Beth Laurin: Provisorium
16 September – 3 December 2017
Review by David Price
As its title, Beth Laurin: Provisorium, suggests, this exhibition functions as a provisional retrospective, the contents of which have settled, but are not yet final. The word provisorium also has a more everyday meaning in Swedish as ‘makeshift’. This word falls short of the fine delicacy with which much of Laurin’s work is realized, but does perhaps account for the way that the work meshes together the everyday life and environments in which she lives and works.
A number of works in this show expand and translate found, nominally worthless items (fragments of objects or wrapping papers, replicated to a large scale in ‘Skulpturdiptyk’ and ‘Relief’, both from 1985 for example). Similarly, documentation of a group of large wall paintings made in Odense from 1987 depict scrunched-up medicine wrappers. In the case of all these works the original materials and objects were preserved and archived. Some are shown in vitrines, and some are shown in a large set of photographs of objects that may or may not become work, assemblies of things in the studio, which in turn sit next to a box of objects entitled ‘Oanvända och använda objekt’ (Unused and used objects). The suggestion is that these materials are provisional at every stage of their usage by the artist, and exist without conditions being placed on their status. The resultant works don’t seek to make redundant the source materials they often beautifully refine.
Some aspects of life, in the sense of ‘real life’ beyond formal studio practice, are very visible in the show, which furthers a sense of careful informality. The photo series ‘Den 15 November’ (1979), which Laurin explains with the sentence, ‘Jag slutade att vara konstnär’ (I stopped being an artist), documents the day Laurin decided to abandon her practice. We see her studio being emptied, and all her work up until that point loaded onto the back of a truck to be disposed of. After the pause in her career this decision initiated, the gesture became a more formal ‘action’; a retrospective work in the form of its documentation. This is consistent with all the works’ process of valorising or recovering things that might otherwise be lost.
In terms of medium, Laurin’s practice has been one of constant variety, conducted in numerous forms from the 1960s through to the present day. Whilst much of the work could be classified as either ‘drawing’ or ‘sculpture’ (including numerous public works in Sweden) the exhibition’s process of forming a retrospective seems to focus on the points in her practice where a work’s idea transfers from one medium to another.
A lucidly frank interview in the accompanying publication to clarifies that the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘life’ in her work is a deep interface, emphasising the personal connections to and between the objects she uses, even if some of their secret personal significances remain undisclosed. This very personal aspect to her approach to materials takes on a mysterious kind of discretion in the context of Laurin’s work in the public realm. The exhibition details the process of a number of works realised as public sculptures beginning with ‘Del 1 (Part 1)’ (1976), an expanded fragment of a work from an earlier sculpture series, ‘Tillstand (State of Mind)’, begun in the late 1960s. Whilst the original works were forms of self-portrait, ‘Del 1’ takes a more abstract section of the work and extrapolated it into something more like an architectural fragment; as if a stone column had become pliable and had lain itself down on the ground. Likewise, ‘Skulpturer i Östraboskolan Uddevalla’ (1970), seem like columnated structures allowed to bend and soften. A column that supports nothing but itself is truly provisional, and would seem almost to be thinking for itself, writhing free from its utilitarian purpose and history. This public work is represented in the exhibition in the form of documentation photography presented on what appears to be a public information panel in the small garden in front of the gallery.
These denatured architectural objects apparently experience an inversion of the change in status to the expanded detritus in much of the other work in the exhibition. Such inversions happen in hyper-subtle form in examples from a series of large pencil drawings, ‘Nr 1’ (1995 – 1996), and ‘Nr 4’ (1995 – 1996), which are very detailed scaled-up replicas of paint smudges on three small cardboard panels - ‘Färg avtorkad från pekfingret (Paint wiped off from the index finger)’ - which are also shown. These source gestures, which ate not ‘meant’ as works, become quietly monumental in their scaled-up forms, and function almost like a purified index of the processes of transfer and exchange that preoccupy Laurin’s practice as a whole.
On the wall at the exhibition’s entrance, a paragraph of exhibition text refers to her practice as being a ‘way to systematically test and ask questions as to what can be done with art’ (loosely translated from the Swedish). A few days after the opening of the show, Laurin added a corrective graffito to this, adding ‘och intuitivt’ (‘and intuitively’) after the word ‘systematiskt’; a resonant scratch in the veneer of a significant institutional show. Due to its nature as a conceptualised, provisional retrospective, the exhibition invites the viewer to make a cyclical reading of the work: to see an object or fragment, then to cross the room and see this same object blown up or miniaturised, or present in another location or decade. Even though much of the work takes something ephemeral and gives it permanent form, Laurin’s practice seems to exist in opposition to the possibility that an artist’s ideas are petrified in the work they make. This is especially true in light of the striking honesty with which she describes her life and work in the exhibition’s publication; this all feels like a puzzling and complex gift to the viewer; an object lesson in openness to objects and gestures and the artworks that might emerge from them.