Mattias Härenstam

A Better Place

Performance / live sculpture. Floor covered with blue plastic garbage-bags, textile “island”, and the artist wearing a Michael Jackson-mask and "penis" in pink felt, singing the chorus of “Heal the world” as a repetitive mantra. Duration: 2 – 6 hours.


"Dada is a joke that is repeated and repeated until it becomes a threat"

    "I came to think of this quote after seeing Mattias Härenstam's performance at the UKS-event, Indian Summer, where performances and installations changed every other day during a three-week period this autumn.
    Härenstam had created an artificial sea of blue transparent plastic covering the gallery floor. Sitting on a small pillow-like deserted island - identical to the archetypical cartoon island where countless jokes have been played out, he tentatively sang Michael Jackson's hit, "Heal the World" over and over again. For those who did not recognize the song, he was wearing a Jackson-mask of felt. Apart from the mask, he wore nothing but a kind of thong panty, apparently also made of felt, with a harmless little penis that quivered slightly each time he changed position.
    It is impossible not to see the performance in the light of the tarnished myth of Michael Jackson, with his dubious double status as both the idolized hero of kids and the alleged abuser; his childhood in constant media spotlight, and his adult life as a megalomaniac superstar. The performance gives a pitiful expression of a hopeless attempt to be politically relevant from a privileged, but isolated position. The lyrics of the song that encourages everyone to care for the poor become even more assertive in its repetition. The repetition actually gives the impression that Härenstams' intensions are not to make ironic fun of Jackson's honest need to do something important for the solidarity of the world. Instead, the irony falls back on the artist, who can't resort to the banal devices of a pop singer, but is always destined to be read in the light of the fateful claim of art for ambiguity and criticism.
    The chanting of the banal text refers to both Andy Warhol´s mass-reproduction of media icons and the minimalists' interest for seriality, at the same time as the triviality of pop-cultural monotony and repetition almost gets a religious dimension. Repetition, as a kind of modernist mantra, becomes the most important element of the performance. It transforms the content of an image that can be experienced during the 10 seconds it takes to walk across the room. But when you stop and contemplate, the comical innocence slides into an existential anxiety, as the performance reflects the hopeless desire of art to change the world.
   I also believe it is correct to view the performance as a kind of tribute to a person who is stuck in a system, confined in a stereotype that he, after all, is trying to break free from. The mood of Härenstams' presence as this sorry superstar makes me wonder if the face of Jackson is just a mask transfigured by the aesthetical and racial tyranny of mass-media repetition, or a real face transformed by a rare skin disease. Härenstam makes me feel compassion as he sits there, in the lonely infantile body of Michael Jackson, whining for attention. He stretches time through repetition and challenges our capacity for attention and concentration on a pop-cultural theme; Michael Jackson - a real human being we otherwise are served in superficial fragments by the media."

Text by artist Bjørn Bjarre in 1997.


Shown for the first time at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin 1997. Later also at "Indian Summer", UKS Oslo 1997, "Lucia-a-go-go", Hotel Lydmar, Stockholm 1998 and "British links", Henie-Onstad Art Center, Oslo 1999.