Jón Óskar
Master of Loneliness:
On Jón Óskars Friends and Lovers

By Dr. Michael Glasmeier

If we assume -- and in the first instance we have to do so -- that we live in a ‘fragmented society’ the we must very quickly face the issue of loneliness. Richard Sennet cites three forms of loneliness: ‘We know a loneliness enforced by power. This is the loneliness of isolation, of anomie. We know a loneliness which inspires fear in the mighty. This is the loneliness of the dreamer, the ‘homme revolté’, the loneliness of rebellion. And finally is the loneliness based on the idea that there is a distinction between being lonely and being alone.

This third form of loneliness is the sense of being one under many, of having an inner life which is more than a mirror of the life of others. It is the loneliness of difference.’ All three forms can be fruitful for an artist. An artist is in a sense the master of loneliness. We know images of camps and mad houses, images of courageous protest and images of inner isolation. And we know images which express all three manifestations of loneliness. Such images are in the most part tragic ones. A refreshing draught wafts through the museums and galleries whenever loneliness does not have in itself a target group, is not abnormally self-absorbed, whenever fanatics of loneliness get together with other fanatics of loneliness and swap notes. That produces a system of feedback, moral support which can truly be called friendly. There is friction, almost erotic contact, from which is born an art which is concerned not with painting the same picture over again in order to find the one universal formula for individual loneliness, but rather with revealing the many pictures in which inconspicuous gestures, stupidity and experimentation are just as much a part as are despair at isolation, politics or world-weariness. Dadaism, surrealism, cobra, fluxus, zero art & language are examples of such melting pot of loneliness. They do not draw their strength from a common assertion of ideas but from the ‘art’ of managing certain sections of life in exchange with others. Then above all there is communal celebration, drinking and chatting, nominating each other for exhibitions, writing introductions to each other in the catalogue, publishing manifestos and otherwise feeling praiseworthy. That is called friendship which, although it often -- and not just among artists -- ends in hatred or indifference and does not last a lifetime, nevertheless . . .

In a talk-show last week the world-famous former German football star Uwe Seeler declared that football was changing more and more from being a friendly game for eleven men into being a kickabout for eleven individual celebrities. The same can be said of the field of art since the 1980s (‘fragmented society’). This is not to say that artists have become complete loners who have placed their celebrity status in the centre of their thinking and have no integrity. No, far worse than that. There is noticeable tendency to form transitory alliances, make friendships when there is something to be gained from them, to drink and chat with some underlying motive rather than for the fun of it. Officially there are no casualties in this, but alliances are made with a discernible motive and they can crumble once the purpose is achieved in the same way as footballers retreat to their villas to be alone or amongst family once the match is over. But even the novel The Confidence Man by Herman Melville discusses the not unimportant issue of whether it is wise to give credit to friends. However, we are not talking about the tiresome business of credit. Let us rather say that a discussion on friendship can emerge again now that the era of the ego-trip appears, in the face of the changed social and political situation to be over. Furthermore, the terms ‘art of life’ or ‘technologies of the self’ which are slowly coming into debates on art revive friendship as a part of a strategy for living for an artist. With this revival of pre-Christian practices and customs, which have come into our consciousness through Michel Foucault amongst others, it has become clear that friendship is a task which serves to extend, stabilise, renew and open up the individual.

The Icelandic artist Jón Óskar has recently published a narrow volume with the title Vinir & elskendur. Friends & Lovers (Reykjavik 1994). The book is a collection of ninety untitled photographs on thin newsprint. The photographs are snapshots of varying quality from unfocussed snaps to documentary evidence mostly presented as clippings. They show friends an lovers in private and in public. They are an expression of ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ (Roland Barthes), i.e. although they are directly linked to the life of Jón Óskar they can be of interest to every one. So it is not a book about friends and lovers solely for friends and lovers. It is a work of art which speaks highly intensively and without commentary of existences, physiognomies, gestures an moments. Of course, the book could also be examined with the eye of a detective in order to discover who the artist has around him and whose company he avoids. It can also be taken as a guide to the Icelandic art scene. And readers can see if they recognise any of the people (I recognise only a few). But the essential point of this book in my opinion is that it represents an artistic introduction into the practical art of living. That is to say the photographs express a friendly and loving acceptance of what there is and how it is. It is not about beauty, personal interests or credit, but about an example of life. Nowhere is there the sense that debts are owing or that scores are being settled. Every person represented shows their autonomy, their self-sufficiency. And that is hoe it should be. For this reason, Jón Óskar’s book is so rich despite being put together so cheaply and so colourful despite being printed in black and white. The book appears at a time when a few are becoming aware that artistic isolation has to be broken through once more, that we should accept, once more, more than what we have in our own minds. Precisely this -- as Jón Óskar’s shows us -- can also be a topic of art, not as art about art but as art together with art, that is, art as a life form. Michel de Montaigne:

‘Moreover, what we generally call friends and friendship are nothing more than acquaintances an familiarities which are connected by occasion and convenience through which our souls converse. In the friendship of which I speak, both sides mix and unite, merging so completely into one another that they wrap up in each other and the seam which connects them can no longer be found. If anyone were to urge me to say why I loved him (my friend, the ed.) I would feel that it was impossible to say why and I would answer: because he was who he was; because I was who I was.’

Text © Dr. Michael Glasmeier

An artist is in a sense the master of loneliness.
Dadaism, surrealism, cobra, fluxus, zero art & language are examples of such melting pot of loneliness.
There is noticeable tendency to form transitory alliances
It is a work of art which speaks highly intensively and without commentary of existences, physiognomies, gestures an moments.
Every person represented shows their autonomy, their self-sufficiency.