Painting in Flat Time
Carl Johan Högberg was the best chess player in Eskilstuna, Sweden - and by far, when not in the company of his nearest opponent and friend, a journalist named Lund. There was only one cafe for intellectuals in Eskilstuna, a state of affairs brought about by the presence of intellectuals there and almost nowhere else. And like their dog-eared, soft-spoken peers, Högberg and Lund haunted the place, subsisting on drip coffee, cigarettes and occasional Twix bars. Chess is a sport well-suited to this regimen. Less so golf, which is another of Högberg’s Eskilstuna diversions, one he reserves for family when he visits home from Amsterdam. For those who truly wish to spurn health, there are the golf cars to shuttle you from hole to hole while you smoke and eat Twix. But in my mental construction of this part of his life, Högberg walks.
He and Lund left the flats of the old steel town for university many years ago, one to become a painter and the other a writer, one to Amsterdam, the other to Stockholm. To paint or to write in the age of (or shortly preceding) selfie sticks and the socially acceptable use of the abbreviation, “tl;dr” - web shorthand for “too long; didn’t read” - you have to be impervious to the world’s fatigue of your medium. Particularly since it comes not from too much exertion towards writing or painting, but from too little effort at any one thing. I hardly need to write it again: we glide over information, consuming it as if we were waterfowl skimming the surface of a pond for insects. Our use of the internet probably agitates these Anitidaean tendencies, but this was a problem for the people of Euro-America already before 1967, the year that Guy Debord published La Société du Spectacle.
Painting and writing and their appreciation demand a different pace, one more in keeping with chess, or golf, or, for that matter, badminton, the sport whence Högberg’s exhibition “Shuttlecock, feat. Bob’s Your Uncle Sports Bar” at Hordaland Kunstsenter (January - March 2015) takes its title.
A shuttlecock is the feathered projectile badminton players keep airborne by hitting it to each other across a net. It can leave a racket faster than a tennis ball can, but once it catches the air it swoops in a buoyant arc, led by its round rubber nib, until the receiving player relaunches it from her racquet. It flies fast and slow from the same stroke, but the nib must never touch the ground. The player who eventually, inevitably, lets the shuttlecock fall loses a point to her opponent, and the next rally begins.
Badminton originated India under British colonial rule in the early 1800s. It was at that time called “Battledore and Shuttlecock”, and was played over a piece of string rather than a net, and with a real feathered shuttlecock. In the amateur garden badminton sets I grew up with in South Africa, the shuttlecock was made of plastic, with imitation feathers. The authentic shuttlecock is believed to have been adopted from a Japanese game called Hanetsuki, in which a bright knot of feathers is batted between wooden paddles. Thanks to countless Ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting women poised to tap the “hane” (the transliteration of the Japanese word for the shuttlecock) rather gently, so as not to sweat profusely on the kimono, it is easy to imagine Hanetsuki as badminton’s reticent ancestor. But if Wikipedia is to be believed, Hanetsuki had an insect-repelling purpose as well. Traditionally, or so I read, girls would play the game at New Year with the belief that the player most able to keep the shuttlecock in the air would have superior protection against mosquitoes in the coming year.
In the endless, labyrinthine ambulation the internet has made of “research”, I could follow the arc of the shuttlecock far and high, and possibly never touch the ground. The point of trailing through this material, however, is to demonstrate that the postures and gestures that have become conventions of sports are in fact embodiments of history, incarnations of traces that have all but become invisible, washed out by the banality of sport as entertainment.
The choreography in sports, this embodied archive of scripted movements a player must learn in order to be doing a particular sport at all, is always there. This entwining of history, banality and politics in the equipment and performance of sports has been a recurring Högberg’s work before. In 2010, to mark the culmination of his time at De Ateliers in Amsterdam, Högberg held a solo exhibition entitled “Health Through Sports”, a reference to a photo-collage by Max Ernst titled La Santé Par le Sport (1920). This is an unforgettable image, though it is one of Ernst’s lesser known. In it a classically proportioned male nude statue holds a golf club in his left hand and the skull of an alligator in his right. His face is covered by a crocheted butterfly, an image culled from another source, and his genitals are hidden by a crude stone fig leaf. With his face and his penis covered, and only a tally of ideals for a body, he is radically depersonalized. It doesn’t seem fit even to call him a “he”.
