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Attention Stockholm

by Jörg Heiser

The other week I was in Stockholm, part of a bunch of curators and critics in the city for ‘sthlm.sthlm.sthlm. 72 art hours in Stockholm’, a new event organised by institutions (Moderna Museet, Magasin 3, Bonniers Konsthall, Tensta Konsthall, Index, and Iaspis, the international studio programme) and private galleries (Andréhn-Schiptjenko, Claes Nordenhake, Magnus Karlsson, Milliken) in an effort to highlight the art scene of Sweden’s capital. (I suggest to listen to Virna Lindt’s classic track Attention Stockholm – streamed online here – as a soundtrack to this write-up).

I had spent a great summer in Stockholm exactly 10 years ago. I had the opportunity to stay at Iaspis, then run by Daniel Birnbaum, and got to know Karen Diamond – who I now saw again, her being a great organiser and host of the sthlm. tour – and a bunch of great artists: Annika Eriksson, Année Oloffson, Henrik Håkansson, Carl Michael von Hauswolff, Felix Gmelin, to name but a few. Ronald Jones, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, was staying at Iaspis at the time, too. Eva Grubinger made her sailing licence, and I listened a lot to the Melvins and Destiny’s Child. I remember big blue skies (it was an exceptionally beautiful Swedish summer, we were lucky).

I’ve been to Sweden several times since, but only passed through Stockholm briefly on my way to Umeå, or Kiruna in the north. So it was great to catch up, again under a blue sky. The institutional landscape of the city has exponentionally grown – there is a at least six Kunsthalles worthy of note that didn’t exist back then, and apparently more are in the making, which will add up to 13 (!) Kunsthalle spaces eventually in the next couple of years.

This is quite impressive, and Bonniers Konsthall and Tensta Konsthall respectively well describe the spectrum of that achievement. Bonniers is a privately funded place, old school philanthropic style (the Bonniers family owns the eponymous media company, which amongst many other activities publishes the liberal national daily Dagens Nyheter and the tabloid Expressen). It is located in the centre, in a flat-iron shaped building inaugurated in 2006, fitted between the rail tracks of the nearby central station and Torsgatan street. Sara Arrhenius has been Director since 2005, and she also curated the current, thoughtful group show Life Forms.

Its topic – art and nature – has certainly been done a lot in recent years, but yawning is premature; there are some real gems to be discovered – I especially liked Jani Ruscica’s Batbox/Beatbox (2007) which brings together horseshoe bats and New York beatbox street poetry, juxtaposing two ways of generating rhythmic sounds in a fluently edited two-channel projection – and in the accompanying catalogue, there is good stuff such as a piece by Donna J. Haraway that bring into play a more sophisticated questioning of what supposedly divides human culture from non-human nature in the first place (her thoughts about whales or turtles fitted with cameras for the National Geographic TV show Crittercam are quite fascinating).

Tensta Konsthall, in contrast, is located on the outskirts, in Tensta, a district with a large population of immigrants mostly of Somali origin (the website consequently is in Swedish, English, and Somali). William Easton, who joined the institution in November 2008 (he had been heading the Berghs School of Communication for design advertising and marketing beforehand), comes across as an energetic and eloquent director able to re-inject the place with new energy, after a scandal around 2004 – the board of trustees had controversially fired then-director Gregor Wroblewski, resulting in a national debate, and even an entire book by critic Lars O. Ericsson entitled ‘Mordet på Tensta Konsthall’ (The Murder of Tensta Konsthall) – and the ensuing identity crisis of an institution intended to bring first rate international art to a place where it isn’t necessarily automatically accessible and welcome, bridging and questioning cultural, social and ethnic divides.

The group show ‘Cut my legs off and call me shorty!’ (now over, to be followed by a Tris Vonna-Michell solo opening 10 October), comprised of half a dozen Swedish artists, was playful and quirky, and even though none of the individual works struck me as being outstanding, I did enjoy Ulla West’s Robots (2009), small makeshift devices rolling around the room in random ways and hitting your foot like a nervous puppy, or some of Ulf Lundin’s subtly ‘staged’ photographs of non-staged urban scenes, such as kids slipping on an ice rink (_Still Films # 1_, 2006–7), digitally composed into one out of many individual shots so that it seems as if they were all slipping at the exact same time.

