|THE WORLD AS EXPERIENCE AND IDEA
Text by Niclas Östlind originally written for the exhibition catalogue "Automatic", Färgfabriken / Liljevalchs, Stockholm, 2006.
When Plato, in his dialogue The Republic, describes the relationship between the world of phenomena and the world of ideas, he talks about a cave in which a shadow play is going on. In this allegory, people are seated with their backs against the source of light before which everything is played out – a world whose shadows are the only thing those present can see. Against his better judgement, man takes this image to be reality, and is doomed to be limited, via the senses, to this “reflection”.1
The fact that everyday life is separated from loftier and truer life is a major existential trauma, and throughout history man has tried in various ways to bridge this gap. Actually, it isn’t a given that all this matters very much, at bottom. For many people, the possibility that existence is a shadow world is a minor problem, and even if it were a falsification, existence as we know it is endlessly fascinating anyway.
Plato’s low opinion of art is tied to this, as he believes that art must increase the distance to the ideal – no matter how well executed and like reality art is, it can only ever be an image of something which in itself is incomplete. It is a fact, however, that people do not only put up with this deficiency – they’re even capable of rejoicing in the illusion. The truth of this is amply confirmed by the innumerable methods and inventions which have been conceived to baffle and entertain our senses – from the mnemonic structures of oral storytelling to the advanced technical animations of films and computer games.
The late 18th and 19th centuries were a golden era in this respect. It was during this period that countless machines and devices were constructed to serve the desire to see – and as several of these have important points in common with Peter Geschwind’s work, there is reason to linger a moment over some of the contraptions and seeing practices that emerged at this time. Perhaps the most important one is the camera and the photographic process. In 1839, after decades of experimentation, the Frenchman Daguerre patented a method which was named after him – but there was also Henry Fox Talbot’s technique of negative and positive, which enabled the duplication of pictures and came to play an important role in the development of the mass media.2
Photography was both preceded and followed by a number of other inventions, of which the diorama, the waxworks and the laterna magica are among the most familiar. The desire to create moving pictures was also great, and the simple method we’re familiar with from Plato’s allegory – the shadow play – was one of many used. With figures of metal and cardboard, whose limbs were controlled with strings and sticks, performances were held on purpose-built stages. The stories were often simple in terms of narrative content, and it was quite clearly the visual effect which was the central thing. One of the most ambitious contexts in which moving pictures featured – albeit still in a primitive form – was the so-called phantasmagoria. This was an animated light-image show with sounds, smoke, scents and electric shocks – all in order to entertain and frighten the audience. The images were taken from the bizarre fantasy world of gothic horror romanticism, with mythological creatures, naked women, witches, skeletons and other dread things. The phantasmagoria, like most of these phenomena, was part of an emerging entertainment industry, and just like today, the main ingredients were violence, sex and excesses of various kinds. It need hardly be said that the phenomenon was immeasurably popular in major European cities around the turn of the 18th century.3 Another, related phenomenon – which peaked in popularity somewhat later – was the mechanical, or self-playing, musical instrument. There was everything from basic pianos to entire orchestras, and they were used to play classical pieces as well as the popular music of the period. The fact that performances were mechanised was not concealed; quite the opposite, in fact. These ingeniously devised machines combine sound and image in a fascinating way. Many of them can be described in terms of moving sculptures, and it’s still a magical thing to watch the mechanical choreography of self-playing instruments.
