A SmalL FAIRYTALE
The Tear in the Web of Reality
There is good reason to think a little about the title Lena Mattsson has chosen. For doesn't A Small Fairytale sound like a pleasant mix of cosy works of art and an unassuming attitude? This may be related to the devaluation that targeted the classical stories during the latter part of the 20th century. While Walt Disney was transforming the fairytale heritage to colourful, often sugary versions of stories told through the centuries, worshippers of reason began to view the tales as lies that the next generation should be spared. Among the child psychologists, Bruno Bettelheim had a diverging opinion, but the psychoanalytic insights regarding the content in tales like Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Snowhite clearly did not get as much attention as the view that the tales belonged in the dustbin of history.
For this reason it would not surprise me if the title of this exhibition raises false expectations and conceptions in many who have heard tell of it. This being true, there may be reason to remind these persons that all fairytales worthy of the name contain elements that reflect the dark side of man's nature and that the constant trials the heroines and heroes suffer under have their equivalents in all the hinders and problems of life.
It is just these dark, problematic elements in the fairytale world that are blended, recast and concentrated into something Lena Mattsson calls A Small Fairytale. Whoever seeks a cosy fairytale corner will likely seek in vain among Lena Mattsson's installations. In other words, it is decidedly best to approach the works fully aware that they deal in confrontation with the less pleasant aspects of existence.
In truth, Lena Mattsson is an artist whose starting point is less the world of fairytales and more a tangible reality with everything that means in the way of personal, often dearly bought experiences. I believe it to be essential to an understanding of her work to know as well the extent to which her pictorial world reflects something that actually has occurred somewhere in the society where we all live, rather than in the Never-neverland of fairytales. Indeed, we all live here, but under different conditions, is something that has rung many bells in recent years warning that the chasms in [Swedish] society are once again growing.
One example is that beggars and homeless persons are no longer an unusual part of our streets and squares. When I was small, shabby tatterdemalions only existed in the storybooks. That's no longer true and while it is naturally possible to explain the fact in different ways, it is also possible to choose an artistic staging to emphasise rather than to hide the fact.
Such an attitude is easily uncomfortable and whatever you may say about Lena Mattsson, you can hardly call her a comfortable artist. It seems rather that in her own way she exercises some sort of oppositional aesthetics. An example of this would be when she herself took the part of a homeless person outside the Social Services Department in Stockholm. The work is called See the Human Being, a title whose ties to Christianity provokes, illuminating the ultimate focus, namely how do we really treat certain of our fellow citizens in today's Sweden?
In an increasingly tough societal climate marked by confrontations on both the local and global level, there are many threats that could be fetched from one of the fairytales told by the Brothers Grimm: "Look out for the wolf!", "Who can you trust!" or "Is that proffered apple poisoned?" Indeed the mass media flood is filled with evil tales for those with the energy to delve into them.
When I see Lena Mattsson's works I am often reminded of David Lynch and his way of working with pictures and sound. It is possible to say that Lynch's Twin Peaks served as a breakthrough for post-modern irony in TV, but equally possible to call it a breakthrough for the use of music and sound in a way previously only found in avant-garde circles.
The Slovenian sociologist and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek has spent a lot of time trying to analyse David Lynch's way of manipulating sounds and voices. According to Zisek, Lynch has succeeded in giving the voice an impenetrable, traumatic dimension that affects balance and that it is this affect that creates the special mood associated with the show.
It is true that irony is not the primary characteristic of Lena Mattsson's oeuvre, but she is very good at creating moods that are reminiscent of traumatic experiences. She too uses allusions to pictures we recognise from art history nor is it necessary to look far to find references to popular culture in its various forms. While certainly not unusual within the context of the altered perception of originality and the artist's role which grew during the 1980s and 90s, I feel that what makes Lena Mattsson's works so special is the shift towards what Zizek would call "the black hole, the tear in the web of reality".
With reference to that web of reality, Zizek has even commented on the terrorist attack on the US on September 11. He believes that the attack has long been some sort of collective fantasy based on Hollywood's popular catastrophe scenes such as in Independence Day. But when the fantasy was realised, the chock and surprise was total. The difference between the reality one thinks exists and the true nature of reality can be significant. The resultant awakening can be as unnerving as in the cyberpunk film Matrix.
Lena Mattsson's installations often display small shifts that form reminders of the fact that reality is really different from what we believe. For that reason it is impossible to suggest that she gives us what we want – lovely fantasies that remain just fantasies. Instead, she offers a badly needed dose of something that can contribute to creating a view of reality that departs from the habitual one.
Events like the destruction of the World Trade Center lend another meaning to Lena Mattsson's flaming 'fort'. While really a local tradition from Bohuslän province related to the desire of children to play at war, it is highly likely that many people will see completely different things in the flaming 'fort' within a changed global political context. Certainly there have been catastrophes in other places, but they haven't come as close with such an immediate effect. The poignant, dramatic pictures in Lena Mattsson's loop also serve as a parallel to how certain catastrophes are televised over and over again. The same is true of Andy Warhol's repetitions of the same subject in the light of that other national and international trauma – the John Kennedy assassination – which also was shown again and again on US TV. However, she adds something to the illusory catastrophic mood, namely the child, the human. Again comes the exhortation – See the human being!
