Art Forum, exhibition review, March 2005

Liutauras Psibilskis on Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena

Untitled, Brändström & Stene, Stockholm

Juan-Pedro Fabra has been exploring the image of the Swedish military since 2002--making photographs and films that investigate the representation of this hidden side of peaceful Sweden, a side unknown to the international marketplace of images. Fabra's new video, Untitled, 2004, presents a typical Scandinavian landscape, in which almost nothing seems to be happening except for the change of light as dusk falls and night approaches. There is something profoundly meditative about this straightforward view of the environment, as one is drawn into the slow rhythm of change. Is this how professional observers of nature develop their powers of perception? The camera is fixed in position, the image framed like a Romantic painting, with compositions and color settings straight out of Caspar David Friedrich. After looking at the stillness for some time, however, we begin to notice slight movements: We discern the figures of soldiers who have taken watchful, defensive positions in the landscape.

The work has a melancholy streak: These drowsy uniformed guys are displaced, and the activity they engage in appears to be symbolic and ultimately useless. Interestingly, in these pictures personifications of action are still and passive. The soldiers seem to have fused vigilance and the readiness to defend themselves against an enemy with the ongoing process of falling asleep. Their activities no longer seem reasoned but rather purely autonomic. The soldiers, stripped of the layers of cultural meaning usually associated with military aggression, become objects for our gaze. Or, perhaps better, they become images, just like any other shapes and colors that we see in front of us. They are part of the landscape.

Several related photographs were also shown. Annja, 2004, depicts soldiers whose faces are covered in camouflage makeup. It is striking how similar they all become, how completely their physical individuality is obliterated. In Fabra's earlier videos, soldiers were seen going through their motions almost like insects that use masking techniques to prepare for a sneak attack on their object of desire. For instance, in True Colours, 2002, shown in the "Dreams and Conflicts" section of the 2003 Venice Biennale, soldiers line up on the edge of a cliff, so typical of the Swedish archipelago, and endlessly repeat their actions: standing up, pointing their guns at an invisible enemy somewhere far beyond the horizon, lowering their guns again. Looped, this display of readiness became a representation of a ritual of intimidation stuck in its own repetitiveness, never culminating in any shooting. It is the obvious absence of any particular enemy in all of Fabra's work that creates such palpable displacement. The focused energy of aggression remains unreleased, hinting at the ever-present necessity of producing an adversarial object that could legitimize the structures and rituals of waging war. And yet in his new work, it is no longer clear if mimicry serves to protect the soldiers from enemies or if it expresses an impulse to become inseparable from the environment and disappear into it.

 

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