Monster versus alien:

Kindergarten Grotesque and the Alchemy of Architecture in Tor-Magnus Lundeby's Art

Owntown Lundeby City, code transformed into ornament, individual parts are torn from their universal context, the aesthetics are Byzantine, no, Constructivist, no, psychedelic, an echo of the 1960s plug-in city? - No, now it transforms again. The whole thing is magnificent yet causes instant amnesia. Although wholly organic, it is frighteningly aseptic - over-ripe, yet bright and bouncy. - Sounds fantastic, doesn't it? And it is.

Buildings - as those in Tor-Magnus Lundeby's city - appear to have a consciousness. Art has frequently made use of that aspect, and this consciousness is most distinctly present in horror movies, where anything from doors and windows to closets and cupboards in the house suddenly come to "lifeā€¯. But science fiction and experimental architecture also feature surprising artificial organs and prostheses that ultimately turn out to be the result of a consciousness. The intellect simply transforms matter into object, inorganic matter is transformed into a gigantic organ. In Owntown this organ happens to be a city. In Tor-Magnus Lundeby's paintings we encounter another kind of organisms. His colours and shapes, although it may sound fantastical, actually appear to dream and think. No matter how lifeless they may seem - the colours and shapes tend not only to penetrate one another but also to penetrate you, as you lean towards them. Ties are formed, the most disparate and the most heterogeneous press against one another to reveal countless connections. - But "as if that were not enough" a collector's demon hovers above Tor-Magnus Lundeby's enterprise.


We'll start with the collecting, because here we encounter the inorganic matter that Lundeby combines into gigantic organs. Demons habitually cause chaos and collapse, but with the collector's demon the case is the reverse: an ethos of systematic and stringent rules embraces everything about the demon. Lundeby's workroom conveys a poignant impression of the characteristic working method of the collector. In every collector there resides a veritable monomaniac. The collector is fired by one single idea: to create something that, for lack of a better word, could be called a universal measure. This measure is often guided by strict principles. But it only applies to the autonomous entity that the collector has created. The collector does something mechanical that dissolves life, a particular life, for the benefit of another life.


The works Downtown, Owntown and Very Owntown (2007-2009) consist of colour codes collected from the most disparate objects: sweet packets, milk cartons, cigarette boxes, etc. These codes have been systematically filed by Lundeby in separate pigeon-holes. The material is, thus, the result of a process that combines the arbitrariness of things with a greater plan. The end result is an "encyclopaedic city", where each life is a library, a product catalogue, represented here as colour codes that can be mixed and reorganised in countless ways. The overall impression is ambiguous: a pragmatist's utopia" a rewrite of the apocalypse.

The formula

In the cities Lundeby creates two things simultaneously: clashes and continuity. But, like the collector, he operates according to a formula rather than a plot. In a stamp collection, for instance, each element is valuable in itself, yet related to the others. It is this relationship, primarily, that interests us, because here a kinship is established, a temporary analogy where heterogeneous elements are captured in one and the same essential fabric. In many of Lundeby's works this fabric appears to hold a hidden meaning. A series of paintings translate central elements from music into painting. In other words, they could be seen to symbolise the conditions for musicians and music. However, I would like to object to that interpretation. The formula opposes the symbol and is first and foremost a performative act. Obviously, we cannot rule out that the autonomous parts that make up the heterogeneous totality of collecting tell their own stories. A stamp or, in Lundeby's case, a colour code or band, can conjure up a certain era, certain people and a certain place. But Lundeby's works are not concerned with that: they are, as mentioned, performative acts driven not so much by a desire to represent as by a tendency towards the absurd. If we want to compare Owntown to a real city, this relation can be found in the absurd fact that the contemporary city evolves in a situation where planning has conclusively died. Planning exists but it has no influence. Cities prosper and die unpredictably. The infrastructure is stretched beyond its capacity, it ages, rots, becomes obsolete. The population is doubled, trebled, quadrupled, suddenly - as the UFO in Owntown presages - it disappears.

So far, relatively little has been said about the absurd, for a simple reason: the work according to a certain formula is best described with a pragmatic vocabulary. Moreover, the focus has been on Owntown and its architecture - architecture that in some sense is the first prosthesis, the first instrumental application of intelligence to merge the world into objects by means of a primitive technique, to adapt it to the needs of life. The colour codes that Lundeby has collected are, in themselves, a skeleton or diagram, now forming enormous skeletons for buildings and other artificial organs. But whereas Lundeby's cities are a veritable pragmatist's utopia that operates according to the formula collect, erase, tabula rasa, restructure, "reconfigure"¯, his paintings require a more organic vocabulary.


In the counterpart to Downtown, "Skyline", a painting of a city, imagination runs off and generates phantasmagorical monsters. - When did time stop moving ahead, and start flowing in all directions?