For Hitler and Mussolini, the depersonalized athlete was the model subject of the fascist state. Italian football blossomed under Mussolini, and Hitler famously commissioned filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl, whose Nazi propaganda films he had grown to love, to make a feature-length film of the 1936 Olympics in Germany. While Ernst’s athlete came some time before this moment in European politics, the friction between the different components of this image antagonize a much older convention: the Platonic ideal of the “warrior-athlete”, the ideal citizen of Plato’s Republic. The warrior-athlete is not only physically adept, but he is mentally “alert” and cultured as well, since his regimen of training is complemented by poetry and music. He is the paragon of health and resilience, and therefore makes a fine Guardian in Socrates’s hypothetical city. Hitler’s prejudice against the physically disabled in Nazi Germany reflects his association of physical ability with political superiority, in keeping with this ancient convention. Art was coopted into this project as well. Beginning with the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 and until London in 1948, the sporting contests of the Olympic games were complemented by art competitions in various disciplines, and the total medal count of each nation at the end of the games included medals awarded in the art categories. Given Hitler’s well-documented enthusiasm for art, he embraced this as an opportunity to demonstrate to the world the excellence of the Aryan race in all the classical fields of human accomplishment.
Ernst’s La Santé Par le Sport has functioned as a totem of resistance to this ideology in Högberg’s work, and its influence - indeed the influence of Ernst in general - is visible in his use of unlikely juxtapositions or ‘mash-ups’, his restrained palette, and in his sensibility for dreamlike and uncanny scenography. The latter is very effectively suggested through the disruption of time in his paintings. In the 2014 work Idla, two young women are practicing the synchronized gymnastic activity called Idlaflickorna on a beach at night. They are each passing a ball from hand to hand, and their image is captured in the instant that both balls are suspended in mid-air. The general time and place in which they are frozen is post-war Sweden, but they are also caught in a time closer to the present. They exist inside a photograph, whose edges are conspicuously treated in the painting. This photograph is attached to something - a dossier of studio research material? - by a large paperclip. In this painting we see three layers of suspended time - the frozen activity of the girls’ gymnastic practice, the suspended time of the photograph, and the time of the action of painting, painstakingly presented to us by the trompe l’oeil paperclip.
Although time is one of the parameters that distinguishes a sporting event from the more nebulous temporality of practice (one can be in a state of practice, honing skill over time, while doing other things. One can practice by thinking, as well as by doing) time is also meted out by the repetitive or sequential physical actions that characterize many sports. In Zadie Smith’s recent micro-novel The Embassy of Cambodia (2014) an anonymous badminton game takes place behind the high wall of the Cambodian Embassy in a gentrifying London suburb. The protagonist, Fatou, sees the shuttlecock flying back and forth in the same way everyday that she passes the embassy on her way to a public swimming pool. The story leaves open the possibility that the continuous “Pock! Smash!” of the anonymous players’ strikes indeed never stops, like the heart that goes on pulsing without our needing, or even being able, to tell it to. Like a heart, or its mechanical counterpart, the metronome, the flying shuttlecock in The Embassy of Cambodia moves the story along in time, indifferent to the fate of its characters, which has the effect of making their fate all the more urgent for the reader.
Less obviously, many of Högberg’s paintings also count out time through repetition and temporal compression. Sometimes this happens purely pictorially, as in an untitled monochromatic painting from 2010 which shows a badminton service staggered into its composite moments, in what appears to be a contracted time-lapse recording. The tonality of the image is inverted so that it has the quality of a photographic negative in which a burst of shots taken in the instant of this action are all exposed in one frame. This painting gives us the ability to see the time, all at once, that contains the story of how to hit a shuttlecock. The choreography of this tropic action can be compressed in the work so that we feel time differently, spatially.
There is an analogy to be drawn between the compression of time in this painting and the historical flattening represented in images found on the internet. No matter the particular pictorial content of images found online, they participate in a process of sorting based on search engine update frequencies, information mining and tracking, and our search habits. Therefore, the images that we come across as we search or browse the web correlate less to a proximity to the present than they do to our behaviour. Particularly in the case of historical research, according to Ina Hellsten, Loet Leydesdorf and Paul Wouters, search engines “reconstruct the pasts [sic.] in very different terms”. Of course, the online image searches also give rise to the possibility of chronologically diverse images appearing alongside one another so that, in a very obvious way, we are able to see the traces of different moments in time simultaneously before us. But as Hellsten et al write, it’s more complex than this: search engines behave as the “clocks of the internet”, measuring time through an array of user interactions. Like other time-telling devices, they are able to alter our perception of time, just as a slow analogue clock extends seconds, and eventually hours, for us. Search engines dredge the past into the present, realizing “the present as a collection of extended presents that can exist in parallel on the Web. In other words, time is being represented as realities that coexist in space”.
In this light, what may feel like fortuitous finds on the internet are in fact governed very little by chance. What appear to be random juxtapositions arising in search results are in fact reflections of past behaviours, our own and those of a vast collective of Web users. This cybernetic ‘collective unconscious’, if you will, is depersonalized in that it belongs to not one among us, and yet it determines, subliminally, our psychosocial experience of the online world. It may be a stretch to compare internet memes to Jungian archetypes, but, as a more modest proposal, it is conceivable that the collective unconscious of the web informs the conscious, interpersonal circulation of contemporary myths and fantasies, and that the viewing and mental retention of images plays a crucial role in this.
