We Are All Children of God...
Photo: Dinka Pignon
|Leif Elggren and Kent Tankred have worked in the arts for over 30 years. In 1988 they formed the duo The Sons of God (Guds Söner), a constellation that moves freely between performance, music, and the visual arts, and whose productions often reach a point where traditional aesthetic boundaries, limitations and concepts are eliminated. The Sons of God observe and document, experiment and ask questions, build up and tear down. They leave it to the viewer to take what he/she wants. Or simply leave.
An information flyer about The Sons of God describes their art thus:
"The Sons of God work in the borderland between performance, installation and music; everything contributes to the whole and provides the basic structure for that inquisitive and expansive spirit which is apparent in The Sons of God's working method. Sound objects, pre-recorded compositions, physically demanding movements, the voice, the staged meetings and conditions, the objects: all of this constitutes the foundation for an attempt to achieve those obscure moments where daily life unites itself with the heroic nature of our inner lives."
Expeditions in Performance Art
Leif Elggren's artistic career began in the field of drawing and graphic arts in the mid-seventies. His first publication came in 1976 with the book Nervsystem (Nervous System) which consisted of drawings in combination with poems by the Swedish poet Eric Fylkeson. At the end of the 1970s, Elggren began working with performance art, and at this time he also met Thomas Liljenberg, with whom he initiated the work-in-progress Firework project and the artist´s books publishing company Firework Edition, which has since published over 100 books and other printed media.
At about the same time he also started working with Carl Michael von Hausswolff. After organizing an international performance festival in Stockholm together, called 20 Live Projects, Elggren and von Hausswolff created the now-classic performance piece Vavd/Trans/Aktion (1981). CM von Hausswolff was lying in an aquarium filled with cold water and Leif Elggren dragged himself along a line across the floor, back and forth 63 times, writing a word on a blackboard each time he reached the wall. Kent Tankred was sitting in the audience fascinated; he had never seen anything like it before.
The same year, Leif Elggren and Thomas Liljenberg performed another piece, Firework Fas 1:6. In this piece, the two, along with Per Jonsson, Iréne Hultman, CM von Hausswolff and Inger Arvidsson, were together in a room where they moved slowly, but so slowly that someone sitting in the audience during the entire performance could hardly notice the difference. Katrin von Rettig was also in the room, where she performed certain acts with water buckets, among other things.
In a later performance that year, called 10 dagar - En expedition (10 days-An Expedition), Leif Elggren locked himself in a room and viewers could only see him through a hole in the wall. With only the most essential possessions with him, Elggren lived in the room for 10 days of "fasting, silence, vigil, privation, seclusion, tranquility, perseverance, purification, concentration, construction and artistic consistency". Every morning he put on black lipstick and kissed a slip of paper until his lips no longer made any impression on the paper.
In 1985, Leif Elggren and Kent Tankred began collaborating, and together with Per Jonsson, they performed the piece UGN - ett arbetspass (OVEN-a work shift), which included an old military kitchen and 27 white "angels". Exactly when Kent's artistic career began is uncertain. He had been actively painting and doing experimental music for a number of years under the auspices of Fylkingen. He was also the originator of the Konkresizer, which has become somewhat of a concept at Fylkingen. The Konkresizer is an analogue keyboard instrument that differs from the synthesizer in that it allows you to see how the sounds come about and what makes the sounds. The following year, 1986, Leif Elggren, Kent Tankred and Per Jonsson released a one-sided LP - a sound documentation of UGN - on CM von Hausswolff's label Radium 226.05 based in Gothenburg.
In 1988, Leif and Kent christened their duo The Sons of God. Since then, the two have presented over 100 performances all over the world along with much more, such as records, exhibitions, printed media etc. Among their performances, Mission, Guds Söner möblerar om (The Sons of God Refurnish) and Guds Söner kör stolar (The Sons of God Drive Chairs) could be mentioned. In Mission from 1990 The Sons of God dragged a large object, one so heavy that it was almost impossible to move, across the stage for four hours. Later in the piece, Kent collapsed whereupon Leif dragged him across the floor into a beam of light which fell from the ceiling, like a pietá. In Guds Söner möblerar om from 1995, The Sons moved around in an everyday home milieu with diverse cupboards, tables, and chairs, later picking up two axes and violently massacring all the furnishings.
