Art Is for Everyone

A new exhibition at Lund Konsthall holds the key to a progressive, and playful, debate on public art.

Egon Möller-Nielsen, Tufsen (The Tassle), 1949. Photo: Sune Sundahl.

“We used to raise huge equestrian statues of worldly rulers. Today, we build play sculptures for our children. It is a beautiful and wonderful human progress.” Indeed. The quote is from a newspaper clipping displayed inside a glass case inThe Playground Project at Lund Konsthall: a commentary by art critic Ulf Hård af Segerstad on the inauguration of Danish artist Egon Möller-Nielsen’s “genius” play sculpture Ägget (The Egg) in Hökarängen, Stockholm, 1951.

A similar judgment could be made about The Playground Project, which I am poised to name as one of this year’s most important exhibitions. It is about the common history of modern play sculptures and playgrounds, from the Danish architect Carl Theodor Sörensen’s junk playgrounds in the 1940s to the Swedish “parklek,” adventure playgrounds, and collectives such as Group Ludic and Spielwagen Berlin. And, of course, The Model – A Model for a Qualitative Society, the iconic 1968 exhibition at Moderna Museet which would hardly have been possible without Sörensen and the other pioneers in this encyclopaedic presentation. 

Visitors to Lund Konsthall can immerse themselves in documentary materials and engage with famous play sculptures like Iwan Pestalozzi’s spectacular Lozziwurm (1972–ongoing) in the front room. Yet, I find myself most affected by an inconspicuous documentary about the city’s local play sculptures, a genre that turns out to be unexpectedly vital with beautiful works by contemporary artists such as Truls Melin, Ingrid Furre, and David Krantz. To my mind, this captures the exhibition’s “collective genius,” the crucial mix of the heroic and the mundane that characterises the radical play environment’s at once experimental and social ideals.

It’s obvious that this radicalism is not highly valued today. In fact, it is only when I read the curator Gabriela Burkhalter’s catalogue essay that I realise that Möller-Nielsen’s Tufsen (The Tassle) from 1949 is the first modern play sculpture. Or, as she writes, “the first anti-elitist work that united abstraction and play in public space.” Today, Tufsen is a beloved feature in some ten parks around Sweden, but how many recognise that this is the aesthetic expression of an ideological revolution that sought to supplant the nineteenth-century bourgeois ideal of a public art for the ruling classes with the welfare society’s ideal of an art for all – including our little ones?

On my way home from Lund, I leaf through the anthology Omförhandlingar. Den offentliga konstens roll efter millennieskiftet (Renegotiations. On the role of public art after the turn of the millennium, 2021), published by Södertörn University and funded by Public Art Agency Sweden. Though not without merit, I’m struck by the fact that the book ideologically blinds itself to Burkhalter’s “anti-elitism,” even though this is obviously an essential feature of the admittedly complex history of public art. Hård af Segerstad gives a good summary when he emphasises that Ägget is not only what it is for (child’s play), but also what it is against (authority, with its equestrian statues and symbols of power). And not only that: the play sculpture actively inverts hierarchies in its attempt to construct a public space with imagination and play – not the power to dominate over others – as its guiding principles.

This is no minor detail, but the very essence of what makes the Public Art Agency’s historical slogan of an “art for all” something more than a catchphrase. To be sure, it has often been just that. But there is no denying that this egalitarian principle, with historical roots in both the labour movement and modern art, has been crucial to the democratisation of public space. This is precisely what The Playground Project demonstrates. Not only were twentieth-century artists influenced by child’s play, but their work was, aesthetically and politically, decisive for the innovation of new play environments, and thus instrumental to social change. 

Unfortunately, the anthology downplays public art’s dimension of political conflict, either by ignoring it (as in the case of recent debates on colonialist monuments), or by not taking it seriously (as in the case of the Public Art Agency’s flagship project Eternal Employment [2018– ongoing], which, by contrast, is the focus of several of the contributions). The latter is a much debated public art project by artist duo Goldin + Senneby, which aims to invest the production budget in the stock market and use the proceeds to employ a worker to do nothing. Or, more precisely, to show up twice a day on a train platform in Gothenburg to literally punch in and out for the remainder of an “eternal employment,” which other than that lacks a job description. The stated intention being to explore the consequences of a society where the return on capital is higher than the increase in wages.

Now, this can certainly be considered as an “interesting and ambitious” (albeit “problematic”) work of public art, as Dan Karlholm does in the anthology. Or we can consider it, as I have argued elsewhere, a betrayal of the Public Art Agency’s social and democratic heritage by re-establishing the hierarchies and bourgeois dominance of public space that progressive forces sought to dismantle during the 20th century. That is, instead of the ‘boring’ ideal of an art for all – which is crucially both something (i.e. a play sculpture) and not something (i.e. a symbol of power) – this project turns the tables to re-entrench the dominant public presence of the ruling class of employers, which has long been frowned upon as subject of public art.

Karlhom’s mistake is to conceptualise the project as “a form without content,” which simply “asks the question of what work is […] but delegates to the future to find out the answer.” Yet, it is clear that it does have a content: the employment itself. The worker, meanwhile, is ‘eternally’ interchangeable. And there it is, the ’future of work’, anticipated.

Meanwhile, as an art historian should realise, we can literally walk into any museum and point to any number of artworks based on more radical ideas of work (such as play, revolt, resistance, and self-reliance, to name a few) than the idea of wage labour based on an unequal contract between employer and employee. Lack of directives does not turn employment itself into an empty – apolitical or ahistorical – form. It is still employer-art based on the historically specific expression of the organisation of social relations under capitalism. And even though the salary is to be paid through investment gains, it is no mystery where the funding initially came from.

In contrast, it is particularly noteworthy that The Playground Project underscores how both modernist abstraction and 1960s experimentalism can be seen as complementary expressions of the political ideals of equality that have united anti-bourgeois, playful, and insurgent practices over time. This is not surprising, given how the context has changed in the past few years, with a greater awareness of growing class divisions, on the one hand, and a conservative onslaught to re-establish social division and economic dominance, on the other. 

I think it is in this context that we must consider the Swedish cultural establishment’s staunch support for Eternal Employment, which recently resurfaced when it was made public that the work will (probably) not be realised due to legislation prohibiting public funding to be used for stock market speculation. According to Magdalena Malm, the former director of Public Art Agency, this is a case of state bureacracy “threatening artistic freedom.” But is it ‘freedom’ which is at stake here, or is it rather the ruling class of employers – and their supporting ranks in the professional-managerial class – being denied an artwork which they feel represents them, and for which they can take a stand? If so, a lot of the hoo-ha could be explained as a reaction to recent demands to decolonise public space.

For my part, I feel more represented by Axel Nordell’s play sculpture Röd räv (Red fox, 1972), which shines like a bright exclamation mark in the courtyard of Lund Konsthall; just one example of the opportunities for play that the artist’s imaginative creations have offered children in numerous Swedish towns since the 1960s. Nordell may be less groundbreaking than Möller-Nielsen and other pioneers included in The Playground Project. Yet, here he is, one of several unsung heroes in a story that is a perfect starting point for a progressive conversation on art and public space after the turn of the millennium, leaving the cynical provocations of the 2010s behind.

Frans Josef Petersson, Swedish editor of Kunstkritikk.