Bad New Days

The Swedish art world prepares for a shift in cultural policy, and eight shows you must see this spring.

Mamma Andersson, Insomnia, oil on canvas, 80×105 cm, 2021. Photo: Per-Erik Adamsson. Courtesy of the artist and Magnus Karlsson Gallery.

The spring season will be marked by recession and attempts at reshaping cultural policy. Institutions and galleries that were already struggling in the wake of the pandemic will see their expenses go up and their sales decrease. At the same time, since October, Sweden has found itself in a completely new historical situation, with a centre-right coalition government depending on the parliamentary support of an extreme far-right party. Still, many were relieved when the Tidö Agreement, which dictates the terms of collaboration, stated that it will “safeguard the independence of the cultural sector.” Unfortunately, the wording constitutes yet another pyrrhic victory for the liberals, as it means that the Sweden Democrats will now be involved in negotiating the content of the arm’s length principle. 

A “paradigm shift” in migration and criminal policy has already been announced. How far-reaching it will be remains to be seen, but it’s not hard to imagine how the right can reach a common ground on matters of cultural policy. On 1 January, the government eliminated free entrance to state museums. The National Museum, weak from the pandemic, will have to limit access and postpone exhibitions. Was it the mere 1 per cent cut to the culture budget that attracted the government? I doubt it. More likely, it was an ideological decision aimed at depriving state museums of a ‘competitive advantage’ over private institutions. The same market-influenced ‘freedom’ argument can, of course, be deployed to undermine equality and diversity reforms, which can be said to give unfair advantages to some.

At the same time, there are problems with the political governance of arts and culture in Sweden that may give reason to review how the arm’s length principle is applied. At least, that’s what the Swedish Agency for Cultural Policy Analysis said in its report ‘How Free Is Art’, published in 2021. But that view is now being criticised by the small-scale publisher 1/21 Press. Tomorrow, Saturday, the spring season kicks off with the release of a counter-report arguing that both the agency “and the chorus of voices in the Swedish media that have repeated its arguments” have no basis for the claim that there is a politically correct standardisation of publicly funded cultural activities. The authors, researchers Kim West and Josefine Wikström (contributors to Kunstkritikk) and Gustav Strandberg, hope to start a debate on what a progressive cultural policy might look like today.

Another stakeholder joining the discussion is the newly founded Visual Arts Sweden (Bildkonst Sverige), which is the first interest group in Sweden to represent both commercial galleries, museums, and other art institutions. Its initiator and director is Magdalena Malm, former head of Public Art Agency Sweden, who believes that the visual arts have lagged behind in cultural policy contexts, partly because they have lacked a common voice in state commissioned reports and studies. In February, the organisation will publish its first report on the developments of the last fifteen years.

Personally, I think it’s obvious that the Swedish art scene is suffering from a certain standardisation and homogeneity. Incidentally, the Swedish Higher Education Authority recently disclosed that art schools have the second highest recruitment imbalance after medical schools. A case, I would say, of how decades of increasing social and economic inequality have turned the cultural sphere into a safe haven for the middle-class. Yet, I doubt this was on the new minister of education’s mind yesterday as he told the media that the Higher Education Authority will now investigate the plague of “identity politics” and “cancel culture” at Swedish universities. The bad new days are just getting started.

Fortunately, there is still art to look forward to this spring. Here are eight shows you should not miss: 

Oskar Bergman, Lyric Landscape, water color, 1912.

Oskar Bergman, Stilla natur (Still Nature), 18 February–20 August, The Thiel Gallery, Stockholm

Oskar Bergman (1879-1963) was the son of a sheet metal worker who became one of Sweden’s most beloved visual artists. He is often described as something of an outsider, who read Swedenborg and illustrated the texts of Omar Khayyam. Stylistically, he was eclectic, with influences ranging from Japanese prints to Italian Renaissance painting. He was, as I understand it, something as unusual as a genuine idyllist. Today, he has been virtually forgotten by the younger generation (I’ve asked around), yet his charmingly decorative water colours of natural scenery are completely in line with what many artists are working on today.

Tarik Kiswanson, Nest, 2020, & Surge, 2022. Installation view from the Lyon Biennial, 2022. Photo: Blaise Adilon.

