Text by Andreas Schlaegel
A dwarf of little more than two feet, a giant elephant, Siamese twins, a pseudo-microcephalic fiddle player, a mummified mermaid - the most famous circus of the world was best known for its spectacular displays of monstrosities. After all it was the „biggest show on earth“ as its most prolific American protagonist of the circus, P. T. Barnum, billed his gigantic mobile extravaganza. Yet the success of this enterprise, bridging the artistic and entrepreneurial, had a powerful influence on our society today, mainly by effecting the development of the entertainment industries.
When contemporary art these days is discussed publicly, it is often along the lines of the spectacular, the price being one of the key factors. Gigantic numbers appear, toppling records, putting forth a rationality that states the obvious, that visual arts are currently in the process of being sucked into the much larger and exploitation-oriented concept of an entertainment industry, that is hungry for ever greater spectacles.
In this context, by taking on processes, that border on the invisible and making them transparent, while working with phenomena that in their very essence are ephemeral and commonplace, Sandegård achieves a paradoxical success in making a show out of what appears to be nothing at all. But is it really?
The protagonists of his work seem to manifest themselves out of nothing: forms made of ice appear on a wall, as if out of the blue. The shapes of these fields of ice appear to mimic the forms of islands, like the tiny atolls in the pacific ocean, that are slowly disappearing from the face of the earth, due to the oceans‘ slowly rising water levels, that again are a direct effect of the climate disaster, commonly referred to in the euphemist terms of a mere climate change.
Sandegård‘s art draws one part of its magic from making invisible things visible, like the movements of miniscule particles of dust that float about, hovering in mid-air. In his work this dust doesn‘t appear directly in front of our eyes, but on a computer screen, their appearance is mediated, in a sense they are televised (in a way the revolution will not be, as we all know). These specks of dust are only one fraction of the key players in the bizarre theatre of the artist, who are the others, Sandegård‘s siamese twins, pinheads and giant elephants, so to speak, and what is the show is about?
The colloquial expression implies things will be all right, casually linking two most obviously disparate issues - problems and bodily functions.
Sweat may be discomforting, but it‘s essential. While one can consciously control many essential bodily functions, such as breathing, it is impossible to subdue sweating. Whether its heat, nervousness or nausea: without mercy, or at least regard for your social ambitions, your hypothalamus will send signals to your sweat glands, that are distributed over the entire surface of your body. And presto: there you go producing the substance that at once cools, and thereby stains shirts at the armpits and leaves glistening beads on your forehead, revealing just how hot - or uncool you really are.
In his essay "The Romans in Films" from his „Mythologies“ Roland Barthes notices the constantly sweating faces of the actors in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 Hollywood film „Julius Caesar“. He explains that "to sweat is to think—which evidently rests on the postulate appropriate to a nation of businessmen, that thought is a violent, cataclysmic operation, of which sweat is only the most benign symptom". The only dry face is that of Caesar himself, the future victim of the plot. This underscores another layer of meaning, that the emanated sweat signifies the difficulty of keeping the plot to murder Caesar a secret, a signifier of the labour of withholding the secret, and thus of truth, as such.
As we move about the architecture of our lives, we distribute sweat freely, releasing the vapour from our bodies into the air we all share. Oddly art comes into play here as well, because it is in big museums, housing historic artefacts of precarious substance, where we most frequently encounter the little machines that monitor the humidity in the air. More people in a room produce more humidity, and exactly for that reason access to particularly fragile artworks may be restricted. And while we sweat involuntarily, we also can‘t control the amount of water vapour in the air we exhale, containing about five times as much water as the air we inhale.
People wearing glasses are probably more prone to notice differences concerning humidity and temperature, because the phenomena of condensation and evaporation, affect their vision directly, when glasses steam up. Like any surface that is colder than it’s surrounding, the water vapour in the air will condense on it. Depending on the difference in temperature between the surface and the surrounding air, the higher the tendency to develop dew or steam. One thing done inside buildings to avoid steam is to blow warm air at the windows, for example - as in most houses, where radiators are placed underneath the windows on the walls. This way we don‘t notice the effects of humidity, although it‘s still there.
