What Is Behind Katarina Löfström’s Works?
Is there anything behind Katarina Löfström’s works? When we look at her video projections and other works we see abstract paintings that move, and we experience crystals of time1 that condense something she herself has gone through. Or do we? How can we know that these movements, rarely lasting longer than a movie trailer or a music video, are what they are supposed to be? Visuals made to be experienced in physical space, multimedia compositions aimed at meeting the expectations of the art world. Artworks. An artist’s work.
Her work looks, sounds and feels like art, so we need not worry about classifying it as something ‘in between’ art and whatever artists do when they don’t do art (or when they are not acting as artists). We can save that discussion for another occasion. But the question remains: what is behind these pictures? Another way of asking would be: how can we interpret them?
First of all: can we speak of a ‘behind’ in Löfström’s case? Her films are sometimes presented as live pictures that we can view from both sides of a semi-transparent projection screen, preferably in a generously proportioned exhibition space. Then we can walk around the screen and convince ourselves that there is no hidden agenda in her work, no mystical reverse, no dark unknown side. Surely, this must be a manifestation of a characteristic lucidity, an ‘internal’ dimension of the work? Surely, it means that it is transparent and self-commenting? That it is what it appears to be?
Well, yes and no. We could always say that these moving images, often with accompanying sound, are tests put together by an artist more interested in how her images will be received by and affect the viewer than in making statements (explicit or implicit) about her own self. But that neither answers nor invalidates the question about interpretation; it only assumes that interpretation is entirely within the domain of the viewer. And in the end it doesn’t do much to empower either the viewer or the work. If we insist that Löfström’s films and installations are illustrations of what political and commercial image-makers call WYSIWYG (‘What You See Is What You Get’), we only cut off the link between the author and the work, and therefore also the link between the author and the viewer. And what is the value of her work then? How can it function as proof that some crucial action has taken place between these three actors?
Is that perhaps how we really understand abstract art, as something that signals itself once and then withdraws from the circulation of interpretation that presupposes an organic web of relations within the simplest possible model of communication: sender–message–receiver. The abstract artwork, then, is little more than an object of consumption: useless and worthless as soon as it has fulfilled its mission to illustrate (or illuminate) itself. And isn’t it true that our museums are full of the discarded shells of images that once proudly insisted on harbouring nothing behind, beneath or beyond their own surface?
We could, however, also look at Löfström’s work as screens – ‘test screens’ or ‘screen tests’ – put up between us and her, between her experience and our perception. Not in order to shield anything from our view but rather as a ‘filter’ adding something of her own self to the blurred, pixellated or crystalline vision it lets through. This allows us to regard her films and installations as illustrations of something that happens to her, either inside her or around her. It also allows us to regard the pictures and sounds she offers us as an internal aspect of her work, as part of the ‘behind’ we set out to discover. The screen doesn’t stop the circulation between author, work and viewer. Quite the opposite, it becomes part of the viewer’s reception of the projected image.
Does this mean that the screen is the work, the author is behind the screen and the viewer in front of it? That sounds much too much like the over-simplified model of communication we just presented. Things are rarely as simple as that. We must never forget that art is always both less and more than communication. Even in communication there is always context, distortion, feedback and many other complications, but the delivery of a message retains pride of place. In art, many other things may, at any moment, become more important and interesting. The artist’s reputation, for instance, and the viewer’s anticipation of what the work might do to reconfirm or contradict it. Or the immediate surroundings that frame a work but are not part of it – or even of its ‘frame’, which, as we then realise, is just as hard to define as the work itself. Impure, composite, complex moves serving to stimulate emotions that may be described in the same terms.
The selection of works for Katarina Löfström’s exhibition at Wanås this summer follows the double track of simplification and complication that has characterised her oeuvre until now. Six works, presented in four spatial situations and with three framing devices, all delivering messages about abstraction and how to access it, with or without interpretation.
In the park, a specially commissioned construction has been erected. It is based both on Löfström’s permanent installations with plastic sequins on the façades of new buildings (Open Source at Vallastaden, Linköping, 2017) and on her continuous interest in screens and screenings. Physically, Open Source (Cinemascope), 2018, consists of a net stretched over a metal frame and covered with ‘tiles’ of square silvery plastic sequins that each flutter in the wind to create a reflective ripple effect. Referring to cinema through its title and its dimensions (3.5 × 9 metres), the work becomes its own frame: turning an ephemeral viewing experience into a formalised art piece and at the same time undoing its communicated content. The overall effect of this wide-screen moving image is a redoubling of the surrounding greenery, but when we try to mirror ourselves in its parts the image splits into countless rivulets of movement. Perhaps ‘open source’ should be taken literally (and therefore be decapitalised): as a sudden burst of water from the ground rather than a figure of thought, as a wellspring of ‘simple life’ among all these tongue-in-cheek trappings meant to turn visitors into viewers.
