The Indistinguishable Soup of the Present

Perhaps the best place to start a consideration of Christian Andersson's referentially rich work is not with his work at all, but rather with what can be seen, in many ways, as its perfect literary counterpart: Tom McCarthy's contemporary classic, Remainder (2005). The now-quintessential remake novel, it recounts, in meticulous, dead-pan detail, the story of an unnamed narrator who has suffered an accident, which he cannot remember, and for which he has been compensated a sum of £8.5 million on the condition that he never speaks about what happened to him (which, again, he can't remember). Apparently alienated from his own reality, body and any sense of "naturalness", he embarks on a series of obsessive remakes, or recreations, of variously banal and spectacular events, which involve large casts of actors, elaborate mise-en-scènes and, inevitably, extravagant sums of money, in the hope of attaining an elusive tingling sensation that we can only interpret as the perfect surrogate for authentic experience.

There is nothing psychologically or stylistically sentimental about this novel, and yet it is rife with a very specific pathos. It is, after all, predicated on loss – loss of memory, subsequent disconnection from "reality", from experience and from any sense of authenticity – for which it becomes an allegory. This great theme of twentieth century philosophy and theory, loss of experience and authenticity, inevitably harks back to Walter Benjamin and one of his greatest exegetes, Giorgio Agamben. Benjamin reflects on what he calls "the atrophy of experience" and its link to tradition in his essay Some Motifs in Baudelaire, in which the atrophy of the former is a result of the deterioration of the latter. Thus, he argues, without tradition, there is no "authentic" (cultural) experience. Agamben masterfully locates this breakdown in the act of transmissibility or, rather, in its impossibility. To put it in the simplest possible terms, he explains that the moment at which tradition becomes self-aware, or historically self-conscious, coincides with its loss of connection to the present, leading to it becoming trapped in the past. "In a traditional system", the philosopher writes, "culture exists only in the act of its transmission, that is, in the living act of its tradition. There is no discontinuity between past and present, between old and new, because every object transmits at every moment, without residue, the system of belief and notions that has found expression in it".1 But, the moment those beliefs and notions are called into question, by such innovations as, say, reproducibility, and thereby authenticity,2 transmission loses the momentum necessary for its seamless continuity, and "An inadequation, a gap between the act of transmission and the thing to be transmitted, and a valuing of the latter independently of the former appears […] when tradition loses its vital force, and constitutes the foundation of a characteristic phenomenon of non-traditional societies: the accumulation of culture".3

It is precisely this accumulation that Agamben incisively qualifies elsewhere as "indecipherable", which guarantees the disconnection and ultimately collapses the whole structure of tradition and experience. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that a good part of Christian Andersson's historical frame of reference can be roughly situated in the time that Benjamin originally diagnosed these issues, which – as demonstrated by McCarthy's Remainder, not to mention by the work of Andersson himself – are far from resolved.

Fluctuating between objects that have lost their cultural and ideological traction and remakes of objects, the originals of which have often ceased to exist, the work of Christian Andersson can be characterized by loss, mourning, and a fundamental scepticism vis-à-vis enduring notions of progress and truth. Books and objects, physically undermined by their ideological irrelevance, are liable to become transparent and lose their shadows; phantom photocopiers haunt office spaces with a pathological insistence, and scientific and cultural phenomena bleed and blur into one another, heedless of the place they have been assigned in history. Obsolescence vies with a discreet chaos, and a general disconnection abounds. This disconnection may seem inconsistent or ironic, given that Andersson has expressed a wish that his exhibition at Moderna Museet Malmö should seem like a remake of itself, or an impossibly twice-dreamed dream,4 as if this same exhibition has already happened somewhere before, registering in the viewer's experience like déjà vu.5 Upon first glance, such a wish might seem to hanker after some continuity with the past, but, as we all know, nothing dislocates one from the present and destabilizes the constituent flow of time like a déjà vu.

