Göteborg Is the World

Unlike a superhero movie, the 10th Göteborg Biennial does not seek to reach an audience consisting of all the people on earth.

Installation view from the French lot in Göteborg, with Eric Magassa’s mural Walking with Shadows (2019) in the background. Photo: Hendrik Heitler.

In front of the Transatlantic building at Packhuskajen in Gothenburg, some sort of construction work is going on. A large area is sealed off, enclosed by a wall of hardboard sheets. This is where Eric Magassa has made a mural work, Walking with Shadows (2019), a forty-meter wide and four-meter tall painting with collage elements. A number of relatively large-scale images are mounted on a pink and blue background. They are all – I believe – digital prints, but are based on different techniques and have different motifs. There are photographs of African sculptures, images of landscapes and vistas, book covers and maps, as well as non-figurative compositions. In photographs and documents, abstract elements have been inserted, and the colour schemes have been manipulated, so that a play of visual correspondences is activated between the various elements.

The work stands as a response to the Transatlantic building’s imposing grey façade, which towers like a mountain wall above the street below. It is a façade unlike most others in Gothenburg’s cityscape. Its five uniform files of windows set up a strict grid, which evokes functionalism and standardisation, while the hand-cut granite sheets comprising the façade give a more noble, crafts-like, almost sculptural impression. The façade is ornamented sparsely, with a small group of reliefs (by Fritz Bange, 1885–1959) above the entrance, and an abstract, patterned balustrade which stretches across the full extent of the wall, reinforcing the impression of visual continuity and unity. It is a beautiful and balanced, but at the same time heavy architectural image. It speaks the language of power and wealth.

Magassa’s mural lays claim to the same width, and similarly enfolds the visual field of the spectator or the pedestrian. But rather than the rigorous uniformity of the grid and the massive unity and vertical weight of the large surface, the mural establishes a porous, airy, horizontal constellation of forms and signs, which invites the viewer to seek connections, to create meaning. It is an open image, a montage of suggestions and ambivalences, which appears to want to give the viewer a new access to the histories it depicts. The photographs of African sculpture have been torn from their ethnographic explanatory templates, restoring their polyvalence; the clichéd representations of sunsets and seascapes have been transformed into polychromatic mysteries; the banal postcard views have become openings towards unknown worlds. The mural is an act of playful resistance.

The block the building belongs to is called the French lot. In 1784, Sweden exchanged this piece of land, including a free trade agreement, for the Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy, then owned by the French. This island – which is today called St. Barths and is a luxury resort where the Swedish royal family frolics in the sun next to Jon Bon Jovi and Donatella Versace – became the most important node for Sweden’s transatlantic slave trade. Sweden’s slave trade was less extensive compared to that of the great colonial powers, but it was a historical reality, a political shamefulness, and a moral crime. Founded in 1904, Transatlantic was the name of one of the large Gothenburg shipping companies. The building was erected in the 1940s, over half a century after Sweden had sold the island back to France. While there are no apparent, direct causal connections between the building and the transatlantic slave trade, the legacy of the site makes the association inevitable.

Michelle Dizon, White Gaze, 2018.

The art biennial as a cultural form belongs to the moment of globalisation. It is a 90s phenomenon, inseparable from the fall of the wall and neoliberalism’s global hegemony, from the breakdown of “actually existing socialism” and capitalism’s realisation as world system. Several important biennials are much older – Venice, São Paulo, Documenta – but it is during this period that the contemporary biennial system was shaped. The scale at which a biennial forms its proposals, the genre into which it inscribes itself, is per definition global. Therefore, each biennial is confronted with the problem of the global cultural form: lack of distinction, validity claims so general that they verge toward complete dissolution.

In the worst case, the biennial risks a situation resembling that of contemporary Hollywood productions, which seek total global reach and can therefore only represent absolutely generic themes, threats from outer space or the end of the world – since everything else may alienate potential audience groups. Unlike superhero movies, biennials rarely seek to reach an audience that consists of all the people on earth, but they can achieve a comparable level of indifference, something that was conclusively proved by the latest Venice biennial.