The efficacy of chance - or its algorithmic avatar - in internet research is the analogue of that most prized trope of Dada and Surrealist art, the absurd. For Dada artists, chance facilitated juxtapositions of words, images and sound that were so foreign to the existing horizons of meaning as to seem nonsensical. As Richard Heulsenbeck writes in his Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, “In dada [sic.], anything was possible, everything was loose and left to chance. Dada, in both its moral reactions and its artistic insights, was able to combine definiteness with indefinite possibility…”. When surrealism, or at least a crude version thereof, began to treat the ‘nonsense’ as symbols and symptoms under the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis, or at least a crude version thereof, the radicalism Dada brought about was muffled by a giant drooping breast of overdetermination.
Apart from costing money at the printer, this historical detour serves to lay the groundwork for thinking about how Högberg paints, and why he paints what he paints. In Shuttlecock… there is a coming together of the precarious chance processes of old-fashioned, analogue happenstance, and of the internet search. This is exemplified in the paintings The Impossibility of Tickling Oneself I and II (2014), a pair, rather than a diptych, that stages an impossible badminton game between a badminton coach with a face transplant and his own mirror image. The coach - the body in this instance - is Dr. Jürgen H. Ranzmayer, the author of several instructional books about badminton. The source of his image is an old, yellowed book Högberg keeps in his studio as reference material.
The face, though, is digital - or it is now. It belongs to the Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson, who famously interpreted a number of Swedish folk songs for jazz, and less famously, composed a soundtrack for gymnastic exercises. Released in 1965, the vinyl LP was accompanied by an an instructional guide to various exercises, and bore the title Rädda Sverige (Rescue Sweden). The image that Högberg uses in The Impossibility of Tickling Oneself I and II, which is also used in the 2013 painting JJ, appears on the Swedish Wikipedia page for “Jan Johansson”. It is clearly a high resolution scan of a much older, analogue photograph, or possibly a scan directly from a negative. It is possible to enlarge the picture enough to see bits of dust and thread and scratches on the ‘original’. Interestingly, though, the provenance of the image - it’s dates of capture and release in the analogue world - are absent from its new internet home, and have been replaced by a “file history” that makes it possible to see when the image was uploaded, and by whom, and where else it is hosted online. Hito Steyerl calls this displacement in an image’s history, “the bruises” of an image. These bruises “are its glitches and artifacts, the traces of its rips and transfers. Images are violated, ripped apart, subjected to interrogation and probing. They are stolen, cropped, edited, and re-appropriated. They are bought, sold, leased. Manipulated and adulated. Reviled and revered”.
While Shuttlecock… broaches the subject of the incredible shifts in how we relate to images today (and also some of our ancient, habitual experiences of them), it does more than just this. It questions the space and substance of the image, and its ideological dimensions, and suggests that our relation to images is more than observation; it is participation. The integration of the Bob’s Your Uncle Sports Bar in the exhibition stages this participation. The bar is an imitation of the Bob’s Your Uncle bar at the Amsterdam Kunstverein, and is realized at Hordaland Kunstsenter in partnership with the Kunstverein. But this collaboration was not institutionally driven - Högberg imported Bob’s Your Uncle and the Kunstverein into his exhibition environment as if he were ‘copying’ and ‘pasting’ it (as one does digitally) from the original in Amsterdam. The copy has a fair resemblance to the original Bob’s Your Uncle bar, but its relocation, its integration into the exhibition, and its coexistence with the paintings, produce a dissemblance that is unsettling. This “interplay of operations” suggests to me that the Bob’s Your Uncle Sports Bar is itself an image. As Rancière argues, and as is abundantly clear in Högberg’s work, an image is not only “the simple relationship that produces the likeness of an original: not necessarily a faithful copy, but simply what suffices to stand in for it”. But it can also be an “interplay of operations that produces what we call art:… precisely an alteration of resemblance”.9 In this instance, it is an alteration of resemblance in which we can, and do, participate.
Our ability to patronize the Bob’s Your Uncle Sports Bar, to sit on the chairs and participate according to the conventions of bar attendance, is a helpful metaphor for what is happening as we look at and think about the works in Shuttlecock…, and, more broadly, when we consume, share, alter and dwell on images in other spheres of life. For Steyerl, this participation is a crucial step to overcoming a stultifying over-association of images with representation and representability. “To participate in an image—rather than merely identify with it—could perhaps abolish” a fraught relation with popular misrepresentation, or even with the idea that it is in the nature of images to represent.