Minimalism just won’t go away, in spite of the surge of grunge that accompanied art of the 1990s. The Swedish artist Jacob Dahlgren (b. 1970) shows just how minimalism can be revitalised by leveraging the power of ‘interactivity’ .
The images shown above are of Dahlgren’s exhibit I, the world, things, life, 2004, in the Nordic Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale, 2007. One can also view a video of the installation. What these images show is a new take on minimalism which one might describe as “interactive minimalism”.
Minimalism has been rebranded quite a few times, in fact it was itself an American rebranding of early 20c European geometric abstraction. During the 1980s when American art theory reached its intellectual peak (in the New York based journal October) one of the “October theorists” Hal Foster (1986) explained how minimalism transcended European geometric abstraction by fusing a hyper-simplified version of geometric abstraction with the Readymade. According to Foster objects made by Carl Andre and Donald Judd in the 1960s should be understood as reflecting everyday urban objects and following the mass production logic of “one thing after another”. Couched in the authoritative voice of intellectual rigour Foster’s argument is plausible enough, but unfortunately it is deconstructed by the fact that the objects produced by the minimalists are now treated as precious objects, unlike objects in the everyday world. In other words, they suffered the same fate as the Readymade.
Nevertheless, there are still some galleries, the Whitney in New York, for example, where one is allowed to walk on a Carl Andre “rug” of metal tiles arranged in a grid on the floor (see below right), an action that accords with the original intention of the artist. This may not seem like much, but the very act of walking on a work of art is quite revolutionary within the “look, but don’t touch” regime of the art museum. And the link between Dahlgren’s work and minimalism becomes foregrounded when he makes a witty reference to Andre’s sculptural “rugs” in another installation, Heaven is a place on earth, 2006, as photographed below left by anti-factory redux:
The difference between Dahlgren’s reworking of Andre and the original is that Dahlgren takes Andre one step closer to the confluence between geometric abstraction and the Readymade. More exactly, Dahlgren actualises this fusion rather than alluding to it metaphorically as is the case with Andre. What Foster failed to mention in his haste to distinguish the genius of the American artists from their European precursors was that the minimalists remained concerned with being classed as “sculptors”. Since the rise of installation art traditional concepts of sculpture have been heavily deconstructed: hence Dahlgren’s take on Andre’s classic rugs. Dahlgren does not genuflect to American Minimal Art he actually improves it.
From a historical point of view, Dahlgren’s deconstruction of minimalism leads to a long line of precursors. One can mention Andy Warhol’s gridded silkscreens containing images culled from the mass media. The Italian movement Arte Povera (poor art) also, very consciously, deconstructed Minimal Art by using its formalism and even its groundbreaking site-specific ideology, but with the replacement of smooth industrial materials and finishes with found, “poor”, materials in a way that serves as a precursor for the major role played by grunge in at the turn of the millennium.
One on the most pointed, early deconstructions of minimalism is Sigmar Polke’s Carl Andre in Delft, 1968, (above left). In this work Polke symbolically contaminated the transcendental purity of Andre’s grid with “mere” decoration. In so doing he reminded us of the pioneering modernist architect Adolf Loos’ famous connection between “ornament and crime”. In his eponymous 1908 essay (Wikipedia) Loos argued that because criminals were enamoured with tattoos there was a clear link between ornament crime. For Loos such observations provided clear proof that the elimination of ornament from modern architecture was both ethically and aesthetically superior. In retrospect his argument is outstanding because of its absurdity.
In the second half of the 1980s there was a spate of sculptural deconstructions of minimalist and modernist purism. Ange Leccia’s works of the 1980s all transpose readymade, up-market consumer products–the “good design” that remains indebted to the modernist revolution–into minimalist arrangements, take for example Je veux ce que je veux (I want what i want), 1989, (above centre) in which two back to back Honda VFR 750F motorbikes are arranged in front of stylish Japanese advertising posters in which a couple on the point of kissing mirror the angles of the motorcycles. In the 1980s another sculptor, Haim Steinbach, also consistently deconstructed minimal-modernist purity by conflating it with consumer products (above right).
Deconstructions of minimalist-modernism such as those cited all focus on the purism of Minimal Art which betrays its indebtedness to modernist geometric abstraction. In other words they all focus on the Achilles’ heel of minimalism.
But what Dahlgren is doing is taking the subversive game much further by introducing an element of play entirely foreign to the seriousness that permeates both modernism and minimalism. And it does appear to be the case that play is considerably more deconstructive of the purism of minimalist-modernity than is ornament, decoration, or grunge materials. To actually release the viewer from the condition of a segregated subaltern who dutifully admires the genius of the artist seems truly radical. For more of Dahlgren’s work go to the artist’s website.
Foster, H. (1986). The Crux of Minimalism. Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art. H. Singerman. New York, Abbeville Press, pp. 162-83.