Facing the physical and cultural space

Ximena Narea

In the world today, where each little piece of earth belongs to somebody through agreement between individuals, or between individuals and the žcommunityÓ or simply through appropriation, making art that crosses borders, private or public, is a challenge. The challenge operates at two different levels: the first is the strictly material, representing a given space of this or that size, located at a specific geographical spot. Immediately appears ža second levelÓ: the žtypeÓ of space, we are talking about. Here we enter the cultural dimension. First of all, a classification is determined of a cultural žentityÓ that defines, divides, separates, names and regulates the space in question. A simple example of the different connotations that different cultures give to diverse spaces, is the žsquareÓ as a public space. In Latin-America, this name defines an open space, with trees, a fountain, benches and a small structure where different musical events take place on special occasions. The square was the starting-point for the construction of the colonial town, and occupied the centre, like a chessboard. In Sweden, on the contrary, the square is an open space without strict form that may serve as a žmarketÓ, or a parking space for cars and bicycles. It is not primarily a place for recreation and for taking walks. In Sweden, the use of public spaces, whether open or closed, is subject to strict regulation, the infringement of which is punishable by law. In the variety of open and enclosed spaces that a society offers, objects of art in previous eras were integrated into everyday life in buildings, churches and public places, as permanent fixtures. However, since the last century, they have come to occupy a specific and separate location: museums and galleries. As artistic activity continuously creates new forms of expression, it also needs new spaces.

During recent decades the range of closed spaces dedicated to art has expanded to include non-traditional places, permanently or temporarily created for the purpose; such as artistŪs private homes, studios, old barracks, mills, abandoned factoryŪs and so on. Fantasy flies and nothing surprises. While the enclosed space has found new distribution channels for the work of art, the open room continues to be practically unexplored. The fundamental problem presented by the open space is the variety of factors that the artist needs to take into account before creating the work: where to place it, permanent elements (like trees, buildings, and signs), transient elements (like human beings, climate etc), the normal use of the specific space and its history within the cultural corpus, etc.

Right here is where I want to introduce FA+ and their different ways of confronting the open public space. In the beginning, as a joint artistic project (1992) Falk and Aguerre worked with artists from different countries and with different ways of expression, as well as with professionals from different disciplines (hence the + sign that follows their initials). The basic concept of their work is the crossing of physical and cultural borders. Their very collaboration itself is the first border crossed; Ingrid Falk is Swedish and Gustavo Aguerre is from Argentina.

FA+ is born

The Studio at Drottninggatan 71A (at the very centre of Stockholm) is the operation base for all their projects. There, spontaneously their first project was born. It was called White Shadows (1993). It consisted of 55 human silhouettes in different poses, cut from white waxed paper, that were affixed onto large trees in different places around the city of Stockholm. This piece of theirs confronts the public space, defies authority, (they had no permission to make it) and encounters the public at unexpected places. The figures looked like žnegativeÓ human shadows, single, or in pairs, seemingly playing an innocent game. The same year the group did Il Cadavere Squisito (1993) which was a life-size sculpture of a female figure, made out of wheat, sitting on a simple wooden chair. The sculpture was installed in the centre of Saint Marcos Square in Venice. The idea was to let the hundreds of pigeons, that usually cover the square and deface the surrounding buildings, while they amuse thousands of tourists which pass through the square, each take a piece from this ždelicious corpseÓ. This art-piece was very well thought out concerning the choice of material, the figure represented, and the place where it was installed: a Madonna committing suicide opposite the San Marco Cathedral by letting the pigeons eat her up! Here we discover two different crossings of borders. One is physical, against the Italian public space; and the other is of a cultural in nature, against the Catholic Church. The intervention, in whose development FA+ directly participated until the moment that the female figure is placed in the middle of the square, involves two actors: the woman and the pigeons. They participate, each one according to their own characteristic, and interact in a specified way. The woman acting as a bait and attracts the pigeons so that they can play their own part in the piece. The immediate goal is fulfilled but in what direction really? First of all it challenges one of the most important rules of the Catholic Church: the castigation of suicide, which leads to the banishment of the individual and excommunication outside the catholic community. Secondly, the work also challenges one of the most important symbols of the Catholic Church: the Holy Spirit, which, instead of nourishing the womanŪs soul and giving her life, devours her like a beast. From now on, the associations could be endlessly multiplied. An unanticipated coincidence was that before the pigeons could finish their žmealÓ, a gang of youngsters appear on the scene, and in their rage, crushed the leftovers of the female figure.

