In the eye of the beholder
In the Eye of the Beholder is the title for a video triptych by Lena Mattsson that portrays legendary publisher and writer Bo Cavefors. The title emphasizes the complexity of the portrayal due to the presence of artist and curator Ola Åstrand. The relationship between Åstrand and Cavefors remains undefined throughout the story, with Åstrand appearing like a silent witness as Cavefors tells us about his eventful life. This relationship is complicated even further by the soundtrack of the triptych – a newly composed rock score by musician, philosopher and art critic Conny C-A Malmqvist, which amplifyes Cavefors’ hedonistic way of living – sex, philosophy and rock’n’roll.
The concept of “the eye of the beholder” refers to how perception, say of beauty for instance, is defined through the eyes of the viewer, and is thus highly subjective. But the term can also be used when someone who is sentenced to death is offered a blindfold before the noose is tightened. This is not to spare the condemned suffering – on the contrary, by avoiding the gaze of the victim, the hangman is ‘protected’ from personal responsibility.
There lies thus both beauty and death in the eyes of the beholder, something that Lena Mattsson’s piece is very much about. The piece reminds me of the 18th century philosopher Thomas de Quincey’s aesthetic point of view: a work of art depicting a murder shall not tell of the murder but rather be the murder in itself. When you observe the scene of a murder it’s not through the perspective of the victim but rather the murderer’s – the beholder. De Quincey meant that if you were to adopt the viewpoint of the victim, the horror would be so overwhelming that to render an aesthetic experience would be impossible.
Lena Mattson does not regard Bo Cavefors as a victim, however. Folket i Bild/Kulturfront describes him, in a preamble from 2004, as follows: ”Bo Cavefors is the ex publisher whose sprawling and provocative publication riled the establishment to the point of where he was deemed to be silenced”. Mattsson’s focus lies elsewhere. She claims she is examining the rock’n’roll myth: ”All three video pieces are synchronized to a surreal rock’n’roll triptych that envelops the viewer and both visualizes and illuminates the myth”. Agreed, but it’s also tempting to think that Mattsson stages a kind of mouse-and-cat game: In whose eyes exactly is the observation created?
Bo Cavefors is a nomadic free-thinker who is impossible to pin down and easily pigeonhole. Without entering into specifics, he has never shied away from extreme opinions found in both left- and right-wing politics, both personally and professionally. When, on top of that, he throws in taboo questions regarding sexuality and religion, Cavefors is easily perceived as a controversial and politically incorrect intellectual.
Lena Mattson’s surreal rock’n’roll staging becomes a thought provoking resonator for this controversial figure. The Nigerian author Ben Okri’s book A Way of Being Free (1997) comes to mind. Okri suggests that the term “dialouge” is not first and foremost founded on agreement but rather on misunderstanding. Agreement is often implicit and confirms stereotypes. Misunderstandings can be dangerous but if we can agree on a mutual arena (a museum, a theater, a newspaper, etc.) where you are allowed to ask the question “What do you mean?” without being lynched, then misunderstandings can lead to new ways of thinking and new conclusions. Therefore, the role of the artist, the poet and the intellectual is dual. He or she should, on the one hand, be able to express their vision, but on the other hand they must also represent a place where different opinions can meet.
In the Eye of the Beholder was originally made for the exhibition I Want to Hold Your Hand, which was recently held at the Borås Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition presented thirty or so Swedish artists that had been inspired by different kinds of rock music. Lena Mattsson interpreted it: “Bo Cavefors is, in spite of his claim of being totally unmusical and belonging to another cultural field, a person who, as we say in Skåne, rockar fett (totally rocks)!”
But the piece works just fine separated from the original context of that exhibition. The intricate scene unfolds into a labyrinth of gazes ultimately belonging to eyes of the unknown. The installation becomes a place where anything can happen – where anything is allowed to happen. Just like the place Bo Cavefors himself created with his wayward publishing house. A place not taken for granted but one which must be conquered and reconquered time and again.
John Peter Nilsson
Moderna Museet Malmö