Per Svensson Alchemy – The All Seeing Eye

29 September 2018 2 December 2018

Solo exhibition
Main hall, Färgfabriken

In the autumn of 2018 the artist and musician Per Svensson (b. 1965) will return to Lövholmen, with the exhibition Alchemy – The All Seeing Eye at Färgfabriken. For a number of years Per Svensson, with a cluster of other artists, was based at the now defunct Kolsyrefabriken (carbonic acid factory), next door to Färgfabriken. Per Svensson has close ties to the place and he speaks of coming home. The exhibition will subsequently move to his actual home district, the so-called Majorna in Gothenburg and will be shown in the spring of 2019 at Röda Sten konsthall.

Much of what is conjured in this exhibition is highly open to layered readings. The associations proposed by Per Svensson are only delimited by our own references as viewers, listeners and even accomplices. The variety of images, elements and proposals juxtaposed in the exhibition create a form of progression or journey that the audience is invited to join, a journey to the worlds of Alchemy, Art and Architecture. The route through the exhibition proposes a kind of discovery that reveals not a single world, but a series of glimpses that suggest larger contexts. Per Svensson purposely includes elements that have multiple readings in different disciplines, religions and cultures, throughout history and across the globe, to create situations in which any certain reading can only be temporary.

As a compliment to the exhibition the book Per Svensson – ALCHEMY / ART / ARCHITECTURE will be released during the exhibition.

Photo Annika von Hausswolff

About the artist

Artist Per Svensson works in the fields of sculpture, painting, drawing, sound installation, film and architecture. Svensson is educated at The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm 1985-1990, and at The Royal Institute of Art Department for Architecture in Stockholm 1999-2000. His works have been exhibited both in Sweden and internationally at The Modern Museum in Stockholm and Malmö, Ystad Art Museum, Lusaka National Museum Zambia, LACE in Los Angeles, Heliostrum in Köln, The Art Acadamy in Budapest, The Gothenburg Museum of Art and MHR in Reykjavik, among others.

Further reading

In the autumn of 2018 artist and musician Per Svensson (b. 1965) will return to Lövholmen, formerly an industrial suburb of Stockholm, with an exhibition at Färgfabriken. For a number of years Per Svensson, with a cluster of other artists, was based at the now defunct Kolsyrefabriken  (carbonic acid factory) which was a close neighbour of Färgfabriken (paint factory) whose rusty silos dominate the skyline. Per Svensson has close ties to Lövholmen and particularly to Färgfabriken and he speaks of coming home. The exhibition will subsequently move to his actual home district, the so-called Majorna in Gothenburg where he was born, was married and where he now lives. It will be shown in the spring of 2019 at the Röda Sten art gallery. These are two locations which are particularly important to the artist and one might claim that he has now found his way home.

Per Svensson’s universal alchemical installation trickles into and crawls down the walls and across the floor in the old factory premises at both Färgfabriken and Röda Sten. Using architectonic installations, video projections, diverse artefacts, drawings and sounds Per Svensson transforms the factory into a glade of the same dimensions – a magical place which people have trodden down the ages. At the centre of the exhibition the artist has placed a temporary dwelling, Cosmic Shelter (2018), which is a cinema tent with documented performances from the years 1986 to 2011. A constant aspect of the activities in the projections is his search, a search for forgotten knowledge of our nature and our origins – a place for alchemical thinking and creating.

“Do your Own Thing”, “Never Follow Leaders”, “Create the New Alchemy” Per Svensson proposes in his art film Alchemy & The Forces of Nature (2011), something that becomes extraordinarily clear in his performance entitled EL – Element I from 1987, in which a young Per Svensson casually undertakes an alchemical experiment in the middle of the street (between Stockholm’s Royal Palace and the Swedish Parliament), totally unconcerned by the attention of passers-by. His goal is clear: alchemy is art and art is alchemy and they are the source of new knowledge, as he explains in his manifesto State of the Art (2010).

