Fahlström’s Garden
by Richard Neal

In light of Courbet’s incomparable Burial at Orleans in the Musée d’Orsay, and having recently viewed the whole of Wagner’s Ring, a companion once remarked that all the good ones had been political.

It’s a thought that returned with a vengeance when I saw what has been the best gallery show in Berlin over recent years – Öyvind Fahlström at Scheibler Mitte, almost four years ago. It disabused me of any lingering prejudice I had that politics of a credible kind and great art were mutually exclusive in the modern age. Not that this is the only example, or that the combination is necessary; this is simply the example I saw.  But, given such an equation, its operations and consequences are of interest. Questions raised include huge and sometimes hoary ones: What effect does content have on form? What is the work finally for?  How are formal inventions motivated? Where is the kick in such work to be found, exactly? And what does work that describes the world look and feel like today?

The form upon which such questions are writ, the main work in the show, was made in 1973. It is called Garden: A World Model. (It has not been possible to get reproduction rights for this article - Garden can be viewed here)

First, a necessary enumeration. We are in a room within a gallery: square, two openings towards the corners on one side. The four walls, the thickly and artificially carpeted floor, and the low plinth taking up the centre of the space are all the same colour, a slightly minty grassy green. 

On the plinth are sixteen plant pots. The pots contain soil, from which emanate straight wooden poles. Upon the poles are placed painted vinyl elements, “flowers”, up to a metre or so across, which, as the artist himself put it, “at best, may have something of the surprising beauty of tropical fish.”[1]

They are flabby, amorphous, certainly organic, sometimes large-bellied, often swinging. Though they often appear to curvily follow the pictorial logic, with outcrops following thoughts, they do retain the appearance of individual beings. Occasionally some offshoots cling on, as if a conglomerate of aqueous organs on coral. They are indistinct enough to be non-specific, organic enough not to be wholly abstract.

This is the stage. It’s very entertaining in itself. Like an auditorium, it is lit from a darkened ceiling, and there is dappled shade below the foliage. The forms are endlessly charming, all the more so with their comic-book spectrum colour scheme, flatly covering the sequence of sub-areas that are as irregular and asymmetric as the elements that contain them. The hues are of a full and vivid, impure but even spectrum.

[1] Fahlström, Öyvind. “Notations, 1974”, “New York Diary (April 1-6, 1974)”, catalogue for the exhibition “Let’s mix all feelings together”, Galerie Buchholz, Munich, 1975.

These colours are still background, however. There are words and pictures, too: “facts”. Every segment of every element contains drawn or written information; drawn in black outline, written in the same handwritten comic-book script. It is handwritten, but were it not for its irregularity, there would be the impersonal flavour of comic sans.

We read, say, that the USA, with 17% of the world’s population, consumes 51% of its food. And that the future lies in the fact that “sewage can be treated = more food … just as part of urban tap water is treated sewer water.” A typical sequence has a grey-brown segment with a graph illustrating that fish meal protein exports, going from Latin America to the blue “LOW-COST, HIGH-PROFIT protein drain” of the USA (and its pets), are produced in the same volume as domestic meat and milk protein, by a population that is “50-60% undernourished”.

Nearby, we learn that pesticides, fertilizers and detergents have replaced their natural equivalents since 1946 because “’above average profits require the discovery of new products on which high profit margins may be earned, while the former products in that category evolve into commodity chemicals with lower profit margins’ (MAC).”

Elsewhere, poor peasants are put out of business by the Western “green revolution” while agribusiness gets all the richer: “’miracle’ wheat and rice / require high technology farming equipment / pesticides / fertilizers (MOSTLY ESSO) POLLUTION.” There is a list of single-crop economies, “the colonial heritage”.

It takes time to read this information. It is like hearing a compressed summation of a year’s worth of BBC World Service news, though with a slightly different editorial line: aid from China – “20 years ago a poor 3rd World nation” – has increased tenfold over the previous decade or more, and comes, according to “Chou-en-lai’s principles”, with no political or economic strings, and uses “local resources wherever possible”. The “TAN-ZAM railway” has been provided with “mostly interest-free loans repayable in 10-30 years” so that “Zambia’s copper will reach the coast bypassing Rhodesia and Mozambique.” My quotes here are not extracts from longer tracts, they mostly are the text from one sub-division of a flower, accompanied by some drawn graphic, though they are parts of longer sequences.

