What does the Soviet space dog Laika have in common with the various insects and frogs of the Swedish artist Henrik Håkansson? They have both been the subjects of environmental experiments. Håkansson's pet breeding is one of several such ongoing, obsessive projects in contemporary Swedish art. For a few years now, he has grown plants and bred exotic animals, turning his studio into a florist's-cum-pet shop. In his show 'Growing Up In Public' at the Olle Olsson House in Solna last year, Håkansson created a miniature jungle inside a play-hut for a colony of Congo beetles. In the 'nursery' his favourite music was played to the baby beetles. At the 'Stockholm Art Hotel' in September of this year, he recreated an earlier piece in which stick-insects walked a tightrope to get at some lettuce attached at intervals to the rope. In another project, Håkansson supplied words expressing the desperate psychic states of plants and provided the viewers with written instructions as to how to caress them.
This show, entitled 'Frog For.e.s.t. (eternal sonic trance)', at Galleri Tre created another of these artificial environments, this time complete with its own time cycle. Living in a mixture of subtropical terrarium and techno club, it was permanent night-time for the 20 different kinds of frogs from various parts of the globe which inhabited it. The only light sources were dim 'moon' spotlights, reflected from a disco mirror ball. The creatures hid in the foliage of the plants, placed in the form of an island on the floor. The warm, cosy stereo, which became home for one of the frogs, at times played loud ambient techno mixed by a professional DJ. An inflatable baby paddling-pool was provided for the frogs to take a swim in, and mealworms, crickets and zoophorbi were served for dinner.
Håkansson's reason for using frogs was, he wrote, because they are 'citizens of the world' - they can be found everywhere except the polar regions - but they are vulnerable citizens, easily affected by pollution and environmental imbalances. They also have a sophisticated communication system with a multiplicity of languages and, with brains out of proportion to their body volume, are thought to be highly intelligent.
It is easy to think immediately of this parallel world as a reaction to environmental threats; as a way of naively trying to reconnect with an alienated nature and its inhabitants. Especially in Scandinavia, given the region's self-proclaimed responsibility for 'others' and ensuing wish to care for/patronise them - whether humans or 'nature'.
But, more than anything else, Håkansson's creation of parallel worlds expresses a desperate and somewhat pathetic wish for communication, albeit a controlled one. Whereas Beuys' hare was stone dead - in one of his earlier videos Håkansson dressed as a giant hare and gave a silent explanation of art to the viewers - the frogs are very much alive, and therefore require more sensitive treatment. Significantly enough, the intimate - but otherwise undefined - contact that Håkansson wants to establish is here made through the most synthetic, electronically produced, music - ambient techno.
On first impressions, absolute literalness in animal care combined with absolute artificiality in the music seems contradictory. But the sweaty techno experience has in fact become the sign for an otherwise compromised 'truly authentic experience' in a weary world of endless mediation and virtuality. Håkansson actually assigns the frogs the same role in relation to ambient techno as the ravers who dance to it so frantically.
This is the return of the repressed real. In the mid-90s, the conscious mix of the factual and the fictional, the natural and the artificial, returns again and again, but the stress on 'the real thing' expresses an urge for authentic experience while showing an awareness that it is permeated by artificiality. This mix has become one of the most quintessentially contemporary phenomena and Håkansson's communication experiments with frogs are related to, for instance, Rirkrit Tiravanija's potential meeting points, Elin Wikström's sociologically oriented actions and Carsten Höller's behavioural tests.
In one sense Håkansson acts like a dashing boy scout - and there is a certain degree of naïveté involved in talking to frogs and caressing pot plants. But in 'Frog For.e.s.t. (eternal sonic trance)' he has finally stepped out of the tent and left some of his usual slapstick, gimmicky attitudes behind. Underlying this project, one finds instead that old companion, loneliness. In surrendering to this, Håkansson succeeds in creating a situation which is both existentially and conceptually rich.
As lonely space dog Laika was anthropomorphised and sentimentalised, then so are today's endangered species - whales, for instance. But where Laika was an icon of loneliness and exploitation, sent out alone into space, as a pawn in the race between super-powers for the conquest of space, in Håkansson's project the situation is displaced: the artist and viewers end up as the pitiful ones, drawing solace from the frogs.