In this manner Per Svensson seeks to lead us to a state beyond reality and what we believe that we know. We approach Per Svensson’s art in a manner similar to archaeology – carefully considering and fitting together the various objects – with the aim of revealing the links between the objects that the artist has brought together in, for example, a glass-fronted cabinet Gothenburg Sounds/Sonic Images (2003), and E.A.R.T.H. (2018) that both contain plants. There is a stringency to Per Svensson’s work that becomes evident when we consider the thousands of drawings through which he has shaped his thoughts and ideas. A selection of the drawings forms part of the exhibition and is included in this book. They give us a unique insight into the artist’s experimental research and creative activities, some of which are 35 years old but still seem ground-breaking.  Per Svensson’s work has often commented on other art as well as his own in relation to factory work, not least in his installation Nattskift/Nightshift at Moderna Museet in Malmö in 2013, in which he compared the artist with a worker who clocks in everyday at the art factory. At Färgfabriken and at Röda Sten Per Svensson’s art is returned to the factory floor, to the locations in which people have worked side by side. In the post-industrial world, this spacious, sacred architecture has often been transformed into a location for art and other cultural manifestations. Per Svensson is, himself, an art “worker”. With his own hands he has built, cut and welded together the architectonic sculptures including “Crystal Metal Sculptures” (2018), and the herbarium The New Clear Plants & The Butterfly Effect (2009), as well as the glass-fronted cabinet already mentioned. Per Svensson’s sculptural installations and experimental approaches occupy the border between art and architecture, just as Färgfabriken’s own praxis, locations and history add dimensions to Per Svensson’s art.

Art and nature

In the heydays of the wunderkammer and of other collections of rarities and marvels —such as the famous Augsburg Art Cabinet at Gustavianum in Uppsala — art and nature mingled, united and merged.  These spaces and collections of objects, the cabinets of curiosities, were sites of knowledge. They were spaces of individual contemplation, as much as spaces for the public demonstration of the possession of knowledge. By the mid-sixteenth century, such spaces of learning reflected two seemingly conflicting models: A dialectics between silence and sound, between the social and the intimate, between the occult and the eloquent, between contemplation and scientific research. In sum, they were spaces of collected chaos, where an orderly arrangement, an intrinsic symbolism, challenged notions of a single path to knowledge.

In Per Svensson’s work, as in the cabinets of curiosity, the limits of what is an element of art and what is an element of nature are vague and undecided. Svensson’s research is pursued through contemplation, through comparing, contrasting and finding similitudes, and by seeking to approach nature as well as connect with outer space – as contradictory as it may seem. His art and his science is a matter of learning to see.  As he himself has mentioned: “In looking upon sculpture as form in nature, like the formation of hexagons in minerals or in honeycombs of beeswax, elements can be related to symmetry and chaos. I work with these images in mind.”

Per Svensson’s art comes from assuming and developing a very close relationship between precise scientific observations of nature and poetic uses of natural phenomena. His sound installation The New Clear Plants & The Butterfly Effect, presented at the Garden Society’s Palm House in Gothenburg in 2009, conjugated in a vitrine, as in times of the cabinets of curiosities, metaphor and experimentation, science and magic, spark of life and death. Two loud speakers connected to two glass cases with twelve butterflies enclosed with apples, plums, medical plants (opium poppy, verbena, oregano) sugared water, and with microphones wired to amplify the sounds present, were the elements at play, assembled and juxtaposed in a place of science to suggest the obvious challenges of prediction and forecast in nature, like the metaphor of the butterfly effect in chaos theory. One could argue that neither observation as a method alone nor contemplation can decode the mysteries of nature and the enigmas of natural phenomena.

Like Henry David Thoreau in Walden, Per Svensson is in his artistic practice looking for a kind of force, an energy source, that he hopes to find by establishing an intimate connection with nature. Svensson, following Thoreau, encourages us to be “forever on the alert” and “looking always at what is to be seen.” For truth can be found equally in art as in nature.

