Elegy for the Discarded

In Éva Mag’s largest exhibition to date, heaps of salvaged objects outline the surplus populations produced by the network of global capital.

Éva Mag, installation view from There is a Plan for This at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

Figurative sculptures have long been the protagonists of Éva Mag’s practice, but here they have supporting roles. Mag has become known for her laborious and lengthy processes in which she – sometimes in front of an audience – fills carefully stitched and decorated textile skins with clay, ostensibly bringing life to these hapless things by helping them limp to their feet. Recalling the biblical Golem, Mag tries to compel these bodies of raw clay to move without any reinforcement other than the cloth and her own body breathing life into them, making them stand on their own legs.

Mag’s most recent performance, DEAD MATTER MOVES was commissioned by the performance festival Performa 19, which took place last autumn in New York City. It is presented here as a video, but rather than being a mere document of the process which took place over the course of six days in the gym at Judson Church, this is an artwork in its own right. The background conversations are gone, what’s left are the dancers, the skins, the clay. The dirty floors. The arduous work. The ways the dancers approach the clay bodies, sometimes tenderly, sometimes almost violently. How they keep trying to shake life into them – and into themselves – while lifting these hundred-kilo creatures.

It’s a hypnotic work that manages to be both demanding and challenging. The pure physicality, the weight, and the uncanninessof these clay bodies make me both sympathise with and recoil from them. Time evaporates, and the experience is poignant, worth the reward if you stay till the end. 

But in Mag’s first major exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall, what materialises in the galleries is rather the absence of life. There are traces, remnants of the dried clay bodies from New York, now dismembered and displayed on low pedestals, but the main feature of this exhibition is a large collection of stuff belonging to the artist’s father, who for years has been amassing disused objects at his home outside Stockholm.

Did I say absence of life? I didn’t mean that. I meant that these things, these lifeless objects, are like witnesses, outlines of people. I don’t mean that as a simile. I mean it literally.

On the one hand, they are the remnants of labour: metals that have been painstakingly mined, oil forced out of the earth, and moulded in factories. On the other, they are remnants of the market: they have gone from valuable – or, at least, valuable enough that someone once purchased them – to rejected, to finally ending up on Mag’s father’s property, a last outpost for junk that no one else wanted, but which he has taken pity on. In a more biographical interpretation, these objects form the outline of her father, who has collected, moved around, and taken care of all this stuff.

The exhibition’s title, There Is a Plan for This, not only seems to allude to Mag’s perhaps ambivalent feelings about a solo exhibition, but also to what at first seemed to be garbage taking chaotic forms in her father’s house, but which she has since begun to understand in a new way through her work. There is a plan.

Éva Mag, DEAD MATTER MOVES (still), 2020.

In the exhibition, objects are piled against walls, in heaps and towers. Oil drums, vaulting boxes, and oven doors mingle with rusty nails, boards, paintings, metal pipes, and old plastic lawn furniture. In the disarray, a certain sense of order has begun to take form. Some things are carefully ordered, and an assistant – sometimes the artist herself – is stationed at a workbench, busy dusting and sorting.

This is an exhibition that leaves a lot to the viewer and offers few opportunities for relief; it does not pander. This is also where the coronavirus comes in, changing the show’s viewing conditions. Visits have to be booked in advance and only a limited amount of people are admitted into the exhibition, four times an hour. This allows for a much more intimate experience than what must have been planned for. Since the installation changes as the objects are organised, it will be interesting to follow the exhibition as a work in process, and not simply a finished presentation. 

At the same time, the sheer amount of objects is far from silent, and I think it will resonate with the viewer, whomever she is. In an age of Marie Kondo mania, where order is so inextricably linked with one’s capability, where a clean home symbolises a clean, and thereby healthy, life, being faced with this accumulation of what many people would deem garbage can provoke an almost physical reaction. This enormous amount of stuff will be felt even by those who haven’t been through a Knausgaardian “death cleaning.”

Mag herself claims that these things are valuable, if you know how to sort them. And by considering the objects, which are often immensely costly when it comes to labour and natural resources, one is confronted with considerations of globalisation and excess, about people having and not having. The body, the human body, is always there as an outline. Mag talks about systematics, and about which systems one has access to – for some it’s stocks, for others it’s metals.

Éva Mag, installation view from There is a Plan for This at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

In his new book, Där historien tar slut (Where History Ends, 2020), Swedish writer Stefan Jonsson writes, in an essay on globalisation and subaltern voices:

Globalisation theories, for example, envision the world mainly as a network… In this state the world emerges partly as a network where everything and everyone has a function, and partly as a growing accumulation of disrupted life forms, a huge pool of surplus labour redundant to the system, a reserve army for the global economy whose economic value tends towards zero.

It’s easy to connect this to everything from addicts selling copper pipes in the United States, to garbage being pillaged from dumps in the Global South, to the comfort of collecting and its deeply human aspect, as both a banal activity and one which crosses the line to pathology. Collecting is an expression of systematics, and thus becomes an extension of issues that Mag has previously worked on, which in essence have always been about labour: people’s labour, the body’s labour, labour not only as activity but also as effort, as achievement.  Here, the systematic becomes a question of people’s ways of organising their existence, as much as one’s own access to and place in the global economy. The surplus of objects in Mag’s installation outlines the surplus populations produced by the network of global capital

But just as wanting to control life – and thereby death – is ultimately futile, so is Mag’s need to take charge and declutter her father’s home. In the process, she seems to have developed an understanding for his reasoning and learnt to accept the plan for all the stuff – because there is a plan. It all amounts to a meditation, an exercise in humility; as I understand it, everything is going to be returned to Mag’s father after the exhibition, and if anything needs sorting, he’ll do it himself. All that is solid melts into air. If the exhibition brings order to this collection, it is only an illusion, just a finnisage away from dissolution.

Éva Mag, installation view from There is a Plan for This at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.