For the last seven years, the Norwegian artist Vibeke Bärbel Slyngstad has worked on an extensive series of paintings entitled Modern Classics. The project attracted great attention when it was included in Elmgreen & Dragset’s exhibition concept The Collectors for the Nordic and Danish pavilions at the Venice Biennale in 2009.
The Modern Classics series is characterized by a number of modernist architecture’s key elements: large clean concrete surfaces, bright rooms and strategically planned minimalist furnishings. Slyngstad adds characters to the environments that occupy the depicted spaces exuding varying degrees of relaxation and human warmth. A well-dressed man lies on the floor, his body language and position are ambiguous, and half of his head is hidden by the left edge of the picture. In another image, a person wheels round suddenly in a deserted corridor, staring at his own shadow.
Buildings contain a different people’s fates, and the knowledge of this can open up for stories and questions relating to different issues, from the purely architectural, to the psychological and socially investigative. Slyngstad’s images seem to have grown out of an ambivalence that exists between these starting points – a position between narrative and non-narrative, or between language as a bearer of meaning or as a grammatical structure. The Modern Classics series resemble compositional statements with an almost cinematic impact, but the stories have been split into pieces, in which any hint of a logical development or social structure is faced with its antithesis in the form of unresolved situations and irrational relationships between people and buildings.
When Slyngstad brings together modernist architecture with the doubtful and distanced cast of characters in her images, she highlights tensions and contradictions at various levels – from the poetic to the mundane. Slyngstad’s new works depict, among other things, the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn’s famous pavilion for the Venice Biennale. These paintings were put on display in those very rooms at the Biennale in 2009, as self-referential ”images of images”. Through the artist’s focus on references to modernist architecture, the viewer is confronted with the classic contrast between the rational enlightenment project and people’s attraction to the mythical and the mysterious, and not least their ability to dream.
Arve Rød, December 2009