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Hariton Pushwagner - Too Crazy To Live

Words:

Edd Norval
June 5, 2018

Pushwagner is the quintessential Norwegian pop artist, although his works aren't necessarily depictions of popular or accessible subjects. His life fluctuated between portraying the dehumanising effect of modernity and contemporary life and sleeping rough - as a victim of it.

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It didn't start with art though, it started with sport. A young Pushwagner (b. 1940) excelled at both summer and winter sports, becoming a youthful prospect at tennis before packing it in. It wasn't his thing, it didn't talk to him like he wanted it to. Pushwagner had ideas that sports wouldn't let him explire. They were ideas he struggled to come to terms with for some time.


Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen was an early inspiration to Pushwagner. Jensen's science-fiction novels featured dystopian worlds with characters that were fellow-travelers of the American Beats. His male cast were often seeking to leave capitalistic societies in the hope of attaining a spiritual or profound experience. They were outcasts, often failing at their attempted breakaway. That didn't stop Jensen's novels having an impact on his readers though. The two became friends and their artistic viewpoints clearly rubbed off on each others. It was this influence that informed Pushwagner's best known work.


Soft City was initially created in the 1970s - a vision of a dystopian future where routine pervades all parts of society. Regimented lives are the norm and creativity and imagination are something of the past. Once he completed his work though - he lost it. This was an early insight into 'Pushwagnerian'.

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The book was in a suitcase that he misplaced when travelling to London. It was only in 2002 that it resurfaced and the artist found out that segments had been published without his knowledge. The oppressive setting of the novel, a city that entirely revolves around a giant corporation - one that provides food, housing, entertainment and information, is a prescient look at the mega-brands that own so much of the world we live in now.


It was apparent in his world that freedom of choice wasn't a thing - even if it might at times seem like it is - it is a mere illusion, do not be fooled. You are trapped. The bleak graphic novel would only precede bleak years in the artist's own life. After marital breakdown and struggles with substance abuse, his hedonistic lifestyle landed him in the gutter.


Living on the streets that he once drew, life around him became an extension of the horrific future worlds he imagined. The nameless facades being filled and emptied, like clockwork, by faceless people who towered over him. Incidentally, it was also his homelssness and renowned reckless lifestyle that helped set his star on the path it eventually assumed.

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The reemergence of Soft City in 2008, when Pushwagner was 68, at the Berlin Biennale captured the art world's attention. It was his story that kept it though. Previously only known in his home-country, the eccentric Pushwagner was the subject of an eponymous documentary in 2011 that examines his lifestyle and work.


His magnetic appeal and unpredictable nature meant that eyes and cameras were often trained on him. What was, on the outside, a seemingly joyous individual - was a figure that created staggering works of dark fantasy that would be at home in the Blade Runner universe. His name must be considered amongst Orwell and Huxley for his prescience and vision, yet he was not a writer, but an artist. His images are dense, they take time - first to synthesise and then to process fully.


It's an odd pairing. Such a character, always dapper, infinitely hedonistic, with the highly strict and uniform world of his paintings. They are always regimented - visions of horrific order that strips all individuality. His life was the counter-weight - utter chaos. In many ways Pushwagner (not his real name) is a shell that can be inhabited by many different living creatures. He's notoriously difficult to pin-down and a prime example of artist and their art being as intriguing as one another.


His theatricality made him a spectacle and a celebrity - his gallery openings had rings of fire and a comically drunk host - himself. It is said by those closest to him that he was impossible to truly know, that it was possible that he didn't even know himself - it was an act that stuck.


He passed away around two months ago, April 24 2018, and has left a legacy that will take some time to understand. He was always moving and always changing. Now in death, he's given us a chance to catch up with him.

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