The Wanås Foundation: Patronage and Partnership

You wouldn’t normally expect the buildings and grounds surrounding a 15th-century castle in southern Sweden to be the site of an impressive, risk-taking international sculpture project, but that’s precisely the case with the Wanås Foundation. Since 1987, Marika and Charles Wachtmeister have invited international artists to respond to this unorthodox location, usually in group shows that eschew curatorial categories and rhetoric in favor of bringing together a temporary constellation of artists for a period of vivid experimentation. There is something familial and collegial about how this has developed, with artists suggesting other artists and a network of relationships and sensibilities developing through the years. For the installation period leading up to the opening, most of the artists are present, resulting in a real mix of creative processes and robust daily life. Marika Wachtmeister, the driving force behind the project, while well-versed in art, is actually a lawyer and not a trained arts professional at all. Still, as she has grown into her self-made position—she got the idea for a sculpture project after moving from Stockholm with her husband to his comparatively remote and rural family home—she’s become a vibrant force, not only in Sweden, but internationally. Moreover, the enterprise that she stewards doesn’t really feel like an institution at all: an adventure-in-process, Wanås has its own idiosyncratic way of doing things.

Janine Antoni, Saddle, 2000. Tanned cowhide, view of work as installed at the Wanås Foundation.

This year’s exhibition featured 10 artists, most of whom have already received considerable acclaim. What resulted were intriguing and at times radical variations on the tradition of outdoor sculpture or sculpture park works. Patrick Killoran, an up-and-coming young artist from the U.S., used industrial photo-lamination techniques to decorate five cars with ultra close-ups of the torso skin of their owners, in this case Marika Wachtmeister and her sons, replete with hair, nipples, blemishes, and everything (Autobody, 2000). This was a novel twist on an inside-outside reversal. Instead of protecting the fragile human body during locomotion, these reconfigured cars displayed the skin of the person sitting in the driver’s seat like some sort of weird advertisement, yielding a reeling mix of public and private, mass-produced vehicle and intensely personal disclosure. Moreover, because the cars were in use, Killoran’s “installation” replaced the built-for-forever stolidity and fixity of many public sculptures with an ephemeral, constantly in-motion activity. Rather than remaining in one place, his works spread out around town, inhabiting streets, parking places, and driveways.

Patrick Killoran, Autobody 05 (Baltzar Wachtmeister), 2000. Photo-laminated car.

Another obvious high point was a suite of four linked works by New York-based Bahamian Janine Antoni. In addition to housing an arts project, Wanås also functions as a working farm, headed by Charles Wachtmeister, whose father is the Count of the palace. Cattle abound, and they provided the inspiration for Antoni’s humorous, yet haunting and provocative installation on the top floor of a barn, now converted into exhibition spaces. Antoni’s installation began with a photograph of herself bathing in a bathtub normally filled with drinking water for the cows (2038, 2000.) One of the cows, with a wide-eyed expression, leans over, seemingly nuzzling Antoni’s breast, while Antoni maintains an exquisite look of tenderness and calm. Reversals are rampant: instead of her suckling them, so to speak, for their milk or myriad other products, one of them suckles her.

Mirosl´aw Bal´ka, Play-pit, 2000. Black granite and plastic balls, view of work as installed at the Wanås Foundation.

At once tender, erotic, hilarious, intimate, ritualistic, and elusively perverse, this wonderful photograph launched an installation that was all of these things and more. Nearby, an entire raw cowhide was stretched, spread-eagled across the space from wall to wall (Bridle, 2000.) It resembled a drying skin at a tannery, until you noticed that parts of it had been cut out to form a leather daypack which remains attached to the hide: if you were to wear the pack, you’d also be draped in the entire skin of the animal. On the floor, a tanned cowhide was similarly cut to make a pair of attached shoes and a pair of gloves (Naked, 2000). Here, practical or fashionable consumer items reverted from the boutique or one’s clad body to the dead animal from which they came, but at the same time Antoni’s quietly dazzling works were unencumbered by moralizing. Way over at the far end of the room, an entire dried and tanned cowhide (Saddle, 2000) took the shape of a person (Antoni, in fact) on all fours on the floor. She knelt on the floor while covered by a wet hide, waiting until it dried and assumed her shape: instead of her riding a cowhide saddle on a horse, a cowhide “saddle” rides her. Without pinning anything down, and leaving things to operate on poetic, richly evocative levels, Antoni’s installation contained cycles of living and dying, roughness and delicacy, thoughtfulness and absurdity.

