To call Matias Faldbakken a bad artist is not necessarily to berate him. The intelligence of slackerdom lies in its shrugging self-protection: you can’t judge that which never really tried in the first place. Or can you? The laziness, non-commitment and disavowal that can be read into the Norwegian sculptor’s works are less remnants of actual disaffection than representations of contempt. They show how the agency in any act of making, when actualized, can splinter into debris. And representations, unlike intentions, are not judgement-proof.
The distressed or broken industrial sculptures (sawed-open propane tanks, plastic containers filled with cement) and framed two-dimensional works Faldbakken presented at STANDARD (OSLO) may have been formally opposed (damaged vs. polished, floor vs. wall), but both were two sides of the same trash aesthetic that Faldbakken has fruitfully propagated for the past decade. To turn detritus into treasure – as the artist does in his four, framed cardboard boxes (Four Flat Boxes) and trash bags and sacks [Untitled (Burlap & Plastic)] (both 2014), might suggest a boastfulness that anything – even a disposable container – can pass as art. Reciprocally, such disavowal may seek to comment upon and eventually sink that whole, broken plane of valuation, holding itself to higher, if invisible, standards. Resignation and idealism are often closely aligned.
Faldbakken’s demolished car, Untitled (The Wheel), displayed in the entrance of the gallery, is a perfect Ballardian emblem, sexualizing technical destruction in the form of the car collision. The work is a partly dismantled Rover 75 from which a triangular structure of bars, a platform and scaffolding extend. Beneath the machismo of the raw, prostrate metal (dis)assemblage lies, I think, a tidy, if somewhat desperate, metaphor of the art object as a vehicle (for meaning and exchange), presented in the gallery (itself a former repair shop), for viewers or collectors (the aluminium film panel which might hold a film operator and camera) by gallerists/assistants (scaffolding). The installation suggests the masculinity of an artist holding power – if destructive – over his own objects; but it’s in such loaded acts of pathos that self-hatred reveals itself, in the guise of institutional critique. In the same room hung collages made of arranged, illegible newspaper strips while in actual news, an Oslo newspaper reported Faldbakken’s car as the most expensive for sale in the city (no small feat).
There’s an unexpected emotionality to works like Gas Sculpture (2014), sawed-open gas tanks of different colours, arranged in a line: they literally take the steam out of the artist’s own process, equating art with its own (also procedural) failure. The quasi-performative sculpture Untitled (Wall Drag) was a groping, dramatic tangle of welded automobile tailpipes and mufflers, which Faldbakken hauled into the gallery space, leaving a ‘drawing’ on the (scratched) wall.
Faldkbakken’s is not the grand tragic failure of the unresolved masterpiece, but the banal botch of a lost parking ticket or a joke falling flat. I do like the sly, conscious oscillation between humour and failure in his art, which plays performatively off the bathos of ruin. Less justifiable, though, is the artist’s defence of his perhaps feigned naiveté, which is always a recourse to outside context, as if to say, ‘it’s not me, it’s the culture.’ This is the ‘liberation’ claimed in the show’s press release as the flip side to failures of agency (or the ‘catastrophe’ of making): the negative freedom of non-accountability.
If the art world is prepared to allow half-heartedness and stupidity into its roster, then it’s to blame for its own low standards. This reasoning – Faldbakken’s own, I think – can be seen not only in terms of its causes (an ‘anything goes’ context), but also its effects (exclusion, repetition). After all, even the hyped, hyper-contextualized object (ultimately, the artist Faldbakken) has generative power: as subject, maker, meme or hero. By this logic, are we not also to judge Faldbakken for the student-level works of his considerable imitators?