Their Own Kingdom
On March 14, 1992 a new realm was created by Leif Elggren and CM von Hausswolff: The Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland (KREV). The constitution of KREV tells: "Effective the 14th of March 1992, we are annexing and occupying the following territories: i - All border frontier areas between all countries on earth, and all areas (up to a width of 10 nautical miles) existing outside all countries' territorial waters. We designate these territories our physical territory. ii - Mental and perceptive territories such as: the Hypnagogue State (civil), the Escapistic Territory (civil) and the Virtual Room (digital)."
These territories constitute The Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland where Leif I and Michael I are kings. The Kingdoms have since established embassies in art galleries all over the world; there are at present embassies in 14 countries. A national anthem was also chosen for KREV, which has been released on CD on Ash International. The melody is an old Swedish march, but the tempo is considerably slower in this version. All the citizens of KREV have the right to compose their own version of the national anthem. Some of these versions have also been released on record, among others one made by John Duncan.
In 1997 Leif Elggren and Thomas Liljenberg launched a project called Experiment with Dreams where they wrote letters to different famous celebrities and powerful people. For example, they accused William Gibson of having stolen the whole novel Neuromancer from a dream Leif and Thomas had several decades ago, and demanded royalties for the book sales. They also wrote to Cindy Crawford and told her that they made her pregnant a number of years ago and that the child is in Sweden and would really like to see his mother. In 1999 Leif and Thomas released the book The Answers, containing answers on the letters that they wrote, for example from Cindy Crawford who told them that their intercourse was the best she had ever had and that she wanted them to send the child to her
Leif Elggren released the CD Talking to a Dead Queen on Fylkingen Records in 1996. Here he made use of several copper pipes which emitted low frequency sound. By positioning himself between the pipes and the speaker, he could regulate the course of the sound. The idea comes from Napoleon, who wrote in his diary that he had several visions of copper pipes hanging over his bed and that emitted a humming sound. When he heard that sound he believed he was in contact with people from the past like Caesar and Charlemagne, who gave him advice about military operations. On this CD, Elggren tries to contact Queen Kristina as well as his aunt who was being buried the same day he was making the recording.
Later that year, 1996, Leif Elggren and Kent Tankred started their own record label, Firework Edition Records, which has since produced a number of records with sound documentations of their performances as well as records with a lot of other sound artists and experimental composers.
In 1998, Kent Tankred released the solo CD A Revelation on Firework Edition Records. The starting point for A Revelation is the extensive work that Kent has devoted to The Book of Revelations. Using a program on an Atari 1040 computer, he has allowed the text to be reworked into graphic symbols that together create a checkered pattern. The pattern has in turn become a sort of musical score for the aural material on the CD. The Book of Revelations is said to contain many different hidden messages that can only be found through interpretations of different symbols, and by reworking the text, Kent tries to come into contact with these hidden messages. Tankred took on the text from many different directions to reach the messages-he let a computer read the text and used the recording as aural material, he transformed the text into midi information that was used to steer different synthesizers and effect boxes, he digitalized illustrations for The Book of Revelations by among others Albrecht Dürer and transformed these pictures again into audible material in the computer.
The same year, 1998, Leif Elggren and Kent Tankred in collaboration with the then-head of EMS (Institue of Electroacoustic Music in Sweden) Ulf Stenberg organized a large international sound art exhibition with the name All Ears. 12 sound artists from around the world were invited to present aural installations at the Färgfabriken in Stockholm. The exhibition included among other things works by Scott Anderson, an ex-pilot from Seattle who gave up flying after questioning more and more humanity's yearning to be able to fly, instead throwing himself into artistic work. Another participant was Malcolm Tambo from Johannesburg, South Africa, who was among other things active in the fight against apartheid and set music to the art of Francis Bacon because he felt that Bacon´s art is "a clinical description of the physical and psychic deformations visited on man by the apartheid system."
The exhibition took place in connection with "Stockholm-The Cultural Capital of Europe 1998", which had sponsored the exhibit. After the opening, an odd rumour was spread in many of the leading Swedish dailies that all of the participating artists were fictional. According to this rumour, the presenters of the exhibition had made all of the artworks themselves. The exhibition was described by leading journalists as an "art bluff". Elggren, Tankred, and Stenberg, however, refuted the charges. The truth of this rumour, that the participating artists were made up, is still in doubt today.
