“Stay in between,” writes Tarik Kiswanson in his poetry collection The Window (2022). Addressed “from myself to myself,” this line from ‘Wordless’ – a meditation, like many poems in the book, on the speaker’s mirror image – suggests a poetics that is hermetic and self-enclosed, mystical even. But the imperative also situates his practice in the interval of various forms, languages, and cultures, to name a few.
For Becoming, the Swedish-Palestinian artist and poet heeds his own advice, rendering this provisional state of being neither here nor there. In his first major presentation in his home country, Kiswanson uses subtle spatial interventions and formally restrained sculptures to imbue Bonniers Konsthall’s brutalist interior with gravity and tension.
Hovering tentatively in entrances and on walls and ceilings, the series of fibreglass ovoids Nest (2020-2022) points to processes of transformation while also evoking vulnerable bodies in need of protection: children, for example, but also the exiled and displaced. Somewhat more ominously, the companion piece Cradle (2022) clings to the underside of the raised installation Cabinet (2019) – a sterile institutional environment containing matte-grey filing cabinets – like the antithesis of, say, the Swedish Migration Agency. While these works confront certain sculptural problems, their affective charge rests, to a large degree, not on their occupation of space, but on the scaffolding of language. Indeed, that the charged words “nest” and “cradle,” are both nouns and verbs underscores the sculptures’ contingency.
Similarly, the installation Recall (2020–2023) is a floor array of smaller works in which quotidian objects are encased in blocks of resin. Several capture arrested movement: a melting candle, an exploding ballpoint pen, a silver spoon that traveled to Sweden with the artist’s family during the the early 1980s; another is saturated with the artist’s blood. Such indexical tracing lends the work a deconstructive register, encouraging us to reflect on broader questions of not only memory, inheritance, and identification, but of ontology as well. To what extent, these works seem to ask, are we anything but change?
Arguably, Kiswanson’s artistic achievement is in giving form to the interstice. More specifically, to the interstitial state of living in (and, in the artist’s case, being born into) exile as part of the Arab diaspora. “A life lived amid the fallout of modern colonization, migration, and severed family ties,” as writer Sara Arrhenius describes it in her essay on the artist’s 2020 film The Fall, depicting a young boy falling backwards from his school desk; we watch him in extreme slow motion, but never witness the moment of impact. We are left, as in Kiswanson’s poem ‘Correspondence II’, “in the wait.”
Evoking loss in an abstract visual language of absence and withdrawal, Kiswanson’s familiar post-minimal aesthetic seems to pull from the well of Sufi tradition while attesting to a non-identitarian and anti-representational politics. As we observe in Robe (2015), two overlapping sheets of stainless steel polished to a mirror finish, our reflection does not reveal a coherent and (self-) transparent identity, but rather an opaque surface – a gaze – whose substance we cannot see.
That said, the show’s least convincing moments are those that veer into more representational territory, as in Passing Mother and Grandfather’s Blazer (both 2022). These enlarged X-rays of garments printed on canvas form a palimpsest of cultural signs that range from traditional Swedish and Palestinian to contemporary athleisure. Elsewhere, a family photograph of Kiswanson’s heavily pregnant mother posing in front of an empty IKEA cradle provides the emotional anchor for The cradle (2023). Such gestures, while moving, also feel heavy-handed, overly calculated, and surprisingly at odds with many of the other works on view, which, though sombre, are markedly unsentimental.
The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish asks in The Butterfly’s Burden (2007): “Who Am I, Without Exile?” The cocoon-like shapes in Becoming pose a similar question. Neither Darwish nor Kiswanson offer an answer. Still, the silence resounds.