Like in Byzantine icons,
the time of prayer
Like words suspended beyond the contingency of history, in the exhibition entitled Rest held at the Galleria San Fedele, the works by Swedish artist Mats Bergquist appear before our eyes like enigmatic, mysterious figures – as if capable, surrounded by silence, of delivering an arcane secret kept hidden since the dawn of time. The work titles themselves – such as Regular Iconostasis, 2009 (59 wooden elements, differing in size and painted with black encaustic) and Regular Iconostasis, 2017 (47 elements, 17 x 13 cm, white), scattered over the walls as if to give life to a contemporary iconostasis, or White Icon and Black Icon – are instant references to the Byzantine and Russian Orthodox worlds. What is their intended revelation, however?
In ancient sacred icons, artists moved from the wooden support – meticulously sanded and polished, with a linen cloth applied subsequently to contrast the panel’s movements, with a coat of gesso upon which the drawing is etched, with the gold-leaf background, with the application of colours obtained from mineral and vegetable pigments – to the definition of lines and outlines, and then on to the final heightening. A true existential and spiritual journey marking not only a temporal path of gestures, but a voyage of the soul that gradually recognises the revelation of the eternal in our world, as if the divine itself were surfacing from within the icon, bursting into the here and now of our history.
Recalling the same method, Mats Bergquist starts from wooden supports, obtaining volumes that resemble concave or convex surfaces by means of a long process of stratifying extra-thin layers of material. Therefore, creating the work takes time – and not merely from a chronological standpoint. It’s the time of prayer, of the desire to meet someone that we can count on, like monks waiting for the spirit to guide their gestures so as to give life to an image.
Thus, the physical texture of the work is obtained by a slow, progressive act of layering materials (glue, gesso, pigments, abrasives and encaustic painting on wood and then on canvas) until the object’s surface appears smooth and perfectly polished. The surface presents neither marks nor imitative or naturalistic forms. At a first glance, we’re faced with “empty” spaces. Is this the glory of an absence, the “emptiness” that is the source of everything?
The artist often produces rectangular sculptures, genuine icons ordered according to specific positions of which, however, we don’t know the rule – though we do recognise a perfect balance and deep harmony between the individual plastic elements, in a perpetual dialogue between dispersal and rejoining, approach and alienation. Like a flock of birds circling high in the sky, reminiscent of infinite and ever-changing shapes that expand and withdraw; like a ceaseless motion of systole and diastole, reminiscent of the cosmos’ own breathing. At times we recognise objects that reveal themselves in highly symbolic guises like the “daruma”, modelled with raku ceramics. Though deriving from ancient Japanese votive dolls, they resemble mysterious eggs, the symbol of life and rebirth, waiting to hatch, to open up to life. At other times, Bergquist draws inspiration from narrow and streamlined Viking ships, sculptures upon which he places ashes to remind us that death comes as the end for us all. The North European peoples transformed them into touching votive offerings to display in temples before setting them free along the river, on a voyage towards eternity. Or his sculpture Ladder, 2018 (encaustic painting on wood and pigment on iron), which references Jacob’s Ladder – ascended and descended by angels, it symbolises a connection between heaven and earth as told in the Book of Genesis. Lastly, the black-oak fragment of some vessel or other that spent about 300 years at the bottom of the Baltic Sea becomes a relic recalling the threshold upon which the Wandering Jew denied Christ a resting place.
In any case, whatever shape we find before our eyes, we sense poetic volumes pregnant with meaning, which appear to date back to a timeless dimension, all the way down to our present.
