Critique of dog reason

Maria Lindberg’s exhibition at Malmö Konsthall is a textbook example of how stripped-down everyday scenarios produce absurd effects.

Installation view. Maria Lindberg, Malmö Konsthall 2018. Photo: Helene Toresdotter

Although Maria Lindberg has worked as an artist since the early 1980s, her first extensive solo exhibition was in 2002 at Gothenburg’s Konsthall. Her second takes place now, in 2018, at Malmö Konsthall.

In Malmö, it is evident that the biggest change over the past 15 years must be sought outside Lindberg’s art. Even the exhibition’s curator Mats Stjernstedt, director of Malmö Konsthall, was partly involved already in 2002. This connection is confirmed by the drawing Stockholm 22–25 augusti 1996 (1996), a sociogram in which different first names, more or less well-known in the Stockholm art scene, including the curator himself, are written. The lines between the names make out an equally concrete and incomprehensible territory of how “everyone,” from the perspective of Gothenburg-based Lindberg, was connected at that time.

The exhibition’s strong point is Lindberg’s drawings and small-scale paintings from the 1990s, such as Han tog min hand (He took my hand, 1993), Hund och rött streck (Dog and red line, 1995) and Hellre röd än död (Better red than dead, 1999). In minimal and delicate ways, these works play with the relation between image and caption, without becoming either obvious or transgressing any taboos or conventions of genre.

The genre in this case is Fluxus, a movement which began in the early 1960s and revolted against bourgeois tradition with an anti-art based on aesthetic categories like the absurd, the farcical, the ephemeral, and the paradoxal. Yet, unlike many artists associated with Fluxus, Lindberg did not begin in the 1960s; she did not study with John Cage in the US, or with some avant-garde composer in Germany. Neither is she working from Yoko Ono’s and

Maria Lindberg, As above so below, 1991.

John Lennon’s bed-ins, but rather from the absurdity of everyday observation. Ephestia Khveniella from 1983 is an early mail art piece in classic Fluxus spirit, in which Lindberg corresponds with different food producers – a work that still provokes a certain amount of disinterested pleasure. While Lindberg in the 1980s and 90s was on the periphery of an art world making critical use of photography – what would later be correlated with the breakthrough of conceptual and postmodern art in Sweden – it is the humor that sets her apart.

Many of Lindberg’s works give off a warmth that make them easy to like. Möte 1987/2018 (Meeting 1987/2018, 2018) consists of a seemingly fresh apple and an orange juxtaposed in a jar filled with water. The dating of the work forces the questions: Which fruit is the oldest? Or is it the jar or the water that is from 1987? The method is simple – one thing is placed against another – and at best it produces a comical magic. Another category of work is those that poke fun at gender difference. This happens most explicitly in Tyst som en mus (Quiet as a mouse, 1995), where the text “You have the right to remain silent, all you say can be used against you” is painted in black watercolor on a gray triangle. It’s a one-liner that, at least indirectly, touches on an ongoing conflict inside and outside the art world. Yet, remarkably, many works consist of poetic plays on words without any particular connection to contemporaneous politics or dominating agendas at the time.

Maria Lindberg, A hole to see the wall through, 1999.

Art without a value gap

Retrospectively, Maria Lindberg’s art appears to dig where it stands, black on white, located squarely in a well-off Swedish welfare state that had not yet descended into deregulation, sell-outs of welfare infrastructure, tax subsidies for the rich, and rising fascism. It ought to fit perfectly in every bourgeois home seeking to demonstrate some self-reflexive distance to the absurdities of existence. A commentary on the conventional logic of the art economy is also found in Ed (2005), a typewritten price tag belonging to Edward Ruscha’s artist book Nine Swimming Pools and Broken glass (1968). Price: 330 Euro. Exhibiting the price tag for a work that is part of a conceptual art tradition that attempted to question art’s commodity form, is one of few examples where Lindberg plays with the specific conditions of art.

Yet, this logic – where something cheap suddenly becomes very expensive – is still left wanting in terms of Lindberg’s own art. Indeed, most works in the exhibition have never reached the market, and are still in the artist’s possession. And honestly, I doubt that this exhibition will create any “value gap” that would make Lindberg’s art attractive on the art market. Rather, the exhibition gives the feeling that there is no historical necessity behind the market logic that has made Ruscha’s books so expensive. More likely, its most important function – which is completely in line with Fluxus – is encouraging any viewer to make artistic use of everyday details. Lindberg’s art, in fact, presents a textbook example of how a thoroughly isolated and stripped-down everyday can produce absurd effects. And precisely because it does not provide any direct political commentary, it also functions as site of refuge, not unlike the atmosphere in a museum or a church.