In the exhibition space, it is easy to keep reading, harder to get an overall grasp. The information is not endless, but the distraction of the flowery-fishlike forms is. But apparently, “population growth in developing countries} [is] A GOOD THING Cuba, N. Korea etc. / In China, development and control: marriage before 25 years discouraged, 2 children average.” This is in contrast to the “demographic parasitism” of the West vis-à-vis the “3rd World”. These citations are not isolated, they tend to be backed up by greater detail and sequential explanations, the following of which as they are drawn out has produced the flowing forms you first see.

A more attentive viewer than me may start to notice the consistency with which countries and references to them are colour-coded. 

It is strict: “Blue colors denote USA, violet Europe, red to yellow socialist countries, and green to brown the Third World.”[1] Also, you may come across one of these elemental “flowers” that is itself a key to the others, indicating by shape which of them concern agriculture, which of them natural resources, industry, population, pollution, capital or politics. In the centre of this latter segment, to which all others lead, is a credo: the red areas “unite for the benefit of all, PLANNED {GROWTH [&] EQUILIBRIUM,” whereas the blues have a different principle: “poor {PEOPLE [&] NATIONS pay rich {FIRMS [&] NATIONS to exploit and pollute them.”

We thus do indeed have a model of the world, laid out in demographic, economic, environmental and political terms, as seen in 1973, splayed out and argued on cartoon organic forms stemming from plant pots in a grass-green room.

The questions are manifold. First, how the work is experienced. Obviously, it is complex, despite being highly consumable and pleasing. Viewing the work’s various facets simultaneously is a constant shifting. You walk round the pots, take in their forms within the room. You absorb the cartoon pictorial language on these sculpted flowers. This is peculiarly neutral: a hand-drawn, but generic language. 

[1] Öyvind Fahlström, “Historical Painting.” Flash Art (Milan) Nr. 43, December 1973 / January 1974, 14.

The graphics amuse and inform in myriad ways, though the illustrations are discrete within the greater regions and whole that contain them. And because of its ubiquity in vernacular culture, and its typical employment here of delivering information accessibly, rather than adding anything “artistic”, you can almost forget that it is painting, it has such a sheen of guilelessness.

And you certainly forget when you start reading. The “facts” take on a particular form. It is not that they are unbiased, they present arguments, but only in the same way that a million Power Point presentations do. You treat them as assertions about the world, that you may or may not accept as true. You want to argue with them. This specificity, this concreteness (an unintended pun on what Fahlström’s widow, Sharon Avery-Fahlström, asserts as his first vocation of concrete poet) pulls you away from the media you are looking at. The “facts” sink out of the work down to the real world, the opposite of getting lost in almost any canvas.

Beside the complexity, there is the scale. You need to examine each flower closely. Looking back in 1968 to a work made in the fifties, Fahlström notes:

“As a visual artist I lacked the dimension of time that exists in music. I particularly like the “impure” mix of concert and theatre to be found in opera (“The Ring of the Nibelung”, for example). I realized how, as in much primitive, oriental and medieval art, one could work with pictures which were so full and so extensive that it was impossible to take that step backwards, screw up oneʼs eyes and enjoy the whole…”[1]

The same applies here. The ungraspability of the full picture – not being able to absorb the whole view while keeping any view of the details – also creates a certain epic quality, as you endlessly go on looking and reading. Not a heroic one – absurdity is too present for that, and the details too matter-of-fact, as it were. But this extensiveness is also reinforced on the level of content. The ambition of the title is, if intentionally ludicrous, also beyond one’s reach, a full worldview in concrete form. You can know the work intimately and extensively, not fully. A sense of something beyond reach can be sublime in itself, and that holds for an aspect of the argument, but it is brought back beyond the splendid to not just the ridiculous, but the strange.

Ludicrousness does not win out, however. The seriousness of the facts presented comes through. Mike Kelly reports that Fahlström was not taken seriously by the Pop movement because he “allowed the ‘political’ to enter his work” and was seen as a “throwback to … Agitprop”.[2] The artist himself disavowed such a reading thus:

[1 - previous page] Frontispiece of the silkscreen edition of “Opera” (1953-1953) published by Riksutställningar (Swedish Travelling Exhibitions), 1968.

[2] Mike Kelly, “Myth Science”, in Oyvind Fahlström, The Complete Graphics, Multiples and Sound Works, BAWAG Foundation, 2001.

