Mass media consumers from around the world are likely to be accustomed to a certain discourse on “transition” as
referring to the economical, political and social processes that countries in Eastern Europe have undergone since
the end of the Cold War. There are of course other “transitions” , but the Eastern European one may well be the one
with capital T. Predominantly “made in the West”, this discourse focuses on the transformations in Eastern’ European
societies, significantly from planned economy to market economy modelled on the West, while simultaneously hiding
the fact that the West is also going through a transition. In this way, the former socialist countries are compared to
and expected to adapt to a model that doesn’t really exist anymore. At any rate, what came out of the discourse was
a hierarchy of good and bad nations and people, good and bad versions of modernity.
As an Eastern European myself, this is the dominant understanding of transition that I have in mind when I approach
the exhibition Transition – as a one way passage from the underdeveloped to the developed, from the bad to the good;
this idea of Western European norms expanding eastwards. A more refined, less hierarchy-bound and more down to
earth dealing with the concept is put forth in Jakob Avenius Anckarsvärd’s contribution to the exhibition Transition.
In his work transitions constitute our everyday existence, whether it is in the shape of communication with each other (On the other side 2004, From one to the other 2005), how we relate to and our perception of death (Memento 2003, Compost 2005), or the engagement in daily, repetitious activities (One piece 2003, News Items 2001-2002). His understanding of transition is one of reciprocity rather than hierarchy, in the sense that reflection on our everyday choices and activities results into a constant negotiation of our identity and what constitutes us as human beings.
Ever since he started his art education in Glasgow, Jakob Avenius Anckarsvärd has been exhibiting extensively both in group shows and in solo exhibitions mainly in Glasgow and Stockholm. Initially trained in painting and sculpture, he has in addition explored almost every other medium. Despite this apparent scattering, the issues he tackles in his work are essentially the same: the question of communication, how we relate to death and the relationship between art and the exhibition space.
Compost (2005) is a series of photos, which focuses on the short life of an artfully arranged bouquet of flowers and its long decomposition process until it reaches the anonymity of the pile of earth that it becomes a part of. The photos are taken at the crematory of Skogskyrkogården, the UNESCO listed cemetery in Stockholm, with beautiful allies flanked by majestic trees, an icon of Swedish romanticism created by architects Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerenz. Much like the graveyard itself, albeit deromanticised, the photos of the composting of the flowers, which for 15 minutes have rested on the coffin of the deceased, point towards a major mise-en-scène in which the only character ignored is the leading role, namely death.
Bringing unsettling allusions to death into the gallery space is a daring endeavour, but nevertheless one which compels his audience to consider questions of temporality and mortality and the un-shocking, un-extraordinary fact of life that, in his view, death is. Then, rather than marking the end of the road, death constitutes the transition towards another stage of our existence, a transition that sooner or later we are all subjected to. Last Parking, a transitory synthesised depiction of a Catholic tombstone painted on a parking place outside the gallery space, is a case in point. The association of the cemetery to a parking lot implies that our bodies are “parked” after our death in as taken for granted a manner as we park our cars on a daily basis. To a certain extent, this work attempts to reintroduce the reflection about death in our everyday life, a practice that to some extent has withered in nowadays secularised Western society. With its accurate depiction of the symbol for vanity, the hourglass, skull and bones and the angel of the Apocalypse, the tombstone might be viewed as a bold transgression of the gallery space into the public one. In this way Last Parking becomes also a statement in the exploration of the relationship between the art piece and the much too often white cube of the exhibition space.
Last Parking is not the only work by Jakob Avenius Anskarsvärd through which he establishes a relationship to art history. If in that case the vehicle he made use of was the mortuary sculpture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in the case of the series of flower paintings grouped under the title Vanitas (2005), the artist has turned towards the 17th century Dutch flower still lifes. Unlike their glossy predecessors, the Vanitas seem rather gloomy with their harsh contrasts between the lively colours of the flowers and the pitch-black backgrounds, thus distancing themselves from the ideals of displaying artistic prowess or horticultural sophistication, which the Dutch masters are commonly said to have had on the agenda. Rather, in this series, he experiments with his working process by converging the roles of the viewer and the artist into one. His starting point is art historical to the extent that he copies works by 17th century Dutch masters, but then he uses painting to explore his apprehension of them. In doing so, he challenges us to reflect on the very process of looking at an art work, a process in which our own experiences, expectations and imagination are crucial to the making of meaning.
More generally, then, transition in Jakob Avenius Anckarsvärd’s art can be seen as useful when reflecting upon changing conceptualisations of such fundamental things as death, or the authority of art history. In this way he distances himself from the questionable position of assisting in fixing asymmetric relations between people across real or imagined borders.