Exhibition folder: “Extension – works from the collection”, No. 2


Wonderland and Jacob’s ladder, experiences of the signified by Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf, Professor at the Department of the History of Art, Stockholm University.

Exhibition folder no. 3. Published 2002 by Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall.
23 pages, not illustrated. Texts in Swedish/English.

Wonderland and Jacob’s ladder, experiences of the signified
by Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf

Alice in Wonderland fell down wells in which she saw her own consciousness breathlessly jumping about. Jacob dreamt about angels on a ladder reaching to heaven; later, he wrestled with a “man” who was God, or God’s emissary, but who touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh during the fight. The boundary lines between reality’s parts dissolve; that which is invisible or unseeable becomes visible and so perceptible that its traces can be felt in one’s sinews and joints.

Whenever an expression of some kind is understood, our perception of the world changes and is magnified. Art sometimes shows us such events. Art also offers the possibility not only of experiencing but of observing the strange journeys of understanding. The difference between what is normal and abnormal is indicated in different ways in different cultures as is the difference between what is real, thought, or merely imagined. All the time language, thought’s various instruments, works on these boundaries, extending them now in this, now in that direction. In Wonderland, Alice takes tea with a mad hatter. The story shows Alice taking tea with the hatter, the March hare, and a sleepy dormouse. I take it that Alice’s imagination allows her to experience in concrete terms what is she is imagining. Everything that happens happens inside her consciousness, the substance of the events being derived from her own reactions and daydreams. At least, the story admits to a facile and naive interpretation along these lines. Jacob’s wrestling with God is not as clearly a thought or an imagined picture, if we apply the conditions of existence obtaining in the story. However, Jacob’s story can be seen as a kind of miraculous transgression. There are angels in Jacob’s world, and God speaks to certain chosen people. Still, the text makes a clear distinction between the occasion on which Jacob was dreaming about angels and the moment when he met the “man”, wrestled, and was wounded. It is not the divine dimension in itself that constitutes a decisive peril or salvation for humankind but the way in which it reveals itself to the senses, the way in which it becomes visible and is incarnated in the world.

Both stories offer me images of how consciousness approaches the unknowable, trying to imagine it; how boundaries open up to an adventurous and persistent search, leading on to something that is unknown but becomes partly and indirectly known, but only at the price of great anxiety and turbulence. Even though the bounds of madness or misinterpretations are located differently in different cultures, they are used for purposes of expulsion and absolutism, censure and admonition, and everything taking place near them runs the risk of being annihilated. Art exists precisely in this borderland, permitting that which is being annihilated to become visible.

Before being grasped, an expression is merely an object, a doodle, a surface. Then comprehension occurs, “animating” the expression, supplying it with thoughts, intuitions, feelings, latent events, displacements. The experience of the imaginary, the very extension of the expression, draws boundaries for me between what is actual and what is illusory. (In works which experiment with illusion the boundaries are blurred till you have learned something about the tricks employed.)

The apparent constitutes a scale with variations: the hypothetical, the imagined, the thought, the implicit, the analogous. The imaginary serves as a paradigm for different forms of thought. It is the aim and goal of every form of art to play on this instrument, to alert the recipient’s notions-to elicit the answers motivated by the way in which a subject has been represented. The observer is transported through the art work and his own consciousness at the same time. Still, although this game of notions is the prime mover of art, it is difficult to access and to describe it. It varies from person to person, yet has so many similar functions that individual reactions can be designated by certain common words of characterization; they form aesthetic patterns.

A peculiar aspect of pictorial art is the connection of the motif and the meaning with an imaginary dimension of some kind. In literature, this is more unambiguous. If you read a novel, say, Stendahl’s “The Charterhouse of Parma” (written in the late 1830s), where Fabrice and Clélia at one point find themselves in a garden, it is obvious that the characters and the garden “appear” to you in some way through those images that reading the novel creates in you. You don’t actually “see” the garden except in your thoughts.

Looking at the painted fruit-trees, flowers, and birds in the imaginary garden that Augustus’ wife Livia created for herself in Rome (a little over 2 000 years ago), you need not imagine the garden; you are in it. Your eye is immediately satisfied and may not require any kind of imaginary extension. What the eye perceives is, however, painted trees, flowers, and birds. Your consciousness may affirm that level and takes pleasure in painting itself, colluding in some way with the meanings of the visual signs as “trees”… But Livia’s painted garden would probably evoke associations of verdure, birdsong, breezes, and flower scents. Through the visual signs “images” of sensory impressions of other kinds present themselves, indirectly filling in what is visible. If the painted trees in Livia’s garden are seen in such a way as to suggest that their meaning is real trees, the picture probably points away from itself to absent, real trees growing in a different place. Presumably, however, Livia had the garden painted not because she could not afford to have a real garden laid out or because she wanted her thoughts to wander to real trees and flowers. The experience intended was not the absence of something actual, but the movements of the mind, the different imaginary levels activated-memories, apparent sensory impressions, the experience of how the pictorial world borders on the domains of the imagination so that it might be penetrated by desires, different enactments of life, harmonizing with the possible and the conceivable represented by painting, available to the gaze and to thought as they interact.

Language, all language, is like the divine dimension inherent in the story about Jacob. It has an invisible side, and all is well and unproblematic as long as you don’t require the invisible parts of language to appear. We know perfectly well that language works, that words and images mean and symbolise, that they bear witness to the user’s will and predicament in many ways. But that which is signified is always partly imagined; it cannot be seen or checked. But does it not appear in the linguistic statement? Surely the linguistic statement and that which it signifies are two sides of the same coin. Yes, they are to do with each other, but the only visible part is the linguistic statement. The other side is imagined or mental and can only be gauged by means of circumstantial evidence, by observing how the users of language react, answer, or account for their notions. True, signs also refer to concrete objects, which exhibit part of their meaning, but these things are in their turn connected with the experience of living, with notions about contexts, situations, and possibilities. In art that which is signified appears to us, or can at least be surmised. In fact, this is the only possibility we have of seeing something of the signified, which is fastened, though evasive, to the statement itself.

This exhibition is divided into two main parts. In the first room, there are works which constitute suites, repetitions, sequences – leaving us with the feeling that a continuation is possible. Are we looking at segments, beginnings, ends? If the works imply the possibility of extensions, what would they be like? How does the feeling that a selection has been made, that boundaries have been drawn, that a continuation is conceivable affect what we see? Our perception of time-events, changes – is hinted at by these serial compositions.The works on display in the other room enact a variety of scenes for us. They are performative and are, in several cases, expressive of contradictions, hierarchies, under-perspectives and over-perspectives. The works have been chosen for the rich possibilities of movements and extensions that understanding them offers us. The imaginary thought-journeys that they set in motion take us back to the figures, to the artworks themselves, permitting them to perform their meanings graphically.

(Excerpt from the folder text by Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf, 2002)