Can Sound be Virulent?
In 2002, Leif Elggren released the CD Virulent Images Virulent Sound on Firework Edition Records. The CD is based on discoveries by researchers at the NASA Medical Research Laboratories in which they have found evidence that viral infections such as cancer, AIDS, Ebola, etc., can be spread by visual media and methods. According to this theory, a person who looked at a picture of for example the Ebola virus might be just as much at risk of being infected as one who had come into direct physical contact with the disease. In the text of the CD booklet, Elggren speculates on what this discovery could lead to if this method of spreading viruses via pictures came into the hands of terrorist groups or madmen, and the unfathomable consequences that could follow. At the same time, he states that "as an artist, it is slightly giddying to think of the possibilities of using the two-dimensional image to influence and interact in a way one would earlier only have dreamt of while suffering the deepest and most frustrated doubts about one´s role and task."
The booklet for the CD also shows pictures of different sorts of viruses, and the CD presents aural material based on "micro-recordings of eight different samples of highly potent viruses: HIV, Rabies, Influenza A, Lassa, Mumps, Ebola, Sin, Nombre and Smallpox". These recordings, according to the CD text, were made "in a government medical laboratory in Tripoli, Libya, and (have) been brought to Sweden on minidisc by a courier in January 2002." Elggren asks the question: "If images can be virulent, can sound be virulent too?" A warning label on the cover also states that Firework Edition Records takes no responsibility for any diseases that may occur as a result of this CD.
Heaven and Hell
In 2006, The Sons of God put on the exhibition/performance Reception at Färgfabriken in Stockholm. The piece had been done on a somewhat smaller scale twice earlier, at the Norrköping Art Museum in 1996 and at Karlsborg Castle in 2000. However, the work reached its peak at Färgfabriken, where The Sons had set up 32 sounding sheets of iron, instead of the 8 that had been used for the earlier performances, in long lines in the large exhibition hall. Each sheet was mounted over a speaker, and a contact microphone that was connected to an amplifier was placed above each sheet. The amplifier was connected in turn to the speaker under the sheet, forming an individual feedback around each sheet in the form of a low-frequency sound that could be changed and manipulated by The Sons during the installation. Taken together, the sheets of iron formed a massive choir that sang in the large hall.
The point of departure for Reception was Emanuel Swedenborg's great work Heaven and Hell, and according to The Sons of God, the production was under its explicit direction. Swedenborg's work Heaven and Hell is about life after death, and according to the program notes, The Sons of God aimed to "bridge death" and "during a limited period of time and in a closed space create the prerequisites for a miracle" with their performance. During the period of the exhibition, The Sons of God completed a series of live performances together with different invited guests. Those invited included both living persons, who performed different types of active live appearances, but also dead persons who through the efforts of The Sons of God were called back to earthly life to take part in the performances.
The program notes say: "In one of the leading roles we see (also) Jesus Christ. Not to mention God and all the saints and prophets in the world. And Pope John Paul II, he sings and blesses all who take part. And all the politicians and world leaders who have sent so many to their deaths for the sake of their own profit, they also take part, they dance and smile. But also all those who have died and been killed, yes everyone who has ever been a part of the play that we call This Earthly Life are here. Both people and animals. All who have lived and suffered. All these nameless extras during the course of history. They take part. They form the choir that serves as the background radiation for this earthly hell (or paradise, if you prefer)."
Text: Daniel Rozenhall
An interview with The Sons of God by Daniel Rozenhall(DR)
DR: The production of The Sons of God is characterized by certain themes and perspectives; among them are religion, spiritism, manual work and militarism. What is the significance of these themes?
Leif: With the help of these themes we try to find our way to a situation or condition which can be likened to a miracle. We are looking for a point where all aspects we work with converge and something extraordinary happens.
Kent: We bring together these aspects of basic human behaviour until we get to a point where everything transcends into something different.
