Kept Here by Our Bodies

The Physical World Was Still There at Konsthall C is a gripping account of the human desire to escape reality. It has tenderness, grief, pain and lyricism.

Installation view with works by Thale Vangen (front), David Wojnarowicz/Marion Scemama (center) and Elis Eriksson (background). From The Physical World Was Still There at Konsthall C, Stockholm. Photo: Johan Österholm.

Is it ever possible to escape reality? This query underpins the exhibition at Konsthall C in Stockholm curated by the duo Mint (Asrin Haidari and Emily Fahlén). The desire is contradictory. We want to escape, be whisked away from the burdens of reality, yet the endeavour is ultimately a vain one, as we remain locked in ourselves. Perhaps symptomatic of this, almost all the works in the exhibition seem to rely on the body, or in some way seek an avenue into the corporeal. This may sound like a contradiction, given the exhibition’s objective, but I’d argue that it is in fact in line with the basic premise. People want to escape reality, the everyday – themselves – but this is only possible through the body, through the senses. There is nowhere to escape. 

This paradox of escapism is alluded to in the exhibition title, The Physical World Was Still There. Despite this, the works are quite disparate, and at times it’s difficult to discern any cohesion. This is not surprising, given the size of the exhibition; with a total of seven works, each part becomes important in achieving a plausible sum – a feat I’m not sure is accomplished here.

Elis Eriksson, Moments in Pink and Black, 1981. Photo: Johan Österholm.

The exhibition materialises in works about time and ageing, seeking refuge in drugs, exploring tactility, or searching for euphoria in romantic encounters. Least convincing are the Swedish artist Elis Eriksson’s (1906–2006) paintings and Norwegian Thale Vangen’s Natten rör sig (“The night moves”, 2019). Eriksson’s Komprimerad tid (“Compressed time”, 1994–95) is a moving and beautiful work, but it and Stunder i rosa och svart (“Moments in pink and black”, 1981) feel a bit shoehorned here, almost like afterthoughts. Vangen’s small leather sculptures don’t really seem to fit in, despite a wall painted the same shade in an ostensible attempt to create some sort of affinity. Perhaps it’s simply that the low-key qualities of these works can’t compete with the other, literally, louder pieces.

Overall, I find the video and sound works most successful, both as standalone works and in relation to each other. The impetus of Milena Bonilla’s imaginative video work The Last Drink is for the Sun (2019) is the peyote cactus and its disappearance from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris: all that remains of it is the sign. The cultivated environment of the botanical garden is contrasted with the seemingly pristine desert, which here represents nature, and a photo of a similar landscape. The soundtrack is made up of excerpts from the poet and multifaceted artist Antonin Artaud’s texts from the 1930s and 40s, when his life was a string of peyote trips and stints in psychiatric institutions. The work questions the limits of our consciousness, as well as our notions of boundaries and constructions, the natural and the cultivated.

Once every half hour, Armin Lorenz Gerold’s four-channel sound work hiding (2011/2019), lets out its idiosyncratic combination of equal parts carillon and pop music. Hilarious and enticing, accessible and fleeting, it plays with the devices of commercial music to appeal to our emotions. The result is something as inviting as it is beautiful and accessible. This may be the exhibition’s very essence: the contrast between reality and expectations, between presence and flight, freedom and limitations. Yet, most poignant by far here is the film When I Put My Hands on Your Body (1989), by David Wojnarowicz and Marion Scemama, created towards the end of Wojnarowicz’s far too short life. Everything is in it: the tenderness, the flight, the grief, the pain, the lyricism; the physical encounter as both a refuge and a reminder of loss, as a way both to escape and approach death, complete with Blade Runner (1982) quotes. The blue light on the bodies, the poetry of the text, the shade of politics, Wojnarowicz’s dark voice; these four minutes alone make the exhibition well worth a visit. Everything else suddenly seems like a bonus.

Milena Bonilla, The Last Drink is For the Sun (still), 2019.