The artist’s non-art is threatened by the institution

The more I see Klara Lidéns exhibition, the greater my difficulty in thinking of an artist I would rather have seen. But it also becomes clearer that the exhibition isn't as fine as it could have been.

Klara Lidén, Unheimlich Manöver, 2007. Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet. Installation photo from Moderna Museet.

The special power in Klara Lidén’s work comes from the impression that its origin lies outside the art. The processes we discover could have resulted in something completely different from art; we see work that didn’t need to be found and shouldn’t have been done at all, sooner or later. In that way it carries the stamp of originality and arouses a desire for this new energy, a desire few outside her own work can satisfy.

In the best case we apprehend a primal, socially invisible activity quite sufficient for imagining that the only thing the art adds is a public quality. But the activity doesn’t become so visible in Lidén’s work either. That’s surely what makes it possible for the outside-the-artistic power of her work to be preserved. Instead of simply documenting and rendering visible the unseen, she makes the actions invisible again before they are brought into the exhibition space. In Untitled (Human Monkey) (2011) photographs of her climbing up a pillar at something like a parking garage have been carried over to handmade slides of low quality. They are so coarseley rastered that the climber isn’t visible at all in the projected image. But that isn’t her only way of converting a social isolation into an esthetic seclusion. In the slide projection on the wall next to it, Untitled (I don’t know what to do with myself), we see how one person sits by a writing table before trying to disappear down into the wastepaper basket. Here the composition also makes seeing more difficult: the first thirty-three images are identical and uneventful; then the entire interval – the entire stretch of elapsed time – happens in fewer than twenty images. And at that point the person is lost beneath twenty (identical) images. It’s as if it was made so that you aren’t supposed to see what’s happening. Thus what takes on an artistic form isn’t the action, other than the very difficulty of discerning it. In all of this her art seems to involve observation more than action, for example in the slide work Untitled (Seine) (2011) where she takes photographs as she walks down into the river. A long time passes before you understand that the action happens in back of the camera, while you yourself in despair have searched the poor images.

Klara Lidén, Untitled (Poster Paintings), 2010. Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet. Installation photo from Moderna Museet.

For this effect of the non-esthetic it’s decisive that the artist herself performs the actions. Otherwise the division between art and non-art would be entirely conventional, while they are now being accounted for through our seeing the artist as non-artist. Perhaps that’s also the reason that the person remains unimportant, and that narcissism and star cults are missing in the work. In Kasta Macka (2009) we see her standing on three different beaches at daybreak throwing rocks. The three video documentations are too dark for the viewer to actually see how she looks. Also that she’s wearing similar clothes in the same weather in similar places means that she seems less herself than a type, or simpy that it’s a type of situation that arises the world over independently of other such situations. An anonymous community is thus established in the films. The contemplative situation, when one does something in a slight way («kasta macka» means to get a rock to skip across water) in a place and time when nothing else can be found to do, is something most people recognize. But then the scene goes over to something like a furious cleaning of the edge of a beach. So we’re suddenly into the unknown, the alien. I start thinking about the beginning of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea (La Nausée), which concerns the meaning of a change in the protagonist’s sensibility which makes him feel nausea; the whole problem is solved by his seeing some children who are just standing and throwing rocks, trying to make them skip across the water. Perhaps it’s a similar feeling of emptying out and disappearing: matter is too obtrusive. One has to free oneself from it, make a hole, make room.

Unfortunately this obtrusive feeling is missing in the exhibition. Lidén often uses blockaded passageways and makes things difficult for onlookers, but that doesn’t happen here. The «poster paintings» she has made by taking down a mass of posters and bills in cities, gluing them into bundles, then covering them with a white paper, lose all power they might have had in this milieu. They form no breathing hole from unwanted messages. Instead they have a large room of their own and are hung in a way that’s reminiscent of a possible Sam Francis space in the Moderna Museet’s permanent collection. Is it really Lidén we’re seeing here, or the Moderna Museet that reproduces itself via her work?

Klara Lidén, Paralyzed, 2003. Collection of Moderna Museets. DVD (colour, sound), 3:05 min.

Another boundary receiving attention comes between the permissible and the non-permissible. Is it perhaps punishable if, as Lidén has done, you dance and take off some of your clothes on a commuter train? Or take mailboxes and deliver the letters yourself; or shoot film without permission in someone’s apartment? Perhaps the boundary of the permissible goes precisely somewhere between skipping rocks across the water and throwing in larger scrap? That’s an unpleasant suspicion. The feeling of restricted freedom is so much more palpable that Lidén’s whole set of actions has something childishly innocent about it. To sneak into someone’s home, that’s a childish delight I’d completely forgotten until I saw the exhibition. How sad that a life is without the feeling of innocence!

A strategy that builds on the work’s non-artistic genesis is threatened, naturally, by institutionalization. For as soon as the actions acquire space in an institution they easily become uninteresting. I understand that an artist who works will take the chance when the breakthrough comes (it would be foolish otherwise), but Lidén’s art can easily sustain injury from the process. When she transfers her course of action to an institutionalized life situation, it will result in such things as the copies of the Moderna Museet’s usual chairs that she has made from cartons and other used materials from the same establishment. They will merely be sad indicators of a Lidén exhibition. To some extent this also involves the new entré she opened with her exbibition. For what role is played by the small obstruction to visitor circulation when the exit is still placed such that you end up right in front of the stairs up to the shop?