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The Curious Case of An Unusual Degree Project

Revisiting Simon Skuteli's, Between One Shirt And Another, BFA degree project, School of Photography (University of Gothenburg), 2012.

Simon Skuteli, Between One Shirt And Another, BFA degree project, School of Photography (University of Gothenburg), 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

When the name Simon Skuteli appears before my eyes on Facebook the other day, I’m struck by a Proustian flash of where I was some twenty years ago; last years of elementary school, impatiently waiting for high school to arrive, to join equal peers with similar pursuits in life as mine. We never knew each other, and he was two years my senior and I have a vague memory that he might have been in the same class as the girl I “liked” during most of my childhood. Either way his presence was defintely noted back then, and the notion of these long-forgotten school years rushed back the few times his name as an artist came my way, once my foray as an art writer began in the early 2010’s. Morever, it always unfailingly appeared to mind how unusual the outcome, for someone at this said school to have turned a visual artist in the end, by way of an academic path. The plausibility for that to happen would have seemed negligible back then, at best. On Facebook I’m reminded yet again of having read about his degree project at the School of Photography at University of Gothenburg (which later merged into Academy Valand) back in 2012 just as it was happening, through an article online in one of the major Swedish evening newspapers; Expressen/Kvällsposten.

I get to the article again by a search on Google. Jenny Maria Nilsson recalls what is a most unusual degree project which saw Simon buy a mass-produced white shirt at H&M, only to make a hand-sewn version of it and return the copy to the store, adding the tags, while keeping the original. There is an obviously appealing angle to her text; H&M always makes for a gratuitous target in press towards readers. The framing is humorous and a proverbial expression in the title, along the lines of the artist having “tricked the pants off” H&M sets the entire tone. Interesting to note here is that there had been a few heavily publicized degree projects, stemming from Konstfack in Stockholm, a few years prior in time, whch informed various notable degrees of fraudulent and/or unruly societal behavior. She makes a point in the end to note and stress that no harm was ultimately done through Simon’s performative act in so far the saying goes; To get one’s money’s worth. Essentially one customer out there will, as she saw it, have gotten far more than they were bargaining for when accidentally acquiring this piece of artful "slow-fashion".

I decide to share the article on my Facebook. I’m however a little bit too embarrassed to “tag” the artist in connection to the post, seeing that we are just recent Facebook friends since an hour or two. Nevertheless, we have mutual friends enough for someone else to take care of it, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes until one of them alerts the artist about it. An organic exchange about the project and the article arises between us. I learn a lot more about it, things the article might possibly have gotten wrong or left out. Being Bangladeshi myself, I’ve incidentally been thinking a lot recently about the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, through local artists whose work informs this tragedy which happened a year or so after his degree project. Another jist for me reading the article again, beyond the rareness the author ascribes to the project, is how rare it is to begin with for a degree art project, at any school, to be given any space in Swedish press an and media. As an art writer myself, with some years behind me, I can hold this for certain. Somewhere in the midst, the idea to do this arises. Revisiting the project together from two angles. I always say that good artworks should get to have an extended life and that time shouldn’t preclude them. There is an occasional narcissism you find among artists to not show or highlight old works, in favour of new ones and there are forces that act towards reinventing yourself more than necessary.

Simon Skuteli, Between One Shirt And Another, BFA degree project, School of Photography (University of Gothenburg), 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

Simon Skuteli I definitely agree that it is dismal to think of how artworks occasionally disappear into obscurity so fast. I generally don’t enjoy the idea of art (or any artistic expression, for that matter, becoming fast and disposable commodity). My work ‘Between One Shirt And Another’ being brought into light today, 8-9 years later, is emblematic in so far distinguishing it in yet again from the mass-produced original that it was based on. I tend to think that even if the physical object (the hand-sewn shirt) of the artwork possibly has ceased to exist by now, its “life” is far more extended than mass-produced objects through the narrative that it is a part of. It’s clear to me that the act of revisiting this work today and stretching the time element, becomes a part of the project itself. At least if you see the work as though departing from notions about consumption and rebelling against the fast use and dispose of material things, natural resources and human beings.

The subject matter of consumption was pivotal for me back in 2010, but perhaps in a different way than the reception of the work. What interested me at first were notions about visibility and superficiality. Something that was engaging my mind before doing the work and that I didn’t know quite how to relate to was how the visual and material presentation of an object (a product, an artwork etc.) bears such great impact on how it is perceived by the individual who stands before it. Today (as well as then) you could say that the attraction vested into a consumer product lies in the narratives that it informs and becomes a display of, rather than the materiality of the object iself. For me nonetheless in 2010 both the material and visual attraction posed a larger query and problem. I wished to force my audience to think and engage their perception rather than just frivolously enjoy the sight of an artwork or consumer product. My shirt performance (a performance without an audience) became the starting point for several works where the condition of not-showing and concealing has been an integral and key part.

Simon Skuteli, Between One Shirt And Another, BFA degree project, School of Photography (University of Gothenburg), 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

My solution to the superficiality problem was (attuned with a conceptual tradition; although I didn’t realize it then) was to use text instead, and I was very specific about never showing the shirt I sew or to highlight how it actually came about. When the work was exhibited at Röda Sten in Gothenburg, it was presented through several shorter texts which were fragmental and hardly particularly direct. The specificity with which the work appears in the article in Expressen/Kvällsposten never existed in the actual exhibition. The chain of events was something I wanted (I’m always about to refer to “the viewer” here, who is the one I actually wanted to turn away from) the reader/audience to imagine rather than to just be served. The name of the company that the original object relates to was never mentioned at all and rather was something that perhaps found itself between the lines, but the author of the article seems to have assumed it as a fact. In light of the said, you could say this work contains a great degree of resistance.

That Jenny Maria Nilsson chose to cover the work partially stems from her having served as “the opponent” during the defense of my BA at school. Still it doesn’t really change the unusual occurrence of a degree project finding room in the press. Perhaps (likely), that in itself is symptomatic of the totalitarian approach of consumer society, where the media interest of an art student’s work is conditioned by whether the work is spectacular and can evoke reactions with readers, rather than if the work is interesting and poignant enough to set forth. To me, from a certain view, all of these student degree projects are worth covering and I tend to feel that art school exhibitions many times appear more rewarding than exhibitions at institutions and galleries. I think this is because the direct effect on an audience is allowed to be secondary and the audience isn’t hand-held to the same extent you see in other corners of the established art world. As I think of it, the majority of artworks that were significant to me over the years, will have been made by peers at the art school where I studied.

That might of course be due the fact that I’ve had the possibility to approach them from a much closer “view” than you normally do when seeing an exhibition.

Second part of text translated from Swedish by Ashik Zaman.

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