With a Danish ghost ship and humorous decolonial propaganda, the first part of the 11th Gothenburg Biennial wants to serve as a counter-narrative to the city’s official 400-year anniversary.

Tabita Rezaire, Sorry for Real, video still, 2015.

As a resident of Gothenburg, I recently received a map of the city’s landmarks featuring a sailboat cruising at the mouth of the Göta River, and on the tram travelling to the inauguration of the 11th Gothenburg Biennial (GIBCA), we were encouraged to cheer for the city which turns 400 in 2021. GIBCA’s ambition is to serve as a counter-narrative to this official anniversary celebration, which would have been even more apt if the festivities had not been postponed until 2022 due to the pandemic. Yet, curator Lisa Rosendahl wants to turn this belatedness into an advantage, emphasising that the biennial can now influence how Gothenburg thinks about its history and anniversary. Which, in a way, is an even more interesting provocation.

The first part of GIBCA 2021 is shown mainly in the post-industrial setting of Röda Sten Konsthall, and is intended as a prelude to the grand opening in September. Unusually, Rosendahl was engaged as curator for two consecutive editions, starting with GIBCA 2019 which set the linear chronology of industrial modernity against the notion of time as a spiral. This theme is now further developed on the basis of Gothenburg as a port city. Yet, among the ten artists shown at Röda Sten there are no contributions that deal explicitly with the city’s history. Instead, the exhibition takes a global approach, moving the viewer around as a witness to colonialism’s atrocities on different continents.

Anna Ling, Zostera marina (eel grass), ink on paper, 2021. Installation view, Röda Sten Konsthall. Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

In the large hall at Röda Sten, Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik has created an exhibition architecture in the form of a replica of a Danish Caribbean frigate that sank off the coast of Gothenburg in the 17th century. Comprising large wooden planks in curved shapes, it is not a realistic copy, but an abstraction of the ship’s hull. These ‘walls’ guide the visitors’ paths, and concentrate the experience by dividing the room into smaller sections and passages, where the works are installed on the fronts and backs of the planks. The ghost ship is intended to haunt Gothenburg as a memory from its colonial past, but in practice works as a reminder that the exhibited works can be associated with the city’s history despite the fact that this association is hardly thematised by the mostly international artists on display here.

The Pakistani artist Hira Nabi’s film All That Perishes at the Edge of Land (2019), projected on the back of the first ship wall, follows the arduous work of dismantling a cargo ship at a ship-breaking yard. By focusing on the workers’ dreamless struggle for survival, the film establishes a geopolitical counterpoint to Gothenburg’s often idealised maritime heritage. The cargo ship is given a human voice, telling the story of a hectic life in the service of the shipping industry, while also considering how it will live on as a ghost of asbestos and oil in the workers’ bodies. I recall Sweden’s unofficial poet laureate Evert Taube’s song Så länge skutan kan gå (As long as the ship can sail), which Nabi complements with this gripping portrait of a ship’s death throes on the landfill of predatory capitalism.

Further in hangs Anna Ling’s large ink drawings Zostera marina (eelgrass) (2021), based on aerial photographs of nearby Bohuslän County’s eelgrass meadows. Like many post-minimalists, Ling conveys emotional and political messages through low-key repetitions of the same motif. I am reminded that eelgrass meadows function as a kind of nursery where spawn can grow in a protected environment, and that large parts of this vital biotope have been destroyed by pollution. What catches me, however, are the emotional moods of the drawings, where black and white seas consisting of at once amorphous and carefully controlled ink stains bloom over dry linen canvases. Indeed, Ling’s diligent and fine-tuned sensitivity is precisely what is required to recreate these endangered underwater beds, which makes me think of these drawings as a kind of marine-biological total work of art.

Evan Ifekoya, Ritual without Belief, sound installation, 2018. Installation view, Röda Sten Konsthall. Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

A loud ringtone makes me aware of the Guyana-based artist Tabita Rezaire’s film Sorry for Real (2015), an Afropessimist satire on political correctness and the white supremacy of digital culture. The film’s protagonist is a smartphone, said to belong to the Western world, apologising for its abuses in a computer-generated voice. The narrative is complicated by the montage on the display, showing sexualised Black bodies, 3-D modelled vaginas, and hypnotic yin and yang symbols. Critical messages resenting the West’s manipulative talk of reconciliation appear on the screen. Through its combination of humour and internet aesthetics, Rezaire’s film functions as an eye-catcher, captivating visitors with its decolonial propaganda.

Less convincing are the German artist Susanne Kriemann’s paired photographs, hidden on the back of one of the ship walls, showing garbage-strewn mangrove forests where plastic bags and metal waste have got stuck in the trees’ winding root system. By incorporating into the photographic prints actual debris collected on-site, Kriemann has introduced subtle modifications which entice the viewer into a predictable game of stimulus and response. 

Evan Ifekoya’s six-hour-long polyphonic jumble of voices, reverberations, and ambient loops is, on the other hand, anything but predictable. Ritual Without Belief (2018) is shown upstairs in a gallery with a plastic floor covering depicting water crashing into the far wall like an ossified tidal wave. There are colourful balloons on the ceiling, and one of the walls features a photograph by Ajamu X depicting a Black bodybuilder wearing a thin bra. The artist has thrown a pair of glittering black foam mattresses on the floor so the visitor can lie down and wholeheartedly take in the atmosphere. Mostly, it feels like walking into a deserted after-party, where Ifekoya’s repetitive proclamations about the healing power of the root chakra make me leave rather quickly.

GIBCA. The Ghost Ship and the Sea Change, 2021. Installation view, Röda Sten Konsthall. Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

In addition to Röda Sten, a few works have been installed around Gothenburg. Ibrahim Mahama, whose monumental wrapping of Kassel’s historic Torwache building during Documenta 14 made a strong impression on me, shows a less spectacular, photo-based work on another plank wall installed near Packhuskajen – formerly known as the French Lot – a site with a colonial history that constitutes the biennial’s metaphorical centre. Mahama has photographed the forearms of Ghanaian workers tattooed with their personal data for lack of other identity documents. These are set against a backdrop of worn leather seats from trains that were installed during the British colonial rule. The photomural also shows British maps of Ghana from this period. In the piece, the movements of the workers are not only of a conceptual nature; their arms morbidly appear as goods transported on a conveyor belt. These limbs appear to be simultaneously alive and amputated, effectively evoking an understanding of the necropolitical effects of colonial capitalism. 

I appreciate GIBCA’s ambition to be a thorn in the side of Gothenburg’s self-image, but I’m not entirely convinced that the biennial will succeed in changing the historical consciousness of a city where enlightenment is synonymous with more street lights. This would probably require more insidious strategies, which of course we may see in September when another ten venues and about thirty artists will be added to the exhibition. Furthermore, I wonder if it is really capitalism that haunts the biennial, as suggested by several works that highlight its destructive effects. Communism’s spectral return does not seem to belong to the exhibition concept, and GIBCA does not propose the collective political forms that would actually make a difference in the fight against capitalism’s allegedly nebulous, global, and ever-evasive figure.