It’s sometimes argued that art has taken over the role of politics as the most important arena for so-called democratic conversation. I’ve never really understood that. Contemporary art can certainly have a political dimension, and the political debate is, of course, less polarized now than during the Cold War, but has there not been a rather noticeable stagnation in art for some time now – while politics is characterized by ever stronger ideological conflict?
This is what it looks like from Stockholm, at any rate. Here, the art season has slowly begun, with the first gallery openings last week, while the dramatic government negotiations of the past few months have just ended. The Left Party recently announced that it is allowing a Social Democratic government that, in exchange for power, will pursue neoliberal policies that must be described as extreme: unimpeded private profits in the welfare sector, relaxing of labour laws, tax cuts and market rates for rents.
This brings to mind how, already a decade ago, Naomi Klein, among others, claimed that the neoliberal system shift had come to a halt, and that the right’s response would be to push forward various crises and states of emergency in order to push through reforms that, under more ordered circumstances, would lack popular support. This quite accurately describes what has happened after the Swedish center-right, including the extreme-right party Sweden Democrats, unseated the Social Democratic government after the elections in September 2018.
No museum cuts
The official purpose of the deal that will allow the Social Democrats and Greens to stay in power – this time with the support from the Centre and Liberal parties – is to limit the influence of right-wing extremism. Therefore, it makes sense that the policy of free admission to state museums appears to be safe. It was scrapped in the budget approved by the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats just before Christmas. The budget is fixed, but a correction has been promised. It would appear that the museums can continue working as planned, without having to deal with sudden cuts of SEK 80 million.
Moreover, the recruitment process for a new director of Moderna Museet, following Daniel Birnbaum’s recent departure, has been at a standstill in anticipation of a new government. Hopefully, this process can now resume.
At Moderna, the major event this spring will be an exhibition curated by Birnbaum himself, together with Hans Ulrich Obrist: Gilbert and George: The Great Exhibition. This will be yet another in a line of ambitious exposés of ‘iconic’ artists, which more than anything else has characterised Birnbaum’s tenure at the museum (2010–2018). The most enduring legacy of this time will probably be Hilma af Klint (2013), an exhibition built on extensive research, that resulted in substantial public and critical attention in Sweden and around the world.
However, that 2016 was spent on Olafur Eliasson and Yayoi Kusama instead of one of Sweden’s foremost post-war artists and intellectuals, the German-born painter, filmmaker, and writer Peter Weiss, who then would have turned 100 years old, I see as unforgivable. This spring, though, will see an exhibition of his partner in art and life, Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, whose maquettes, drawings, and collages will appear in their own right from April 6th. In addition, Moderna Museet will show Jordan Wolfson (February 1st), Sharon Hayes (April 13th) and, at the museum’s branch in Malmö, the recently departed Swedish conceptualist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd (1934–2016) (February 2nd).
Time for the Danes to prove themselves
At the newly renovated Nationalmuseum, which reopened this fall after having been closed since 2013, the Scandinavian spirit that is part of the museum’s history and identity is kept alive. The autumn exhibition with American painter John Singer Sargent will be followed by the Danish Golden Age, which promises the very best of Danish painting from 1800 to 1864. Time for the Danes to prove themselves, in other words! The exhibition opens on February 28th.
As for contemporary art, Norway is sending some of its finest. The Gothenburg Museum of Art will show one of the most talked-about artists in the Nordic countries during recent years, Tori Wrånes, while an exhibition with one of Norway’s most prominent contemporary photographers, Torbjørn Rødland, will open at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. At Index – The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, works by the Norwegian performance artist Mette Edvardsen will be on view, and she will also perform her piece Oslo at Moderna Dansteatern; both venues are in Stockholm. Edvardsen’s exhibition opens on January 25th, while Wrånes’s and Rødland’s open on March 2nd and 13th, respectively.
Lund’s Konsthall is also showing an artist from a Nordic neighbor, the prominent Finnish painter Nina Roos. The exhibition opens on April 6th, and will be Roos’s first large-scale exhibition in Sweden since her show at Malmö Konsthall fifteen years ago. The preceding exhibition, which opens January 26th, will be about and of Chilean art from the 1970s.
Other solo exhibitions to look out for are Theresa Traore Dahlberg at Färgfabriken on February 2nd, and the sculptor Veronica Brovall at Uppsala Art Museum and Bror Hjorts Hus on February 7th. Uppsala Art Museum will also be showing sculptors Ingolf Kaiser (February 16th) and Mourad Kouri (March 9th). Here, I also want to mention the textile artist Linnea Sjöberg – a grant recipient at Bonniers Konsthall – who will also be showing, together with Hans Andersson, at Fullersta Gård on April 6th.
In recent years, Sami artists have received increasing attention in the art world, coupled with the emergence of a greater awareness of the Nordic countries’ colonial activities in Sápmi, Greenland and the Caribbean. Last year in Denmark, La Vaughn Belle and Jeanette Ehlers’s much-lauded monument to a slave revolt during the 19th century was unveiled, and in Norway, the Sami centennial celebration Tråante received great attention in 2017.
We haven’t seen anything comparable in Sweden, perhaps with the exception of the exhibition series of Sami artists at Bildmuseet during 2014, the year Umeå was the European Capital of Culture. Interest among the Stockholm institutions has been tepid; there have so far not been any substantial efforts by Nationalmuseum or Moderna Museet to include Sami art in their collections.
This spring, however, a couple of Norwegian-produced exhibitions stemming from Tråante will be on view. Tensta Konsthall will show Let the River Flow, the celebrated Office for Contemporary Arts exhibition of Sami artists who protested against the development of the Alta River in 1980, and Edsvik Konsthall in Sollentuna outside Stockholm, will host Áigemátki/Time travel, the Sami artist association juried show from 2017. The exhibition in Tensta opens February 4th, while the one in Edsvik opens January 26th.
One domestic venture that addresses Sweden’s colonial history is Carl Johan De Geer’s Family and slaves, currently on view at Norrköping Art Museum and scheduled to open at Södertälje konsthall on May 18th. The exhibition is based on the artist’s unexpected meeting with a man whose African ancestor was sold as a slave by the De Geer family in the 17th century. During the spring, De Geer will also be acknowledged as a textile artist in an exhibition at Bildmuseet in Umeå. It’s called The Big Misconception, and opens April 12th.
For a less predictable art scene
A regrettable tendency in the Swedish art scene is that artists from different generations tend to be isolated from each other. Old and young are often shown in different places and in different exhibitions. It is a kind of constraint that contributes to a predictable and uniform art scene. If I look at the Swedish spring season, nothing really stands out or surprises, even though some institutions obviously seem more open-minded than others.
A space that does distinguish itself in this regard is the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, whose combination of retrospectives, grant exhibitions, and external gallery exhibitions can often result in a rather dynamic mix of different expressions and generations. Here, you can see artists who for various reasons have not emerged on the art scene in a way that they could have. This includes Markus Anteskog who, after a long illness, now returns with an exhibition about the nuclear threat as a historical and contemporary reality. The Academy will also show a retrospective of the recently-departed Swedish painter Curt Asker (1930–2015), whose work has not been shown on a larger scale in Sweden for several years.
Both exhibitions open this Saturday. As do shows by Andreas Mangione and Michael Rupini at the Stockholm galleries Elastic and Belenius, respectively. The spring art season is underway in a country that has a government for the first time in almost four months.