You are art!

by Aapo Saask


"Art is in the soul of the beholder." That is the expression that I associate the most with Ture Sjolander. By reaching into the soul of the individual person, the artist contributes to the building of the collective consciousness - the spirit of our society, our cultural inheritance, our collective subconscious.

In the beginning, art was communication, magic and adornment - all at once. A couple of hundred years ago, the notion of "art" came to be used more and more as a synonym for ornamentation in rich people's homes.

Ever since, there has been a struggle between art as expression and art as decoration (and private property, and later on, even tax shelter). Since most artists want to make a living out of their work, it is easy for the money side to win. This has not been the case for Ture Sjolander. He doesn't say: "Look at my work and buy it!" He says: "I am your mirror."

In order to find the roots of art, he travelled to what is today considered primitive societies in Papua New Guinea. He found body painting and learnt about the original meaning of art - communication, magic and adornment. Many artists have been inspired by body painting and developed it into various expressionistic experiments with erotic undertones, but Sjolander left it as he found it. It is of an ephemeral nature. It cannot be sold at Sotheby’s and it cannot be exhibited at the Tate (at least not without losing its soul). Perhaps it can be nailed to a cross? Yes, only he who sacrifices himself for his fellow men, is an artist. But sacrifice does not mean that the artist must be good - or God.

After studying the culture of the Aborigines in Australia, Ture Sjolander did not come out with quaint proposals on how to promote Aboriginal Art as others have done. He saw a bigger picture and wrote: "The Aboriginals still have what we lost: cultural dignity. Undoubtedly the Aboriginal is Australia’s richest heritage… The British/Australians have historically proved that they are unable to deal with the problem. These bullies … have always been the problem for the Aborigines and still are, as well as they are the problem for today’s immigrants."

Sjolander’s study was commissioned by the Queensland Government. But when it was completed it was not published. The newspapers would not publish the summary. No newspaper would even accept the summary as an ad. Finally, it was broadcasted on a local TV-show. And the Aborigines still live their lives on reservations under very primitive conditions. Although most of Australians are of non-English speaking background (the term used is NESB), the queens dutiful convicts still hold a firm grip of the island/continent.

Going from the most ancient to the most modern, Ture Sjolander has been called to Godfather of computer game-players, because he was the first person in the world who created a film with electronically animated images for TV. From Sjolander's point of view, this was not an individual achievement, he was simply part of a collective process of the development of mankind. I claim he had antennae. "Not at all," he says, "just a curious mind."

In 1997, when Ture Sjolander was invited to work in China, the closed fist was still a very strong symbol in this country. Sjolander displayed two gigantic closed penises (marble knots). Everybody, except customs, understood the symbolism. The statues still remain in Changchun as a reminder that there are many kinds of freedom to be won, in addition to the obvious first one, the freedom from poverty.

Was this a political manifestation? Yes and no and certainly not party politics. Real politics is that which makes society progress, all else is a charade. This is what Sjolander showed the Australian public when he caused a government crisis by prompting the Prime Minister to sign a five-dollar bill. As in many other countries, to scribble on a bill is an illegal act in Australia, and the opposition called for the government to resign.

"Aren't there more important things to argue about?" many Australians asked themselves when the debate was at its worst. Many people realized that their cherished democracy was nothing but a game of chess for the power hungry wannabe aristocracies, and that they themselves were nothing more than pawns.

Another "installation", set in Sweden, made it to the front pages of the nations' two dominating evening papers: "Famous Swedish artist threatens to kill Prime Minister."

The back-ground was that American private eyes had been hired by the Swedish Law Enforcement Authorities to act in the Philippines on behalf of Swedish and American courts in a custody case about Sjolander's son Matu. Sjolander wanted to call attention to the fact that private investigators were cheating the Swedish Government for millions of dollars. He travelled to Sweden. Being a famous artist, he got an appointment with the PM, at that time Ingvar Carlsson, but at the last moment Carlsson had to cancel the meeting to go to a state-funeral in Israel.

Sjolander, who was used to censorship and cancelled exhibitions, laconically told the secretary that the PM would soon have to go to another funeral - meaning his, i.e. Ture's, own, as it was well known that his life was threatened by three contract killers from the Philippines!

The secretary misinterpreted it for a threat against the PM. For this Ture Sjolander's spent two months in police custody. When the private eyes found out about this, they thought of a way to hide their million-dollar-scam, and filed additional complaints against Sjolander. He was supposed to have threatened one of them. In court, the only threat turned out to be to squeal to the PM, unless the privates returned the money to the Swedish Government.

The trial was more interesting to me than any of the more spectacular happenings in the 60’es. The dark lounge suit guys had their pants down during the entire trial (half monty) and yet had the nerve to lie throughout all of it - a rock steady picture added by Sjolander to our common understanding of the world. I wish someone would paint it – remember pants down.

Of course, Ture Sjolander was completely acquitted and was awarded a compensation for the months spent unjustly in police custody. The private eyes were neatly fired and Sjolander was not assassinated. However, cognoscenti and literati in Sweden would say "no smoke without a fire" and a leper was once again (voluntarily) exiled. But, you know, if you have not spent a month or two in jail, you’re not a real artist.

Had he lived in the 18th century, Ture Sjolander would have died in front of a firing squad already as a young man. Had he lived in the 19th century, he would have slowly wasted away in a dungeon. But since we are talking about the 20th century, he was only crucified a couple of times - and has resurrected himself by recreating himself. In spite of all this, Sjolander says: "I am not art. You are! I am just your tool – mirror."


Aapo Saask 2004-09-13