Catalogue Martin Ålund Never Never Land
“The King of Rock” had his Graceland, “The King of Pop” his (now abandoned) Neverland, but the American popular culture of course has deeper roots than that which meets the eye. It was Disney’s screen adaptation of Peter Pan in 1953 that made Neverland known to a wider public, but its more interesting, darker aspects related to sexuality and death that are present in Barrie’s novels and plays from the beginning of the century are all but obliterated. But given the origin of Pan in Arcadian mythology—which was always somewhat despised by classical Greek culture—this theme will return, albeit in a changed form.
The new paintings by Ålund are a shock to the senses: baroque, adorned post-romanticism, packed with glitzy colours, they seem to point out a strange place that one both recognizes and yet is sure never to have seen before. If for a moment one was to regard them as nature paintings—which would be misleading—one could say that Ålund has laid bare the dystopian dimension of nature in the same way that Caspar David Friedrich discovered the tragedy of landscape. But if it is a kind of “dystopian nature”, a jungle which seems to grow into and over itself, it is one where the pastoral, Arcadian landscape already from the outset is inseparably intertwined with the metropolitan in a poisoned beauty. Never Never Land thus becomes the name of a locus that is neither nature nor culture, neither landscape nor city but another site, earlier than these.
Taking the risk of subjectivizing painting by once more appealing to consciousness as the ultimate horizon for an understanding of art, I would like to suggest that this classical trope from Hegelian metaphysics could be given a further twist. Instead of leading to a closing, the new philosophy provides possibilities of conceptualizing art as the very dimension of freedom, as the openness of being, in a radically new way. For the concept of consciousness that for instance Husserl presents in his latest texts in fact opens its presupposed unshakeable foundation (Descartes’ fundamentum inconcussum) to a ceaseless process of selftemporalization as the source of the subject’s self-constitution. This process, contrary to the views of much recent debate in the wake of Derrida, also consists in a twofold mode of making absent: both my own constant flight out of presence (by means of living in the past, the future and imaginary worlds) and my own likewise constant self-alienation in relation to the others, when I live myself into the their lives. This is really the same process that Freud calls the “cooperation and opposition” between Eros and Thanatos, where Eros is constantly striving to gather that which Thanatos tears apart. Love Will Tear Us Apart, as Joy Division sang. Foundation and abyss, Grund and Abgrund, meet in a modern version of the Heraclitean trope “the one differing from itself”.
The sheer material quality of the colour, the excess of coloration, of colour juxtapositions that do not immediately harmonize, seem to be a configuration of experiences belonging to an unwell subject, in the vicinity of that “nausea” that both philosophers and writers have analyzed. Thanks to Freud we now know that the “discomfort in our culture” and the neurotical experience is a generalized condition that is not reserved to “the others”, and as Deleuze and Guattari have shown, not something that primarily stems from a specific social constellation (such as the bourgeois family), but is the result of an originary and constitutive splitting. To be a subject today is to be “mentally ill” in a certain sense: we are the polymorph perverse creatures that have grown up, and Ricœur for instance speaks of le cogito blessé, the wounded cogito, as the philosophical consequence of the discovery of the unconscious in his great book on Freud. But perhaps it is just as much towards the concept of art itself that one has to turn in order to understand what is at stake. For how could painting be healthy in a situation where it either has to give in to the commodity fetishism and the demands of simplicity from mass consumerism, or else enclose itself in an elitism which manages to stay clean only by turning itself away from its audience?
Ålund is a painter of moods, both moods that we recognize (crisis, sorrow and loss, but also the change that these make possible) and moods that are yet unknown, that link on to the old ones. By means of this evocative painting that calls forth a meaning that is on its way, we are invited to learn more about ourselves and the world: art here anticipates that which philosophy and psychology can proceed to articulate. But it is also something more than a state of mind that is portrayed, closer to that which Freud called “psychic reality”, which is something far more complex than what is merely phantasized, experienced. It is our own proper Urszene in a deeper sense, where the world is ceaselessly developed. In this sense, this locus precedes the leading opposition between culture and nature etc. In Ålund’s characterization it is shot through with cultural history and popular culture, a strictly mediated kind of “reality”, but which also bears traces of a deep and poignant soul-searching. It is a slick, urban and post-metaphysical painting which at the same time bears witness to an intimate and personal address.
In conversations with Ålund he comes back to the theme of ambivalence, to ambiguity when describing his work: it is about the portrayal of that which is at once beautiful and ugly, ironically guarded and totally honest, etc. The ambivalent approach has ever since de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty been connected not only to an existentialist ethics (how am I to realize my own freedom when I am also responsible for the freedom of the other?) and a phenomenology of the body (I am both subject and object, both corps and chair), but has also become a kind of trademark for the whole late-capitalist culture. But also Pan, the model of Satan, is a split being—half goat, half man—which Plato immediately acknowledges in his simulated etymological genealogy (Cratylus, 408b). For Plato, this splitting is written straight into the ontology of the theory of forms: the father of Pan is Hermes, the god of language and interpretation, and since logos is twofold (both “true and false” and therefore able to signify precisely everything, pan), so the son likewise has two parts. The upper, true part is smooth and divine and therefore dwells above with the gods, while the lower, false part is rough like the goat of tragedy, and therefore dwells below with the humans. Ålund’s painting is all the time engaged with this double register, where one hand paints high up in the dimension of truth while the other paints the tragedy of human existence.
Our technological time is often described as an “overcoming” of Platonism, but it is perhaps better understood as a realization of Platonism, where the suprasensuous, transcendent has been incorporated into the sensuous-immanent. In Ålund’s case, the depicted should no longer be understood as something external in relation to the language of painting and our other systems of communication. The extralinguistic point of reference coincides with its material expression, as the higher shines through and gives luminosity to the lower, since the sharp and pure would only blind us without the dirty.
In Ålund’s paintings there are reminiscences of a nature, as an echo of classical painting of nature where a tree, a house or a human being remain as symbols of themselves, but where these objects also, and perhaps even more, seem to signify something else: a nostalgia for the fullness of the sign as something lost. But this nostalgia does not have to be construed as the searching for something that has previously existed; instead, it is perhaps better understood as something which has come into being by this very process itself (the missed object is that which will have been lost, what we are longing for). Furthermore, and beyond this nostalgic register, the figurative remainders are also an indication of the becoming, a pointing towards the unknown, that which is on its way towards (an always deferred) determination, a meaning in statu nascendi, but which can never be fully realized. For what is a tree, a house, a human being? Strictly speaking we know as little (and as much) about that today as we knew at the beginning of time, and Ålund’s paintings remind us of this constitutive indeterminacy. It is in Lacan’s analyses of the real (le reel) that we find the perhaps most interesting contemporary attempts to theoretically articulate the general structure of this nostalgia. Ålund’s paintings provide specific points of entrance to this problematic that are more detailed and thorough than any philosophical works could ever aspire to, while obviously the interpretative dimension correspondingly becomes ever more acute. So how is the relation between philosophical generalization and the singular work of art to be understood? It is not a question of applying philosophical reasoning to art, but instead of realizing that both disciplines investigate the same field. The particular painting thus becomes the turning-point where the level of abstraction of philosophy becomes singularized and sensualized.
Nicholas Smith, philosopher