Tarik Kiswanson, 26 April18 June, Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm

Despite an abundance of public and private institutions, the Stockholm art scene often feels sluggish. But in recent years, Bonniers Konsthall has taken a lead with a series of ambitious solo exhibitions with up-and-coming artists. This spring,Swedish-Palestinian Tarik Kiswanson – who was recently nominated for the Prix Marcel Duchamp – will take his turn. Despite exhibiting extensively around the world, this will be Kiswanson’s first major appearance in Sweden. For my part, I’m curious about how well his minimalist works will succeed in the space, where exhibitions often look a bit stiff and boring.  

Jarl Ingvarsson in his studio.

Jarl Ingvarsson, Festremsor (Party Strips), 21 January–25 February, The Royal Academy of Art, Stockholm

Jarl Ingvarsson is a 1980s neo-Expressionist whose work may look mundane and trashy, but on closer inspection reveals a masterful colourist and draughtsman. Perhaps painting even comes too easy for Ingvarsson, whose laid-back attitude might have been to his disadvantage as far as critical reception goes. Personally, I find it quite refreshing. Ingvarsson graduated from the Royal Institute of Art in 1983, and has therefore painted “party strips” for this (informal) 40th anniversary show at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm.  

Lotte Laserstein, Self-portrait with Cat,1928.

Lotte Laserstein, A Divided Life, 6 May–1 October, Moderna Museet, Malmö

Over the past decade, Moderna Museet has invested heavily in women’s art and historical shows, while largely forfeiting on younger contemporary art. This spring is no different, with large scale presentations of American alternative icon Laurie Andersson and Swedish-British artist, activist, and eco-feminist Monica Sjöö (1938–2005) in Stockholm, and German-Jewish exile artist Lotte Laserstein (1898–1993) at the venue in Malmö. Personally, I’m looking forward to all three. If I had to pick one, it would be Laserstein, whose visual narratives have an oddly timeless quality. 

Fett (Grease), installation view from 3:e Våningen, Gothenburg. Photo: Stefan Karlsson.

Fett (Grease), 21 January–12 February, 3:e Våningen, Gothenburg

With all due respect to Gothenburg Konsthall and Hasselblad Center, if anything will compel me to go to Gothenburg in the near future, it’s an exhibition about fat curated by the conceptual artist Stefan Karlsson. In the 1980s, Karlsson founded the legendary Paperpool International Corporation, and in recent years has been the director of Stefan Karlsson’s Museum of Bad Art, which only exhibits good artists making bad art or vice versa. Bigert & Bergström and Rakel & Tekla Bergman Fröberg are also part of the show, which is about “all the things we wash down on and in our kitchen sinks.”  

Carl Fredrik Hill, untitled, crayon on paper, 17,6×21,7 cm, undated.

Tal R & Mamma Andersson, About Hill, 12 May–1 October, Malmö Art Museum

Nothing exemplifies the low the status of the visual arts is in Sweden quite as much as the fact that Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911), perhaps the country’s only truly significant contribution to modern art, does not have his own museum. Thousands of Hill’s visionary drawings are in the collection of Malmö Art Museum, but are rarely shown because of the museum’s substandard facilities. Now, Tal R and Mamma Andersson have selected a number of these drawings and created a joint exhibition based on them. It first opened in Aalborg, Denmark, and will be shown in Malmö this spring.

Mattias Olofsson, Everywhere but Nowhere #4, colour photography and site-specific installation, 2021.

Down North / Contemporary Art in the Arctic, 26 May– 14 January, 2024, Bildmuseet, Umeå

Bildmuseet is currently closed for renovation and will open again this summer with the brand new North Atlantic Triennial, a collaboration with the art museums of Portland and Reykjavik, where it was shown in 2022. Some thirty artists from Denmark, Finland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and the United States, as well as from Sápmi and other Arctic areas (minus Russia), will be tackling climate change and the region’s colonial history. For me, the endeavour to reinforce cultural unity in the North Atlantic has a bit of a Cold War vibe, considering that the triennial must have been underway as Sweden’s current NATO-application was still in the bud.

Katarina Pirak Sikku, Birága ja Klementssone johtolagat ja máddariid boazomearkkat / Pirak and Klementsson’s hiking trails and ancestral reindeer marks, 2021, ink and watercolor on paper, 2021.

Katarina Pirak Sikku, 25 February–14 May, Havremagasinet, Boden

In recent years, Katarina Pirak Sikku has been included in a number of high-profile exhibitions, yet Havremagasinet’s presentation is her first extensive solo exhibition in her native North Bothnia. The Sámi experience is central to her practice, and she has immersed herself in research about the Institute of Racial Biology, which in the 1930s influenced the German Nazis, who in turn influenced Sweden’s current government. This promises to be one of the season’s most urgent exhibitions.