Leif: We often work with physicality in order to put ourselves in a position where it is possible to reach this point. Our preparations are perhaps not discernible to the audience; we might have been up all night and kept watch, or physically exerted ourselves through manual labour. This makes it possible to relate to our artistic work and open up situations we otherwise could not gain access to. This way, we also avoid given aesthetic gestures which could lead us into a predetermined course of action. Sometimes we have had things like stones in our shoes to divert our attention and prevent us from creating a conscious aesthetic. This way, things can take place outside of our conscious control and we can be more "authentic".
Kent: We try to be authentic, or rather, we try to be what we do and not simply act things out. When we create a space, it is not about a kind of aestheticism. We create a devotional room into which we invite the audience to enter.
DR: In many of the productions of The Sons of God, you seem to be more interested in investigating and describing different phenomena and objects than creating art for aesthetic purposes. Can you tell me about this conceptual approach to your artistic work?
Kent: We did a performance once where we tried to make a carpet fly. We failed, which naturally is totally beside the point. There were people who thought it was a bad performance since we failed. But what was the point of the performance? We tried to fly using the carpet and if it was successful or not is totally uninteresting. What is interesting is to arrange new situations.
Leif: What we did was to stage an attempt to fly, whether it was aesthetic or not is beside the point.
DR: In your art, you often work with basic elements as a means of gaining access to the more complex truths. Large and small, high and low become blurred. This is evident in your name, The Sons of God, for example.
Leif: Through the name we categories ourselves as something very select, as if we were two Jesus Christs. On the face of it, we create an image of strong hubris, but when you think about it, we are just saying that we are human beings, but with all the human worth that every individual is entitled to.
Kent: Through the name, we invite all people to become just as exalted as we are. Divinity is thus nothing we lay exclusive claim to.
The Course of Time
DR: On stage, The Sons of God make use of different objects to reach their goals. More often than not, they are very simple objects like rakes, chairs, and girders. What is the role of these objects in your performances and how do you relate to them?
Leif: We use the objects to express something that they could not express in another context. Sound is important in our performances and often it is produced by the objects on stage. Even if we are not subordinate to the objects, we have a respectful relationship to them. There are no limits. Like the objects, we have merged with the overall situation.
Kent: We try to create an imagery on stage where the objects acquire a special meaning through their spatial relations. We often use neutral clothes, like work aprons, which are in harmony with whatever else is on stage. We are an integral part of the whole and we wouldn't distinguish ourselves through clothes which would indicate that we are superior to the objects. We may be the objects.
DR: The performances by The Sons of God are often very long. They can take many hours or until the audience has left. After a while, the viewer can easily get a feeling of timelessness. What is the significance of time in your performances?
Kent: Time is only significant to the extent that we need a minimum amount of it. Nothing should happen too fast.
Leif: When that minimum amount of time is up, the concept of time dissolves and becomes unimportant. Sometimes we accentuate the significance of timelessness by starting a performance before the audience arrives. We could have been doing this since the beginning of time. Often we continue until the audience has grown tired and left. Thus, the audience often sees only a fraction of an endless series. When we drive chairs we usually disappear from the stage but continue to drag the chairs so that the audience continues to hear us from another room or out on the street.
Solemnity and Comedy
DR: In the oft-recurring feature, Guds Söner kör stolar (The Sons of God Drive Chairs), the duo stacks school chairs and drags, bounces and drives them over the floor producing a squeaking, grating sound-this action can at first appear to be comical and absurd, almost ludicrous. At the same time, it can be experienced as something totally different and much more serious.
Kent: We never do anything just for the fun of it. We are fundamentally totally serious, but then again, situations like when we drive chairs can be comical anyway. It started when we discovered the sound you could get out of chairs when you drag them along a surface. Our intentions are always serious. The funniest situations are when someone has completely serious intentions with what he or she does.
Leif: We are basically enormously pretentious, but on the other hand, there is something liberating in this. When we use rakes it never becomes a comical situation because we are using the tools for what they were made for. When we drive chairs we feel a kind of lightness and freedom. This makes the situation seem more comical. People discover that "this is something you can do with a chair." (It is more accessible than other things we do.)
Kings and Queens
DR: Royalty and the trappings of grandeur are recurrent themes in a number of your productions, for example in Elggren's work with Elgaland-Vargaland. Where does this fascination with royalty come from?
