Fire in the Heart

Malmö is Burning at Moderna Museet Malmö shows how art, music and political activism became crucial to vitalizing the city during the 70s and 80s. Anything was possible!

Jacques Zadig, The Wall, 1976.

Malmö is Burning sounds like another headline about the many cars set ablaze in the city, especially in underground garages in exposed areas. Yet the title actually refers to the fire in the hearts of young artists who wanted to bring about change in a rigid, cyclopic and boring city with its bleak municipality .

The exhibition is organized by artist Ola Åstrand and poet Clemens Altgård. They have produced projects together previously and superbly complement each other’s competences and personalities. Malmö is Burning presents an image of the arts and culture of the city between 1968 and 1988, although not by offering a total perspective on the period. Rather the exhibition is deeply subjective, taking as its starting point the curators’ personal acquaintances at the time. The result is a kind of time travel through a landscape of lived experiences and, at the same time, an account of a transforming city. 

Printed matter by Art Bomba.


The period’s farthest limit is the year of revolt and protests, 1968. The May uprising in Paris reverberates around the world, not least in Malmö’s Folk Festival Project. An alternative to bourgeois high culture begins taking shape. Subculture becomes increasingly significant for the city’s development. Progressive music and punk are radiant. The end year, 1988, marks the beginning of postmodernism. Modernism was perceived to be at an end point and new paths were formulated in a spirit of reuse. The year after, physical walls were torn down and the world entered a new political phase. 

The exhibition is shown on the upper floor of the museum, and in the stairs one meets a work by poet Per Linde, whose poem Malmö has been put to music by Technicolor Poets. Now one realizes that the exhibition is a cross-media mix of different cultural genres. The curators have avoided exhibiting artists whose works dominated the period. Rather, the ambition is to surprise. The visitor should at best shiver with pleasure at phantoms of the past. This doesn’t exclude new works, which have been produced for this exhibition. Politics, banners and punk are the three headings of this exhibition.


In one of the rooms, Allan Friis’ strikes a chord with his compelling assault on capital and art as an object of investment. The tools of Pepe Viñole are presented on placards as well, now recast as figures dancing on a line. The Folk Festival in Malmö was made possible by, among others, Lasse Hejll whose poster art and photographs played a crucial role over ten years of folk parties. His contributions are central to the exhibition. No vision of the future without dreams. Annika Wilde’s surrealistic objects and paintings nicely balance the other artists’ more propagandistic works, while Elisa Halvegård’s fairytale-like small size graphic sheets and sculptures remind us that it is not always the grand gestures that affect us the most.

Jacques Zadig’s installation, The Wall (1968–1976), which is placed in the middle of a darkened room of its own, appears as the most central work of the exhibition. The transparent wall broadcasts, radiates and signifies power. Surveying and manipulating, it rises above ordinary people. Anyone attempting to climb over the wall would probably be forcefully redirected to their rathole. Zadig’s installation is a fantastical monument to our time and will unlikely ever become out of date. The work is interactive in the sense that photocells detect movements in the room, activating a number of different functions. Power is indeed exercised by people!

Elisa Halvegård, One Does Not Die From Lost Love These Days, 1974.


In another gallery, Ola Åstrand himself participates with the photo-based work The Ghetto, which depicts his experiences during the 70s and 80s in an area of Malmö then known as the ghetto. It is a journey to a state that can never be recreated. At the same time, I miss the draftsman/painter Åstrand in the exhibition. The same gallery is dominated by the work of Pernilla Frykholm, which ties the past into contemporary bodily expressions that increase the proximity of punk to hip hop. For a time, Frykholm collaborated with Maria Tomczak, whose works exposes punk’s revolt against the vanity and obsession with beauty through interactive cut paper dolls. Meanwhile she demonstrates that punk, paradoxically, was itself extremely superficial.

A pioneer of Swedish conceptual art, Leif Eriksson, partakes with usual gravity and intelligence. Despite the title of his main work of this exhibition, Speaking is Silver, but Silence is Golden, his works reverberate in the entire exhibition. Eriksson’s idea-based practice, deviates most from the curatorial theme. Rather than changing the city, he wants to change art.

Lena Mattson, When Hades is in Bloom, 2016.


Stina Eber’s long absence from art makes seeing her captivating work of the 1980s again a fond reunion. Her powerful sculptures transform the strict convention of everyday objects into skintight, alive and vulnerable individuals. She knows how to let her sculptures appear self-evident in a space. Reality speaks through Paulina Hårleman’s photographs of long lost postpunk. They show expressive postures and gestures by known and unknown people. Christian Cavallin’s photographs from different punk scenes in Malmö and London place the spectator in the middle of the fervor. The magic on stage mingles with the ecstasy of the audience. The viewer participates!

Club Trocadero opened in 1979 and its queer concept made it an important meeting place for creative people. Hand in hand with punk, Trocadero became a strong counterforce to the bleak boredom of city life. Abelardo Gonzalez orchestrated the club’s success and influenced Malmö’s change into a glimmering city. In the innermost gallery of the exhibition, a glimpse of this era can be caught in a video placed against a typical zebra patterned backdrop.

Paulina Hårleman, adu lugna ner daj tösabid, 2017.


Straight across in the same gallery is a towering wall cluttered with objects and artworks staged by Åke Dahlom, also known as Art Bomba. He generously unfolds his frieze of life in a walk to Calvary titled Funeralism. A small house is built in the middle of the room, an installation by Isabel Rayo Planella. Looking in, one sees a fantastical world between fairytale and reality. Last but not least, the exhibition is concluded by Lena Mattsson’s lovely, newly produced video triptych, When Hades is in Bloom. Here we encounter characters of the late 1980s – Stry Terrarie Kanarie, Carin Carlsson and Clemens Altgård – who were all influential during this time. Punk and poetry are what wrap up the exhibition.

Malmö is Burning appears fragmentary and elusive to me, which in a way is a just representation of the period. Individual works and artists impress me, while others feel out of place. That the curators themselves take a significant amount of place in the exhibition is in itself a challenge. The exhibition differs from Ola Åstrands previous exhibitions about Swedish art in the 60s, 70s and 80s, The Heart is to the Left (1998) and Illuminate the Dark! (2008), by being more personal. Despite the focus on Malmö, the city’s changes could be observed as well in other cities during that time. The message is that anything is possible. The important thing is Malmö rose from the fire and ashes of that era to become an inspiring and vertiginous city to live in. Let´s Do It Ourselves!

Bengt Adlers is an artist and poet and former gallerist in Malmö. 1973–1987 he was the exhibition producer at Galerie Leger, and 1988–1995 he ran Galleri Bengt Adlers, both in Malmö.

Installation view from Malmö brinner. Photo: Helene Toresdotter.