Autumn of Love

Social justice movements have had a strong impact on the Swedish art world, but whether it has actually become more permissive is up for debate.

Ajamu X, Bodybuilder with Bra,1990.

Sometimes when I despair about the state of contemporary art and criticism, I leaf through my copy of the artist Jan Håfström’s collected writings, which was published a couple of years ago. Håfström writes about art in a way that is unusual today. His writing is gentle, as if the language has been allowed to pass through his body before being put on paper. One of the texts begins with a quote by the painter Lill-Marie Blomgren: “…what is then possible for someone like me.” It is about Swedish stinginess, about how artists like Blomberg, who don’t fit with the current trends, are often left by the wayside and forgotten. We have to allow ourselves “the democratic luxury of now and then looking to the side,” Håfström underscores. 

In recent years, movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have demanded that we deal with ingrained notions that determine which artists are brought to the fore and which ones fall to the side, and that we should stand aside from our usual point of view to see what becomes visible from this new angle. To some extent, this has brought about a change. If we look at the fall season, Swedish art institutions are dominated by solo exhibitions by women artists. This was certainly not the case just a few years ago. BIPOC and LGBTQI+ artists are more visible as well. And the diversity of media and expressions has perhaps never been greater. 

Whether this means that art has actually changed, and whether the art world has become more permissive in the way that Håfström refers to is, of course, less certain. There are even signs that social conformism has increased: the eye of the needle is getting smaller for those who are admitted to the art academies and the academies’ doctoral programmes are turning into upper-class ghettos. Indeed, class is a blind spot of the contemporary art world.

In other words, a seasonal overview like this one must be read with scepticism, since it covers (as everyone realises) only what becomes visible from a specific angle, at a certain point in time. Yet, here are ten exhibitions that seem worth paying attention to this autumn. There will, of course, be much else to see, above, below, or beside the places mentioned here.

Evan Ifekoya, Ritual without Belief, soundinstallation, 2018 with Ajamu X, Bodybuilder with Bra, 1990, in the background. Installation view from Röda Sten Konsthall. Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

The Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA). The Ghost Ship and the Sea Change, 4 September–21 November 

It is hard to deny that GIBCA is one of this fall’s major art events in Sweden. It is the second edition curated by Lisa Rosendahl and continues with the postcolonial theme launched in 2019. Back then, the reviews were cautiously sympathetic, and the same can be said about the reception of the first part of this year’s biennial, which opened in early summer. Will Rosendahl succeed in connecting her multi-part project? Have the conditions changed after the surge of Black Lives Matter? Will the result be a representative affair, or will the works be able to carry themselves – their own materiality and complexity – beyond the narrative of decolonisation? Hopefully, such questions will be answered when works by around forty artists come together for the grand opening in Gothenburg next week.

Martha Edelheit, J x 2, acrylic on canvas, 132 x 134 cm, 1971.

Martha Edelheit, The Naked Truth: Works from the 60’s & 70’s, 3 September, Larsen/Warner, Stockholm

When Kunstkritikk interviewed Martha Edelheit last autumn, it might have come as a surprise to some people that this legend of American post-war art has been living on an island outside Stockholm for the last thirty years. But after a couple of decades out of the limelight, Jerry Saltz’s favourite painter is back with New York-gallery representation, major art fair participation, and, now, an exhibition at the Stockholm gallery Larsen/Warner. The exhibition is set to open on the artist’s 90th birthday and is the first ever presentation in Sweden of her distinctive nude paintings from the 1960s and 70s. Congratulations, Martha!

Jan Manker, FN – Förvirrade nationerna [UN – Untangled Nations], collage on board, 75 x 83 cm, 1967.

Jan Manker, Experiments from the 60s, 28 August–25 September, Belenius, Stockholm

Belenius’ announcement of its first exhibition with the Swedish artist Jan Manker is one of the season’s most pleasant surprises so far. Yet, it is perhaps not entirely unexpected. Like Ulla Wiggen (who also exhibits at the gallery), Manker was part of the circle around Öyvind Fahlström in the 1960s, and, like her, he is a meticulous painter with a flair for technology. This has resulted in a distinct painting style dense with historical and contemporary references that the artist continues to develop to this day. However, the Belenius show will focus exclusively on his Rauschenberg-esque work from the 60s. Surely, one of the major museums must arrange a comprehensive retrospective of Manker’s work in the near future.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan & Bassel Abi Chahine, Shot Twice (By the Same Bullet), installation view, 2021.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Dirty Evidence, 1 September–7 November, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s first solo show in Sweden feels a bit like a sequel to the thematic exhibition The Image of War which was shown at Bonniers Konsthall in 2018 (which Abu Hamdan participated in). Then, it was about the ethical dimensions of images that testify to violence. Now, it’s about the material, political, and forensic aspects of sound. There will be both new and old works, as well as the first major monograph on Abu Hamdan.