It is true that a sincere interest in nature and wildlife has started to surface in Löfström’s work, without compromising her elegant and economical use of indoor visual strategies. A good example is Fugue, 2016, devised as a permanent installation in the new concert hall of Örebro. There the work is a video projection moving across the walls behind the stage, chasing specks of white light into and out of alliances, making them form patterns that have a lot in common with how birds move in a flock. In the exhibition hall at Wanås this effect must be simulated by more static means: the animation is projected onto one freestanding wall; the work is framed by this tactical choice. Fugue means flight, of course, but something much less literal than an illumination of musical forms is at stake here. The work is arresting without becoming distracting (presumably a precondition for accompanying live performances) and it may also be understood as a meditation of how we, when confronted with a message deliberately devoid of referential content, tend to reconstitute everything that has been edited out on a new and higher level of meaning. It is as if we always seek that reward for viewing and are never willing to give it up.
On the reverse of the freestanding wall two earlier works are projected, one after the other in a loop. They take a more traditional, and perhaps more cynical, view of how appropriated elements of nature and culture can be manipulated to perform new meaning. Cynicism in art is a source of both fascination and disappointment. It might be understood as an attempt at courting what really matters for art and artists—transcending reason, which is often just code for ‘usefulness,’ by directly touching evil2—but in ways that minimise the moral cost for authors and audiences alike. Much like abstraction, cynicism in art delivers thrill without real danger, which is why it often disappoints and why artists must conduct individual negotiations with it. Yet, completely opting out of cynicism carries a price of its own, a risk of becoming dull or irrelevant that very few artists are prepared to take.
Löfström’s pact with cynicism involves the use of material ‘borrowed’ from the mainstream entertainment industry, American films in particular. The two works projected as a ‘back-up’ for Fugue are based on background scenery from Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, 1951 (A Void, 2013) and credits from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, 2001 (Finale, 2006). It should perhaps also be mentioned that images from Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 1991, the making-of documentary about Apocalypse Now, were used in the making of Fugue…
Löfström makes skilled use of these sources, blurring and otherwise reconfiguring the images, coupling them with suggestively doctored sound tracks. The credits are as far beyond illegible as possible, having become interconnected semi-transparent white halos on a black background, but the stereotypical Hollywood arrangement is still recognisable: two columns of text around a central vertical rift. The entropy-infused shifting shapes that populate the emptied-out Disney set end up looking like the patterns on those Santa Fé-themed jackets and blankets that were so popular around 1991, which in turn makes Alice’s garden feel rather like Carlos Castañeda’s desert. The exploitation of an exploitative industry? A détournement of communication that was too one-way in the first place? Or a temporary withholding of both criticality and the quest for authentic meaning enabling the artist to take a shortcut to the hearts and minds of her viewers?
This theme of withholding can also be explicitly articulated. Löfström does that in the installation Inklings, 2018, where she physically blocks the viewer’s access to several works by putting them in a separate room and opening the door just enough to give a rather inconsequential glimpse of what is going on inside. That is the third framing device used in this exhibition, and the works we cannot really see are Loop (The End), 2006, with its red lamps blinking Morse code, and Hang Ten Sunset, 2000. The latter is one of Löfström’s earliest abstract animations: visual variations on an ideal sunset with a soundtrack by Plastikman. Everything is happening ‘on the surface’ here, so keeping that surface out of sight is both ironical and cynical—in an abstract, art-specific way, of course, causing no real harm but spinning the issues we have touched upon here another couple of rounds. To begin with, this may be the only work by Katarina Löfström’s where we can know for sure that there is something behind what we are allowed to see.
– Anders Kreuger
1. The expression is borrowed from Gilles Deleuze’s second book about cinema, where a whole chapter is dedicated to it. (Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2 : L’Image-temps. Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1985, pp. 92–111 (Les cristaux de temps).
2. This argument is developed by Georges Bataille in his essay on Emily Brontë. (Georges Bataille, La littérature et le mal. Paris: Gallimard, 1957, pp. 11–25.