The tenth Göteborg Biennial, curated by Lisa Rosendahl, confronts the form’s inherent problem and navigates it successfully, mostly. On the one hand, its thematic framework throws a wide net. The exhibition is called Part of the Labyrinth, which is a reference to a letter by Inger Christensen from 1979, in which the Danish poet writes: “I think / therefore I am part / of the labyrinth.” That is, the biennial sets against a Cartesian modernity, a labyrinthine (postmodern?) play of crossings and bifurcations. Rosendahl’s introductory text extracts much from this central opposition. Against modernity’s dualist subject, mechanistic worldview, and colonial conquests, it suggests the labyrinth and entanglement as models: hybrid subjectivities, non-linear temporalities, quantum entanglements.

Installation view from Göteborg’s Konsthall with Ibon Aranberri’s Sources Without Qualities, 2016–19. Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

On the other hand, the exhibition regains definition on the levels of separate contributions, of different spatial montages, of the exhibition’s parts. The exhibition’s most convincing elements are those which are clearly founded in a local, cultural, and historical reality. This is the case with the group of works that, like Magassa’s mural, indirectly and directly relate to the French lot and St. Barthélemy, a connection that would deserve to be furthered and specified, beyond the well-known historical circumstances – which is what Rosendahl has promised for the next edition of the biennial, which she will also curate.

It is the case with a work such as Knud Stampe’s Wall Drawing (1970–71), a large ink drawing originally produced for a workers’ club at the Swedish Ball Bearings Factory in Gothenburg. In a sober detailed style, it depicts a sort of nightmare vision of a day at the factory, where workers sort through mountains of bolts, are lobotomised by drilling machines, and clean vast tangles of industrial waste, all under the strict supervision of foremen and time study men. Installed in the inner room at Gothenburg Konsthall, the drawing forms the nexus of a dense spatial montage of works – perhaps the biennial’s best, richest section – which all relate to the history of Gothenburg and modern industrial labor: Ibon Aranberri’s installation of small, abstract, minimalist steel sculptures, which turn out to be forms created as working samples in the Basque weapons industry (Sources Without Qualities, 2016–19); Rikke Luther’s essay film on the cultural history of concrete, the raw material of modern state building (Concrete Nature: The Planetary Sand Bank, 2018–19); or Hanna Kolenovic’s series of images from everyday life in Gothenburg’s social housing districts (My Gothenburg, 2014).

The exhibition at Gothenburg Konsthall is the most fully achieved and complex overall. The arrangement of works in the center’s large exhibition space forms an assembled tableau, which sets the tone. In the foreground, a sculpture by Sissel M. Bergh, Maadth (rotvälta) (2019), which resembles – or consists of? – a windthrowin actual size: a rhizomatic network of bifurcations and entanglements. On the wall behind the sculpture hangs a large drawing, Maadtegen vuelie (Song of the Root) (2019), a map of sorts, where Bergh employs the windthrow as a model for tracing descent lines and relations between South Sami and Norwegian cultural history. Next to Bergh’s work, there is a sculpture and video installation by Lorenzo Sandoval, Shadow Writing (Algorithm/Quipu) (Iteration No. 2) (2018), which establishes a sequences of alternative genealogies for the mathematical techniques of modern industrial production, with reference to the Persian origin of the word “algebra,” after the polymath Al-Khwarizmi.

Installation view from Röda Sten Konsthall with works by Åsa Elzén (in the foreground) and Susanne Kriemann (to the right). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

The exhibition at Röda Sten, called Spiral Time, is the least convincing, with its thematics of non-linear temporalities. The problem is not the level of the works, but that the tyrannically linear notion of time and history against which the whole arrangement objects is a straw man, a misrepresentation of an attitude that no one actually shares. Twentieth-century philosophy from phenomenology onwards is one big critique of reductive, chronological concepts of time and evolutionary models of history. Modern cinema as a whole can be described as a gigantic experiment with alternative temporal experiences. To believe that there is today a value in liberating oneself from the supremacy of the linear concept of time is perhaps above all to reveal a certain lack of historical and critical consciousness.

