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Issue 80 January-February 2004 RSS

Miriam Bäckström and Carsten Höller

Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden

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‘Blest pair; and O yet happiest if ye seek/No happier state, and know to know no more.’ And so it was that Milton ranked blissful ignorance above the temptation of forbidden knowledge. Commenting on Adam and Eve, the poet asked the enduring question as to whether there should be limits on our ambition to know. Miriam Bäckström and Carsten Höller waded into Milton’s lyrical forewarning with their brooding exhibition ‘Den Sista Bilden’ (The Last Picture). Uplifted by an idea that is simplicity itself, they managed to set off bouts of desire, temptation and caution. The artists invited the public to send them photographs taken on the eve of an inevitable, perhaps unforeseen, but irreversible change in the world. The public responded, and more than 200 pictures were presented, fittingly, as the last exhibition in the temporary quarters of the Moderna Museet before the doors reopen to the renovated José Rafael Moneo building in February.

The photographs, mostly snapshots, were exhibited without comment by the artists, but the raison d’être - why each picture is the last picture - was withheld by design, to cast the audience adrift in their own conjecture. Some photographs fail to induce thoughts about imminent change, and simmer like ad hoc memorials. If you were in New York on 13 or 14 September 2001, you could not miss the kinship between these pictures and the untold thousands of family photos of the lost and missing blanketing the city that, all too quickly, became shrines to the dead. Indeed, the public provided Bäckström and Höller with endless tourist shots of the World Trade Center. When things ran from hollow to poignant, intrigue was a lost cause.

The majority of photographs in ‘Den Sista Bilden’ construct a privileged, time-capsule point of view that provides a surreal advantage: we know that irrevocable change was at hand every time the shutter clicked. To know precisely what changed, one must, of course, defeat the fickle source of these pictures - life’s unpredictability - by performing the alchemy that transforms prophecy into reality, stirring in the comprehensive knowledge Milton waved us off. But our reach is mortal and may stretch no farther than the outer limits of guesswork.

In a twisting paradox Bäckström and Höller prey on our natural desire to know, but rather than baiting us with something tempting, they treat us to the banality of life where everyone carries on, oblivious to the fact they are wobbling at the brink of the unthinkable and unknowable. Was it finding the love of his life in the next port of call or a heart attack that interrupted the contented soul sailing beneath the Mediterranean sun? The bashful blond, burrowed into a beanbag chair between friends - imminent suicide or a lottery win? Envying his salt and pepper hair and handsome smile, one suddenly fears the worst for him. Then irony stings: this man, holding up his kittens for the camera, knew as much about his next moment as we do of ours. Imagining how things forever change forces your hand to zero in on your own fate.

As in a vanitas painting, things here hang in the balance - on one side a resplendent life, on the other a common fate where mortal power inevitably curdles. Is fantasy in the wings, preparing to soft-land on to reality or, like those colonial American tombstones, do the dead speak smugly from the grave reminding the living: you too will rot? Bäckström and Höller have constructed a modern morality play that sparks as secular dreams rebound against eternity.

So what about eternity, our desire for knowledge, and the counsel ‘to know no more’? The occasion when Edward Teller and the architect of the H-bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, debated the question of whether scientists should continue researching into ever more destructive weapons comes to mind. Teller’s position was that ‘there is no case where ignorance should be preferred to knowledge, especially if the knowledge is terrible.’ Teller nominated the free reign of free will, as a sacred path to knowledge. One of the photographs in ‘Den Sista Bilden’ fiercely argues the other side. Two pine trees frame a simple dock jutting out on to a lake. At its endmost lip a lithe nude man is perched on one leg, looking very much like a flamingo. With his back to us, the poetry of the everyman undertaken in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich is vivid. On the lake the world is at peace, God is in his heaven, and all would be well with the world, except that somewhere change is afoot. This is a picture where one might well be moved to wonder: how much is really worth knowing, if this is the alternative?
 
