The Sky with Clouds Replaced by Meanings
In Olaf Osten’s Commuting 232 (p. 69), we see a road leading into infinity, towards the vast, densely blue sky. There are no clouds. They have been replaced by meanings. Over the years we have known each other, Olaf’s art and our working together have taken us along many similar long roads and to various destinations. Yes, these locations and cities are geographical terms, but they are also places where imagination has created its own topography; or places hidden in our memories, the memories of people who started their journey in one century and crossed over to the next; or maybe these are places and cities in which life simply happens, a life that sketches the silhouette of what we call ‘modernity’.
The city with the big harbour, where monster ships berth, arriving from across the world. This is where Olaf Osten opens his solo show. The sun is already setting and the rumble of the port cranes will not stop until morning, because here work follows a 24-hour rhythm. In the art gallery we see a large group of people drinking beer, immersed in lively conversation. On one of the walls hangs Commuting 219 (p. 79), a man’s shape dressed in an outfit typical for the world of business – dark trousers and a perfect white shirt. The man is standing on a seaborne platform. We do not know who he is, as all we can see are the legs and part of the torso. The industrial landscape filled with port cranes lies far away. It turns out that the people in this city call the ‘pretend man’ Keeper of the Port. There is much symbolism in the fact that a city chooses a businessman to be its keeper (rather than, for example, a mermaid, a god or a warrior), to shelter him in a special ‘temple’ in the winter, and bring him back in the water again in the spring. Here we see something resembling the Anthesteria of antiquity, the Dionysus festival where the citizens would take to the streets carrying a statue of the god. This work is indicative of the objects and events that attract the artist’s attention. He often uses seemingly ‘neutral’ plots to capture society’s vibrations which are characterised by a free market and the neoliberal laws of competition. But is it possible that what we innocently call capitalism has changed beyond recognition since the times of Karl Marx? Even the era of Thatcher and Reagan seems too distant now. Is it possible that the new hegemons – Google and Facebook – the arrival of Trump and the Yellow Vests protests in France are evidence that we are living in a new age? Aren’t we living in what Paul Mason termed an era of info-capitalism?1)
Very delicately, the artist poses serious questions, knowing that their answers are difficult, but conscious that we all are facing the challenge to find them.
The city with the cathedral with the golden domes and a rainbow in the sky, a rainbow that appeared after a summer downpour. Again a solo exhibition. We are in a large stone chamber. In one of its corners we see the remains of an ancient Roman house. In the hall’s twilight, the gallery lights illuminate only the exhibits, which seem to be floating in the space. In the middle there is a vitrine. Its glass covers Olaf Osten’s original notebooks, and the dramatic display is no coincidence: These small notebooks are crucial to his art. They have absorbed all the conceptual energy needed for turning them into monumental prints with striking dimensions. Olaf draws
in his notebooks every day – they resemble daily planners with geographic maps of the continents, months and years. He turns them over, and they become his private ‘theory of relativity’, in which space and time are separate. The years, months and days have fled their concreteness to become a backdrop for the spaces and objects that are essential to the artist. The borders on the geographic maps do not demarcate a specific political geography but rather provide the frame for a visual statement. A statement that hides the quiet revolution of the idea that the world consists of nothing but ourselves. The map of Europe has become a backdrop and a portion of the crown of a centuries-old tree (Area 001, p. 45) or has sunken into a sea populated by numerous boats (Commuting 131, p. 84, right). Europe appears also in the rectangular piece of sky seen above the backyard of a residential building (Commuting 192, p. 85, right). Here the names of the countries have been crossed out – as commentary on the ‘Europe – Our Common Home’ cliché in the times of Brexit, the rising nationalistic movements and the building of new walls, visible and invisible.
The city with the antique bathhouse, which today houses a contemporary art gallery. Here we are preparing a large joint exhibition which again deals with a wall and the generation whose life has been marked by its collapse – the Generation X, the generation of the 1980s and 1990s. During this period Olaf resided in the western part of a country that was brutally torn asunder by political division. This West which had already lived through its neoliberal economic apogee and consumer pathos but was facing the challenge to reunite with a very different East. At the very same time I belonged to that East which had been brought up on socialist propaganda and utopia instilled by a collapsing system. Together we were about to live through the era of sweet illusions, spawned by the birth of the Internet and of globalisation, only to find ourselves in the throes of a global financial crisis again and, today, before a Europe of separatism and nationalisms as mentioned earlier.
Commuting 159 (p. 86, left) is set in a space with a large dome on which an aperture offers a glimpse at the sky. In front of a telescope stands a mystical female shape which appears to be observing the limitless sky through the dome’s window. Behind her, multiple globe models are moving chaotically on the map of the Earth. What is it the woman is looking at? Is it the heavenly bodies, or is she simply absurdly looking for a formula to solve the changing circumstances of her own planet? This work carries some kind of fluid motion, which appears to correspond to Zygmunt Baumann’s well-known theory: ‘In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds, and any that we take up for a time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change – as they surely will in our liquid modern society, over and over again.’2)
The city with the skyscraping buildings, the city that never sleeps and is host to the entire world. Olaf and I are here, working on an exhibition that looks at art and technologies. It is a project that explores the idea that our time could be described as the ‘technological Middle Ages’ – a dystopian metaphor for swift technological advancement concurrent with compromised societies, a condition of scientific progress taking place during outdated social systems.
In his works for this show, Olaf monumentalises various casual and intimate moments, which he has recorded in a notebook, and reflects on the phenomenon of change of physical space in a digital environment. It further asks questions such as: What is the sense of time and space for two people residing on different continents when communicating through the Internet? What would happen if they had to meet physically?
They communicate willingly, relying on their digital experience. And to be able to meet again later, they would again rely on the technologies of flying. In these works the artist asks questions about what constitutes our ‘real’ nature and what our ‘digital’ one; and which one of these do we trust more. Just like Matt Haig put it: ‘Places don‘t matter to people any more. Places aren’t the point. People are only ever half present where they are these days. They always have at least one foot in the great digital nowhere.’3)
The city with the beautiful baroque palaces, where music and arts are held in high esteem. It is here that Olaf lives now, and it is for this city that he often creates the virtual identities for art’s important festivals.
Invariably, Olaf’s studio is pleasantly cool and filled with a deep silence that prompts either contemplation or conversation. This silence is somehow in contrast with the drum kit set up in one of the other rooms. I don’t know why, but I have always imagined that music is constantly present in this otherwise so quiet process of discrete pen-on-notebook drawing. I remember that I have always heard some music in the compositions laid out in gallery spaces. And maybe that is so because the concept of music is associated with the concept of harmony, and Olaf’s art seeks harmony – sometimes even in the all-too-frequent dissonance of our polyphonic world.
Boris Kostadinov, 2019
1) Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future, London 2015.
2) Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds, Cambridge 2003.
3) Matt Haig, How to Stop Time, Edinburgh 2017.