The works which fare best in Röda Sten’s gigantic, obscure industrial spaces are therefore those with only a tangential connection to this theme: Kent Lindfors’s suite of small sketches with mystical-historical motifs – including a “waste madonna,” and Giordano burnt at the stake – depicted with chaotic sprawling detail and a peculiar, pale pink, meat-like shade (Water, Rust, and Fire, 2016–19); or Tamara Henderson’s enigmatic, unwieldy, rather dull, but also consistently fascinating film Womb Life (2018–19), which shows how clay pots shaped like intestines are fired in a ceramic oven, and how a large wooden mobile with blinking lights is constructed in a studio, while a mumbling voiceover attempts to hypnotise the spectators, as they gradually sink further down into the installation’s bean bags. The interview with the playwright Ulla Ryum in Kajsa Dahlberg’s Unbinding Time (2019) is also an interesting document, even though it is somewhat difficult to grasp, projected as it is onto a sheer batik-dyed fabric that hangs freely in the space, gently wobbling.

At the Museum of Natural History, where the biennial’s third exhibition takes place, the works are installed among the museum’s stuffed animals and vitrines with crystals and skeletons. A film by Liv Bugge, The Other Wild (2018), depicts the repressed, non-permanent other of the museum: the museum as materiality and practice, as change and transience. The film is shot during a renovation of the Oslo Natural History Museum’s geological and paleontological departments, and shows curators, technicians, and janitors who sort, transport, and destroy crystals and fossils from the museum’s collections. Next to Bugge’s film, an evocative sculpture by the artist-duo Ohlsson/Dit-Cilinn is installed, Silken Sentience (2019). It consists of a gnarly, sprawling wooden stump in which a large white fabric is ensnared with dramatic draperies. Light falls onto the sculpture from the curtained window behind, creating a pretty albeit threatening scenographic composition. During my visit, a large group of three-year old children gathered around the work and began to cry.

Installation view from Göteborg’s Museum of Natural History with Lina Selanader and Oscar Mangione’s Transfer Diagram no. 2 (2019). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.

In a small section, a few works are shown which distantly relate to the museum’s fundamental taxonomic drive. Mounted across the full extent of a wall, A4-prints showing schematic plans and basic descriptions of different patents applied for by digital platform corporations are arranged by function: surveillance, control, profiling, etc. The work, Paolo Cirio’s Sociality (2018), convincingly represents the boundless influence that the new data-harvesters exert. On the museum’s top floor, beside a vitrine with a headless ostrich, a film by Oscar Mangione and Lina Selander is shown, Transfer Diagram no. 2 (2019). The irreducibly ambivalent and enigmatic quality of the film’s montage, where sequences featuring a painting panda are interwoven with shots from a filmed Brecht play and images of obsolete visual technologies, is offset by the precision and care with which the images are treated. Mangione and Selander meticulously display the ruptures and breaks in transfers between different technological systems in a way that makes the liquid post-digital aesthetics prevalent in many contemporary artist films come across as sloppy and uncritical.

In the lobby spaces of the biennial’s three main venues, three different short films by Oliver Ressler are shown as a minor recurrent vignette. It is a funny thing, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the very serious tone of the films. They are shot during protests against the large-scale European coal industry. The immediate effect is that a certain dose of political reality becomes an inescapable presence in all of the exhibition’s parts. The films show the exhilarated communities of the protest groups and their following confrontations with militarised police forces, disguised as black cyborgs in nylon and kevlar.

But it is difficult to really take Ressler’s films seriously, to not read them as somewhat self-parodical. Not that the films would be aesthetically or politically banal, in some caricatural way. On the contrary: they are too complex. The industrial architecture is consistently represented in grandiose, elaborate painterly compositions which reinforce the impression of these industries as sublime entities, and therefore beyond the reach of critique or politics. And Ressler often plays with techniques and effects, with redundant filters and impressionist camera work, leading the attention away from the reality of the conflicts represented in the films. A simpler form would have been more effective, a perspective closer to the decisions and the experiences of the protesters. But simplicity is difficult.

Eric Magassa, Walking with Shadows (detail), 2019. Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.