Have a Nice Apocalypse

At Bonniers Konsthall, the late Peter Geschwind opens a door to the social affability of the 1990s.

Peter Geschwind, Haunted House. A Trailer, 2019. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

Maybe I took the wrong door and ended up in a parallel realm where it’s always after hours? Peter Geschwind’s (1966–2021) exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall completely transforms the space into a kind of post-apocalyptic funhouse with fluorescent light tubes flashing from the ceiling and leftover junk heaped in the corners. On display are the artist’s “reality animations”: a soda cup or a folding chair illuminated with stop-motion technique to make it look like they are moving. Like a cartoon, but real.

Yet, my experience was strange not only because the peculiar, bizarre or disturbing is the show’s theme, but also because Geschwind passed away while preparing it. The project was completed posthumously in collaboration with the artist’s friends and family, something which must have been a technical feat, since the works rely on precisely calibrated light and sound effects. Thus, when my perception differed from the stated intentions, this produced the unsettling effect of not knowing whether the art or the presentation was to blame.

This may seem trivial, but it goes to the heart of the exhibited works, which are supposed to function as trompe l’oeils: they are set up both to deceive the eye and to make us aware of the deception. The problem was that I mostly didn’t perceive the illusion: the things weren’t moving as if they were animated. Thus, the breaking of illusion wasn’t very effective either. 

The show’s climax is the large-scale installation Haunted House. A Trailer (2019), evoking the Disney version of Dante’s Purgatorio. We find ourselves in a dark forest populated by enchanted objects, bouncing balls, and mops cleaning the floor themselves, Fantasia-style. 

When I saw the same work at the The Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm a few years back, I distinctly remember the illusion being more palpable. At Bonniers, the bouncing ping-pong ball were still convincing, but the mops didn’t seem to be moving at all. I tried to squint, but the illusion just wasn’t there. I visited the show a second time, but with the same results.

Perception is tricky and I might be wrong, but I think the problem is that the objects are too brightly lit for the illusion to emerge. Also, this may well be deliberate. In the catalogue, there is a conversation between Geschwind, his wife and collaborator Gunilla Klingberg, and the artist Fia Backström in which they discuss the alienation effect of revealing the work’s construction – at which point the artist exclaims, “I definitely want a lot more of that [the revealing thing].” This suggests that the illusion has been deliberately toned down, in order to emphasise its breaking.

Peter Geschwind, After Image, installation view, Bonniers konsthall, 2023. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

This strikes me as unfortunate, given how the show’s passionate curator Theodor Ringborg – the kunsthalle’s departing artistic director who began his career as Geschwind’s assistant – strongly emphasises the work’s qualitative novelty; the reality animations are, according to him, a completely new medium invented by Geschwind. Unfortunately, they didn’t feel so new to me. On the contrary, the experience was like being thrown back to a typical slacker art exhibition from the 1990s, as if the metaphorical door I stepped through had opened a wormhole in time.

Moreover, the catalogue has an oddly retrospective slant. Among its many contributors, Sara Arrhenius is the only one who actually tries to interpret Geschwind’s later works – the ones on display here – but even her contribution draws on familiar art-theoretical tropes from the 1990s: the uncanny, trauma, repetition, the cultural subconscious, and so on.  

I can understand the will to emphasise Geschwind’s art historical significance, but while reading I almost started to wonder whether his practice had developed at all. It did, of course. For instance, early on he worked a lot with the human figure, but during his later years he seems to have become increasingly fascinated by the idea of a world without people, where only the ruins of our consumer capitalist society remain. As I mentioned, the show has a banged-up, post-apocalyptic feel to it; we’re in ‘the after’. I interpret this as a tension between its form (recalling 1990s DIY optimism) and its content (addressing the anxieties of the 2020s).

Peter Geschwind, Slow Motion. Physical Animation With Light, 2011. Installation view, Bonniers konsthall, 2023. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

Yet, isn’t there also a gap between illusion and disenchantment? For exactly which cultural images or narratives are supposedly being exposed before the viewer’s critical gaze? Is the exhibition about how Hollywood horror and disaster movies have created a culture that tends to react to climate change with anxiety and hysteria rather than with real political agency? Is it being ironic about how art allows us to experience a catastrophe that we actually desire deep down?

I don’t know, but I suspect that the choice to tone down the illusion is linked to a desire to tone down the content; consequently, the disenchantment emerges as an historical mannerism without a force of its own. Why tone down the content, then? Perhaps it’s off-limits to poke fun at climate change? Perhaps the slacker aesthetic of the 1990s presupposes a humour that today’s critical discourse finds difficult to handle? Has contemporary art become too somber? Or has Geschwind’s work become passé by not being serious enough?

Several of the catalogue texts refer to Geschwind’s artistic collaborations, and his significance for artist collectives such as the legendary artist-run gallery Ynglingagatan 1 (1993–1999) in Stockholm. Yet, because there is a law that says artistic collaborations always have to be idealised, no one addresses what really happened in the 1990s. Namely, that social relations were transformed to art-world commodities, giving the well-bred children of the middle-class a competitive edge over more radical figures. With the advent of relational art, sociability became a genre of its own as petit bourgeois virtue was transformed into an aesthetic ideal.  

Peter Geschwind, After Image, installation view. Bonniers konsthall, 2023. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

To me, this explains why there is no real sense of conflict or trauma in Geschwind’s work. In contrast to artists like Mike Kelley or Paul McCarthy, with whom he had an affinity, his work lacks a dark undertow. The show rumbles and trembles as if haunted by some ominous force, yet my experience was nothing but pleasant – a bit nice and superficial, as many social relations tend to be – lacking the makings of a lasting intellectual experience.

Another explanation could be that Geschwind came up as an artist in safer times. In the catalogue, several writers emphasise that relational art landed in a slightly kinder context, in the still reasonably intact Swedish welfare society of the 1990s. Art became relaxed and playful, with Geschwind, of course, being a prime example of that. Indeed, it’s not difficult to understand why young artists today might look to the easy-going 1990s, hoping to escape from the strangle-hold of academic kitsch and dogmatic woke-capitalism. On that note, Geschwind’s show does feel a bit like a breath of fresh air compared to what’s on view at many other institutions. Art doesn’t have to be pretty and perfectly arranged; it can be messy too.

Peter Geschwind, After Image, exterior view, Bonniers konsthall, 2023. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.