A meditation on light,
in a white/“black” dialectic
Bergquist’s entire body of work appears to revolve around light. By means of a sophisticated technique, light seems to be captured rather than painted – or, rather, affixed directly to the support, as if it were attracted by the surface only to radiate towards space. And this light radiation gives rise to the artist’s “white” works. In the beginning there is a wooden board, selected with great care. Then several layers of colours – about twenty, ranging from white to grey – are applied to the support, giving the impression that the board is gradually growing. Afterwards, as he abrades the surface, Bergquist goes in search of the original white – which however, has been contaminated by the superimposition of layers of colour according to a scale of greys. Thus the white monochrome emerges as if from an apparition, slowly and gradually coming to light. No longer the colour that was originally applied to the surface, it emerges as if from a cry of pain, so as to let light appear. There is no light without suffering. Thus, the abraded surface presents itself as a mute surface or, rather, as a Byzantine icon the lines of which have been effaced by the kisses of the countless faithful who, over time, have left only pale traces of the image, until the deepest veins stand out, reaching the support. This white is an apparition, a hierophany.
For works based on the colour black, the artist uses a pure pigment. Here his works draw inspiration from the encaustic Coptic Madonnas that survived the iconoclastic fury that broke out in the early centuries of the church in the Orthodox Mount Sinai Monastery; the faithful would caress them until they turned black, almost monochrome. Bergquist goes in search of total black, of an empty space. And so these black surfaces become threshold, boundary line, like in Bethlehem (129 x 90 cm), 2008, three paintings that symbolically recall the three Holy Doors leading to the birthplace of Jesus, which can only be crossed with bowed heads.
The white/black dialectic seems to be a reference to Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, whose aim was to create icons of his own time by drawing on the heart of Russian spirituality. When viewing the Swedish artist’s works, Black Square On a White Background, 1915, inevitably comes to mind. For the Russian artist, black and white were the two colours that expressed the height of all chromatic and spiritual tension. However, whilst in Malevich’s work the black square protected us from the blinding presence of the divine nature of the white square (so as to safeguard the vision of the entity), in Bergquist’s work, far from overlapping, black and white appear to recall one another in a constant dialogue, as if neither could live without the other.
And if Malevich saw black and white as relating to form and energy, in Bergquist’s works the two colours appear, instead, to touch on the dialectic of life and death – the one referring to the light that radiates from and spreads throughout the perfectly polished surfaces, the other to an empty space as it yearns to be filled with meaning. Thus, whilst black is a reference to the earth opening onto the divine, as if in a sort of waiting period, white turns into the very emanation of the divine, whose light becomes surface – just like in ancient Oriental icons.
At times these sculptures map out a path, like in the floor installation Path, 2015; at other times, we can make out prints similar to the traces we leave on the snow, like in the so-called “Kneelers”, conceived as white surfaces where angels just passed through, or like stools designed for angelic creatures. Because human experience as a whole is inhabited by a hope that navigates through pain, through a ceaseless desire to rise, even though we will inevitably fall again…
Truth be told, upon observing Bergquist’s “black” works more carefully, we notice that the colour used is not actually black; it’s a very dark and sombre purple which, according to the artist, gives off a greater feeling of emptiness. A hypnotising purple, whose dialectic with white seems to create a marvellous symphony spanned by even more intense and profound silences.
Lastly, in addition to his white and “purple” works, the artist showcases sky-blue “sculptures” obtained by means of precious materials such as turquoise or lapis lazuli. These works seem to be inhabited by a waiting period, by a promise, of their own. They appear in the guise of a rent in the sky or mantles of snow that are about to melt or have just melted. These surfaces become subtle chromatic variations; sensitive to light in movement, they give rise to stunning iridescent effects recalling the snowy expanses of Northern Europe and its cold, silent lights, disclosing metaphysical spaces. These works look like doors delivering hope from the hereafter.
Let’s remain silent, as if these surfaces disclosed the promise of a revelation, almost as if they were curtains, veils or screens of meditation on the point of unveiling the invisible. If light has been interpreted, in the Christian faith, as the presence of the divine who illuminates and transfigures all human experiences, then Bergquist’s monochromatic works open out onto a world of light. As we contemplate those “imageless images”, we let ourselves be enlightened by that transcendent, divine and absolute light, allowing it to shine meaning onto our innermost parts, ferrying us from our own reality to the afterworld, whichever it may be. The rest inherent in this contemplation can thus become prayer, listening to what lives in the deepest part of our history.
Dall’Asta Andrea SJContact me