism, surrealism, gröna vågen (1970s movement from cities back to rural land), ecology, Eastern philosophy, performance, and Arte Povera».

As earlier pointed out there remains a risk that supplementing historical circumstances can wipe out differences. When critic Torsten Ekbom is cited as saying that C.F. Reuterswärd created conceptual art «long before this word reached our remote shores», does it perhaps say just as much about an expectation one has acquired about this word’s critical authority, as it does about Reuterswärd’s work? Mention is also made by way of introduction that the Danish periodical Ta’ was an early influence on Swedish conceptualism. Although Ta’ possibly filtered idea-art currents, this journal was interesthetic and concerned with the poetics of the visual: not «new-purist», but already a forum for mixed forms.

Bengt Adlers.

The extensive reproduction of original books, works, and articles comprises half of the special issue of OEI and moves on an independent parallel track of facsimiles. The reader has direct archival access to selected material and finds a place close to the art-historical scene of the crime. Still, a certain energetic persistence helps in reading the photographed documents, and it can be confusing that the facsimiles are printed at the cost of pictorial examples in the articles (when one for example reads about Carl-Erik Strøm on the recto page, one sees on the verso a facsimile of Mats B.). But in this way the material has provided resistance in many books about conceptual art since Lucy Lippard’s famous Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973), which itself can be tarred with the same brush.

The reception of conceptual art, not least from the October-circle, has accustomed us to thinking of it as an esthetic of the text. It is enveloped in the silence of the archive and the book. Here it seems productive that OEI includes genres and art forms vis-à-vis experiments argued from a less text-centered position that also took place, and essays on such figures as Sten Hanson and Pärson Sound are there to open perspectives on sound art, as Jonas (J) Magnusson’s essay on Bengt Adler does with the lyric.

OEI’s archive-fever is infectious, and I had a fine time during the reading of their thematic issue on conceptual art in Sweden—not least because it provides an introduction to the work of several little-known artists, and in that way forms a preliminary sketch for writing about this early example of a post-structuralist art practice in the Nordic countries.

Translation from the Danish by Richard Simpson.