Divided into three inter-related parts, the exhibition is introduced by a monumentally large remake of the linguistic ruin at the centre of René Magritte's painting, The Art of Conversation (1950). The ruin consists of a vertically labyrinthine, Stonehenge-like edifice, at the bottom of which the word rêve (dream) can be read. In Andersson's seven-metre high, three-dimensional version, which has been fashioned out of polystyrene and painted grey, the ruin assumes a certain theatricality. Categorically of the order of the already-seen, the sculptural allegory (akin to all ruins) suggests a fulfilled promise. For, if Magritte's original, decidedly more oneiric version, portended a certain discursive instability, then Andersson's plastic incarnation of the image literalizes that instability, embodying it like so much accumulation. Andersson's colossal citation, however, does not necessarily illustrate or justify the original and, as such, create some kind of artificial continuity. As Agamben observes, nothing impedes transmissibility and fosters alienation like quotation.6 The déjà vu that happens here tends more toward a kind of incommensurability, between the original and its citation, the past and the present and, most importantly, the promise, as it were, and its fulfilment, for it is a promise that can never stop being fulfilled (it is worth noting that this endless, self-fulfilling promise is likewise ironically reflected by the fact that, once you move beyond the façade of this sculpture and perceive it from behind, rêve reads backwards as ever. And this reversal, in turn, resonates like a distant and elegiac echo of the former transmissibility of culture).

If the first part of the exhibition seeks to embody and contain that which cannot be contained and repeat that which cannot be repeated, then the second part is more about dispersal, dissolution and, ultimately, the interior of the museum, not as a site of order but of disorder. This section can roughly be subdivided into two parts and, in one way or another, each part, and the various works that populate it, gesture toward some kind of loss, of certainty, stability and/or verifiability. From Lucy with love consists of two shelving units, which feature sculptural sketches, prototypes, anomalies and sundry objects – ranging from the skull of a two-headed calf to a case study by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach – gathered together without apparent rhyme or reason, suggesting that the organizing principle of the museum has suffered a general collapse and a bewitching, non-linear chaos has ensued. The challenge of non-linear histories can be metaphorically summed up in a prototype of one of Andersson's more recent works, Paper Clip (The Baghdad Batteries) (2009).

Based on the 1936 discovery near Baghdad of what is purportedly an ancient battery, the original installation, of which five examples are shown here, is comprised of forty-nine replicas of the object (clay pots), the interior compound (copper, iron and vinegar) of which, combined with force, supposedly produce enough electricity to magnetize a paper clip to an iron rod. If this is indeed the case, the existence of the battery predates Alessandro Volta's 1800 invention by more than a millennium. But is this a bona fide anachronism, i.e. a projection of the present into the past, in other words, a historical impossibility? Or does it not challenge the self-assured logic of linearity that underpins the anachronism and, inevitably, by extension, the authority upon which the museum rests? Faced with what seems to be an anachronism, the viewer is firstly bound to wonder whether this is true or even possible and, secondly and consequently, become the site of a minor epistemological breakdown by virtue of the struggle to assimilate such revisionist information.

Adjacent to this can be found the hyper-realistic, albeit uncanny, sculptural installation, Memo (2008), which consists of a full scale recreation of a copy room, seemingly dislocated from an office and dropped, whole and unmodified into an exhibition space. Upon first glance, nothing in this rather banal, administrative simulacrum seems to be out of order, but one soon perceives, against the back wall, a thin, partial rectangle of light supernaturally cycling in and out of visibility, where a small photocopier used to be. If we take into consideration the role often ascribed to the copy room in film and TV as a hotbed of shared confidences and rumour, the phantasmal photocopier and its compulsive trace suggest some kind of traumatic liquidation of originality (i.e. the advent of the copy being irreversible, and therefore unstoppable, even long after the machine has left the building). But, what is also implied is a lack of verifiability – the evocation of rumour inevitably paralleling the evocation of facsimile – as if this apparently unremarkable space were, in fact, a metaphor for modern instability.

Such questions inevitably blur into the third part of the exhibition, which, similarly unceremoniously, weaves the present together with the past, irrespective of any sense of cultural hierarchy. Two works which carry on the uncanniness conspicuously activated by MemoLooking Backward (2007) and The Philadelphia Experiment (1984 VHS copy) (2005) – complement each other in more ways than one. Beleaguered by dissolution, both of these objects seem to essentially suffer from what could be called discursive de-formation. Contrary to Foucault's description of a discursive formation – in which an idea, prejudice or supposed given can be perceived as a result of a complex discursive structure – Andersson has created objects, the molecular unsoundness of which is a physical symptom of their ideological, historical and/or technological disenfranchisement. A copy of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, a late nineteenth century utopian novel about a socialist future, is here presented in a small glass vitrine. While the metal stand upon which the book is placed casts a clearly visible shadow, the shadow of the book itself, by dint of artistic legerdemain, is rendered barely visible. A VHS cassette of Stewart Raffill's 1984 film, The Philadelphia Experiment, is also located in a vitrine; however, everything on the jacket blurs as if dissolving into illegibility. Based on a 1943 experiment by the American military, which sought to render a battleship invisible, this conspiracy theory, and interest in it, has waned over the years. Thus is the conspiracy's increasing lack of purchase compounded by the obsolescence of the VHS cassette (and player). In both works, a kind of atrophy of experience and the attendant accumulation of culture is paradoxically translated into objects that could be said to simultaneously encumber and withdraw from reality.