   


‘Blest pair; and O yet happiest if ye seek/No happier state, and know to know no more.’ And so it was that Milton ranked blissful ignorance above the temptation of forbidden knowledge. Commenting on Adam and Eve, the poet asked the enduring question as to whether there should be limits on our ambition to know. Miriam Bäckström and Carsten Höller waded into Milton’s lyrical forewarning with their brooding exhibition ‘Den Sista Bilden’ (The Last Picture). Uplifted by an idea that is simplicity itself, they managed to set off bouts of desire, temptation and caution. The artists invited the public to send them photographs taken on the eve of an inevitable, perhaps unforeseen, but irreversible change in the world. The public responded, and more than 200 pictures were presented, fittingly, as the last exhibition in the temporary quarters of the Moderna Museet before the doors reopen to the renovated José Rafael Moneo building in February.

The photographs, mostly snapshots, were exhibited without comment by the artists, but the raison d’être - why each picture is the last picture - was withheld by design, to cast the audience adrift in their own conjecture. Some photographs fail to induce thoughts about imminent change, and simmer like ad hoc memorials. If you were in New York on 13 or 14 September 2001, you could not miss the kinship between these pictures and the untold thousands of family photos of the lost and missing blanketing the city that, all too quickly, became shrines to the dead. Indeed, the public provided Bäckström and Höller with endless tourist shots of the World Trade Center. When things ran from hollow to poignant, intrigue was a lost cause.

The majority of photographs in ‘Den Sista Bilden’ construct a privileged, time-capsule point of view that provides a surreal advantage: we know that irrevocable change was at hand every time the shutter clicked. To know precisely what changed, one must, of course, defeat the fickle source of these pictures - life’s unpredictability - by performing the alchemy that transforms prophecy into reality, stirring in the comprehensive knowledge Milton waved us off. But our reach is mortal and may stretch no farther than the outer limits of guesswork.

In a twisting paradox Bäckström and Höller prey on our natural desire to know, but rather than baiting us with something tempting, they treat us to the banality of life where everyone carries on, oblivious to the fact they are wobbling at the brink of the unthinkable and unknowable. Was it finding the love of his life in the next port of call or a heart attack that interrupted the contented soul sailing beneath the Mediterranean sun? The bashful blond, burrowed into a beanbag chair between friends - imminent suicide or a lottery win? Envying his salt and pepper hair and handsome smile, one suddenly fears the worst for him. Then irony stings: this man, holding up his kittens for the camera, knew as much about his next moment as we do of ours. Imagining how things forever change forces your hand to zero in on your own fate.

As in a vanitas painting, things here hang in the balance - on one side a resplendent life, on the other a common fate where mortal power inevitably curdles. Is fantasy in the wings, preparing to soft-land on to reality or, like those colonial American tombstones, do the dead speak smugly from the grave reminding the living: you too will rot? Bäckström and Höller have constructed a modern morality play that sparks as secular dreams rebound against eternity.

So what about eternity, our desire for knowledge, and the counsel ‘to know no more’? The occasion when Edward Teller and the architect of the H-bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, debated the question of whether scientists should continue researching into ever more destructive weapons comes to mind. Teller’s position was that ‘there is no case where ignorance should be preferred to knowledge, especially if the knowledge is terrible.’ Teller nominated the free reign of free will, as a sacred path to knowledge. One of the photographs in ‘Den Sista Bilden’ fiercely argues the other side. Two pine trees frame a simple dock jutting out on to a lake. At its endmost lip a lithe nude man is perched on one leg, looking very much like a flamingo. With his back to us, the poetry of the everyman undertaken in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich is vivid. On the lake the world is at peace, God is in his heaven, and all would be well with the world, except that somewhere change is afoot. This is a picture where one might well be moved to wonder: how much is really worth knowing, if this is the alternative?

Ronald Jones

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First published in
Issue 80, January-February 2004

by Ronald Jones

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