Maria Lindberg, Piece Victory, 1993.

Lindberg also presents several works directly on the gallery walls that heighten this effect. When someone does that over and over again, it gets boring (2018) is the caption for a small drawing of an old man dangling from a broken branch. The image is multiplied as a monumental wallpaper, producing an effect that is, precisely, “boring.” Yet, boring the viewer with constant cleverness is actually not too bad. It creates a soft, not to say pleasant, atmosphere in the whole gallery. I want to stay there and never again go out into a Malmö that screams for my political attention. While much of today’s critical art production tries to reflect, problematize, or even change the social reproduction of unequal power relations that dominate, not only the modern system of the arts, but the world order at large, it is as if this exhibition wants to forget all of this, instead settling for the judgment that it is a good thing that the privileged space of the konsthall makes room for a female artist working in a male-dominated genre. 

This does not prevent several aspects of the exhibition from weakening, rather than maximizing, the effect of Lindberg’s art. I’m not certain if it is a play with the retrospective exhibition as a form, but I struggle to see the point of the enlargement of Mountains that can´t stand each other from 1999, which in 2018 becomes a monumental wall piece. Beneath the laconic mountain comedy stands one of the few new works in the exhibition, alone on the well-furnished floor of the konsthall: a small white tote bag of the same kind that is usually merchandise for larger exhibitions. The difference is that Lindberg’s bag is not mass-produced, and does not bear the title of the exhibition, but instead a text fragment: “In the beginning there was nothing.” Possibly a truncated quote from Terry Pratchett’s novel Lords and Ladies (1992), where he jokes about the big bang theory: “In the begining there was nothing, which exploded.” As a metaphor for art’s development, it is nearly as genius as it is pointless.

Installation view. Maria Lindberg, Malmö Konsthall 2018. Foto: Helene Toresdotter.

Critical dogism

Despite the somewhat harmless impression given by Lindberg’s art, it is perhaps possible to write her into a critical tradition. Let’s say that what is sometimes referred to as modern art is a critique of normative phenomenological experience as a basis for knowledge. Regardless, if the result is an art that merely tears apart and dislodges conventional experience, or an art that refers formally to an equal world beyond present power relations, this critique is essentially motivated in two ways. The first assumes that experience is ideologically affected by social structures coupled to the human body, such as class, race, gender, age and so on. The alternative to this argument is the assumption that phenomenological experience is always mediated, which makes possible a critical art that simply mediates reality in new ways. Both of these critical perspectives have motivated everything from psychoanalytic and Marxist perspectives on art, to queer-feminist, new materialist and decolonial attempts to, as Brecht would have it, refunction the world.

From this perspective we could say that Lindberg’s art indeed does depart from phenomenological experience as the primary source of human knowledge. But instead of finding ever new ways to, borrowing from Max Weber, “disenchant” this direct experience, she plays with its paradoxes. And, perhaps above all, the dog’s paradoxical relation to the human.

For Lindberg is an upholder of the dog-ism that has such a strong presence in contemporary Swedish art and poetry. In Malmö, this is illustrated by everything from figurative drawings such as Vem såg hunden vid sjön? (Who saw the dog at the lake, 1987) to more stripped-down paintings such as Flicka och Hund (Dog and girl, 1989) and Hund under Kjol (Dog under skirt, 1990), to works such as the dog video Work (2002) and How much is the dog (2001), a street photograph of a building with a dog at the center. If there are some traces here of theorist Donna Haraway’s popular dog epic When Species Meet (2008), it could be summarized thus: If Lindberg’s art has dogs in it, then dogs, too, have Lindberg’s art in them. I suspect, however, that the dogs would prefer the exhibition’s rolled-up rope sculpture.

Yet, it would be overstating things to say that Lindberg advocates the critic-as-dog. Rather, the artworks appear, at best, as a collection of well-executed agility tricks. Around a hole in a white gallery wall, the artist has scribbled: “A hole to look back through you.” Probably, a dog stands at the other end, staring at us, unconcerned at having been visually excluded from the surface of the exhibition.

Installation view. Maria Lindberg, Malmö Konsthall 2018. Foto: Helene Toresdotter.