Leif: The King is always the highest being, the most desirable and enviable, the most unapproachably beloved. A kind of ideal. But the antithesis is also there: he is the one whose place you would like to take, the one you want to kill and dethrone. Royal symbolism is incredibly fundamental to our culture, very ancient, and although it may have been dormant for a time during the age of modernity, I discern the dawning of a resurgence. Take Sweden, for example when the King had his fiftieth birthday, the enormity of the homage and official rituals. Or when Prince Bertil died. It is almost ridiculous how people mourn this way for a person who has only been significant through his symbolism.
On the whole, there is so much that a royal personage bears, so much that is projected onto him/her-people's trust, their belief in the future and their own capabilities. A president does not have the same significance in matters like this. The King and Queen have, admittedly, become superficial objects for the tabloids and women's magazines, but behind this facade, there is something more meaningful and serious. The King is a father figure and representative of each and every person. Every person has automatically invested a part of him or herself in him.
Kent: It is also significant that the King is not chosen or re-elected like a president is. The King cannot be chosen and this is why he is almost like a Jesus figure.
Art Not Culture
DR: The Sons of God also make use of different quotes in their work. As in for example: "Fortplantningen - det enda sanna" (Reproduction - the only truth)
Leif: The only thing we know is that we are born to this world and to the people around us and that is the only thing we can really relate to. Everything depends on the circumstances we are born to, what people we have around us and what environment we live in.
Kent: "Reproduction" in art is a difficult subject. We once did a slide presentation with only pornographic photographs. This is taboo, forbidden territory in most of the art world. We are interested in treading on forbidden territory.
DR: Another quote is: "The struggle against sleep and indolence"
Leif: Man is always struggling against an innate inertia and hardship. There is so much that can stop you, so much that makes it easy to give in. Doze off and let time go by. We work against this. We were born to this life and the only thing we know about it is that we are going to die. We are driven by the feeling of completing our mission; we want to finish our task. There is the urge, the desire to see and understand.
Kent: The choice is between laziness versus something you recognize is going to be difficult to accomplish. What's important is to complete the mission and not to compromise one's ambitions. We always carry out what we have planned, despite the problems-it is a kind of foundation for everything we do. What's important for us is how to execute and develop our artistic work.
Leif: Art is extra-cultural. Art is something totally different from culture. Culture is what binds us together in this society. Art is disengaged from this and functions as a kind of nourishment for people to find something in their lives. Both for the practitioner and the viewer. Art is a tool with which to achieve an individual truth, it tells us how we must live our lives. Art should be congruous with the task one is born to.
DR: Yet another quote: "The Sons of God are in the service of civil defense and aim to infuse energy and courage."
Kent: There are moments in everyday life when one can experience something heroic. Every person can become a hero in his or her life.
Leif: Every individual has a purpose in life. We would like to show that something can radiate out from us, and that our actions make it possible to influence our surroundings. And if we can influence other people to think about the mission every person has, then we have accomplished something. That is our mission.
Text: Daniel Rozenhall
English translation: Kristina Riegert / George Kentros
Guds Söner (The Sons Of God) Discography:
"UGN" (by Leif Elggren, Kent Tankred and Per Jonsson), LP, Radium 226.05 - RAFE 016-46 (1986)
"Small Vehicle (stolen)", MC, Firework Records FR02 (1988)
"Mission", CD, Anckarström A1 (1991)
"Resurrection", CD, with The Hafler Trio, Touch TO:22 (1993)
"Proclamation", CD, Firework Edition Records FER 1001 (1996)
"The Object", CD, Firework Edition Records FER 1014 (1999)
"The Sons of God Drive Chairs", 7", Firework Edition Records FER 1031 (2001)
"The Sons of God Refurnish", CD, Firework Edition Records FER 1038 (2002)
"Connecting the Cross", CD, Firework Edition Records FER 1052 (2004)
"Thea", Cdr, Firework Edition Records FER 1072 / Ars & Modus Records AMR 1001 (2008)
"In The Service of Civil Defence", MC, Joachim Nordwall Edition JNE1 (2009)
"Received in Studio Dental, Gothenburg", with The Skull Defekts, CD, Utech records URCD 044 (2010)
"Reception", CD, with Mats Gustafsson, Firework Edition Records FER 1094 (2011)