A Troll’s Tall Tale

Can Tori Wrånes’s melancholic fairy-feminism save us from patriarchy?

Tori Wrånes, Your Next Vacation Is Calling (still),  2014–2017.

At the center of acclaimed Norwegian artist Tore Wrånes’s first major solo exhibition in Sweden is the video installation Your Next Vacation Is Calling (2014–2017). Some ten sculptures and paintings are placed around it in the rectangular gallery. Based on documentation of a performance at Lilith Performance Studio in Malmö 2014, the video is presented as three projections placed side by side, like a semi open altarpiece.

Seen on all three screens is a troll figure with cornrows, performed by the artist herself, singing a monotone wordless hymn that creates the sonic backdrop for the entire exhibition. It is both a melancholy and a prayer-like tone, which is acknowledged by dancers who, in their turn, support Wrånes’s character as the work’s superstar. While many artists today turn to an animistic relation to the world – as troll mythology would seemingly imply – there is rather, a Christian dimension to this exhibition.

Crush patriarchy

In terms of film and montage there is no ambition to make anything new. Instead, Wrånes makes use of a conventional form that supposes we, as an audience, believe that the artist believes in something to which we might gain access. This separates her from, for example, Ryan Trecartin, who also works with extreme stagings before the camera. In contrast to the American star, Wrånes doesn’t make critical use of any contemporary form of entertainment, such as the television reality show. Rather, it seems as if the artist, who is also a musician, is working from within a traditional concert form.

Yet, Wrånes’s troll milieu is not only mythical, but also full of contemporary elements such as down jackets, gym references, and sports fashion. It is this mix of contemporary and historical references that separates her from artists like Joseph Beuys or Jackson Pollock, who less reservedly appropriated different conceptions of nature with a capital N, in order to make new forms. Wrånes by contrast works from a queer feminist performance tradition that simulates the possibility of immediate natural expression in hopes of shattering patriarchy’s objectification of female nature.

Melancholy genre art

The method is familiar from Anne Imhof’s theatrical performance Faust at the German Pavilion at the Venice biennial in 2017. Yet, while Imhof combined alienating conventions of fashion with fascist architecture and a work that defines the “Goethe-zeit,” Wrånes turns to a mythology that is less high culture.

Additionally, by forcing the audience to move through the historically-laden gallery space in order to follow the drama, Imhof made impossible any fixed viewpoint from which to critically reflect on the work, whereas Wrånes operates with a relatively stable relation between the work and the audience. To the extent that she does make a critical adaptation of the museum’s space and ideology, this functions only marginally in the exhibition. When she places a large ring on the museum’s ceiling, it is not a subcultural criticism, but a way of telling us, with a rather lame gesture, that we are still discontent in the culture that we ourselves take part in reproducing.

Tori Wrånes, Mom, don’t you miss the real me, 2015.

Wrånes and Imhof, however, have something crucial in common: both practice an accelerated melancholy. This would explain why Wrånes’s exhibition is full of sculptures and paintings that appear as traditional art, only a little more theatrically lit. This is telling of an attitude toward art history that is neither affirming nor critical, but instrumental. In contrast to Imhof’s zombiesque anti-heroes, Wrånes practice is seemingly genre art, which, rather than producing new forms, returns to a lost hope by presenting the punk popstar as a post-Christian saviour. 

Elastic bodies

Wrånes’s painting Poland (2019) is an obvious response to the museum’s parallel exhibition Młoda Polska. Polish Fin de Siècle Art. But rather than offering a critical perspective on the nature lyricism that is characteristic of art from the end of the century, Wrånes appears to seek a bridge between the melancholy in Młoda Polska and her own exhibition. Like most of her paintings, Poland is a blobby and sculptural mix of colour – in this case, the palette of the Polish flag. If abstract art since the second world war came to be guided by the notion of a new universal language, then I think that Wrånes’s abstraction is only secondarily about readability. Rather, it appears as a desperate attempt at producing a satisfying sensation in the physical meeting with the material, in a way more related to the latest slime trend on YouTube than art.

Yet, these solidified slime abstractions can also be viewed as continuations of figurative works where the human body is made into something particularly elastic. In a corner of the gallery is a sculpture of a white-clad, amorphous female body on its way into the wall and coming out on the other side – a good way out for anybody pressed into a corner. Another sculpture shows the lower parts of two human bodies dressed in faded jeans and cream white dad sneakers; they are attached at each others’ waists, apparently having a hard time getting off the gallery floor. If this is a portrayal of youth, it lacks the ability to grow up.

Tori Wrånes, Beanbag 3, 2015.

Painting as punching bag

From the ceiling hangs the sculpture Beanbag 3 (2015), which mixes the thrash version of Louise Bourgeois’s surrealism with boxing aesthetics. Instead of marks from gloves and punches, the punching bag is decorated with an abstract painting. This is a work that functions as an entry point into the exhibition’s more outright paintings, which, because of Beanbag 3, can be read at the intersection of psychoanalytically coded surrealism and that part of sport that has not yet been captured by the Adidas-Left or the branding of the sporting industry.

On the whole, it can be said that Wrånes’s becoming-troll is a more audience-friendly cousin of Ann-Sofie Sidén’s fictional character Queen of Mud. It is never quite incisive enough. Despite the stickiness, there is nothing disgusting (as in the work of Paul McCarthy), and even though it could appear frightening, there is no utilisation of the uncanny (as in Bruce Nauman’s clowns). And whereas a Swedish artist of the same generation, Anastasia Ax, works with a boxing-like aggressiveness in her painting, Wrånes establishes an entirely other relation – softer and sadder – to both the muddy and the sporty.

In Göteborg, Wrånes’s art appears as an ambivalent effort to make the contemporary more alienated than it already is. Despite the troll mythology, she seemingly does not seek to seduce the audience into an alternative cosmology, or confront us with a new institution-critical realism. At worst, all of this is bad theatre; at best, it is an heroic attempt at keeping hope in a hopeless time.

Installation view from Tori Wrånes´exhibition at Göteborgs Konstmuseum.