If you imagine a combination of these two phenomena – the illusion-making projection and the animated object – you end up with a multimedia piece which greatly resembles Peter Geschwind’s installation at Färgfabriken, entitled Automatic. But this is not his only work which can be included in the comparison; his work shows a clear consistency, and absolutely everything he has done since the beginning of the 90s appears in a clearer light if you view it mindful of the history of man’s unstoppable desire to create illusions, and to use these to amuse as well as alarm. Automatic takes the form of a fairground – another phenomenon which emerged in the 19th century and which is part (many would say a degenerate variant) of the bourgeois public sphere that became established during that century. In fairgrounds you are subjected to a barrage of sensory impressions whose intensity quite physically takes hold of the visitor. The attractions often create contradictory feelings, simultaneously causing hysterical laughter and nausea, or a delight mixed with fear. The very idea is that you should leave the place in a state of exhaustion and euphoria. This experience is helped by the architecture of fairgrounds, with its customary cacophony of styles, in which fairy-tale romanticism and high-tech visions of the future feature side by side or merge in unlikely hybrids. Whatever their appearance, the buildings always have a prop-like quality which adds to the feeling of stage and spectacle. This world – in which the hallucinatory side of popular culture is revealed – could be described as a particular Geschwind territory, albeit one he shares with other artists such as Paul McCarthy and Stig Sjölund.4 Returning to Automatic, it fills the length and breadth of Färgfabriken’s main hall with contraptions in strong signal colours: blue, red, black, and yellow. The rooms and the objects are made of prefabricated parts from diy chains, but there is also a recycling of things originally meant to be used for something completely different.5 The installation’s look is familiar from handy-
man culture, then, but also from a number of other contexts beyond the domains of good taste.6 In addition to the noisy character of the visual side, a lot of it actually makes a noise and moves – as if the dead objects, ghost-like, had come alive. It is a nightmarish thought that the objects all around one should suddenly possess the ability to act as they themselves saw fit; an idea which has been exploited in a number of horror films in which toys in particular possess an evil consciousness, and deviously turn the playroom into a haunted place.7 Here too, the feeling of comfort and familiarity is mixed with a sense of unease, and the further into the construction you get, the stranger and more labyrinthine it all becomes. When you reach the far end of the room you’re suddenly faced with a screen blocking your way. A strong light and a piercing sound leads you to an adjacent wall on which shadows, or rather silhouettes, of people can be seen. At first they stand, conversing, or walk slowly through the room (or the surface of the image), but soon everything is transformed and the people are forced to flee before chairs, boxes and other objects flying through the air. It’s difficult to say where all of this is taking place, but here – just as in Plato’s cave – the illusion has such persuasive powers that it’s easy to take it for reality.
The fairground is a place that makes its appearance early in Peter Geschwind’s work. In the mid nineties, he made two moving sculptures in the form of merry-go-rounds. In The Trip (a), animals hit each other as the contraption noisily turns around its own axis,8 and a similar violence features
in Merry-go-round (b).In both cases, the works are activated when the viewer presses a pedal which makes them turn, which in the case of the later merry-go-round sculpture leads to small plaster figures of humans crashing brutally against the poles and gradually being smashed. Of course one ought not to be amused by someone being subjected to violence, not even symbolic violence, but sometimes
it’s difficult not to. A troubling factor in this case is that you’re the one who makes it all continue, but there is here, as in classic slapstick comedy, a considerable exaggeration which makes us laugh at the absurdity while at the same time feeling sympathy for the victims. The liberating power of humour helps us to endure the misery of existence – our own as well as others’, be they humans or animals.
The Trip, whose title is anything but innocent, is reminiscent of those wooden toys which, due to the authenticity of their materials and the craftsmanship of their execution, are often associated with a well thought-out and pedagogic upbringing. Even if this picture has become more nuanced, there is still a deep-rooted view that children are innocent creatures – but in his work Peter Geschwind avoids neither the darker sides of childhood nor the abyss of teenage angst. From a skinny figure in denim, two empty eye sockets peer out of skull wearing a knitted cap (Toymachine) (c). Teenage Suicide, the darkest of the works, consists of a pair of denim-clad legs hanging unsentimentally and frighteningly from the ceiling, feet shod in the obligatory trainers a clear marker. But there are less fateful depictions in which either a general listlessness (sometimes aided by drugs) is expressed, as in Candyman (d) (1998), or the teenage-specific mix of assertiveness and vulnerable self-esteem – evident in the doll-like figure in Sonic Youth (1998). Several of these sculptures belong to the group of works for which he has used classic novelty items in the shape of severed hands, tongues, or plastic turds. They are funny in a distinctly unsophisticated way, bringing out the child in the adult viewer, who of course ought to know better than to laugh at such silly things. One of the things that characterises popular culture (b-movies, fairgrounds, computer games etc.) is that it uses simple means to create strong effects. The fact that they’re rarely lasting or refined need not be a problem – experiences can be different and work in different ways. One of Peter Geschwind’s site-specific works had precisely this character. It was a sculpture consisting of a pair of legs – denim-clad and trainer-shod as well – just visible beneath an advertisement pillar (e). It was so convincing in its fidelity to reality that a woman phoned the police to report that a person had been standing inside the pillar all night and that they must do something about it.9 In a world where seriousness comes first, “the childish” holds a fair measure of subversiveness,
and with his refined feeling for situations and surprise effects, Peter Geschwind succeeds in peeling away layers of protective adult-ness to reveal the tragicomic sides of existence.
