Joakim Forsgren
Joakim Forsgren


Cartesian grief

Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen, Kunstkritikk

A fragment of René Descartes’ cranium is a central component of Joakim Forsgren’s philosophical-existential exhibition at Konstnärshuset in Stockholm.

I had managed to spend a very long time in Joakim Forsgren’s exhibition Dark Matter, Golden Door at Konstnärshuset before I admitted to myself how wretched I felt. It surprised me because it was by virtue of its pleasurableness that the exhibition had kept me there far beyond the time necessitated by the artworks. Or are they artworks? Forsgren’s displays, artefacts and photographs have no titles, and together they shape an environment rather than an exhibition. It was also surprising because I couldn’t see anything gloomy in the exhibition itself. It was in other words not the case that Forsgren had taken something tragic and made it enjoyable in a traditional artistic way. Rather, this had to be about two different things, perhaps those mentioned in the title, disjointed: on the one hand the darkness, and on the other the golden.

Such questions of unity and separation has previously been addressed by Forsgren in an artwork where he used a bone fragment from René Descartes’ skull, which since his death in Sweden in 1650, has been preserved in Lund. That time it was about the question of how body and soul can communicate with each other, the question of their meeting in the pineal gland, and about the relationship of the piece of bone to Descartes’ “cogito”.

The same piece of skull reappears at Konstnärshuset, but now in two versions that have been 3D printed in stainless steel. They are housed in two custom-built glass display cases filled with transparent liquid. Between them stands another, similar display case, with black glass. What one principally encounters through the works is one’s own desire to find meaning; the attempt of thinking to grasp something. Against this activation of thinking stands a total lack of cognitive content in the artwork. This is in fact a Cartesian move: since all representational content can be doubted, Descartes wanted to find something free from representation whose existence could be established with certainty. What he found was that the experience of the presence of thought itself proves my existence. That is what these glass cases present to me.

Forsgren supplements the skull fragments with two elements: beneath the pieces there are rust deposits, and opposite each case hangs a framed, perhaps one metre-sized square photograph. The rust deposits are akin enough to dried blood for me to associate them to Descartes’ “life spirits”. These were extremely small blood particles which “like the air or a light wind” could penetrate the cavities of the brain and give power and life to traces of images (old thoughts and sensory impressions), which then appear as present thoughts. The only thought which, according to Descartes, is not an image is the “cogito”, the thought “I think”, which has no content other than the qualities of the life spirits – namely agility and speed.

That two of the photographs show a closed door and a black rubber curtain respectively can be related to how Descartes describes images as “doorways” between body and soul. The images set the mind in motion; you fantasize about what is behind them. Maybe it’s the sense of existence that is hanging there on the wall? When the “life spirits” of the display cases charge the images, they gain a degree of existence and energy. The central photograph, which hangs opposite the black case, however, shows a urinal. Years of urinating have oxidized lines that look like images. And it is precisely through the image, Descartes believed, that body (spirits of life) and soul (thoughts) can unite and influence each other.

An art exhibition does not lead to much action on the spot, but rather to the uncontaminated experiences Descartes called “the passions of the soul”, which often express themselves through aimless thinking and daydreaming. This happens here. The display cases initiate thinking, while the photographs provide material and anticipate potential meaning. One can also sense that the exhibition does not have a conclusion, but that it chiefly strives to set thought in indefinite, free movement. It’s wonderful, the golden and glittering part of the exhibition, and probably the reason why I want to stay there for so long.

The fact that the works are placed along the walls makes the room a little inert, like a dentist’s waiting room. You can feel lonely there. Another axis is established between the main light source in the room, a couple of fluorescent tubes submerged in a liquid-filled glass case placed directly on the floor, and a speaker at the other end of the room. From the speaker comes the sound of liquid in motion, which seems to originate from a microphone above the black case. The sound has an introspective quality that is both mechanical and meditative; grinding. It fills the void and becomes an atmosphere. This makes the speaker resemble a periscope sticking up, looking at me, and out of the corner of my eye I get the impression that it is on its way into the room. Clearly, the speaker introduces the presence of another living body. It is in front of this body that everything suddenly feels so terribly miserable. I bathe in sadness, alone, and seen from the outside.

In the window lies a black book as a visual echo of the central display case. It is a collection of poems written for this occasion by Forsgren. They are written in first person singular – perhaps it is the exhibition itself that speaks: “I have been told that I am difficult to get close to”. He also writes about the difficulty of knowing if something beautiful you want to share will be acknowledged, and whether it can be so at all when done with “with injustice as a driving force”. Anyone who has suffered from malady can probably recognize the experience of the body’s injustice and the groundless injustices against the soul. Is this incomprehensible occurrence shaped by the sounds of water that has been set in motion for uncertain reason? Can the reader, asks the poem, disregard the injustice when the poet “draws the world on a scale as black as shimmering”?

The exhibition does not answer that question. But it transforms the difficulty of understanding how body and soul can influence each other into the question of whether, and if so how, they should. And whether one always should try to see that connection. Art has so far perhaps not been the best means, because it makes everything too sweet: injustice becomes poetic justice, suffering becomes heightened sensibility and satisfaction. With Forsgren, this can be found in the shimmering images through which the spirits of life express themselves. But the pleasant does not lie in the artistic treatment of the unhappy, which, on the contrary, seems to transcend art. Sorrow endures in the creation of space and is enhanced by the artlessness of the poems. In some strange way, the exhibition preserves grief as grief and art as art, interacting but not united. It is up to each to find the doors between them, or to close the ones that happen to be there.

Translation: Jonatan Habib Engqvist