PRINT September 2009



MATIAS FALDBAKKEN is a master of the fine art of sucking all the air out of the room. What room? Hard to say exactly, but it seems to be the space of modernity as seen from the perspective of the Western artist—that overworked zone indelibly marked by issues of abstraction not only in images and artistic strategies but also among social and cognitive phenomena. A rich body of literature suggests that if there is abstraction in art, it is because social relations more generally have been rendered abstract—reduced to mere relations of exchange that are rendered increasingly obscure, thanks to the power and fascination exerted by the mysterious phenomenon of the commodity. Or is it because of a growing tendency toward conceptual abstraction, a tendency related to the way in which digital technologies transform objects, experiences, and sensations into pure information? Critical emphasis may shift a bit, depending on what type of artistic practice one is referring to, but the general idea is that these are the basic conditions within which modern art operates, its specific space of thinking and experience.
With his exhibition “Shocked into Abstraction,” on view until September 20 at Oslo’s National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, and later this year at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, Faldbakken enters this discursive space of artistic and social abstraction from a position that can only be described as cunningly faux-naïf. Reading like a tabloid headline, his title suggests that we should once more identify with that historical moment when the insurmountable aporias of early modern life—the promise of progress and reason held against the horrors of mass exploitation, violence, and rapidly increasing societal complexity—were enough to make any sane artist abandon all faith in the ordinary business of representation.
More precisely, the title invites us to recall the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer’s 1908 attempt to explain the stylistic tendencies of modern art in psychological terms: In his view, artistic abstraction could only be explained by shock, i.e., as the result of a sensual and intellectual severing of empathic engagement with the world. Taking off from Worringer’s approach, Faldbakken’s work in no way promotes abstraction as a viable critical artistic strategy today. If anything, the artist presents it negatively—as a compromised, ghostly form of hermeticism that can only be traced through a type of mind-set in which abstraction is cognitively hardwired to impulses of violence, defilement, and transgression. This is why, with “Shocked into Abstraction,” he lets his works remain right where the art handlers left them—a form of aggressive nonengagement that is closer in spirit to adolescent misbehavior than to the Zen-inspired letting go of personal taste typical of avant-garde models of past decades. And this is also why the various refusals to signify that are articulated in the objects on view—wall pieces made with packing tape; more or less illegible tape writings on huge canvases; silver spray-paint markings on MDF boards or on the wall; blurred scans of newspaper ads—are only marginally associated with the complex languages of artistic abstraction. They pass beyond or below the nuanced concerns of color theory and the engineering of sensation, the invention of radical form, the exploration of the properties of media and those of various scientific, formal, and institutional languages.
In fact, it seems that what is really being evoked here is the paranoid or nerdy mind-set of the extremist, for whom the world is reduced to a few big categories interlinked through a simple binary logic—good and bad, us and them, domination and subjection. What Faldbakken presents is, in other words, the idea of an avant-garde gesture of refusal distilled to a kind of absurd essence—an idea derived more from hearsay and Googling than from primary sources. It is this radically reductivist and sensorially deprived version of abstraction that is routinely subjected, by pundits and theorists alike, to a process of extrapolation that takes us beyond the increasingly indefinite contours of “art,” so as to associate it with forms of extremism found outside the realm of the culture industry proper. It is the us-versus-them attitude of the graffiti vandal, the highway ghost rider driving at breakneck speed, the computer hacker, the Taliban foot soldier scouring the streets of Kabul for illicit music and videocassettes. These personae now appear as agonistic collaborators in the production of artistic gestures whose main source of power is the shrunken universe of the eternally misunderstood. Such a bleakly sardonic vision would be very much in keeping, after all, with the sensibility of an artist who is also a prolific writer and whose best-known literary work is a trio of novels titled “Scandinavian Misanthropy.”
At the National Museum, the story Faldbakken tells is not about opening up art to uncontrollable subcultural energies—to movements, groups, and perspectives traditionally excluded from the “museum” or from dominant culture. Neither is it a celebration of the rebel, the outsider, or the bad-boy transgressor, or of various types of attack on good form. Something about his project recalls T. J. Clark’s dry remark, in his 1999 book Farewell to an Idea, concerning artworks that take up Georges Bataille’s concept of the informe: “They are no kind of basis for conflict with, or criticism of, the bourgeoisie, which possesses descriptions and practices far and away more powerful, because more differentiated, than anything modernism can come up with.” Seen as an entity, Faldbakken’s work operates on a level where such a critique of modernism’s subversive potential is already assumed—a far more perverse approach than the informe itself. While this might appear to be a degree of capitulation bordering on nihilism, it should instead be seen as a particular kind of strategy that is not easily transferred to the realm of good intentions. Essentially, his works perform a repeated inscription—a sort of hyperinscription—of the very generalities, the too big or undifferentiated concepts, that could be seen to subtend the space of modern art or “avant-garde practice.” It is, in particular, a repeated inscription of the big concepts of depletion, loss, and negation—an inscription of negativity spinning around itself so fast that the whole drama of the avant-garde in the end comes down to a few tiny “cartoonish” (to use the artist’s word) characters, as hilariously predictable in their operations as Tom and Jerry.
This, of course, is abstraction in its purest form. And nothing good, Faldbakken seems to say, can come of it. (If he recycles modernism’s obsession with negativity as a “social” universe replete with a number of familiar figures or agents, this universe is still mainly presented to us as an aesthetic experience: the sensation of an airless space with, as he puts it, no exit.) But this experience of depletion, loss, and negation might give way to a form of rejection that has its redeeming aspects. It may, for instance, produce some skepticism about certain key mythologies of Western modernity—the self-punishing stories of a culture formed by the losses of tradition, origin, God, meaning, man, self, community, authenticity, connection, and so on. Ultimately, with “Shocked into Abstraction” Faldbakken pushes us to ask whether abstraction really is the master trope of the complex social formations named modernity—and if it is not time to invest in a different, and more differentiated, set of descriptions. —INA BLOM

View of “Matias Faldbakken: Shocked into Abstraction,” 2009, National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

TO ME, “SHOCKED INTO ABSTRACTION” is sort of like an absurdist play without exit: It’s this big production that is all about holding back, about being almost nonproductive. It’s my first solo museum exhibition, so there was of course the question of how to conceive of such a show. I didn’t want it to seem like a retrospective, but at the same time I didn’t want to make all new works: I wanted, rather, to contextualize the new pieces by means of highlights from the past four years. The solution, one that goes along with the overall logic of my work, was to take seriously the generous invitation to exhibit in such a context, yet at the same time to somehow cut short the positive vibe that comes with such an invitation by more or less just dumping the stash—the material, the artworks—in the museum, without much regard for where it all would be placed or how it all would

to keep reading

Artforum print subscribers have full access to this article. If you are a subscriber, sign in below.

Not registered for Register here.

SUBSCRIBE NOW for only $50 a year—65% off the newsstand price—and get the print magazine plus full online access to this issue and our archive.*

Order the PRINT EDITION of the September 2009 issue for $17 or the ONLINE EDITION for $5.99.

* This rate applies to U.S. domestic subscriptions.