Ambiguity of Science

Science has always been close to the occult. In its constant uncovering of the hidden, in its insistence in domesticating the unknown and the supernatural, science permanently strives to turn knowledge into what is measurable. 

The Baghdad Battery is a puzzling archaeological finding dated to between 250 to 650 AD. There is an ongoing debate about its original purpose, and it is unclear if it was a battery to produce electricity, a device for electroplating items with gold or silver leaf, or a papyrus holder. The Baghdad Battery is also one of Per Svensson’s sculptures consisting of a series of laboratory jars filled with reactive liquids and copper pipes, placed on a shelf. Both its title and the sculpture itself recognizes sources of knowledge outside the Western scientific hegemony. Perhaps it also works as a symbol of – and an homage to – uncertainty and ambiguity.

Much of Per Svensson’s works may be grasped as oblique curiosities; a sort of fortuitous findings, things, elements, shapes in which something sparks, pointing beyond a given meaning or function. But likewise, they serve as curiosities denoting those grey areas argued by modern Western science as invalid sources of knowledge: alchemy, esotericism, occultism, pseudoscience, etc.

And yet, these strange groups of obscure objects, drawings and other elements in Per Svensson’s art are not black boxes that we are unable to decipher. Rather, they respond to basic and comprehensible principles of the senses: there are sounds, images, shapes, all of which we recognize and have encountered before. We can make connections, find correspondences and read some of the referents implicit in them. Nonetheless, there are no certain readings either.

The spark of life

It is very hard to try to make sense of the world without including sentiments. Wilhelm Ritter, known as the father of electrochemistry, argued in the early 1800s, that “any force has its origin in polarity” and that their union is a matter of power. Just as it is possible to recognize electricity and magnetism — a potency of nature that attracts and repels — as the forces responsible for creating life, movement and heat, it is also possible to value love, sympathy, friendship as sources of great powers of attraction — and repulsion.

The sculptures, installations, drawings, video performances, and sound pieces that Per Svensson has created are a sort of incomplete group of gestures searching for their other half. Indeed, it is this incompleteness that motivates them, that grants them the power of invention.

Sounds, light, vibration, movement, regardless of how animated his art pieces may seem, we can identify both a sense of presence and of absence in them. They are recordings and traces of performances where the artist is the maker, the witness as well as an actual imprint; the artist is there, in each work, but at the same time there are no individual gestures that connect them with a craft, and we can only wonder about the human force that has created them.

Svensson’s art ponders the possibility to animate inert artefacts. The hexagon, and the elements of earth… such carbon atoms that are present in all organic elements, are the foundation to all living.” All these references are very present in the work Per Svensson has produced over 30 years; in total an incomplete inventory of sympathies and affections for shapes and elements that create life or its illusion. In other words, there is a question of anima in these objects and throughout Per Svensson’s art.


Per Svensson connects sciences such as geometry and geology with mysticism and emotions. But the contrasting rational-irrational conditions are not a system outside knowledge. There is no model outside the subjective, as the engagement generates and becomes one’s own model, system, and revelation.

Per Svensson’s work never makes claims to universalize any particular model. He proposes an individual engagement and a method for each occasion or each object; a mathesis singularis like Roland Barthes suggested in his book Camera Lucida. It is the – impossible – science of the unique being; a theory or science or method for each object, for each thing, each being, and each phenomenon. This science of the unique being is called for because things cannot signify except by assuming a mask and because with every generalization some aspect of the singular or the unique is lost. Per Svensson calls for the affective or emotive element, for a new approach for each new work, forwarding personal or singular interpretations in each exchange. He invites us “to listen to our innermost selves and create”, recreate, create. And it is this that is the metamorphosis, the change and the transformation where creative energy is sourced to overcome obstacles and improbabilities.

