What is behind Katarina Löfström's pictures?
Is there anything behind Katarina Löfström's pictures? When we look at her video projections, we see ‘abstract paintings' that move, we hear ‘electronic music' that coincides with the pictures, we experience ‘crystals of time' that condense something the author has gone through. Or do we? How can we know that these short movements, rarely longer than a movie trailer or a music video, are what they are supposed to be? Visuals meant to be shown in physical space, multimedia compositions made to meet the expectations of the art world. Artworks. An artist's work.
These films are art, that is quite obvious. They look, sound and feel like art, so we need not worry about classifying them as something ‘in between' art and whatever artists do when they don't do art (or when they are not acting as artists). We can save that discussion for another time. But the question remains: what is behind these pictures? Another way of asking would be: how can we interpret them?
First of all, can we speak of a ‘behind' in this case? Katarina Löfström's films are sometimes presented as live pictures that can be viewed from both sides of a semi-transparent projection screen, preferably in a generously proportioned exhibition space. Then we can walk around the screen and convince ourselves that there is no hidden agenda in her work, no mystical reverse, no dark unknown side. Surely, this must be a manifestation of a characteristic lucidity, an ‘internal' dimension in her work? Surely, this means that her films are completely transparent and self-commenting? That they are what they appear to be?
Well, yes and no. We could always say that these moving images with accompanying sound are tests put together by an author who is investigating ‘perception'; someone who is more interested in how her images will be received by and affect the viewer than in making statements (explicit or implicit) about her own self. But this hypothesis neither answers nor invalidates the question about interpretation. It only declares that interpretation is entirely within the domain of the viewer.
Funnily, this does not do much to empower either the viewer or the work. If we insist that Katarina Löfström's films are illustrations of what political and commercial image-makers call WYSIWYG (‘What You See Is What You Get'), we only cut off the link between the author and the work, and therefore also the link between the author and the viewer. And what is the value of her films in that case? How can they function as proof that some crucial action has taken place between these three actors?
Is that perhaps how we really understand ‘abstract' art, as something that signals itself once and then withdraws from the circulation of interpretation that presupposes an ‘organic' web of relations incorporating author, work and viewer? The abstract artwork, then, is little more than an object of consumption: useless and worthless as soon as it has fulfilled its mission to illustrate itself. Isn't it true that our museums are full of the discarded shells of images that once proudly insisted on harbouring nothing behind, beneath or beyond their own surface?
We could, however, also look at Katarina Löfström's films as screens put up between us and her, between our perception and her experience. Not in order to shield anything from our view but rather as a ‘filter' that adds something of the author's own self to the blurred, pixellated or crystalline vision it lets through. This hypothesis allows us to look at her films as illustrations of something that happens to her, either inside her or around her. It also allows us to regard the pictures and sounds she offers us as an internal aspect of her work, as part of the ‘behind' that we set out to discover. The screen does not stop the circulation between author, work and viewer. Quite the opposite, it is also an internal part of the viewer's reception of the projected image.
Does this mean that the screen is the work, the author is behind the screen and the viewer in front of it? That sounds a little too much like a simplified model of ‘communication'. This is art, remember, and art is very rarely as simple as that. What happens when we reject the description of Katarina Löfström's filmography as ‘abstract' is, rather, that we release it for interpretation, and interpretation is usually a complex affair. If we want to play with the words we have already used, we could call her works ‘test screens' or ‘screen tests' where the abstract and the figurative, the generic and the personal cohabit. Trying to tell them apart is the challenge and the charm of watching her screenings.
When we glance through Katarina Löfström's recent production, we are not surprised to notice that some films lean towards the abstract and take place ‘on the surface' (Hang Ten Sunset, 2000; Whiteout, 2001; Score, 2004), whereas others seem to ‘leak' a situation, an atmosphere or even a rudimentary story. Red Light, 2002, for instance, feels like a slightly distorted location shot from a street crossing somewhere in the overpopulated and congested world out there. The driving lights have been condensed into crystalline shapes, probably by some very basic manipulation of the video camera. Another deliberately low-tech subversion of pictorial abstraction, High Noon, 2003, captures the squared-down shapes of a sun-drenched beach (I think it was in Mexico), the horizon and people moving in and out of camera. Tower, 2004, could very well be the decorative traces of the cityscape at night as it looks when a video camera is left alone on the table of the rotating restaurant in Berlin's Fernsehturm and the footage is speeded up afterwards. All these filtered visions are overlaid with suitably soft soundtracks.
The other works, those that are not identifiable as altered clippings from real life, appear to be telling us more about themselves. When artificial visual and sound events fit each other seamlessly and play into each other's hands (Whiteout is a good example, and Pan A.M., 2002) we catch a glimpse of the controlling and creating agent behind the screen. The more computer-generated the films look (Score is a case in point, consisting of strangely growing and dripping black dots), the closer we get to where the real action is, or so it feels.
What we discover is, of course, not what is behind the pictures, but who. Katarina Löfström herself. This is not paradoxical. The most ‘abstract' films in her portfolio are, in fact, the ones she made ‘from scratch', where the images were created without direct input from a video camera. They reveal more of her strategy, her method, her thinking than the works that rely on a moment borrowed from the surrounding world.
The moodier films like An Island, 2004, with its flickering lights over an invisible but palpable body of water, speak more explicitly about a state of mind that was once Katarina's, and therefore become almost auto-biographical. But it is her plotless and silent movies, her ‘dumb' flicks where nothing really happens, that really capture us and open up to a behind, a beneath and a beyond. No regular interpretation is possible with them, but they speak to us of Katarina Löfström and indicate what her work could become in the future.