Interestingly, for a non-curated (in any normal sense of the word) exhibition, this one developed several compelling leitmotifs, for instance skin, as in the above works, and by extension sensuality, as well as its opposite, namely fragility and a palpable sense of mortality. In downstairs rooms in the converted barn, a spare marble form, suggestive of Post-Minimalist abstraction, by Monika Larsen Dennis from Stockholm, was actually a pedestal on which one could kneel, almost reverentially, while resting one’s chin in a small concave hole.

Janine Antoni, Naked, 2000. Tanned cowhide, view of work as installed at the Wanås Foundation.

There was a kind of quiescence and peacefulness to the work, suggestive of rich inner calm, and also an interesting mix between hard, cool marble and soft, yielding skin (namely your own). This was one part of a two-part work, Reconsidering choice (2000), which continued outside in the sculpture park with a series of trees repeatedly shot by a pellet gun, so that the embedded pellets interrupted the natural bark with rough mini-fields: here the feeling was frantic, obsessive, and disturbed.

Miroslaw Balka, among the most acclaimed of a younger generation of Polish artists, presented a grave-like sculpture in Wanås’s renowned sculpture garden, which stretches way back into the forest. Near a pond, Balka’s pseudo-grave, made of polished black granite and open at the top, was filled with blue and yellow plastic balls—playful things that encouraged passing children to climb down into the enclosure (Play-pit, 2000). Understatedly fusing carefree youth and a sharp sense of mortality, Bal´ka’s oddly gorgeous work seemed simultaneously brooding and humorous. His piece was conceptually coupled with an interior work in the barn: looped paper chains, suspended between the walls, resembled party decorations for a child’s birthday, until you realized that they were made from obituaries clipped from local papers. Nearby Balka’s outdoor grave, at the edge of the pond itself, New York-based Swedish artist Ann-Sofi Sidén, otherwise known for her video and film projects, installed a crouching, anatomically precise statue of herself peeing into the grass (Fidiecommissum, 2000). Siden’s work freezes and immortalizes a surreptitious bodily act that would otherwise seem pure anathema in the stately, aristocratic grounds of Wanås, in the process upending a longstanding tradition in which similar figures are almost always male.

Janine Antoni, Naked, 2000. Tanned cowhide, view of work as installed at the Wanås Foundation.

The whole project of the Wanås Foundation at once fits in with and seriously disturbs these aristocratic grounds replete with exquisite palace, manicured lawns, farm buildings and former servants’ quarters, a pleasant pond, and an aura of a stately decorum that must be maintained. You’re always aware of just how unusual this project is: a vibrant and in some ways unruly “now” bursting from a place that seems distinctly beholden to “then,” namely the rhythms and mores of a provincial aristocracy that stretches way, way back into Sweden’s past. But, at the same time, Wanås continues a tradition of patronage in which local aristocrats commissioned artists for portraits and sculptures and updates it entirely, with an eye toward risk and experiment. This is patronage for a new era altogether, and Wanås is distinguished not for ordering desired works, but for its partnership with participating artists, which involves an almost total devotion to realizing their projects as they wish.

Olafur Eliasson, Yet Untitled, 1998/2000. View of backwards waterfall as installed at the Wanås Foundation.

Through its past shows, Wanås has acquired quite a collection of works, all situated in the sculpture park. One finds a long line of paired boulders by Richard Nonas; a slightly sloping concrete form by Jene Highstein, like a kind of low-to-the-ground plateau; a pair of seemingly totemic iron antlers attached to a freestanding construction in a field by Marina Abramovic, in precisely the place where you expect deer to be wandering and grazing; a remarkable thatched architectural construction by Martin Puryear; and a pyramidal form, sliced open at its center to form an entranceway, by Gunilla Bandolin. Included are quite a number of Swedish artists, but one of the strengths of Wanås, right from the beginning, has been its international focus; it is not a local sculpture park at all but an ambitiously international one that just happens to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere, in art world terms. As younger generation experimenters have been invited, the collection has expanded beyond its roots in Post-Minimalism to encompass all sorts of fresh approaches; this is an active, ever-changing place that is not beholden to any particular look or style. Among the more compelling of these past innovations is a series of artificial trees by Roxy Paine, tucked among the other trees in the sculpture garden, and one of Janet Cardiff’s coolly dazzling Walkman-accompanied “walks.” With a Walkman and headphones, you go for a stroll in the forest, all the while listening to Cardiff’s hypnotic voice telling stories, calling attention to things, speaking to you personally and intimately, as if she’s some inner companion lodged in the depths of your mind.

Paul Ramirez Jonas, Echo, 2000. Bells and electrical wire, view of site-specific work at the Wanås Foundation.

