BY Daniel Birnbaum in Reviews | 04 MAR 97
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Issue 33

Dan Wolgers: 120 Works 1977-1996

BY Daniel Birnbaum in Reviews | 04 MAR 97

Dan Wolgers is probably the best-known conceptual artist in Sweden, which doesn't mean to say that he is much loved by the general public. On the contrary, his art and persona epitomise what people outside the tight circle of the art world tend to hate about contemporary art. Since it appears incomprehensible and pointless, it can't be anything but pretentious and bogus, and Wolgers' success is the final proof of that.

The hostility started to build up around 1991 when Wolgers, instead of showing his own artworks, hired an advertising agency to mount an exhibition in his name at one of Stockholm's leading galleries - he arrived at the opening with as little knowledge about the show as other visitors. In 1992, when commissioned to make a cover project for the Stockholm Yellow Pages (all Swedish phone books had art covers that year), he presented only his own name and (real) phone number - 08 600 443 73. People weren't too happy about that either, and called up the artist to make sure he knew their point of view.

The final peak of irritation was reached some months later in an episode at the Liljevalchs gallery, a traditional art venue in the Swedish capital. Wolgers accepted the invitation to participate in a group show, but instead of submitting objects for display, he decided to remove some instead. He stole two quite valuable benches and took them to the Stockholm Auction rooms, where they were sold a few days before the opening. At the exhibition there was nothing to be seen apart from a plate with the artist's name.

An interesting process, intertwining questions of aesthetics and law, followed: a lawsuit was filed against him by two private citizens, and after a long and absurd trial (the transcript of which is worthy of publication), he was found guilty of misappropriation. The notification of the verdict was mailed to the artist, who immediately - without even opening the envelope - sold it to a Norwegian collector.

From an international point of view these provocations may not appear artistically ground-breaking, but the kind of attention they received in the tabloid press and on TV talk shows, where art is never normally discussed, was exceptional.

What strikes me when reading the new book, Dan Wolgers: 120 Works 1977-1996, is the extent to which these spectacular projects from the 90s were anticipated by his early objects and 'machines', where an analogous logic is already at work. A kind of short-circuiting is common to many of his humorous mechanical pieces: if a machine is expected to produce a certain result, Wolgers, through subtle manipulations, makes sure the outcome is the exact opposite. Sometimes the whole thing self-destructs, which, for some reason, is even funnier.

When Wolgers treats the whole art situation as a kind of mechanical device, a comparable chaos results. If you turn a single element the wrong way around - remove an object from an exhibition instead of supplying one, for instance - the entire social 'machine' breaks down, and a new process begins, one that includes confusion, law suits and absurd trials. No doubt, the unpredictable steps of this process are what primarily interest Wolgers, rather than the quite predictable media turmoil.

Pontus Hultén's short essay focuses on Wolgers' use of old and dreary gadgets: 'In his hands dreariness becomes not merely bearable, it becomes entertaining and stimulating. He gives these sorry objects a new life, a better life which they may not always deserve'. This humorous art, Hultén concludes, is extremely cerebral - it takes place in your head, but supplies no visual beauty or pleasure. In that respect, Wolgers is a follower of Duchamp.

Comparisons with Duchamp belong to those ubiquitous manoeuvres most essays on contemporary art would do better without, but since it's Hultén writing I guess it's okay. Wolgers does in fact seem to share not only Duchamp's dislike of 'retinal' art, but also his obsession with optical phenomena and the mechanical workings of the eye. In the rather grotesque Portrait of the Artist (1996), for instance, you can look at two red eyeballs through a stereoscope, and eventually make them merge into one big, bloody eye.

A similar mechanism is at work in To be looked at, from a distance, with eyes crossed (1995), which shows two photographs of the artist, accompanied by the instructions: 'If you try to meet my gaze in the two pictures by squinting, a third picture emerges in the middle. If you focus on it, it becomes three-dimensional'. Originally, the work was presented in one of the main daily papers in Sweden. That day, a large part of the population travelled to work with their eyes crossed.