I believe that several of Lena Mattsson's works hold a type of ambivalent relationship to Christianity. It is as if she were pointing to the radical potential in the Christian message, while also showing the shadowy sides of the religion – the totalitarian longing for purity, perversions camouflaged as piety and the separation of women into two categories: whore or madonna.
When I see the hands tattooed with the words "Love" and "Pain" I am reminded of the old film classic titled The Night of the Hunter. In the film, Robert Mitchum played an itinerant preacher whose hands were tattooed in a similar way, though with the words "Love" and "Hate". This marking made it possible for him to illustrate graphically during his sermons how good and evil fight for control. But in his heart, evil had already won. There were two children in his way, a Hansel and a Gretel, and what ensures that the film still draws so strongly has to do with how vulnerable those children are.
The woman in the shower in Hitchcock's famous murder scene in Psycho is equally vulnerable. Lena Mattsson's presentation blends the threat from one dark film story with the vulnerability of a truly evil Hollywood tale. Naturally the result can only be the intended one – extremely disturbing.
Without a bloody catharsis to relieve a moment of tension, the habits we have learned from films and most certainly from videos are broken. There is no relief, no cleansing and no immediate answer. Rather the beholder is given a bothersome question to carry.
Children's vulnerability is an oft repeated subject in Lena Mattsson's works, but it is also possible to see a clear line regarding the depiction of women, a line stretching from her early works to the current show. And it is often just the stereotypical opposites, the whore and the madonna who are presented. At least on the surface, but delving more deeply reveals a somewhat different picture.
One example of this was the exhibition titled Red Room, a Memory of a Low Life that dealt with one specific individual, a dead friend. It was a type of reconstruction and a mourning for a marginalised woman who had lost control over her life, sinking into heroin abuse and prostitution. However, it is definitely not possible to accuse Lena Mattsson of cultivating some sort of outsider romantisation. On the contrary, I think it possible to discern a consistent, critical attitude in relation to such mythologies from the list of exhibitions, performances and video installations. In addition, she has inserted a greater ambiguity in some of the newer works.
One example of this can be found in the new video work titled A Collector's Reconstruction where the young female figure confuses definition. Perhaps she is the collector or is it the man she meets who, like some Don Juan, collects women? There is an apparent sexual charge in the meeting and it is easy to imagine the whole event as a highly traditional game of dominance and submission. But then again, appearances can deceive.
In order not to get away from the fairytale theme, it is worth remembering that the siren of popular belief first appears as a willing offer for sexual fantasies, only to reveal her other, frightful side. As said, this single work complicates and intensifies the whole. While the stereotypical and pure contrasts belong in the tale, the transcendent, ambiguous figures do as well. The new works do not reveal everything, leaving much for the beholder to fill in and fantasise on.
One such ambiguity is the girl who is there one second and gone the next. She too appears mystical and the event happens as if by magic. What remains is the empty landscape, the ocean and the apparently unchangeable natural scene. And of course the sound reminiscent of horror films. Here we are again confronted with the nightmare-like loop where the sequence is repeated cyclically – again and again.
Another 'living painting' is the paraphrase on Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, a work that can also be seen as a continuation on Lena Mattsson's Breakfast for Everybody. Here the family sits idyllically under the trees, but the meanings are turned, becoming Anybody Breaks Fast. The dark female figure represented by the artist herself appearing on the bridge and the lily that falls into the water both have a private meaning, but can also be interpreted universally. This is a mourning landscape and in spite of the play of light on the water, probably one of the darkest places in the fairytale forest.
Quite often the fairytales provide for satisfying oral needs through eating and the supply of food. Nor is it an unusual perception that there is something holy in a freshly baked loaf of bread. It doesn't take much of an effort to relate this to the sacrament of communion and the meaning of the bread, but it is also possible to imagine a more universal aspect, one which stands for that which raises mankind over her inherent carnivorous nature. In other places it is possible to relate these oral desires to something close to Nice Price, To Eat or Be Eaten, as another, earlier work by Lena Mattsson is titled. It was a performance where she chained a man to a chair and then fed him marzipan breasts until he choked.
Is there a happy ending to the fairytale? Yes, because the children in The Night of the Hunter survived and became stronger through their battle with the representative of evil, with the false prophet. Most fairytales do have happy endings, though as Bruno Bettelheim pointed out, there aren't really any false suggestions about eternal life. Most conclude with the sentiment: "And if they haven't died, they are alive today." In the same way this little tale must necessarily remain unfinished, for if we haven't died, we're still alive today. There is in truth an urgent call in that. Instead of answers, only questions are given: "We're alive, but how? What are we really doing with our own lives and those of others?"
Clemens Altgård is a poet and critic
Translation by Sven H.E. Borei
Copyright photo Jan Ulveus