“Apparently it is difficult for them to accept that – even though my sympathies are clear – my recent work is about certain facts, events and ideas, rather than for or against them. If I were only, or mainly, interested in educating the viewers, I would create simpler structures, and use other media than hand-made art. I see myself as a witness, rather than as an educator.”[1]

Yet only a year earlier, and in the same year Garden was made, he was also stating:

“Like many people, I began to understand during the late ’60′s that words like ‘imperialism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘exploitation’, ‘alienation’ were not mere ideas or political slogans, but stood for terrifying, absurd and inhumane conditions in the world. Living in LBJ’s and Nixon’s America during the Vietnam war — culminating in the Christmas ’72 terror bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong and Watergate — it became impossible not to deal in my work — once I had the stylistic tools — with what was going on around me: Guernica, multiplied a million times.

“Picasso, in his painting, reacted to Guernica by sharpening the emotional impact of his figures with expressionist distortion. My approach has been to orchestrate data, so people will—at best—both understand and be outraged. Will the pictures still function as a sensual and formal experience? Will the lettering also function as rhythmic percussion patterns? Can the pattern of facts become poetry? That is for the spectator to judge.”[2]

[1] Fahlström, Öyvind. “Notations, 1974”, op. cit.
[2] Öyvind Fahlström, “Historical Painting.” op. cit.

This spectator has to give weight to both levels. The information, and the manner it is given, is indeed staged, in a synthesis that delights on formal terms. Yet it nonetheless is given with intent. The quotes from the Garden above give both a flavour of the range and the thrust of the argument. Fahlström does pin his colours to the mast in the clearest terms, as clearly in the work as in the latter quote.

No aspect of the work ultimately prevails. No part of the art work is held paramount in itself, all are subservient. The pleasure is in the gaps in between, being lost in the reading (of all kinds). The subservience in itself extends the language of the forms. The reference to Wagner seems apposite, for this synthesis is itself put in the service of a drama that encompasses the world as it politically stood at the time. Wagner’s music, placing itself at the service of an over-arching drama in unprecedented fashion, dispenses with classical forms, and forms an overall tapestry of interwoven motifs. With exceptions that do actually prove the rule, you cannot separate out elements in your memory. Fahlström notes that operatic music remains after the libretto has been forgotten, but it, and his painted material, are changed fundamentally by the role they have performed.

The beauty of the work is that its political conviction adds to its complexity, rather than diminishing it. Not only do form and content contrast in, as Kelly put it, a pathetic way, they justify each other.  A wager is made: the more convincing the work is in its content, its “facts”, the greater relief into which it can throw its form, the more it can play. 

A flower petal is nothing without a geo-political argument drawn out across it. And how convincing the content is is backed up, not compromised, by its conviction, its bias, its genuine argument. Again, you cannot stand back from it and merely observe.

A quick comparison with Philip Guston is irresistible. Guston, a mere painter, responds to the same things that Fahlström saw, but the Klan figures intrude into his art only so far. There is much impasto left to savour just as before. By directing the elements of his art to lower, more self-effacing, but more self-aware roles, Fahlström puts the whole on a higher plane. Another comparison is in the other contemporary direction of the time. Other artists were setting up similar reorderings of form and content, yet as Fahlstrom notes, with data that is “non-committal” or “’unimportant’ per se”. For me, Sol LeWitt comes to mind. Synthesis rather than deconstruction in the Garden, nothing for its own sake.

You cannot decide if Garden is trying to seduce you or persuade you. It is in the artistic sense that I am ultimately convinced, but only because the political conviction is there. It is not, at the end of the day, a game. 

Penultimately: there is a red herring of a question as to whether an artwork can be wholly self-sufficient. Clearly, one work will not give you a full view of Fahlström’s oeuvre, or the art of his time. But Garden is its own world. 

One thing about the information presented is that it does not hint, it does not allude to anything, no learning of the cultural sort is displayed for such purposes. If it can be read as allegory, all the terms are in the room for you to arrange, and there is more than you can deal with. And certainly you are left in no doubt as to the information. This flatness of info and imagery is interesting. Hiding nothing, or in plain sight, is another form of asking what else there could be.

Lastly, the nature of the work, its levels of form and content, and their interplay, have a curious effect. I was trying to figure out how such a work affects me, where the fascination lies. Bar the evidence of the foregoing, a certain reciprocal comparison came to mind. The endless details of equal dramatic intent, the constant pulling away from the plane of the work to an elsewhere, the not being able to stay in touch with all parts – you either go in and see the information up close, or go back and view it from afar, the detail out of sight – the fascination lying in between all of this: these words could be written of looking at a fine Agnes Martin grid. Where you are led is, of course, in a different direction, not the Platonic, romantic classical abstract, but the world, and all of it. The earnestness of the intent, the breadth of vision, the realism – these provide for a structure that bears an experience of the same endless, ungraspable weight. 

Many thanks to Alexander Hattwig for his time and help in providing material for this article.