The monumental works

The monumental piece transcends the margin of human dimensions and of the manageable. Is unable to reach. Its scale, size and style are impressive. Usually this type of work is created to be permanent. But this is yet another rule that FA+ has broken. Their monumental pieces are designed to be ephemeral. The group has been involved three times in the Stockholm community project Tivoli culture which has been taking place in KungstrĒg¬rden (a central public space) for several years. The first time they contributed Igloo (1993), a project that involved several aspects of constructing homes and dwelling places. FA+ designed an igloo with 54 used refrigerators as a concrete proposal for housing. Together with this came the marketing žpitchÓ and performance: advertising posters with pictures of the igloo pasted in different locations in suburban Stockholm, in areas where a high percent of immigrants live. Potential buyers were offered different payment plans and incentives. The artists were a part of the piece, featuring in the sales campaign and promoting the igloo. This gave the piece a particular dynamic. The second time the group participated with the piece LŪArt de Triomphe (1994), an arch built from 24 sea-containers, each opened in the same direction. Continuous performances and music in different styles and trends, happening into the containers, gave the piece žlifeÓ in a very special way. This endless stream of activity created a tension between the žexteriorÓ and the žinteriorÓ through confronting the stiffness of the huge iron-colossi with the plasticity of the movements and the intensity of the music that made the walls of the metal construction tremble. The year after that the group presented House of cards (1995). A gigantic structure, 15 meters high and 30 meters wide and 6 meters deep, it was constructed from 107 fences that, contrary to the impression that the material itself represented to the audience, was transparent and allowed people to freely pass through the construction. The contradiction that the work announced is mainly one between the fragility of the cardŪs house and the real weight of the fences.

Belonging or not belonging to a culture

Each culture has its own inner dynamic which establishes rules about inclusion and exclusion of the persons and material objects that make up the culture. That idea is as valid in a meta-culture, like western culture, as in a micro-culture, like in any suburban soccer-team. These rules or interrelated ways, internal as well as external, build the identity of the culture. The extent to which an individual belongs is decided by the human groups making up the culture in question and not by the individual. This can be observed in all sorts of human activities. The two following actions by FA+ touch those rules and the question of outsiders trespassing into the culture of art.
No Trespassing (1994) was a project in two parts that questioned including or excluding in the art-world. Who are welcome and who are not? Who belongs and who does not belong in the exclusive world of art? What are the laws and rules that let you enter, let you stay outside or do not allow you to even pass by? The first part of the action was built around forced entry into private gallery-space. A fax with the same text as the title of the project was prepared; and a poster in the same A4 format and text was posted at the entrances of the galleries concerned. The fax as a general instrument of communication is a possible link between the outside and the inside, a link that nevertheless requires knowledge about certain codes that are not always accessible to all members of the public. In this case the challenge is to the closed inner world of the gallery with the entrance surrounded by diverse unbreakable codes. The same idea built the base for the second part of the project, which was about building squares with fences from the construction-industry. The object was built from two squares inserted inside each other. On their sides one could read: žNo TrespassingÓ (the same text as in the galleries). The piece was set up in various places in Stockholm, in front of the Modern Art Museum, outside the Culture House, and in the park outside a conference centre, etc...

