Vanitas or The Imaginary Control

Text: Joakim Borda, curator

It is tempting to regard Art’s recurrent interest in the symbols of death as interpretations of a particular spirit of the times that runs throughout history and seems closely connected to social and economic circumstances. The 17th century – with a collected production of art, which in retrospect appears to be a perpetual memento mori – saw dramatic financial and societal disruption in Western culture as a result of war and colonialism.
Today we face a similar situation. The tendency to explore classical symbols of vanitas has dominated much of contemporary art in the sudden turn from inflated boom to international recession. Yet to view art’s fascination of death as merely an expression of a prevailing sense of doom is simplification, because – as writes Roland Barthes in his reading of Tacit’s Annals – to die is to perceive life

Caroline Mårtensson has chosen to call her exhibition at Nordin Gallery Vanitas eller den imaginära kontrollen (Vanitas or The Imaginary Control), which in part points to how these new works should be understood. The works Vanitas I and II does indeed allude to the art historical vanitas still lives of flower arrangements, with a sumptuous display of Begonias filling up the picture plane.
However, where the classic Dutch flower still life contents itself with simply implying pending decay through allegory, Mårtensson’s vanitas are brutally straightforward. The huge pile of Begonias is decomposing, blended with earth, and in the foreground the tracks of the truck that dumped them are still visible in the heap of compost. For Mårtensson the vanitas motif is less about reminding of death, than pointing to the pivotal role of deterioration in contemporary consumer culture. This is particularly obvious in Vanitas III, which showing Begonias in bloom, with death (the heap of compost) lurking in the background, forms a sort of synthesis of the previous images.
Begonias are mass-produced in high tempo, to be distributed in vast amounts as cheap home decor. This is accomplished by a combination of fertilisers, greenhouses and running mill effectiveness. Such an industrial and unnatural method of producing potted plants unavoidably empty the symbolic connotations that make up their existence as consumer items, mainly ideas about homeliness, unique beauty and what is natural.

For Caroline Mårtensson, the paradox of the symbolic value of the begonia and its origins is crucial. There are strong parallels between the Vanitas exhibition and previous works such as The Daily Radio News at Quarter to five (2004) or Canis Lupus Familiaris (2007), where seemingly mundane objects at closer examination appear unnatural and repulsive.
In her works, Caroline Mårtensson often moves in the field between the intimate and the revolting, between pleasant and menacing. Through out it our relationship with nature is revealed as imbued by exploitation, chauvinism and self-deception.
The exhibition Vanitas or the Imaginary Control departs from a personal experience. In Caroline Martens son’s childhood the family business was in fact a greenhouse production that moved from the growth of comestibles to decorative potted plants, such as Begonia flowers. In light of this, a painful experience emerges from the rejected flowers of Vanitas I, victims of failed demand illustrating how nature, as much as cars or plastic bags, is an industrial product whose cultural and economic value match.

The main work of the exhibition, Ground Control, dramatise the feeling of despair over a collapsed relationship with nature, by staging flower production as a burden of Sisyphus. In Ground Control, the production line is perpetual and, in its mechanical pace, shakes ideas of originality, quality and what constitutes natural or crafted.

Yet while the exhibition is notably narrative in its account of mass-production of domestic homeyness, it has symbolic aspects that invite reflections of a rather more personal kind. Caroline Mårtensson consciously plays with feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality, often with a touch of mild irony, making us question the commonplace and familiar.
This is drawn to its conclusion in the work Våglängd (Wavelength), which consists of a number of radios set on the same volume, but on different frequencies. Music radio, you could argue, is the soundtrack of our lives, at work and in public spaces. But when the sound in Våglängd shift from harmony to cacophony, depending on what the different stations transmits, we are forced to acknowledge something we would otherwise take for granted. Caroline Mårtenson does not allow us to rely on anything.