Here, the viewer searches for an order from which he has been relentlessly excluded. The meaning of this searching is forever evasive, postponed or woven into enigmatic parables. The buildings present a violent, freely billowing, cheerful instinctive life in constant collision with reality. The earthlings have now installed themselves in a "kindergarten grotesque", to borrow an expression from the architect Rem Koolhaas. The city as a whole stands for a sort of architectonic alchemy, a striving to extract building material out of worthlessness. The city, in other words, is not necessarily another town than Owntown, because it is built according to the same formula albeit from a different material. But what is that material? Paint? Of course, that is what it is, undeniably, but what the work primarily plays on is our mind. And right now, total madness threatens this mind, as the buildings undergo one metamorphosis after another. Bastard begets bastard - and yet, the bastards always return to the world in the form of something useful: new abodes. Everything is recycled or multiplied like clones, form seeks function" like hermit crabs looking for a vacant shell. All the viewer can do is to continue on his way through the transitions of the world.


In the above, I have described Owntown as a gigantic organ. In Owntown we can still identify the organ as a city, but what would happen if other vectors were established? What would a city, or our design objects (artificial organs and prostheses), look like if they were based on process and intuition rather than on objects and practices? An intimation of this is found in Lundeby's paintings. Even the titles, e.g. Can Garden, Penthouse Escape Hatch, Refugee Camp and Rokerol Abduction, reveal to us two opposite movements. Flight, movement, and its opposite: the occasionally violent constituting of a defined, autonomous area, in the form of a garden, park or camp. His paintings can be interpreted in at least three different ways, where each interpretation concerns some form of autonomy. The first version: each building is a work and the power of this work lies in the unique individuality that generates it. The second version: the idea is present in matter: buildings such as Skyline or Penthouse Escape Hatch are simply on the verge of eschewing the metaphysics of representation and the "nature" on which they were founded. Let me linger on this latter image for a moment. When the buildings depart from the metaphysics of representation we end up in a zone of indetermination, where the old identities are dissolved, where the eternal dance of the atoms perpetually forms new figures and intensities. To quote Rem Koolhaas again, "There is no form, only proliferation" regurgitation is the new creativity: instead of creation we honour, cherish and embrace manipulationā€¦ā€¯ Rem Koolhaas is not an idealist; to him the only thing that exists is manipulation, or the former power of representation, where the power depended on the organising spirit's ability to breathe life into an amorphous foreign material. In Lundeby we encounter a related, but new, force that is captured where the spirit's organisation is dissolved, where its world falls apart, where the mind is blown into atoms that experience their unity with the atoms of matter. The small windows in Owntown can be interpreted in that way, as a unity between idea and matter, encrypted pixels: cryptopixels.


The contemporary intellect operates by binarising and digitalising. Lundeby's paintings combine this decomposition of life with the powers that bind together the real as complexity and intertwining. The end result is often absurd. Lundeby's mission slowly approaches something that is foreign to human culture. The reproduction of Antarctica (Tor-Magnus Lundeby, 2006) where the continent can be seen simultaneously as a) a mosaic effect produced by round pixels, and b) its topography, since the mosaic has been arranged in relief, is an example of this combination. The paintings deal with everything that lies between the objects and ourselves. Lundeby's map of seceding states and so-called micro-nations is the most distinct example of the same. Maps are also artificial organs, which, in turn, are the result of our not being able to cope in the abundant multitude of life if it were not for skeletons, codes or diagrams that could simplify it. But this reduction and division comes at a price, namely the failure of our scientific, representational and linguistic systems to acknowledge that which lies between the objects, the multiple links that cannot be utilised or encompassed by the objects but, on the contrary, make them possible. In the map, Lundeby has coordinated the world as it would appear if it operated according to another formula than the one that is currently acknowledged by today's nation states. The mosaic that we are accustomed to is supplanted by another complexity. As mentioned: the idea is manifested in matter; but despite this, the intellect finds it hard to grasp that within ourselves and within the objects which is fluid, boundless, un-numberable and beyond calculation. All this proves is that there are countless hidden margins, an unbroken organic process of adjustments, standardisations and behaviours - to reconstruct cause and effect will always be impossible.

Finally, a few words about the UFO that hovers above it all. Of course it has to be there! There has to be a way out... in Skyline the spaceship descends slowly on the city (or is it departing?). I have inserted Lundeby's art into an anthropological perspective. But we are evolving, of course, and the UFO is the embodiment of transformability. That which by nature is foreign to us. The UFO can represent a foreign life form that is observing us. It could also be humanity transformed, flying in an artificial organ that cannot be comprehended by us here and now. A life form that, like Lundeby, opens the city and the world like a body and bares its innards to the viewer. This is not a dissection, as in an analysis by an architecture theoretician, but a vivisection performed on the living tissue - his art - at the very moment it evolves. The resulting incomprehensibility is not something that is insufficiently understood but something that is foreign to comprehension. The time of the UFO is that of the echo, the potential for transformation, contact and freedom.

Tomas Ivan Träskman 2009