Installation view from William Kentridge’s exhibition at Kummelholmen in 2019.

Heat / Energy, 7 September–17 October, Kummelholmen, Stockholm 

The most successful exhibitions at the disused boiler plant Kummelholmen in a suburb south of Stockholm have probably been solo presentations with artists such as Swedish sculptor Lars Kleen and William Kentridge that tackled the barren, post-industrial space as a whole. This fall, the building will instead house an international group exhibition on the theme “energy, water, and heat.” Some twenty artists from different generations will address the topic of human vulnerability, perhaps the very basis for our need for community – and for art? The challenge will be to handle a large number of different expressions in a difficult environment.

Victoria Verseau, A Body of Ghosts, installation view, 2020. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

Victoria Verseau, Engender My Past, 7 October–21 November, Uppsala Art Museum

The recent surge of transphobia from various pundits and radical feminists makes me think that Swedish artist Victoria Verseau’s exhibition at Uppsala Art Museum couldn’t have been more timely. Not because her works are opinion pieces, but, on the contrary, because they embody what a debate doesn’t: the personal, nuanced, and complex dimensions of lived experience. Verseau works associatively with concrete materials: images, sculpture, language, and her own body, which has undergone gender-confirming treatment. The results are sensual reflections on perception, memory, and identity – universal topics that concern us all, but shaped from a transgender perspective. This will be Verseau’s first solo exhibition after graduating from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm last year.

Rut Hillarp, Förbjuden färd [Forbidden trip],1980.

Rut Hillarp, Fullersta Gård, 9 October 2021–16 January 2022, Stockholm

The reception of the Swedish poet, experimental filmmaker, and collage artist Rut Hillarp (1914–2003) has often been marked by the fact that the pursuit of sexual submission was a central theme both in her work and in her relationships with men. In her biography from 2011, author Birgitta Holm dubs Hillarp an “erotic genius,” and has continued to reflect on the poet’s masochistic desires as a way to delimit female subordination to the domain of sexuality and open up other possibilities outside that space. Yet, Holm gives no definite answers, nor are there any in Hillarp’s ​​work which went against the petty-bourgeois idea that art should correspond to a certain model of how life should be. It will be interesting to see how the small institution Fullersta Gård takes on Hillarp’s multi-layered practice in a retrospective which will include forty photographs and collages as well as her films, including the never before screened Dead Drunk from the 1960s.

Ruben Nilson, The History of the Labour Movement, 1940s.

A Careful Strike, 7 October–11 December, Mint, Stockholm

Ruben Nilson (1893–1971) is best known as a songwriter, but he was also a painter whose most famous work is the 4.5 x 3 metre The History of the Labour Movement from the 1940s. This monumental painting is crammed in the basement of the ABF [the Workers’ Education Association] in Stockholm, which in recent years also houses the small exhibition space Mint. In October, it will open an exhibition, curated by Michele Masucci, which aims to link the painting’s motives to the project of extending the labour movement’s traditional interest in class struggle to the struggles of Indigenous populations, the rights of LGBTQI+ people, migration and so on (without compromising Nilson’s class-consciousness, I should hope).

Julia Bondesson, Keep You in the Back of My Mind, 2015. Photo: Alexander Wireen.

Julia Bondesson, 23 October 2021–30 January, 2021, Moderna Museet Malmö

Of Moderna Museet’s fall exhibitions, I am most curious about the young Swedish artist Julia Bondesson at the museum’s branch in Malmö. Like the more acclaimed Éva Mag from the same generation, she works with sculpture – more precisely, marionettes and human figures carved in wood – that are both used in performances and considered works in their own right. Bondesson studied puppet theatre in Taiwan, and was also educated in Thailand and Japan, and one senses a critique of Western modernity’s demarcation between body and soul. The show fits with the institutional trend of exhibiting performances, but it would have been more exciting if the artist had been given the museum’s entire Turbine Hall at her disposal.

Zanele Muholi, Miss D’vine, Yeoville Johannesburg, 2007.

Zanele Muholi, 27 November 2021–8 May 2022, Bildmuseet, Umeå

Ever since the 1990s, Bildmuseet in Umeå has insisted on a photographic, documentary, and postcolonial exhibition programme. At times, it may feel a bit pre-packaged, but this fall I would very much like to see the South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s intimate and powerful, almost sculptural, portraits of Black LGBTQI+ people, which were prominent at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The exhibition is made in collaboration with, among others, Tate Modern, where it was shown earlier this spring.