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ARCHITECTURE FOR CHANGE – UTOPIAN VISIONS IN MATS ERIKSSON'S IMAGERY
FOTO KVARTALS 2010

 

Artist Mats Eriksson was born 1967 in Malmö, Sweden, works and lives in Stockholm. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art, the Royal University College of Fine Arts in Stockholm and graduated at Malmö Art Academy. At the moment he is a PhD Candidate in Fine Arts at Malmö Art Academy, alongside working on new art projects.

The main part of Swedish artist and photographer Mats Eriksson’s work, explores architectural modernist ideas that are turned into realisations. This is apparent in his project about Chandigarh, the town in Northwest India, which was designed by Le Corbusier in the 1950’s and Mats work about architect Hassan Fathy’s housing project New Gurna in Egypt. These representations show a tension between the original ideas with hope of changing a whole society and the result, where the modernist projects appear as miscalculations. Looking through Mats Eriksson’s gaze, it becomes obvious that architecture in itself cannot change the life of people – it does not work as a utility for reformation. Instead it becomes integrated in a development that has already started to take place. Mats Eriksson’s images take a turn and give a sense of how the buildings function in reality and even though it is not according to the utopian visions - they are not failures.

 

Your latest solo exhibition in 2009 at Kristianstads Konsthall in Sweden, was called Winning a battle, losing the war and had a retrospective character, featuring your work from 2001-2008, showing images of different architectural projects that have emerged out of utopian ideas. In this exhibition, images from Chandigarh and New Gurna were put next to interiors from Swedish hospitals and government buildings portraying an aftermath of the “Swedish welfare state”. What is the connection between these three themes?

These series have successively followed from each other and the first one I did was about the Swedish welfare state. It shows the dismounting of the old welfare society during the 1990’s in Sweden in order to make room for something new. The focus differs from the India and Egypt projects, due to how the architecture is used. In the Swedish example, the architecture was already deserted before the arrival of the new in the early 2000’s, which left an empty space. These photographs shows deserted interiors and are almost aesthetically “framed” in the use of minimalist colourscheme these former institutions have. You could also say there is a connection and resemblance to minimalist painting in this photo series.
Out of this”Folkhem”* series, I became interested in the origin of Sweden, seen as an idea of the welfare state, which linked me to Le Corbusier. He had enormous influence over the results in the change of architecture of Sweden, as the Socialdemocratic party adopted the modernist style, favoured by Corbusier, as the way the new Folkhemet should be built. In so strong use of the style, we adopted the style into our own identity. Because Chandigarh was Corbusier´s only fully realised City plan, I was curious to see how it turned out and how successful it was, to use the modernist movement for India, then newly independent from the British rule. In many ways it was a success, partly because Le Courbusiers buildings are still used for their original purposes.

 

Chandigarh and New Gurna are both modernist experiments. What do you find interesting with the modernist project as it manifests itself in architecture?

Modernism was a part of the society that I grew up in. I lived in a new housing environment, which belonged to the welfare development project in Malmö. Later, I became interested in how it was possible to adapt modernism after different needs and how modernism as a style, was adopted by various countries and used after their purposes. Class is another aspect – In India classes play a big part in the societal structures and I wondered if it was possible to see this incorporated in the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier. Hassan Fathy in Egypt had a different vision that was partly critical to the western modernism and wanted to adapt modernism for a social context, that is building for the uneducated population in rural Egypt. This use of modernism is closer to our own Swedish way of using the modernist movement. I can see a resemblance here. Also Hassan Fathy wanted to integrate the modernist style but with integrating it with Islamic Egyptian traditions. Not to choose concrete as material, and not to built high-rises, but instead use local, old techniques as mud bricking and ventilation archs in the hot environment.

 

It may even possible to call Fathy’s project a form of national romantic kind of modernism?

In some ways, yes. In his way of looking back in time upon old, traditional aesthetics, to find an Islamic–modernist way for the rural development. I also see similarities between the Hassan Fathy project, “An Architecture for the Poor” and one of my later works about the city Jakriborg in Sweden, in their way of looking backwards in a nostalgic manner. Both of them are critical in how to use the modernist movement, but are being realized in two different ways. Jakriborg´s heritage is not from Sweden particular but from the Hansa cities around the Nord See.
The modernism use in Fathy’s case was intended for the low class population, while Le Corbusiers project was made mainly as a government city. The classes below the officials in Chandigarh had to adapt to this Indian pattern of living. The modernism did not change that system. In comparison, the modernism in Sweden was a tool for the socialdemocratic political ideas.

 

In contrast, the series Architecture as Provocation was also in the exhibition. It shows an example of New urbanism in Southern Sweden, which differs from the other projects mentioned above, both ideological and aesthetically. Jakriborg is a blooming town and everything seems to work according to the plan. Still, your images show deserted streets and there is a notion of sadness in them. How do you explain this and is there a critique in your images?