Once the temperature in a space hits 0 degrees Celsius, the vapour that so far is invisible in the air, abruptly becomes manifest as it turns into ice. The ice that builds up inside a room, as in Sandegård's works, turns the traces of human presence, the humidity of evaporated sweat and exhaled breath, into the tangible form of islands of crystalline structures. These ice islands resonate on paradoxical levels of meaning. On one hand the islands reverberate with an existential notion of the individual, while the ice is a condensation of the water circulated by all breathing creatures in the space.
Out of Thin Air
In the atmosphere water vapour is not a stable gas, it is extremely mobile, contributing significantly to the global water cycle. Vapour, mist and clouds help reduce the cooling off of the atmosphere at nights. It also contributes significantly to what we like to call simply air, the substance of the earth‘s atmosphere, shared by all living creatures, a currency of mixed breaths, as it is chemically a mix of gases, mainly nitrogen, around a fifth of oxygen and roughly one percent of argon, and traces of carbon dioxide, among others. Water vapour is a variable component in this mix, with an amount of in average about 1 percent. This composition of the atmosphere, makes life on earth possible by absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the sun and is held in place by nothing but gravity.
In a lifetime a human lung processes short of 350 thousand cubic meters of air, which is only a tiny fraction of the air in our atmosphere. As much as its amount on this planet is staggering, the quality of the air we breathe is also a heavily debated entity. In the days of writing this text, in the G8 conference in Tokyo, Japan, the most heavily industrialized nations decided to reduce their production of carbon dioxide by fifty percent within the next forty years, thus contributing preciously little to changing the already scary effects of the ongoing climate catastrophe. Moreover the fastest growing economies, and the biggest producers of goods, China and India, could not to be lured into participating in even the most modest goals.
A breath is a highly intimate exchange of gasses. The breath of life is divine, initiating human life, according to the bible. Possibly related to this the ancient Greek concept of psyche, the soul, is closely connected to the breath, and as a word could refer to a person, and anything alive, literally anything breathing. The last breath of Plato has entered the atmosphere and mingled with the first breath of the first human being, or in that sense the first breath of Adam.
In this context it is interesting to look at the „air“ Barthes invented in his book on photography, „Camera Lucida“. Here he introduces the term „air“ for a specific expression, an atmospheric instance, to describe an aspect of photography, in which recognition of a person leads to rediscovery. For the mediated image we involuntarily strike a pose, assuring ourselves that the image captured will coincide with our „self“, to capture our „delicate moral texture“, our „air“ - “ ... the air is that exorbitant thing which induces from body to soul ... the air expresses the subject ...”. In posing the person being photographed is "neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object“, and thereby becomes an accomplice of the image making machine, while at the same time becoming a part of the past. This „air“ is a complex and very personal, intimate thing, spurned by mediation it hovers between the present and the past, between life and death, between the individual and the common, it finds not a real but symbolic moment of truth, beyond the factual the photograph captures.
Real air contains these levels effortlessly, as a transparent tissue connecting all creatures, not only symbolically, but directly and physically, with and through our bodies, right here and now. Carrying with it, visibly or not, all the substances that themselves are traces of activity, dust, gasses, vapour. Undergoing its own cycles of being exhaled and inhaled, the air is also something that accumulates everything emitted into it, anything that is light enough to fly with and in it. If we regard air as a medium, every emission entering the atmosphere is a recording on it, of everything that ever happened, lingering inside it, until it settles.
Dust to Dust
"What is this quintessence of dust?" asks the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet in William Shakespeare‘s eponymous tragedy, looking at the flailing powers of mankind, and answers it for himself:
Imperial Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay.
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall, t'expel the winter's flaw
While dust was earthen and existential for Shakespeare's literary hero, today, in everyday life, house dust is merely the most banal sign of pollution. It's unceasing ubiquity forces the heroes of the everyday to dust off, to broom and wipe up, to prevent it from building up and taking over. The biggest component of house dust consists of fibres, from abrasion of clothing and furniture, often accumulating to dust bunnies, or wool mice. House dust contains pretty much everything, that we choose to spend our lives with, albeit reduced to the tiniest particles: cookie crumbs, dandruff, bacteria, spores, hair, bits of hairspray gone astray...everything.
