|FOCUS: Lars Nilsson: Power, Fiction and Reality|
Richard Dyer is impressed by the cut of the
Swedish artist’s cloth
Lars Nilsson is a chap who cuts a dash. Ravishingly tailored from tie to toe in bespoke worsted he cuts a swath through the black-suited waters of the contemporary artworld. A Scandinavian Adam Adamant1 Nilsson’s suited self spills over into his practice, where he foregrounds fashion, or rather style, as the mediator of the deeper reaches of the psyche. It is this exploitation of surface, the seemingly trivial, to uncover the most fundamental aspects the male psyche which is at the core of the artist’s work.
In Estetik/Aesthetic (1993)
four suited and booted figures stand in a white room, headless and handless,
as if the occupants had just evaporated, leaving the second skin of the suit
to stand vacant witness to the writing on the wall. The texts that cover all
four walls are an abattoirial excavation of the most violent incidents from
the extreme shores of fiction and film: Silence of the Lambs, American
Psycho, etc. All of the suits are tailored for Nilsson’s body and are
supported by an invisible fibreglass lining in such a way that they appear
to retain the absent form of the artist. These surrogate ‘Nilssons’ make an
appearance again and again in the artist’s work, literally ‘standing in’ for
his presence and participation in the constructed narratives.
It is this willingness to confront his own psyche, and by implication that of all men, which separates Nilsson’s œuvre from that of many of his cool, conceptual contemporaries working in the mediums of sculpture, installation and video. The male viewer’s reception of the work is inevitably radically different to that of the female viewer, a situation not usually evident in the reception of most contemporary art. (The exception being work by explicitly feminist artist such as Carolee Schneeman and Abramovich, particularly when that work is carried out with the tool of the artist’s own body under the rubric of performance art.)
In a perverse sense Nilsson can be constructed as a male ‘feminist’, such is the uninhibited engagement with the social and psychological construction of masculinity in his work. In Gå I fängels/Go to Prison (1996) the artist incarcerated himself for two weeks in an ‘open’ prison cell at the Rooseum Centre of Contemporary art in Malmö, where visitors to the gallery could observe his every move. The exhibition attendants doubled as prison guards, serving him trays of food and accompanying him to the lavatory. The prison vitrine, with its roughly welded heavy steel frame and plate glass panels is a witty riposte to Hirst’s endless conveyor-belt production of pickled animals in giant fish-tanks. By making himself the subject, Nilsson ups the ante on Hirst by foregrounding the poverty of production in opposition to the power of the performative self. However, the work is more importantly an embodiment of the meditations of Michel Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish. Nilsson employs the prison as a metaphor for the control society exerts on the individual, the transparency of the walls pointing to the fact that the ‘prison’ is not always visible, our desires and fears are controlled and ordered by social, cultural and psychological mechanisms of which we are normally unaware and helpless to counter. Here the body of the artist functions as a trope for the mind and the prison for the subconscious drives and societal codes which control our behaviour.
Nilsson took the notion of punishment to a further level in an extreme work titled Bara ord – Kortsluten representation/Only words – Representation in short-circuit of the same year. The viewer suddenly comes upon a scene of utter horror and carnage; the limbless and headless torso of the artist is hanging by the shoulders from two ropes, his severed head and limbs are scattered on the blood soaked floor. The dismembered wax effigy is unnervingly realistic. It is as if the artist has symbolically sacrificed himself to atone for the ‘sins’ of male sexuality. An avid connoisseur of pornography, Nilsson’s work is a direct response, and indeed dialogue with the writings of leading feminist thinkers such as Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.
At his comprehensive retrospective in Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall in 2002 the first work that greeted the viewer was a video projection showing a forest at night, fine mist swirling amongst the dark leafless trunks of threatening trees. The second component of Midway on our life’s journey I found myself in dark woods… (2002) was not encountered until the vast space of the penultimate gallery of the Konsthall. Here the same scene greeted the viewer, but this time a lone, naked woman was sprawled in the lower right hand corner of the projection, unselfconsciously pleasuring herself. But this was no naturist idyll of abandoned hedonism; Nilsson had in fact constructed the ‘woods’ from scratch and pumped in the ‘mist’ artificially in an elaborate facsimile of reality, the sense was one of uncanny foreboding, as if the endlessly deferred orgasm was an imminent thunderstorm which threatened to inundate and ravage the artificial fantasy world the artist had created.
In his most recent work, In Orgia (2004) –
a 23-minute video loop shot on 24P – which is on show as part of Berlin
North, an exhibition of ten Scandinavian artists at the Hamburger Bahnhof,
Berlin, (31 January – 15 April), it is violence, not pleasure which is
eternally postponed. Amid the ‘ruins’ of a half-constructed Berlin shopping
mall, a postmodern romantic ruin, two young men endlessly confront each
other with violent intent, the fight, like the orgasm in Midway on our
life’s journey…, never resolves into pure violence, catharsis is withheld,
building the tension, as naked and clothed figures pass too and fro, and a
very real orgy progresses in the background. Violence, pleasure, sexuality,
power, voyeurism, onanism, pornography and death; Lars Nilsson’s work
bravely turns its back on both political correctness and vacuous
neo-conceptualism. By fearlessly confronting the darkest, strongest and at
times most disturbing elements of masculine identity Nilsson is producing
the most powerful work coming out of Scandinavia at the present time, and
some of the most important contemporary art of the moment.