This current exhibition really added to the liberties being taken, for instance with Killoran’s skin-covered cars or a backwards waterfall by Berlin-based Icelander Olafur Eliasson (Yet Untitled, 1998/2000). On one section of a stream running through the park, Eliasson rigged a small system of pumps and plateaus that reversed the water and sent it jetting and spilling upstream and higher. Mixing artificiality and nature, technology and a lingering beauty, Eliasson’s can-do gadgetry functioned as a kind of practical miracle (think of Biblical stories in which the seas parted or the rivers ran backward) while still serving as a peaceful and meditative moment in nature—albeit one wholly engineered by the artist. New York-based Honduran Paul Ramirez Jonas accomplished something similar, but in an entirely different way. He devised a system of discretely installed bells heading out into the forest, which were electronically wired to the castle’s front door (Echo, 2000). When a visitor rang the bell there, other bells trailed off in a line deep into the forest. The effect was at once startling, whimsical, and sublime. This was just one of an ambitious suite of works, all involving sound, by Ramirez Jonas who’s known for his tinkering quasi-inventions that nevertheless have a real sculptural elegance. Elsewhere, an ensemble of homemade instruments (a drum, a whistle, a flag, a tambourine, a bicycle pump), electronically wired and set to a timer, intermittently burst into a kind of tragi-comic fanfare replete with all sorts of slight but fetching kinetic activity; it was at once vigorous (even ecstatic) and whoppingly forlorn. Out among the cows, a row of bells on a fence were fitted with salt chunks for licking. If played correctly by the cows (obviously an impossible feat), they’d yield a crisp version of “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

Monika Larsen Dennis, Reconsidering choice, 2000. Marble, view of work as installed at the Wanås Foundation.

This impressive exhibition also had a couple of low points, but then that’s how it is with the go-for-broke experimentation at Wanås. American Tony Oursler reprised his talking lamppost piece previously realized at the 1997 “Sculpture Projects in Münster” exhibition. An outdoor lamp blinked on and off, syncopated to a voice from a nearby loudspeaker endlessly intoning an annoyingly arty text about darkness and light (Poof!, 2000). Bafflingly, and in fact irritatingly, the voice was in American English, which completely undercut whatever magic and surprise the work should have had. Way, way out in Sweden, where people tend to speak, well, Swedish, you get instead English, and instead of a magical talking lamppost you’re reminded of loudmouthed tourists who pretty much assume that their language is the language of the world. In any event, Wanås seems to be at its best when artists don’t reprise past works, but instead use this odd opportunity to make works specifically for what is an extremely unorthodox situation. American Susan Weill’s highly expressive paintings on paper of bodies in motion, replete with a video detailing the artist’s process, seemed out of place, like a pent-up one-person show plunked down into a group show, and also had little to do with the context. American Robert Wilson, otherwise renowned for his theater projects, also reprised his broken floor piece for which he previously won the sculpture prize at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Here, a cracked mud floor in the barn (Edwin’s Last Day, 2000) was coupled with a sound installation (once again in English, spoken by the artist) emanating from eight loudspeakers in the wall. What you heard was a text, written by Rudy Burckhardt, concerning the last night and eventual suicide of Irish writer Edwin Denby. Out in the sculpture garden, Wilson also constructed an entire narrow house (A House for Edwin Denby, 2000), a bit like a fairytale cottage in the woods, with a spare, Shaker-like presence, which contained a single table with a chair and loudspeakers reciting the same text. Both works seemed very elaborate, costly, high maintenance, and theatrical (indeed overly theatrical) but curiously wan as artworks in and of themselves—more style and effect than substance. Still, throughout the exhibition there was more than enough to suggest that Wanås and the Wachtmeisters are really on to something with their eccentric, out-of-the-way enterprise.

Monika Larsen Dennis, Reconsidering choice, 2000. Marble, view of work as installed at the Wanås Foundation

Wanås, which started out as a kind of personal vision, has become a truly valuable place and is justifiably receiving increased international attention—which is remarkable when you think of just how remote it is. Not only is it a highly unusual forum for contemporary sculpture, it’s also a laboratory for artists and ideas, a fanciful place that allows for idiosyncratic projects to be realized that wouldn’t find much chance or support elsewhere, a place where artists are encouraged to push their ideas to an extreme, and ultimately, a one-of-a-kind forum that is radically reimagining what a sculpture park can be. Factor in the life that occurs there, with artists arriving, oftentimes long in advance of the show, to set about realizing their projects, the communion that develops, and the sense of shared adventure, and you get an idea of what is happening at this distant enterprise an hour or so outside of the southern city of Malmö.

Gregory Volk is a New York-based art critic and curator.