Öyvind Fahlström and the manipulation of the reality like a game


The Swedish artist Öyvind Fahlström was defined by Pontus Hulten, the first director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, “citizen of the world” for his curiosity about reality and its phenomena [1]. Fahlström had an eclectic and surprising personality: during his short career he was a painter, poet, journalist and art critic, director, creator of happenings and composer for radio, operating between the United States and Europe. However, as always reminds Hulten, at his death, no one was able to recognize his genius. The versatility of Fahlström derives also from his biography: born in San Paolo in Brazil in 1928, the only son of a Norwegian-Swedish couple, he was raised by his uncles in Stockholm since 1939 and he lived in New York from 1961 until his death in 1976. For these reasons, its production is multifaceted: began as Surrealist, going through a Concretist phase, then during the American period he was influenced by Pop Art and Fluxus but without being part of each them clearly: his works are the manifestation of the desire to manipulate the reality through the artistic languages that he considered more congenial.

The young Fahlström grew up in Stockholm dissatisfied about the art scene of the Fifties, especially for the persistence of Surrealism in Sweden considered by himself obsolete. Therefore in 1953 it drew up its manifesto for Concrete poetry entitled Hätilä ragulpr på fåtskiliaben and he realized what the critics consider his first official work, Opera, exposed in Italy at Galleria Numero: that is also his debut abroad. The manifesto declares the bases and methodologies for a new poetic: due to the lack of a fertile cultural environment in Sweden, Fahlström affirms the need to take inspirations from music and from the life of everyday. Rhythm is the basis: every artistic product must be built on continuous composition and decompositions of small modules, because the rhythm is accompanied by the recognition of something already heard and then creates the aesthetic pleasure of reviewing family details. In the same way, the act of composition causes fun effects such as puns [2]. Opera is a visual proposal of these concepts: it’s a twelve meters frieze of abstract figures realized in black marker: if at first glance it may seems like a chaotic work, at a closer look it’s possible to recognize the same symbols replicated in continuous different compositions [3]. Furthermore, the choice of this format is not accidental: thought to be exhibited along three walls, it compels the viewer to take a physical movement for reading the work entirely and this create an involvement between art and reality.

1961 marks the break in Fahlström’s career because he moved to New York where he met a new fervent artistic environment thanks to the friendship with Robert Rauschenberg, who lived in the same building on Front Street [4]. Fahlström after an initial phase of enthusiasm for the American way of life, remained disappointed of the capitalist system and in particular he didn’t tolerate the American involvement in world conflicts. In 1963 he realizes the diptych variable The Cold War divided into two parts to represent the United States and the Soviet Union with movable elements made of vinyl and magnets, for creating an interaction with the viewers. The movable elements are basketballs, syringes, clothes and clippings from comic books and their movements create a new balance between the two political blocs. This interaction serves to raise awareness of the dynamics of the world through the expedient of the game, what Fahlström called “a game of character“. As stated in an article published in Art and Literature, the game is a dimension where everything is allowed and there are no rules: the viewer can safely play manipulating the outcome of the Cold War and once finished the gaming experience, he can back to daily life with greater awareness of the political dynamics [5]. To engage the public, Fahlström also made a series of works called Pool Paintings: water tanks in which are located floating figures that the public can move by blowing on it. These figures are carefully studied: the pool painting Pinball Machine (1967) is in fact a pinball machine where the obstacles are the portraits of some political figures such as Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Moshe Dayan and Charles de Gaulle [6]. Furthermore, each element present in the work has a specific color based on a political ideology: blue for the United States, purple for Europe, red for Communism and yellow-green for the countries of the Third World: this iconography will be used by Fahlström for all his subsequent works until the death because it allows the identification of the political ideas behind each element.


Öyvind Fahlström, Opera, pennarello a feltro su carta,120×27 cm, collezione privata. Da Öyvind Fahlström on the air, Jyväskylä, 1999, pp.23-24


Öyvind Fahlström, The Cold War, 1963-1965. Tempera e magneti su vinile, 244x152x2,5 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Parigi. Da Öyvind Fahlström: Another Space for Painting, Barcellona 2001, p. 173.


Öyvind Fahlström, The Little General- Pinpall Machine, 1967. Olio su carta, vinile e Plexiglass, 100x280x500 cm, Macba, Barcellona. Da Öyvind Fahlström: Another Space for Painting, Barcellona 2001, p. 211


Öyvind Fahlström, World Map, 1972. Inchiostro su vinile, 91×183 cm, archivio Kungliga Biblioteket Da Öyvind Fahlström: Another Space for Painting, Barcellona 2001, p. 258.

In the 70’s Fahlström realizes the series called Historical Painting, name taken from the title of an his article published in 1973: he wanted to profess himself as a witness of the historical events of his time and graphic works are the instruments to make information. In that article he also expressed its rejection to expose in museums, preferring to print his work as attachments for newspapers in order to reach as many readers as possible [7]. World Map is the most complex work of Fahlström (1972): a planisphere of 1972 where for each country are represented the salient events about violation of human rights. The borders of states are deliberately distorted: the US occupies a small space while Latin America, Africa and Indochina are the protagonists. Alongside the portraits of political figures, Fahlström inserts captions and accurate data: for example in Vietnam he reports the amount of ordnance used, the numbers of victims and the environmental effects caused by chemical weapons. Similarly, for Brazil and Venezuela he describes the profits of US corporates and the loss of local companies. It is interesting to note the attention that the artist shows for every country in the world and the care with which he sought news: even a small country such as Sri Lanka achieved in the work of Fahlström a space to make known the violence of police against the demonstrations of students.

Fahlström died of cancer in November 1976 remaining an unknown artist, considered a troublemaker at homeland because of his works against the Swedish policy. His refusal to exhibit in museums also left him off the attentions of the critics. Only in 2014 the Moderna Museet of Stockholm has dedicated an entire room to his works. However, his bequest is a large production still actual: a look at his work allows a deep knowledge of historical events still ignored in history books nowadays. The graphic aspect of his works and the expedient of the game experience create a clear vision of the reality but not for this reason less serious.

[1] P. Hùlten, Öyvind Fahlström, Citizen of the World in Öyvind Fahlström, New York, 1982, p. 106.
[2] Ö. Fahlström, Hippy papy bthuthdth thuthda bthuthdy in Literally speaking, Göteborg, 1993, p. 29.
[3] Rotnik, Biography in Öyvind Fahlström: Another space for painting, Barcellona, 2001, p. 331.
[4] B. Abrahmsson, Öyvind Fahlström as I remember him, Göteborg, 2002, p. 21.
[5] Ö. Fahlström, Manipulating the world in “Art and Literature”, n.3, 1964, p.220.
[6] http://www.macba.cat/en/the-little-general-pinball-machine-2792 Last visit 3 October 2016.
[7] Ö. Fahlström, Historical Painting in Öyvind Fahlström: Another Space for Painting, Barcellona, 2001, p. 262.

Giulia Ampollini

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