The title of wood painting, Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig’s first solo presentation in the Nordic countries, references Ingmar Bergman’s play Trämålning, a relatively little-known work from 1954. Written as a kind of prelude to the Swedish auteur’s cinematic masterpiece The Seventh Seal (1957), Bergman’s play likewise references an image, or rather, an impression made by a painting depicting «a medieval game in the shadow of the black plague… a number of people in a long, solemn dance toward death.»
Trämålning literally translates to ‘wood-painting’ in English – an example of the linguistic slippage that Zobernig frequently puts to use. Yet, in the context of his exhibition at Malmö Konsthall, it is better translated as ‘woodcut’, a traditional method of printmaking in which sections of a wooden block are removed to form a negative relief from which a positive print is made. Indeed, Zobernig’s exhibition is characterized by methods of reduction and removal; it too passes through its own negative image. As the exhibition’s struck-through title suggests, the stage-like sculptures comprising wood painting proceed theatrically in gestures of partial concealment, signifying not only the potential for exclusion, but also mistakes, and abrupt changes in direction.
Zobernig, who in the late 1970s received formal training in set-design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, has staged his installation around the walls remaining from the Konsthall’s previous exhibition by the American performance and video artist Joan Jonas. Laying the walls flat to create low sculptures resembling platforms, the artist has made minimal alterations to the space. In fact, the gallery is nearly unchanged, save for a number of square, modular stages and metal risers placed throughout. Atop these readymade structures lay black and white soft, fleecy blankets on which viewers are invited to sit, stand or lay. Not only do these blankets ironize the ubiquitous use of the grid as a compositional device in Modernist design and painting, but they also point toward the chess game at the center of Bergman’s film. But while Bergman’s crusader Antonius Block challenges Death to a game of chess as part of a crisis of faith, Zobernig’s ‘game’ appears motivated by a crisis of a different kind – the so-called ‘death of painting’.
The artist dramatizes this with support from Klas Anshelm’s iconic architecture, which is brought to the fore both in terms of its scale, and also in its function as a framing device. Under skylights and between white columns, a series of informal tableaux-vivants emerge as the sculptures’ participatory prompts intersect with mildly voyeuristic urges. Traditional painterly problems such as the figure/ground relationship are displaced by the structure of the exhibition itself, which acts as a matrix through which specific behaviors and events are produced.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this echoes what French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in The Savage Mind, described as one of the defining characteristics of games. In contrast to ritual acts such as funerals, which Lévi-Strauss claims create a sense of unity among members of a group, games generate distinction between those who know the rules and those who do not; between those who perform and those who do not. For Zobernig, it seems that there is no existential drama to play out during painting’s supposedly inexorable march toward death. There is no Truth to be found in wood painting. Instead, there is only its absence. As in Bergman’s film, the actors just keep moving.