‘Unawareness has a life of its own, and it will pervert organisms who treat it with ignorance [...] it’s really simple.’ So says Jan, a character in Swedish artist and poet Karl Larsson’s latest book, which is written in the form of a two-act play titled Consensus (The Room) (2012). Appearing near the start of the first act – which is set in 1990 and includes three men discussing an unidentified blueprint – these lines sum up Jan’s response to the question: ‘Will there be a city of light and prosperity?’ Jan, who appears to be a patriarch and real-estate magnate, ominously explains how the power of secrets to strengthen social bonds has been replaced by the democratic demand for transparency and disclosure. Only self-awareness, reflexivity and the production of knowledge will ensure upward economic growth and lead the population toward (a perverse) consensus. Whether his theory is borne out in the play remains unclear. But for a moment at least, the problem remains simple – just like the difference between vertical and horizontal.
‘R, A, I, N (Consensus)’, Larsson’s first exhibition at Signal, used this opposition between the y and x axes as a generative matrix. The first in a series of three ‘acts’ – the other two being the aforementioned book and a second exhibition, ‘P∞L (Consensus)’, at castillo/corralles in Paris in January 2013 – the individual works at Signal were formally diverse, comprising screen-prints, sculptures and readymades. Like anomalous points on a graph, the works held together not because of their coherence or the connections among them, but as a result of their underlying order. This is typical of Larsson’s artistic practice which, paralleling contrasts between prose and poetry, often eschews linear narrative in favour of discontinuity and repetition. In this case, the show’s structuring principle was hinted at in the press release by a threefold dedication: to rain, to the reader and to verticality.
In Larsson’s writing, which is full of historical allusions and populated by mimics, avatars, ghosts and the people that are haunted by them, the vertical takes on a special ambivalence. Not only does it refer to traditional sculptural concerns such as weight and gravity, but also to acts of ascension, immersion and even burial. More significantly, perhaps, Larsson connects the vertical to a logic of emergency and accumulation. In the second act of the book, for example, a minor drama unfolds when one of the characters gets trapped inside an elevator; in the same act, an elderly woman speaks of phantoms that appear cut off at the knees because they are walking on the old floors of a newly renovated building.
Although the works in ‘R, A, I, N (Consensus)’ did not illustrate or make direct reference to the play, one sculpture in particular, Object Ontology: The Plot is a Model, Not a Story (all works 2012), echoed its themes. Consisting of the top half of a human head cast in bronze and bisected below the nose, its casual display on the floor suggested either a partially uncovered monument or a nearly submerged body. Nearby, Object Ontology: Always Interesting, What Can Be Said Without Explaining was made up of several white sweatshirts neatly folded and stacked in a pile. Across their fronts, Larsson printed the phrase, ‘Baby, it’s cold outside’ in red and blue letters.
To these, the artist counterposed ‘Umbrella Poster (Show the Problem, Not the Solution)’, a series of identical black and white screen-prints in which an umbrella icon is captioned with the word ‘umbrella’. Framed and hung at uniform height in intervals around the gallery, they made a horizontal line that became the exhibition’s dominant visual element. If the subject of this work represented the titular ‘problem’, it might have been one of verticality. It also might have been one of style, of signification or of notions surrounding the use-value of art. But if understood as a performative utterance, the series acted like a kind of tautological slapstick: in an exhibition dedicated to rain, what is an umbrella if not a necessary solution?
While suggesting Larsson’s initial subject of research for the project, this gesture – that of stupidity – also underscored the role of the body in the exhibition (or at least, its brute authority when confronted with need). Does rain bring people together or does it push them apart? If we hoard objects in an attempt to stave off death, how else might we sustain ourselves? If knowledge is the engine of economic growth, what (if anything) comes before the concept? In Larsson’s dramaturgy, questions such as these take on vital importance. As he puts it at the beginning of the play: ‘Do living people write books? Etc.’