There is a passage in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Transparent Things (1972) in which an old pencil stub, found in a drawer, is a cue for a fictional leap into the pencil’s circuitous past. It might be a parable for the role the found object plays in contemporary art—becoming a trigger for narrative by signifying the functions it has renounced.
The films and sculptures of the Swedish artist Sofia Hultén are so invested in the syntax of linear narrative—in which one event logically proceeds from another—that her art at first resembles a parody of early Conceptual art’s obsession with the ratiocinative ordering of experience. But Hultén relishes throwing a wrench into rational consequentiality. In 2008, for example, she filmed an old chest of drawers being restored and then meticulously returned to its previous, weathered appearance. The film’s final symmetry between reality and artifice mocks our assumptions of finding historical veracity in a found object.
This may sound reductive, but Hultén makes her interrogations of causality a way of exposing the ever-expanding fissures in the narratives she suggests. At Konrad Fischer, two videos, pithily titled Nonsequences and Nonsequences II (both 2013), showed her performing a series of mundane acts. She polishes an apple on her jeans, munches on it, wraps it in a plastic bag, and disposes of it in a box of dusty filings. But as the film develops, this sequence shuffles out of its logical order into alternative permutations, entailing both comedy and disgust. The apple is thrown into the dust, and she bites into its dirty skin; or she bites into the bag and chews on the plastic. Significantly, the film is not merely restructured through editing: the narrative it describes is reordered by reshooting it.
Hultén’s sculptures doctor the form of found objects as her films sabotage the structure of the stories she tells. The reflective relation between the two modes is emphasized by her tendency to use objects with interlocking chain structures. Three rusted industrial chains, each supporting two steel hooks, hung from the gallery ceiling (Forking Paths V, VI, VII, 2013). In each, the order of the constituent parts had been slightly altered, as though each version proposed a marginally different outcome to a single event. The installation obscured the objects’ history by superimposing a narrative other than the one their age and form might imply and suggested the unknowability of those histories. The Man who Folded Himself II (2013) renders such alternatives as interstitial formal complexity. Retractable steel elevator gates have been welded together into an elegantly kaleidoscopic geometric thicket. The sculpture looks like a consummately realized work of formalism but proves to be a collision of integral narrative threads, since each element is a functional found object with its own history, rather than merely a constellation of metal lozenge shapes.
In the video Altered Fates (2013), Hultén is shown ransacking a Dumpster. She then knots a rope, pours beer on a blanket, saws a length of wood in half and returns the altered objects to the Dumpster. The film might be satirizing the plodding quality of linear process, but it is also ineffably romantic, suggesting the unknown pasts and futures of the altered objects by intruding, however insignificantly, on their “fates.” There’s a Samuel Beckett-ish sense of the mind-boggling permutations that reality intimates, and the myriad potential narratives that are their consequence. That word “fate” suggests the fictive dimensions into which the objects are consigned when they leave Hultén’s hands and recede into the unknown and undocumented, which is synonymous with the imagined.