The final works in the exhibition are based on Mies van der Rohe's 1929 Barcelona pavilion, which variously seek to put pressure on linear notions of history, functioning as perverted recreations of what came to be a recreation itself. Andersson has built a full-scale abstract version of a part of the pavilion's living room; from afar, the recreation is a cogent remake, but, upon closer inspection, it betrays itself as something of a more theatrical order, like a stage set. Inside the pavilion can be found a version of the Barcelona chair, the "designer cockroach" (reproduced with reckless and implacable abandon), sawn in half and reassembled with the butterfly symmetry of a Rorschach blot, is transformed into something almost unrecognizable. Here, Andersson challenges the existence of an object whose non-existence in the world is unthinkable. By deforming it to the point of unintelligibility, the artist seeks to examine the extent to which this form is anchored in the optical unconscious, as a veritable interior fixture, which may or may not be susceptible to exorcism.

Complementing this is a work which inconclusively concludes the exhibition, are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era (2009). For this piece, Andersson has surreptitiously inserted certain optical associations into the complex history of van der Rohe's pavilion (destroyed in 1930 and recreated in 1986). The artist has taken a photographic reproduction of the marble walls of the 1986 remake, the original patterns of which struck him as peculiarly evocative of the tests, and somehow merged the famous blots into the reproduction. These, however, are rendered visible only for a split second, every so often, with the aid of a back-lit flash. Although conceived in 1927, Hermann Rorschach's test was not used until 1931, two years after the original pavilion was built. Andersson's semi-explicit commingling of the tests and the pavilion walls investigates the extent to which such a conflation is an intuitive response to its mere possibility. It's as if the generic image of the Rorschach test has been so thoroughly embedded in the collective cultural consciousness that the perception of it, even in patterns predating it, are a perceptual knee-jerk reaction. Thus, the work not only explores how revelation – in this case "assisted", that which is implicitly associated with incontestable truth – become something to be doubted, but also how the past tends to dissolve into the indistinguishable soup of the present.

Interestingly, the impulse to recreate in Tom McCarthy's Remainder is of a completely compulsive, and largely non-reflective, order. The unnamed protagonist simply obeys his obsessive search for that tingling sensation, for authenticity. As such, the original disconnection, the ongoing rupture between the past and the present, between the subject and the present, is never analytically examined but taken for granted instead. By contrast, although Andersson's work is no more explicitly concerned with the etiology of this disconnection, it does not take it for granted. Indeed, judging by the works considered here, it is obvious that he is not interested in trying to recover some semblance of authenticity, but rather in symbolically mapping out, and negotiating, the effects of this disconnection, its aftermath, trying to forge a way through it, like the proverbial dreamer within the dream or what can be imagined to be the twice-dreamed dream, impossible as it might seem. The second guessing. The uncertainty. The loss. The "Hey, wait, hasn't this happened before?" And it may very well happen again, but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll ever be yours.


1. Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content. Trans. Georgia Albert (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 107.
2. Authenticity, or the original, as Benjamin pointed out, does not precede the copy but is rather a consequence of the copy. Before the copy, there was nothing to challenge the authenticity of the original. It goes without saying that it was at this point that inauthenticity – the status of not being the original – was ushered into existence.
3. Giorgio Agamben, op cit., p. 107.
4. Cited from email correspondence with the artist.
5. Incidentally, déjà vu could be said to be a perfect, psychic cipher for the overall historical phenomenon described by Benjamin and Agamben.
6. More precisely, Agamben writes, “The particular power of quotations arises, according to Benjamin, not from their ability to transmit [a given] past and allow the reader to relive it but, on the contrary, from their capacity to ‘make a clean sweep, to expel from context, to destroy’”, op cit., p. 104. While the subject here is, of course, textual, the same could be said for art and art history. Granted, self-referential citation and homage have played a crucial part in the visual discourse of painting and sculpture since the renaissance, but, until Édouard Manet, general decorum implicitly required that citations be integrated into the work. Openly attacking questions of tradition, Manet could be said to have left the quotation marks around his citations, and thus opened the Pandora’s Box on which this text is centred.
by Chris Sharp
/ text info

The essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue From Lucy with love, Moderna Museet Malmö (2011).