Three Eagles

Three eagles, three emblems, three nation-states – thus begins the puzzle-like tale that is played out in Johan Furåker’s exhibition The Culture of Fear. Three key paintings, which we see first, depict three symbols of state, permitting the striking resemblances between them to be revealed. This story has its beginnings in the first eagle, which was part of the emblem of the Roman Empire bearing the inscription SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and the People of Rome). The second eagle with a wreath and swastika in its talons serves as Nazi Germany’s national coat of arms 1933-1945. The third eagle, a version of the seal of the USA, holds arrows in its left talon and an olive branch in the right, symbolizing war and peace. What is subsequently played out in the exhibition is a tour through the dark forces that form part of the logic of war and of the aesthetic of power.

On three shelves stand miniature pictures, repeated and a little wedged in, rather like the way we are used to seeing family photographs displayed on a bookshelf. The three eagles stand among what at first can be seen as blatant borrowings from popular culture, art history and news photographs that have been transmitted round the world, forming the diabolical triangle that binds the work together. Tom Cruise, pop art, King Kong, Roman soldiers, Abu Ghraib, Nazism, the Vietnam War and Goya have all been brought together in a kind of image archive, with a common logic, in the triptych The Arms Race and the Lucifer Effect. The pictures re-awaken dark emotional conflicts. How are we to understand this provocative collage of what may seem to be the history of cruelty – can we sense a kinship between horrific events without paying attention to the specific circumstances, and can we really place one event on an equal footing with another? Perhaps we should first linger for a moment on the title of the work before going further.

In 1971, a controversial social-psychological experiment was carried out at Stanford University. It was led by the American professor of psychology Philip Zimbardo and financed by the US Navy. The aim of the experiment was to study how people behave in captivity, how social roles affect behaviour, and whether ordinary people are liable to commit cruel, wicked acts. A group of students were chosen at random to be either prisoners or prison guards in a temporary prison set up in the university’s cellar, but the experiment quickly got out of hand, and came to an abrupt end when it turned out that the participants adapted far too quickly to their allotted roles and began to commit and to accept assaults on each other. A little over forty years later, Zimbardo publishes The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (2007), in which he draws parallels between this experiment and the gross acts of cruelty in Abu Ghraib prison, where American prison guards tortured and degraded the captives. The concept of the Lucifer effect has subsequently been used to explain the phenomenon that ordinary, apparently well-adjusted people can, in a short time, be turned into cruel, wicked beings, and to point to the double standard that follows on from dividing people up into “us” and “them”, two words that continue to justify countless atrocities, war and genocide.

What, then, is the significance of meticulously copying the images mentioned above? Going back to the works in the exhibition, we can notice that Johan Furåker adopts a detached, restrained stance, his paintings do not boil with overwhelming emotions. Nevertheless, they manage to stir up an abyss of detestation, fear and inconsolable grief. What he produces is a collection of pictures that are charged with menace and violence, and each individual picture now seems, in its new context, to exude existential problems related to evil and to what can make a human being act in so totally inexcusable a way. Slowly, an uncanny, ambiguous atmosphere spreads, like a political thriller that is being played out right before our eyes.

The now enlarging picture from Abu Ghraib is set against the gymnastic exercises in the cheerleader pyramid, whose ideal of health is given an absurd twist. There are many of us who grew up with an idol image of Tom Cruise on the wall as the squeaky-clean hero of the action film Top Gun – unaware, we should perhaps add, that this same flight training programme was set up to remedy the US Air Force’s considerable losses after abortive operations in North Vietnam. A war that, incidentally, gave us the chemical weapons Agent Pink and Agent Orange, wittily named after the colour marking on the containers, and responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people and for mutating and maiming several future generations. Furåker elects to paint these names in Gothic type, a typeface that, after Hitler’s seizure of power, took on political significance as an expression of the “distinctive character” of the German nation, and was thus energetically promoted by the state. Another symbol that has been used persistently in the staging of war is the Ace of Spades, also known as the “death card”. During the second world war, American soldiers painted it on their helmets to bring luck; during the Vietnam War, Ace of Spades cards were left as visiting cards on the bodies of dead Vietnamese; and, now most recently during the Iraq invasion, the American army made special packs bearing pictures of Iraqi officers so that troops would be able to recognise them – the Ace of Spades was Saddam Hussein. A brutal seriousness breaks through the various references, revealing an abyss of night-black reality. That reality outdoes fiction is an enormously cynical comment at this point, but is it not precisely the image of an enormously cynical world that pushes its way to the fore between Johan Furåker’s paintings?

Like Dick Bengtsson, Johan Furåker borrows his subjects from encyclopaedias, the media, art and popular culture, but while the former used a small, brutal addition (a swastika) to distort his pictures into ghostly, disturbing compositions, Furåker causes the distortion to occur more between the pictures – in the associations that interweave them together, in what is said between the words. He allows an uncomfortable cross-fertilization to emerge between the images, showing a death machine without boundaries of place or time, something that comes across clearly in the suite of pictures set around Trajan’s Column in Rome, which was to illustrate the successful, albeit ruthless, campaign against the Dacians. At its height the Roman Empire encompassed a quarter of the Earth’s then population. It was an empire run wild, with some hard-to-defend borders, and with an increasingly demanding administrative system that threatened to economically crush the provinces, the sheer size of the Roman Empire ultimately also became its downfall. Propagandist victory monuments like Trajan’s Column have, nevertheless, continued to be built throughout the ages. To manifest their victories is to justify their wars, when the winners write the history. A global military intervention that promotes the weapons industry and trade agreements, political and economic interests, goes together with a logic of power that is justified in the name of “stability”. By exporting military expertise and subsidized weapons, the western world’s interests can be maintained in the conflict regions where the strategy of terror has as its sole objective to silence, subdue and sustain the status quo of injustices. And, as long as this does not happen on our own home ground, it is easy to forget, and to close our eyes to what is happening.

Johan Furåker’s suite of pictures is thus not an art that attempts to see creative possibilities in a time of turbulence and uncertainty. It does not want to tell us something that we did not already know, but on the contrary, it wants to get us to see the connections and to remind us of how things actually are. In his sequences of pictures the memory of a destructive past emerges as an all too relevant current issue. And he refuses to allow us to close our eyes to that.

Elena Tzotzi
Independent curator and art critic. Works at Signal, Malmö, Sweden.