Sven-Åke Johansson

Katalog der 6. Berlin Biennale, 11. Juni 2010

“There are certain aspects of seeing that strike us as puzzling,” Wittgenstein writes, “because seeing as a whole does not strike us as being puzzling enough.” As he shows in unpublished passages of the Philosophical Investigations, there are no criteria for the “correct” perception of an object other than routine social practice. Every perception occurs under a particular aspect: seeing is always “seeing as … .” Whenever a new aspect appears, the perceiver is made aware of his perception, and hence of his existence.

One could describe Sven-Åke Johansson’s art, whether in drawing, writing, composing, or on the stage, as an exercise in perpetually switching aspects: a carton becomes a sound box, a cymbal a cucumber-cutter, tractors become orchestral instruments, and the artist wielding foam-rubber cymbals is a gestic actor. Johansson arranges what would appear to be self-evident, so that we hear it with new eyes and see it with new ears.

As drummer with EMT and with duo partner Alexander von Schlippenbach, Johansson shaped European free jazz. In the 1970s, he began recording ideas for performances in the form of drawn scores. Out of this Johansson’s drawing work developed, involving the poeticization of everyday objects. Charcoal and pencil series record his objects in their full materiality and continually discover new aspects of them. “The customary must be animated,” as he puts it, “—a dramatic act.”

The helicopters Johansson depicts in large-format drawings in the Berlin Biennale are a regular musical performance. The pilots glide past alertly or concealed behind tinted glass, or a whole squadron looms in the distance. After motorbikes, ventilators, and wind turbines, the artist again devotes himself to the fascination of rotating sound producers. Their likeness to natural organisms especially fascinates the artist: “They’re more insect than machine. They can hover in the air like dragonflies. Traveling in a helicopter, one is both protected and endangered. They are always and everywhere present.”

The entire ensemble of vertical take-off craft, from light machine to military helicopter, glides through the exhibition space. The titles of the drawings are simply the type designations —KLS-1, F-+11— which are all fictional. A certain obligingness is attempted where none is called for, as Johansson’s book Gurken (1998) had already done, where drawings had explanatory captions such as “Belgian serpentine gherkin” or “Siebenburg salt gherkin.” Johansson playfully takes the process of technical indexing to absurdity. What demands cut-and-dry clarity turns into comedy and poetry. All names are arbitrary; every helicopter is animate, every rotor blade an instrument.

Translation: Christopher Jenkin-Jones

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