I think I wanted to investigate the city of Jakriborg as I was not sure exactly what to make of it. –What did Jakriborg represent? In some ways it was a Swedish version of the concept New urbanism. But what else could there be hidden? The concept was full of contradictions that I found fascinated. And it provoced the hierarchy within the Architectual field in Sweden. Mostly with its contrasting form – but bellow the surface you could see the heritage of Folkhem ideals. Relative cheap, rental apartments for not a specific target groups. I was fascinated of the contrast between what you expected and what it actually was.

 

In your images, people are frequently appearing as elements, equally valued as the architectural forms. What is the reason for this?

They are meant to have the same value as equals and not overshadow one another- instead seen as integrated with each other. In my work about the Swedish welfare, the buildings are deserted which differs from my other projects. In Chandigarh, people have adapted and are living their lives and the project is about the city as a whole. This means not only the architecture, but how the buildings are used and the way they are integrated in everyday life. It feels important to show how the people use the facilities and buildings. My work from India is split into two parts: one with images of just buildings and another with images featuring people and how they make use of their surroundings. Using people in the images can easily become picturesque elements. So, there’s always a balance needed. I want their participation as neutral as possible, without angling and therefore leaving more up to the viewer.

 

In a few exceptions, for instance a photo featuring a Mosque museum guard in New Gurna, a person is dominating the image, which really stands out in this series. What is special with this figure?

The Chief of the Mosque had a different appearance/meaning than the other figures that I came across in New Gurna. The Chief had double function of being both a surveiller of me as a visitor and as a guardian who wanted to make sure that I was safe. I found out this later but it was unspoken of at the time present. We don’t have a phenomenon like this in the Western world with this kind of unofficial control that is very physical. The people who live in New Gurna today are poor farm workers and when I took these images, everyone was working outside of the town. The only exceptions were a few women and children, so the only one who really confronted me was this man protecting the Mosque.

 

You have mentioned American conceptual artist Dan Graham’s photographic series Homes for America (1966-67) as an inspirational source. I find a similarity with Graham’s Homes for America and your Architecture as Provocation series. How much and in what way has this kind of art from the 1960’s influenced your work?

When I started out doing art, Dan Grahams early work meant a lot to me working with installations, spaces and the use of the camera. I specially related to his mirror pieces, his distanced gaze and how to use/participate in the gallery space. In his Homes for America serie, you can see a social awareness, and how these suburbs were represented in media, at the time. When starting out I made a photographic series about suburbs in Malmö and how they were being seen in the contemporary Sweden. I sold these images as postcards that normally exposed highlights of the city. I exhibited and sold these imiges as postcardsthat were exposed in normal postcard stands. Later in my work I also recognise similarities with Graham’s the earlier mentioned work Homes for America and my Architecture as Provocation, as as part of one alternative representation of Sweden today.

 

A few of your series of works have been published as books and accompanied by text; Architecture for the Poor- An experiment in Rural Egypt (2008), Indian Grammar- A Modernist Experiment in Postcolonial India (2005) and Architecture as Provocation (2003) with the images from Jakriborg. In what way is it important for you to frame your projects with theoretical text and reflecting essays?

These projects of mine were expanded so much that I wanted to complement the exhibition in some other way. I have always preferred artist books as a medium. The physicality and the time the reader can spend with the work. The form can be expand as your try-outs and also add another complexity in relation to exhibition-making, that I think has got another and more direct presence. This is my very subjective thoughts and comes from my practice.

 

Your series with images from Island, Into the Void, show man-made alterations to nature as well as nature transformed by lava. This project is completely different from many of your other projects, since its main objects are not buildings, but nature. What is the idea behind it?

I was interested in how not only architecture, but also how nature can be transformed by humans. The Island series is similar to my other projects about cities in that way. At the same time it raised questions about how nature itself created its environmental formations. This led me to investigate how humans used these kinds of environments for tourism. One of the images in “Into the Void” shows a group of people on one of these “glacier tours”. Our group on this tour became embodied by the spatiality of nature, which almost reminds me of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. How to loose oneself in nature, and also how far tourism have gone into the most startling places.

 

Will you continue exploring architecture as object for your art? What are you working on at the moment?

I have returned to Swedish architectural environments to look at the transformations which occurred during the 1960–1970's, when most of the cities were reshaped and complimented with newly built suburbs. I’m a bit curious about whom the architecture was meant for in the beginning and through the suburban structure early on was stigmatized and changed inhabitants and is today strict segregated areas, for the “other” population.

 

* Folkhemet, As Sweden was referred to during the Socialdemocratic party uninterrupted power during 1932-76. A political vision with a strong socialist agenda, see the well fare state.
** Funkis or Functionalism, is the word in use for the modernist movement in Sweden.

 

CHARLOTTA NORDSTRÖM
FOTO KVARTAL 04/2010 (LITHUANIAN PHOTO MAGAZINE)