Ingela Johansson’s exhibition at Södertälje Konsthall is so rich, it takes my breath away. Two things immediately become apparent. First of all, it doesn’t come across as either a solo or a group show. There must be more than twenty participating artists, but their inclusion is not based on a unifying theme, style, or medium. Secondly, Johansson seems to want to rethink art’s position in relation to politics. She has undeniably chosen a suitable place for this, as the building in which Södertälje Konsthall has been housed since 1978 is a former cultural centre – its placement in the middle of town was meant to bring culture closer to the people – that has been turned into a shopping mall. From a politics that wanted to side with the workers, to one that surrenders them to capital.
Var ska vi äventyra? (Where Shall We Adventure?) includes, among other things, the Miners’ Strike Art Collection, which was created in connection with the great miners’ strike of 1969, when artists donated artworks in support of the strike fund. A collage by Siri Derkert included in the collection reads: “New culture / new society.” That we got. The question is how the perspective can be shifted again – which seems to be Johansson’s main objective.
The exhibition makes me think of drone footage of protests that I have been looking at online recently. Seeing how many demonstrated against the Polish abortion ban, or marched against the new agricultural laws in India is extremely powerful. This type of image rarely appears in the media, which prefers individual protesters, preferably in altercations with the police. Johansson’s exhibition is reminiscent of this: the exhibition as a mass, as a crowd.
This impression stems from two things, I think. First of all, the works disrupt curatorial approaches to exhibition-making which adapt the works to each other and thus, in a way, diminish them. Take the first work, a textile work by Peter Weiss. It is shown next to a filmed interview with Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, which is about much more than just that particular work. Among other things, it includes anecdotes about Peter Weiss’s parents, and about how he went from having viewed art socially to thinking about it politically after being physically cornered by Ulrike Meinhof, who wanted clearer answers than his theatre had provided. But work also gives rise to two other works: human-sized animal silhouettes in plywood and the mask worn by the dancer in Johansson’s film Voice (2020). The only sounds in the film are the breathing and movement of the dancer; in another film, we learn that Susan Sontag regarded silence as the only thing that could justify a writer writing. The same film also talks about the importance of being aware of not “being” your mask. The large plywood animals are linked to the suffragette movement’s toy production, organised by Sylvia Pankhurst. Johansson has had similar toys made, and has created a textile montage after a portrait photo of Pankhurst.
In other words, completely disparate aspects of the works resonate with each other, in all directions, which is the second factor that renders the exhibition a crowd: it shows that the works have a shared power. They all have to do with social and political struggle – perhaps the same struggle, albeit disguised as the women’s struggle or the workers’ struggle. Just as each work overflows in several directions, and thus is more than its representation or identity, each struggle overflows into the others and contributes power and solidarity. People do not have to fight only for themselves and their own group, as neoliberalism wants us to believe, just as an exhibition does not have to either present the work of one artist or accommodate many voices. Instead, it can be a polyphony that grows out of the silence that Sontag talks about, and that gives everyone the right to speak out.
But what is really new to me here, which is probably of both political and aesthetic significance, is the time that Johansson is experimenting with. The day is usually divided into three parts: time for work, leisure, and subsistence (during which we procure what we need to survive). Since culture is often regarded as leisure activity, many believe themselves to be progressive by saying: “No, art is not leisure, it is work.” But the strike does not belong to any of those times, and it is not only about working conditions. It is the prejudice of the 20th century to think not only of society, but of life as a matter of production and work. In the Miners’ Strike Art Collection, a lithograph by Albin Amelin shows a strike that is about “bread and freedom,” that is, questions about leisure and subsistence, with work as a subcategory of the latter. Indeed, the strike itself is a time devoted to the conditions not only for work, but also for leisure (opportunities for personal fulfilment) and subsistence (conditions for eating and living together). Instead of going on about art being work, we should, with Johansson, think of it as a strike, as a struggle for time in general. For everyone.
In a series of textile montages, From Dusk Till Dawn (2020), Johansson has portrayed women such as Virginia Woolf, Simone Weil, and Rosa Luxemburg. The images are made after photographs of the women reading, walking, or writing, and the title refers to the fact that they had time for such activities at dawn and dusk. Creativity is rooted in leisure time, that is. And, of course, this is when creation takes place. But once what is created is brought into society, it is not through working time (at least not if we are after a new culture or new society) but through conflict-time – strike, in the sense of struggle for the conditions of the other times. The strike is neither productive nor life-sustaining. This is where art should be, the real strike art that is more than an expression of solidarity motivated by the artist’s vain desire to be a worker. There are masses in the strike, regardless of which group has taken the time, and in this exhibition, we become part of that.