Art Still Has Something

If contemporary art is as toothless as this year's Luleå Biennial seems to argue, why should we engage with it? Luckily, the biennial offers a rather convincing answer to that question.

Iris Smeds, Real-life Larva, cloth, styrofoam, silicone, nylon stocking, cardboard, 2020. Installation view from Luleå Konsthall.

Unlike many other biennials, the Luleå Biennial emerges as a completely sincere presentation that isn’t satisfied with simply signalling commitment to a society that isn’t receptive to art. On the contrary, it seems to pose a question to the public: Can art really play an important role in our society now, in this, as the exhibition is titled, Time on Earth?

Like the 2018 edition, curators Emily Fahlén and Asrin Haidari are the artistic directors, but this time together with Karin Bähler Lavér. Also like last time, this year’s biennial takes place in about ten venues around the Norrbotten region of northern Sweden. The German artist Charlotte Posenenske (1930–1985) has been given a prominent place with the work Serie D (D Series, 1967), which is shown both at Luleå Art Gallery and Havremagasinet in Boden. The work is a series in six parts, consisting of square tubes that can be freely joined together in whatever shape you want. These sheet metal surfaces break off in the exhibition halls as appropriate meaninglessness.

Yet, the interesting thing is that Posenenske stopped making art the following year, when she came to realise its “inability to influence important social problems.” Instead, she became a sociologist focused on labour law. This is a harsh curatorial move, one that exposes the entire biennial to the question of its own significance as a societal phenomenon.

Måns Wrange, Monument, coffee, porcelain, wood, plastic, electric pump, 1993.

Posenenske’s statement makes Måns Wrange’s Monument (1993), a coffee pot with six spouts from which coffee overflows into matching cups, look like a smirk. The work is part of Wrange’s project The Aesthetics and Politics of Goodness (1991–99), which is about how the idea of home guided the foundation of the welfare state by linking certain political tasks to aesthetic alternatives. Thus, Wrange’s piece points to a time in which art actually did have a social function. But in this presentation, it has the opposite effect of making today’s public art discourse sound false. Then, why should people engage with art if it is as powerless as Posenenske and the Luleå Biennial claim? Cultural policy slogans about ‘lowering thresholds’ and ‘art for all’ feel meaningless at best and cynical at worst.

Opposite Wrange’s work is Isak Sundström’s installation In Memory of an Illusionist (2020). The local magician Arne Stenman’s magic cape hangs alongside his cloths and drapery, the fabrics disintegrating but still colourful. A photograph of his main creation, Nordiska Trolleri-Apparat-Fabriken (the Nordic Factory of Wizardry Appliances) accompanies the textile remnants. According to Sundström, you could order magic tricks from the factory by mail during the 1950s, a kind of investment in magical thinking that customers knew was a completely un-magical illusion. Lowering the thresholds for magic for everyone.

Apostolos Georgiou, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 170 x 170 cm, 2017.

I think there is a straightforward analogy here between this disenchanted approach to magic and our perspective on art in the fifty years since Posenenske defected: Weak ‘art’ is either a pretext for pure business, or a memorial to the hopes that were once linked to art. These issues are made sadder by the fact that Sundström’s work has a tangible poetic power. Art still has something, but something that doesn’t really manage to have art’s effects. Is this what the biennial wants to change by addressing the issue of realism? In that case, it is both daring and admirable. In fact, I think it might be quite successful.

In the monthly biennial journal Lulu-journal, professor and literary critic Stefan Jonsson attempts to resurrect realism as something other than a style or an era to return to. Instead, Jonsson wants to understand realism as “truthful to reality,” which operates by forcing us to “pair […] art and truth” and understand “the work of art as both an aesthetic presentation and a cognitive tool.” But I have a hard time seeing that as desirable. Isn’t knowledge nowadays as impotent as art, if not more? The truth is no longer something people must respect and claim – especially not if you have power in society. If commitment to reality has any sway today, it is certainly not via truth, but rather through fiction. In this way, I’m more convinced by the curators’ talk of a theatrical and staged realism, “alienated and completely absurd.” The task of realism is not truth, but reality “as whole” and “meaningful.”

 Susanna Jablonski, Untitled, handblown glas, wood, 86 x 15 (to the left) Charlotte Posenenske, Serie D (to the right), metal, 1967. Installations view from Havremagasinet, Boden.

Iris Smeds’s styrofoam sculpture Real-life Larva (2020) appears as a direct response to this absurd form of realism, finding other paths than that of the truth. The sculpture is of a maggot sticking its head out from a mouldy loaf of bread. It’s been lying there for a while, drawing fresh loaves on papers scattered about the floor. Perhaps this is what the reality of bread looks like if you’re a maggot on the inside, but from the outside, this is certainly not a truthful image. The worm is crying, probably not because the image isn’t right, but because it is meaningless. Or perhaps it knows that even if its drawings did depict reality, they would still be met with quizzical looks from a thoroughly commercialised public: What’s the use of reality if it can’t be sold?