The fairground is one area of modern life that Peter Geschwind has dealt with; another, and in many ways related phenomenon is the shopping mall and commercial culture.10 He is particularly interested in the importunate and hysterical style of the advertising and graphic expressions that invade the public space in a never-ending flow – but also in all the rubbish produced by consumer society. There are tangible similarities between a supermarket and a fairground. Superabundance is a central component of both, and the display of colours, patterns, sounds and moving images is there to augment our desire to consume goods and experiences. The heart rate of a person in a shopping centre is actually said to be comparable to that of a person who has just stepped off a roller coaster. The proximity between these phenomena is expressed in such works as Cheap High (f) (2003), whose tubes of inflated and joined-up plastic bags from discount chains are reminiscent of a fairground attraction.11 The sculpture has a distinctly litter-like appearance due to the way it’s been constructed and the choice of materials – plastic bags of that kind are also used by many people for throwing away kitchen rubbish. Litter and cleaning are two important themes of Peter Geschwind’s work, united by their interdependence and by the prominent role they have in commercial culture.12 All you have to do is switch on the tv to be reminded of the eternal need to clean, and the constant development of liquids and machines to make your home shine. The commercials are usually hysterical in both tempo
and cheerfulness – there is no greater joy than cleaning and washing your home until it sparkles like a jewel and smells like an alpine meadow. (Since the actor, as a rule, is a woman, this state could possibly be bettered by her having her period at the same time – which seems an awful lot of fun, judging from the adverts.) With an invasive and surely calculated persistence, some of these film spots stick in your mind – not least due to the music – and leave you no peace. In a 1998 sculpture with the advert-familiar name Wash & Go (g), there is a gesture which recalls the memory of a mother – the children are also in the heteronormative scene – who has just finished cleaning the house and therefore joyously raises her arms into the air so that her body forms an x. In the final sequence she is magically transformed into the last letter of the Ajax brand. The sculpture, made out of cleaning products, looks like a little man who has frozen in the same studied pose; with painful regularity, he vomits scouring liquid into a bright-red bucket. The manic streak is further increased in Sound Cut (h), a 2002 video in which everyday chores like vacuum cleaning and washing have been twisted and edited to produce an effect which is quite psychotic.13 The film has turned the home into a fascinating, frightening and entertaining mechanical ballet; and to a certain extent we are back where we started, among mechanical instruments, the illusionist acts of phantasmagorias, and Peter Geschwind’s new work.
There is a special reason for starting from the beginning again: Automatic is preceded by an animation created in a virtual environment, and it is from this that the installation has evolved and been given its physical manifestation.
The relationship between the two versions can be interpreted in several different ways. One way would be to see the digital version as a sketch, secondary to the realised work; another would be to regard it as the idea – the archetype – in the Platonic sense, which would give the animation precedence over the actual installation. The two versions can also be described as equal, even if one temporally precedes the other. In the exhibition, which is made up of two parts, this order has been reversed, however, so that the second part shows that which precedes the first, thus making the already ambiguous relationship even more so. There is one difference between the presentations (and the works) which is particularly worthy of mention. In the physical version, you walk freely and your body relates to the work in an ever-changeable way; in the digital version, movement and speed are completely controlled by an agent the viewer cannot influence. So when the show at Färgfabriken is over, and Liljevalchs throws open its doors, all the visitor has to do is sit back and experience – what might actually be the very beginning of the whole thing.