The drawing energy

Einstein proposed in early 20th century that space is not merely three-dimensional and that time is not a separate entity. He suggested that time and space in fact are intimately connected, forming a continuous four-dimensional space-time. The most important consequence of Einstein’s proposal is that mass is nothing more than a form of energy, “a dynamic quantity associated with activity or processes”; yet another proof that things are always also something else. And just as current physicists deal mostly with the sub-atomic world and the uncertainty of its rules, artists allow themselves to intuitively explore a field of transformations beyond the sensory world.

Drawing is an evolved form of what we might call a mental or a thought technology, a technology that employs a historical and complex human program that interacts with the body to produce a form of representation. The idea of what is or what can be a “drawing”, comes from a new type of imaginary experience, from the adaptations or transformations of the common language, or what we usually understand by that. And if we consider all the mutations that this language has suffered throughout its existence, we can notice that to draw involves, with no doubt, an artificial but embodied form of intelligence.

According to Bataille, “energy is the what for and the why of production”. The problem is the use we must find for the leftovers of energy in every production. But maybe the noblest objective is to be left without a purpose, like nature itself: pure lack of interest, just flow and no intention. Pure possibility… as in Per Svensson’s drawing of the spiral rotation and the wave motion of time.

Per Svensson’s drawings are a promise of conceiving all that could be, without attributing much importance to what is probable or what is not. The majority of the promises made to us are not fulfilled, yet we trust most of those that reach us. This is a kind of proof that to contemplate the possibilities, including failures and achievements, is not the reflection or the shadow of reality, but reality itself. If there is a sense of reality, there is also a sense of possibility, through which we may contemplate all that could be otherwise. For Per Svensson, “the one who has the ability to observe or register, also has the ability to create something new”.

Alchemy is art and art is alchemy

“Gold is the most exquisite thing of all things … Whoever possesses gold can get everything he wants from this world. With gold, you can earn the entrance of the soul into paradise,” wrote Christopher Columbus to the kings of Spain after his arrival to the Indies. Gold is timeless, it is always halfway between moderation and excess, it is as sophisticated as it is unjustified and vulgar. Gold has always been idolized and its fever has generated the dirtiest wars, even if under the noble purpose of overcoming scarcity, regardless of physical or moral impediments. Despite this, mineralogy, the investigation of the formation, location and prospection of minerals, is a new science with roots in the Renaissance. In earlier times, it was believed that minerals “grew” in the belly of the earth — it was customary to let the mines rest, also in Europe — and very different traditions agreed in that if there are no disturbances, all the minerals would with the passage of time end up in the bosom of the earth and be transformed into gold; that legitimate son of the earth, her most perfect production, the child of her desires.

Alchemists attempted to make gold from common metals and junk. Like artists and the artistic act, they strive to redo or reassemble all the residues and remnants of reality through the help of technical, scientific and/or magical tools. Alchemy was the mixing of elements in a creative act, in a moment when the different areas of knowledge where not separated in disciplines. On the contrary, they all were called upon in their idiosyncrasies and with their strengths to help each other’s insufficiencies. It was not a whimsical procedure; it was simply another order, another method, another cosmology.

For Per Svensson, alchemy is to do your own thing. To free the mind and to not follow leaders. It is to walk your own path, to trace your own drawing, to not stop the poetry, as many of his Orange Warnings statements recommend. Yet, even if this brings focus to the artist, he is not trying to convince us to accept his message. But we are invited to follow him in the ongoing liberation from given systems: “The new alchemy is the extension of the mind and ourselves.”

We are all searching for something to hold on to. Maybe it is that spiritual gold which arises from the most trivial objects in the alchemist dream, but it is also the artistic act itself. Per Svensson’s art brings this to the light. Its call is to open our eyes and see life’s new possibilities, to “free the mind in order to create the new alchemy.”

Download the exhibition handout with descriptions of the artworks.


The exhibition is a co-production between Färgfabriken and Röda Sten konsthall. The exhibition then toured to Luleå konsthall och Seinäjoki konsthall in Finland.

Med stöd från

Kungl. Akademien för de fria Konsterna, Helge Axelsson Johnsons Stiftelse, Längmanska Kulturfonden