Altgård Interview (pt 6): On Retrogardism

by on Jun.04, 2014

[Another installment in my on-going interview with Clemens Altgård:]

Johannes: In 1995 you and Håkan Sandell co-wrote a two-part manifesto “Om Retrogardism,” drawing in part on the Slovenian arts collective NSK/Laibach. Could you talk about what interested you this work? What was the reaction of the Swedish literary establishment? To what extent are you still interested in this line of thought?

Clemens:
First the idea was that we should write one long text together. It soon proved to be impossible. So I wrote about the Slovenian group Laibach and the NSK. Håkan Sandell wrote things like that true inspiration is impossible without rhythmic fixed forms.

We were both negative to the established but by then outdated modernist school of writing. I had picked up on some postmodern thinking but Sandell was more into a premodern way of writning. As a matter of fact he wanted to reconsider the whole creative process from an almost primitivist point of view. What we both could agree on was the thought that the techniques of oral literature could be used in the writing process in order to strengthen the expression. But in a way you could say that we created different versions of what retrogardism could be in a Nordic context. What interested us both was how the Slovenians managed to use old mannerisms, even the totalitarian language of the enemy and put it all together in brand new and amazing works of art and music. I was very enthusiastic at first. I could see no limits to what we might accomplish.

But our book got a lot of criticism. Many liberal and leftist intellectuals got anxious and seemed to think that we had some kind of hidden fascist agenda. They got it all wrong, to say the least. But that was bad enough. Some literature critics understood the concept and that we presented two different ways of creating in a retrogardist spirit. Some people though got the naive impression that the two essays should be read as one coherent text. If you do that, well then you will get confused. For me all that became a bit of a problem. It was like a big backlash of some kind. For me it took many years, a decade or so, to get over all that and sort things out for myself.

For Sandell it was different. He moved to Norway and still lives in Oslo. Some kind of exile, you could say. In Oslo he started something that gradually grew bigger. Sandells ideas attracted a group of young Norwegian painters that went the classicist road, some of them trained by Odd Nerdrum. That was Sandells new context. He got pupils and followers. Sandell has said that his young Norwegian pupils – he gave them lessons in metrics – opposed him in the sense of becoming more classicist/traditionalist than he had ever been himself. But instead of rejecting them in return, he joined them. In Sandells words: “I took the side of my pupils, against myself! And there followed the second wave of retrogardism, in close community with the painters. The painters came mostly from what has sometimes been called the ‘Nerdrum School’, after the painter Odd Nerdrum.”

Well, I was not into that, not at all. I kept writing poetry but did not publish any new book. Instead I did collaborations, art projects, with my friend the artist Ola Åstrand. And that was something quite different from the “second wave” retrogardism in Norway.

Laibach has continued to develop their aesthetics. They still make ironic manifesto-like statements and they still display a negative attitude towards authority. I went to see the Laibach concert in Malmö 2011 so their work still interest me. I still listen to their music but as a poet I have moved on. The world has changed a lot since we wrote the essays “Om retrogardism” and I have changed a lot too, I think. I’m not really that interested in traditional writing techniques, for instance.

Odd Nerdrum:
Odd-Nerdrum-part2-1

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