If reality is a continuum where everyday life, mental states, chemical substances, biomechanics, and working conditions are connected, then true and false are not the decisive criteria for realism, but rather fair and unfair, dignified and unworthy, acceptable and unacceptable. At least, this is the lens from which the exhibition sees the world. Included here are documentary photographs and films of strikes (Ingela Johansson, Odd Uhrbom), prison conditions (Peter Weiss & Hans Nordenström, Maria W Horn), hard labour (Yngve Baum, Jean Hermansson), and paintings from a mental hospital (Augusta Strömberg). The question posed by this material is not primarily is this true? But: Is this acceptable? Is this fair?

Augusta Strömberg, paintings from Ulleråker Hospital, mixed media, 1900~1932 & Susanna Jablonski, Flights, ceramic, water, marble wood, wasp’s nest, clay, 2015–2020. Installation view from Galleri Syster, Luleå.

Those perspectives make up the overall feeling of this year’s biennial, from Luleå to the mining town Malmberget. It is the perspective of the subordinate citizen in different guises (worker, patient, prisoner, refugee, disabled, and so on). This perspective is not only established by the works in the biennial, but also by their very successful placement in relation to existing artworks. The lovely mosaic on a wall in the school building in Malmberget becomes a backdrop for Hanna Ljung & Mattias Hållsten’s sound installation Seismic Event (2017). Reports of constant tremors from the mines beneath the town are read to the sound of dull slow vibrations, providing a counterpoint to the mosaic which depicts the population engaging in outdoor activities. A devilish chord reverberates through the idyllic image of a people in harmony with nature; it makes me think of those actually exposed to the ravages of the mining industry, right under the feet of the figures in the picture. Here, art sets up a perceived solidarity as the basic perspective.

Norbotten Museum’s exhibition Svärta: Swedish Photographers of Hard Labour 1968–74 is also shown in the school building in Malmberget as part of the biennial. The photographs of workers are animated by large wooden sculptures by the Norwegian Sámi sculptor Aage Gaup. The mysterious sculptures – sparsely placed in a hall as if they were abandoned, or waiting for something – are inspired by symbols on the drums of the noaidi, Sámi shamans. Through the association to Gaup’s work, the workers become demonic, as if they were released from mines and factories, and their mere visibility makes me anxiously ask myself whether I find life to be acceptable and fair.

Aage Gaup, Dološ giella – ođđa hápmi ja báhtareaddjit (Old Language – New Form and Refugees), wood, 2018. Installation view from Välkommaskolan i Malmberget.

The association between working life and invisible forces reoccurs in Giorgi Gago Gagoshidze’s film about a father who lost his hand in a labour accident abroad. Thanks to social insurance in the country he was working in, his missing hand now provides a security to him and his family that he would never have been able to obtain had he still been exposed to the insecurities of the labour market. It is simultaneously banal and very shady, and thus indicative of the everyday mystification that perhaps above all affects workers who perform dangerous jobs. And mystification is precisely one aspect of life that fiction is better than knowledge at dealing with, because fiction captures its reality, not its falsehood.

Ljung & Hållsten, Gagoshidze, and Sundström all call what their work leads them to a “phantom reality.” As in the mountains, it’s emptiness itself that, strangely enough, can trigger tremors. As if emptiness were a phantom matter, illusionism appears as a phantom pain of magic, and insurance money gains the same veracity as the phantom pain of the lost hand. What are we missing today? Perhaps not art, realistic or otherwise, but a public reception that is open to art as culture, rather than as a specialised form of knowledge or a market. Perhaps culture’s disappearance is the phantom pain of the Luleå biennial? And to be open to art as a culture, the audience must be recognised as whole people, not as work units to organise and utilise.

Charlotte Posenenske, Serie D, 1967 (to the left); Måns Wrange, Monument, 1993 (in the centre); Cara Tolmie & Susanna Jablonski, Listening Curtain, wool, velvet, nylon, 2019. Installation view from Luleå Konsthall.

The problem is that the public sphere has been taken over by the intellectual wasteland of neoliberalism. The public perspective is that of owners and financiers who have more right than others to have their demands met. Thinking has become business-like and everything has become negotiable. Hence, the lost power of knowledge. The commons may no longer be understood in any other way than as something that competition has not yet made into private property. This perspective has rendered the public impervious to art. And the art world is adapting. Instead of saying that artists depict, we switched to academically talking about how they ‘problematise’. This process has gone even further today, when it seems more serious to say that artists ‘renegotiate’ something. We have also stopped talking about subjectivity (that is, the ability to initiate a new event in the world) to instead claim ‘agency’ (that is, the ability to perform an action that someone else has decided). Soon, we will arrive at ‘service’ as an artistic virtue. To counteract this, we may have to start acting as if there were a cultural public sphere. One thing is for sure: in today’s public sphere, art is completely toothless.

In Malmberget, Tomas Hämén presents Still Life 2020 consisting of “the toughest plant on earth” placed in an age accelerating machine, where the plant will age forty years during the exhibition period. Perhaps this is analogous to the biennial itself: it accelerates conditions of public reception a few years into the future so that we can see what the works would look like in a social situation that actually allows art to have the effects that it should.

Thomas Hämén, Still Life 2020, accelerated aging test chamber, Welwitschia mirabilis-plant, 2020.