The principle about including or excluding is given a social dimension in the work of FA+ in an intervention done in the entrance to the nightclub Penny Lane when the magazine 90TAL organised a launch party. At the entrance the visitors had the possibility to choose between two entry points: žEntrance 1 - only for the culture elite from StockholmÓ written on a green sign, and žEntrance 2 - ordinary people and immigrants,Ó written on a red sign. Nothing else could be more contradictory, discriminating, and anti-democratic than this selective treatment. Nobody seemed to bother. Everybody seemed to accept the rule completely without any objections. Here the question is one of forced interaction for the audience that needed to be identified either with the elite or with ordinary people, or even worse, with immigrants! Just to be able to get in and be a part of the pleasure. At žEntrance 1Ó there where two guards who where asking questions to ensure that only those who belonged could enter: Were people born in Stockholm? Did they earn a certain amount? And so on. The questions revealed the characteristics of the cultural elite and the answers revealed who did belong there. Surprisingly for plenty of them, it did not matter what connections they had. Only a very few of them went directly to žEntrance - 2Ó that was unguarded, to avoid the queue and the bother. What lessons do we learn from this experience? Because it was done in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, we could maintain that those who did not want to be a part of this special occasion, attended by some (local) celebrities, also wanted to belong to this special group, or at least to be closer to it. Ordinary people, even immigrants could get in, only identified as such. These were those who did not belong, the outsiders; but there did not seem to be so many of that category. A very interesting and revealing experience. Is this not a completely well thought out and fully performed work?

The permanent work

Up till the middle of this century, the traditional view of the permanent piece was that it had to be in the shape of a bronze statue of a national hero, galloping in the centre of the square, completely ignoring the passage of time. The audience also could derive pleasure from the naked sculptures of children (with or without wings) that made the fountains beautiful, or not. After a while came an endless stream of more or less polished stones or freely cut pieces of metal in different shape and size that invaded the public space to žmoderniseÓ the outlook of the place. It is true that aesthetic preference has variety, but who decides those preferences? This is a very sensitive subject; especially when it is about works that will be the material remains from a culture that existed during a certain period.

The permanent piece is a necessity for immortalising a society; for the artist, it is a challenge to represent his times. In 1994 FA+ was invited to the annual Strindberg festival organised by the community of Stockholm. It contributed a project called CITAT. The piece was made with a series of quotations from different texts by the author, painted in white, on the middle of the street, all along Drottninggatan, (one of StockholmŪs most important and central streets). Through the quotations the artists tried to show the great authorŪs excellent and controversial personality. Some of the quotations were: žLibraries should burned down every now and then, else the luggage gets too heavy to carryÓ. žI need to travel to purge myself of Sweden and to get Swedish stupidity out of my systemÓ. žI am under observation on suspicion of being cleverÓ. The street as an open space, has special conditions. It is a space where there is an endless stream of people and where quiet moments are rare. The street is, very simply, the road that takes us somewhere and not the destination itself. The linear structure of the texts is very well suited to žthe way to somewhereÓ. The sentences painted onto the street could very easily be read from one side or the other.

Some years later the Art Council of Stockholm ordered the piece CITAT from FA+ so that the žhomageÓ to Strindberg could be made permanent. Therefore, today one can still read the same quotations along an 800-meter line in Drottninggatan, but this time from letters made in stainless steel inserted into the asphalt on the street. The piece was officially commissioned on May 14, 1998, for the benefit of the present and future generations.

The work of art in a public space is rich in possibilities, but it is, at the same time, extremely demanding. FA + succeeds in capturing the most profound aspect of each possibility they encounter, through creating and structuring pieces that respond to the transient as well as the permanent aspects of the open space they use. The street and the street-life which it fosters, oozes in from the open window at Drottninggatan, leaving tracks that are continuously is the making. When the time is right, FA+ will meet their audience with witty comments like White Shadows, and with more reflective pieces like that at the entrance to the night-club in Stockholm, or like CITAT, that piece about Strindberg, one of the most distinguished personalities of Swedish culture.

(Translation by Tsemaye Opubor Hambraeus, international journalist)

*Ximena Narea is an art historian and art critic

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