Disaster Sculpture

At almost 80 years of age, Swedish sculptor Lars Kleen aspires to renew his medium at every turn. His most recent work evokes the dire consequences of climate change.

Lars Kleen, Ö (Island) (view from above), 2016–2018. Foto: Jan Watteus.

The soon-to-be 80-year old Swedish sculptor Lars Kleen is difficult to categorize. Perhaps he is best described by Sol LeWitt’s sentence, “irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,” but in reverse. Kleen often begins with an idea for a certain structure, whereas the execution is carried out intuitively rather than “logically.” LeWitt meant that artists shouldn’t “change their minds” while working, which Kleen doesn’t adhere to at all. He often makes new versions of sculptures, rebuilds them and develops an idea to bring it to its head.

What Kleen does have in common with conceptual art, though, is an interest in repetition, found material, and seriality. He is, however, an empiricist rather than a rationalist. Where LeWitt argued that subjective elements in the working process will result in repeating past results, Kleen’s philosophy is the exact opposite: he seeks the unpredictable, what you can only see when all parts are there, and which is then perceived as something new, something you haven’t seen before.

The result of this curious – and rather time-consuming – process has been on view this fall at the self-organised exhibition space Kummelholmen in Vårberg, a Stockholm suburb. The first part of the exhibition was titled Båt (Boat) and opened in September. Kleen was given carte blanche in the space, a disused boiler station made of raw concrete and steel, and spent the summer working on the exhibition. The second part, Ö (Island), opened on Saturday.

Lars Kleen, Däck (Deck), 2001. Foto: Jan Watteus.

The suburban setting is not unimportant, as Kleen has always been preoccupied with the postwar era’s great construction projects, at least according to the art critic Ulf Linde, who saw the demolitions in Stockholm in the 1960s as an important influence for the artist as a young man. But if there is a critique of modernity in Kleen’s work is hardly unequivocal. His world may be grey, but it would be a mistake to describe him as dystopian. Evidently, he still believes that it’s possible to take something old and turn it into something new. In that respect he is an optimist. What is required is an addition of time, the patience to absorb what becomes visible only at a distance.

In an introductory text, Kleen suggests that his dual exhibition can be seen in the light of climate change. The boat motif is evocative of the idea of the deluge in Abrahamic religions, but also of present-day climate refugees, whose numbers are predicted to increase in the coming years. During the first exhibition period, an impressive structure stood in the middle of the room, like a splayed whale carcass made of ropes, concrete steel and rocks frozen in a rotating movement. The whole thing rested on a bed of sand, which accentuated the feeling that what we were seeing was in fact a wreck at the bottom of the sea, and that we ourselves were submerged.

Lars Kleen, Ö (Island), 2016–2018. Foto: Jan Watteus.

This has now been replaced by a collection of elevated plates in different shapes forming an island. A ladder stretches up from the cracked surface with a similar rotating movement as the boat. Some of the ladder’s steps have been replaced by tree branches, an image of life’s ability to grow and regenerate. The most fascinating aspect is the meandering pattern between the plates, visible from the above floor. It makes me think of the rhythm in a Jackson Pollock painting. I don’t know whether Kleen wants to “be nature,” but he clearly sees organic growth patterns as a template for his structures. He aspires to nature’s rawness and rigidity, I think.

Another way to think about this is provided by Kleen himself, in a framed photograph of Maya Plisetskaya (1925–2015) displayed on a concrete pillar further into the exhibition. Plisetskaya was prima ballerina assoluta at the Bolshoi Theatre during the Soviet era. It’s easy to see parallels between classical ballet and Kleen’s dramatically lit ladder, halted mid-pirouette. The next room is filled almost to the ceiling with pallets, thrown around as if by a hurricane. I think Kleen wants to remind us of art’s ability to preserve that which is human in a brutal or inhumane situation. This was the case in the Soviet Union, and this is the case in contemporary “disaster capitalism,” where war and natural disaster become pretexts for intensifying the exploitation of a region, all while people are displaced from their homes.

The pallets are actually storage boxes for the parts of Ö, but initially I read them as unique sculptures. This is not surprising, since, for Kleen, there is not always a clear distinction between model, draft, and work. One of the side rooms features several models of the same, unrealised sculpture. Perhaps Kleen has yet to find the right form, or perhaps he just hasn’t had the opportunity to execute it full-scale. His large formats mean that he needs access to a suitable space for a prolonged period of time, which of course runs against the logic of most exhibition spaces. But, oddly enough, even his large-scale sculptures can appear as models of themselves. As if they are not really of this world, but exist only on their own premise, consisting of mainly two factors: the material properties and load-bearing power of the structure.

Lars Klee, Ölådor (Island boxes), 2018. Foto: Jan Watteus.

The downside of this is that the viewer can get stuck in admiring how Kleen has achieved a certain construction, technically. Engineering takes over from sculpture. The artist’s work effort gets in the way of the possibility to absorb the poetic force of the expression.

Still, Kleen makes me think of the anthropologist David Graeber, who has argued that it was the postwar growth of mass-bureaucratisation which actually caused modernity’s broken promise. It was paperwork that killed the future. Instead of flying cars, we got computerisation and New Public Management. Graber’s theory is speculative, of course, but would actually explain why the bureaucratic art, of which Sol LeWitt is one of the chief harbingers, feels so hopelessly dated and futile today. The only thing it can do is point to its own inability to produce any new or unexpected results. Kleen belongs to the group of artists who disrupt this idea, and demonstrate that it is still possible to renew the medium of sculpture.

Kummelholmen also deserve praise for this exhibition, the result of the artist having unlimited access to the exhibition space for several months. This is a welcome reminder that self-organised initiatives really can function as something different than an art market subindustry. Through the collaboration with Kleen, we get a glimpse of what artistic work should be about: to not be corrupted, to follow an impulse beyond its rational, or irrational, end point.

Lars Kleen, Båt (Boat), 2018. Foto: Jan Watteus.