While you are reading this you are actively contributing to the universal production of it. You will lose around a hundred hairs today, plus another gram of dead cells from your skin will flake off. Your jeans will rub against the chair you sit on, and your shoes against the floor, scraping off tiniest fibres and plastic or leather particles. And as this is going on pollen and exhaust particles will come in through windows and doors, whether open or not.
Some of these particles will settle on the floor or other surfaces rather soon, while the smaller dust particles stay afloat longer and react to every little movement of the air. The smaller the particle of dust, the easier it is to be inhaled and through the lungs to get directly into the bloodstream.
A ray of light reveals the amazing universe at play, soaring with the tiniest fragments, occasionally set in motion by a bit of wind. Consisting of solid matter, these tiny specks seem to have a life of their own, and react completely different to all other material objects of our everyday life. So miniscule, it is less their weight but their surface qualities that determine the particular qualities of these particles, allowing them to fly, swirl around or settle on even walls, defying gravity, upsetting the order of the cosmos.
Its heterogeneity makes dust a good indicator of the quality and amount of pollution in the air, stemming from solvents, detergents, preservatives, say for wood, flame-resistants and formaldehydes, as well as heavy metals, lead, most of it carried into the house with the dirt clinging to the fibres of our clothes and the soles of the shoes. While dust is as ubiquitous as its production is universal, as everything participates in the production of dust, every single on of us has their own individual „personal cloud“: The phrase, usually referring to the way users leave traces while surfing the worldwide web, is perfect to describe the phenomenon, that every moving creature is factually accompanied by its personal cloud of individually produced dust, mingled cosmic, natural and industrial dusts, an reflection of the environment we live in, unique like a fingerprint, and all-encompassing. As Genesis 3.19 reminds us, dust is not without ideology. „By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The Memory of Power
Dust, humidity, air - what appears like nothing, is a whole complex palimpsest consisting of layers upon layers of meaning. The crystallization process gives form to the traces of breathing, as well as sweating, and the suppression of unwanted truths. Also it contains the personal clouds of dust that we travel with, that again are a trace of our personal environment - as much as they contribute to it. Full of traces of other lives, past and present, and activities, remembered, and forgotten, they themselves appear to be reflections of our existence, like our subconscious may contain it, it is a record of all we‘ve done, whether we‘re proud of it or not.
Along with fake marble benches, that reinforce a theatrical moment, the show unfurls: different personal clouds mix and swirl around, a formless mass with an ambivalent presence. The dynamics of their movements, echoes of human presence, are televised from inside a bunker-like concrete structure and rendered on a computer screen, as if in the process of being archived for the future. This monitoring conjures up the ideas of Jacques Derrida, that memory, like any archival system is dominated by power structures, and an economy of knowledge. Like the way old pictures in family albums inform our memory to an extent that we can‘t decide if we remember the image or the actual event, access to information has an influence on our memory, showing the duplicity of construction and deconstruction of not only our individual but, more importantly, our shared social memory.
This common social memory is under constant negotiation, that as a process incorporates constantly changing historical views, reflecting heterogeneous representations of the past as potentially contradicting narratives of cultural experience. The world as an archive constitutes all the pieces that could compose the memory of the future, but power structures determine the evaluation of what pieces of memory are supposed to stay with us, and which objects will bridge the gap to our past, or contribute to the invention of narrative to replace it. The past constructed from the archives is more distant than the subjective personal memory, with all levels of the emotional truth. The archive maps and remaps truth, producing a discourse on authority, constructing a singular narrative of the past, while at the same time deconstructing the past with all its plurality.
What Troels Sandegård’s work shows us is that beyond memory we physically carry with us our personal cloud of the personal and environmental detritus of our lives. We contribute to our own archive every day, but also to the common history - and the artist invites us to reflect on it, by staging a show of what we have worn down, exhaled and sweated out. Like the way rocks hitting against each other in the sea, reduce each other to bits, will produce sand that is washed up to form beautiful beaches, he makes a performance of our way of life and the drama of our presence on this planet, that appears to amount to little more than reducing our environment to dust. His work traces the outlines of our personal clouds, and shows it to be an inherently post-Fordist drama: a tragical circus of consumption, self-consumption and destruction - possibly the smallest show on earth. But incorporating nothing less than everything.
By Andreas Schlaegel
In relation with the exhibition ECHOES at Gallery Christina Wilson, fall 2007.