So, as said, the boom of Kunsthalle spaces in Stockholm that has taken place over recent years is impressive. But there is a catch. Sara Arrhenius used to be an editor at NU: the Nordic art review when I first met her ten years ago, as was John-Peter Nielsson, now curator at Moderna Museet. The magazine sadly folded in 2003, after funding had been withdrawn. Nothing really has replaced it; and while current big name curators including Arrhenius, Nielsson, Lars Nittve (director of Moderna Museet) and Daniel Birnbaum (Venice Biennale 2009, director of Städelschule Frankfurt, and contributing editor to artforum) all have a history as critics writing for leading Swedish publications, there is a real gap now in this regard. Asked whether the art criticism currently published in the two big newspapers Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet was helpful in filling that gap and providing competent criticism, David Neuman – director of Magasin 3 – gave a straightforward answer: that its quality was ‘piss-poor’. As sweeping and subjective as the remark might be, it does point to a strange contradiction: tonnes of kunsthalles, but little criticism. Does it have something to do with a Swedish tradition of favouring consensus over controversy, or is it simply the result of the boom of institutional spaces absorbing anyone who could be interested in becoming a critic, editor or magazine founder in the first place? In any case, anyone I spoke to agreed that there needs something to be done about that situation; isn’t that a great case for funding (provided it guarantees critical independence)? Onward and upwards with Swedish art criticism!

Magasin 3 had two great shows on: Smadar Dreyfus (see Doreen Mende’s review of the show in its previous incarnation at Extra City, Antwerp), and wall drawings of the late Sol LeWitt, realised by the team of the LeWitt estate on site. I also enjoyed Gunnel Wahlstrand’s show at Andrehn-Schiptjenko even though I’m usually not such a fan of post-Gerhard-Richter realist imagery dealing with melancholy, nostalgia and personal family history, Wahlstrand’s larger-than life black and white ink-wash on paper of her mother in a photo studio profile or the small colour portrait of her grandfather certainly have an impact.

My favourite gallery show though was at Milliken: Swedish artist Matti Kallioinen created a positively bonkers scenario, starting with the projection of a video of aliens in a forest clearance engaging in a kind electric camp-fire gathering, all connected through strange pretzel-like extensions of their arms and noses, which placed a phrase in my head that could be the motto of the entire show: pretzel logic (after the title of a Steely Dan record). The second space was pitch dark at first, until a choreography of blow-up pretzel giants unfolded, animated by electronically controlled hydraulics, lights and fog. All of this accompanied by a sound track of experimental analogue synth sounds combined with timbal percussion and what sounded like Mongolian chants; which made obvious the connections to traditions of experimental visuality and staging in pop, from the Residents to Der Plan, but not to the disadvantage of the show.

But when it came to entertainment and glam factor, there was nothing that would have been able to compete with Dalí Dalí featuring Francesco Vezzoli at Moderna Museet (curated by John-Peter Nilsson, with Caroline Corbetta in charge for the Vezzoli contribution). The Dalí-part of the exhibition included an impressive array of loans from around the world – most notably maybe the pairing of one straight and one surreal, ‘paranoic-critical’ version of Vermeer’s Lacemaker from the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim respectively, works which oddly enough haven’t been shown side by side since they had been in the collections of these two New York institutions located across the street from each other. The exhibition also didn’t shy away from the more ‘corrupted’ paintings such as the strangely mocking 1951 portrait of Jack Warner; and most crucially, it included many of Dalí’s public appearances as a self-styled egomaniac eccentric, for explaining on BBC television in greatest detail how exactly he waxes his moustache into its upward-pointing form. The interpretation of Dalí as an often underestimated competitor with Warhol over the title of the artist with the greatest impact as a media persona provided a plausible connection to Francesco Vezzoli, who is not only a self-confessed Dalí fan (having done embroidery portraits of Dalí already ten years ago) but also largely concerned in his work with the mechanisms of art and celebrity media culture. The spatial solution was a large, quasi-retrospective Petersburg hanging of Vezzoli works, layered on top of a gigantic photo wallpaper of a baroque theatre interior. I couldn’t quite stomach the huge new portrait of Caroline of Monaco entitled Portrait to HRH The Princess of Hanover as Queen Christina of Sweden (Before & After Salvador Dali), and it seemed hard to decide whether its pomposity comes with an acid pinch of irony or is actually heartfelt honeyed homage, or both. I guess that’s the point.


About the author

  • Jörg Heiser's photo

    Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze and co-publisher of frieze d/e. He is based in Berlin.