“Queering the 90s” could have been an appropriate heading for the 12th Gothenburg Biennial. In contrast to the cool nonchalance of 90s slacker art, curator João Laia attends to Röda Sten Konsthall’s post-industrial setting with flawless elegance and gentle humour. A multi-colored beanbag, Yabba (2017/2023) by the Spanish artist Maria Jerez rests in the middle of the main space, and in the corner stands a group of Danish artist Rasmus Myrup’s outlandish anti-sculptures. Instead of a low-res video (by, say, Peter Land or Sam Taylor-Wood) of a naked guy dancing awkwardly, Luiz Roque’s firm-bodied dancers are projected onto the far wall, sleek and sexy, like a decolonial Leni Riefenstahl production.
In the 1990s, Jerez’s sculpture would have offered the audience a place to lie down rather than contemplate from a distance, while the overall feel would have been more rough-and-tumble. In Forms of the Surrounding Futures, by contrast, the works are always easily decoded. The biennial is a safe space – literally. High up on a concrete pillar the Polish artist group Kem has placed a neon sculpture depicting a pink triangle inside a green circle, the symbol for a room in which women and LGBTQI+ people should not have to worry about being harassed or attacked. A pleasant calm pervades the room. Laia’s – to my mind sympathetic – intention is to reconnect with the experimental optimism of 90s art through an expanded notion of queerness, beyond the divisions of identity politics.
These are grand ambitions for a small biennial showcasing twenty-five artists at four venues: Röda Sten, Gothenburg Konsthall, Gothenburg city library, and Hammarkullen’s underground tram station. All of the participants are young and emerging, a brave gesture considering how curators tend to shore things up with broad representation. Indeed, in contrast to the two most recent Gothenburg biennials, the 12th edition is oriented towards what is to come rather than the past, with the bold aim of ‘un-cancelling’ the future.
Even so, in his curatorial statement, Laia makes it clear that he wants to connect art to a specific set of values that he hopes will lead to a better (more climate-friendly and egalitarian) society. This seems akin to the postmodern Left’s regression to a rose-coloured Hegelianism – or even a Fourier-scented utopianism – which disregards the Marxist tradition’s crucial point that change is driven by the conflict of material forces, not by the hopes and dreams of the petite bourgeoisie. To me, Laia’s curatorial statement – triumphantly concluding with the words “the future is queer” – seems both naïve and self-glorifying. Yet, I like that he has made an exhibition that I can appreciate even when I don’t share his political beliefs.
A case in point is the Swedish artist Esse McChesney’s figurative tapestries and embroideries in dazzling fluorescent blues, oranges, and greens at Röda Sten. Several of the pictures show a torso with highlighted scars from gender reassignment surgery, but there are also symbolic motifs such as a two-headed dragon and a pair of hands caught in a dramatic gesture. I understand the fragmented compositions – hands without arms, bodies without heads – as a way of affirming the subject’s autonomy. Relieving the trans body of the pressure to be representative, to stand for something, McChesney allows it to be beautiful, desirable, fragile, strong, and human.
Further upstairs, a plaid by McChesney in a style reminiscent of Swedish feminist icon Marie-Louise Ekman hangs next to the Ukrainian artists Yarema Malaschuk and Roman Khimel’s film Dedicated to the Youth of the World II (2019). First, the camera pans over a dancing crowd, then it zooms in on fashionably hollow-eyed youngsters après la fête. Filled with paternal care, I wanted nothing more than to tuck in the sleepyheads under the rose-tinted quilt, where they would doze through all the war and suffering.
On the top floor, I myself could lie down on a mattress in the Portuguese artist Joana da Conceição’s installation Cosmic Solipsism (2022–2023). Abstract paintings hang from the ceiling while techno music pounds in the room. I find the work underwhelming, but its message is clear enough. When I returned to the main hall, I had become a little bit seduced by the exhibition. At times, its gentleness made me long for some intellectual and emotional roughhousing, but I appreciate the critical notion of inactivity embodied by Jerez’s beanbag just lying there, mindfully breathing.
In the same manner, the figures in Myrups installation Outside Salon de Refusés are just hanging out in an undefined moment before or after, while the Mexican artist Rodrigo Hernández’s brass reliefs Anche di notte (Also at night, 2022), depict a human and a bat floating in space. It’s a beautiful image of art’s capacity to abolish the social pressure to be productive, work, or even wage war (i.e. work for the military-industrial complex). Why can’t we just chill out, dance with a cosmic bat, or smell the flowers?
Unfortunately, the exhibition at Gothenburg’s Konsthall is less convincing. Perhaps Laia is more invested in the queerness of Röda Sten, than in the environmental issues introduced here by works such as the Brazilian filmmaker Ana Vaz’s Cosmic Garden (2018) or the Finnish-Sámi artist Outi Pieski’s installation Gurzot ja guovssat / Spell on you! (2020)? To me, the vision of a better tomorrow that is supposed appear when the expanded queerness connects to Indigenous wisdom feels a bit contrived. Also, since I find art with a saviour complex to be in bad taste, I am quite skeptical about the British artist Prem Sahib’s Liquid Gold (2016/2023) displayed at Hammarkullen’s tram stop. The work consists of yellow light radiating from a glass vitrine and up the tarnished escalator. Are we here supposed to watch art lift the wretched out of their misery? Or worse, savour the exotic working class milieu and the supposedly different people who live there?
Back in central Gothenburg, I was cheered up by the Danish artist Adam Christensen’s textile port raits of a motley crew hanging from a light well inside Gothenburg City Library. The works perfectly play off the public space that already functions as a temporary home for a similarly motley crew who come there to study, read the paper, or, as I did, rest awhile in an armchair. I also lingered in front of P. Staff’s On Venus (2019), which takes the biennial from behind, so to speak, with its harrowing images of animals being skinned alive and tortured in the food industry. The film is shown in a room that bathes in the same yellow light as that in Hammarkullen. A reminder of how the (often immigrant) working class is sacrificed by the political elites from Right to Left? An important point, if so. Swedish artist Tarik Kiswanson’s montage of X-ray imagery is shown in the same room, taking on an unsettling critical edge that I have not seen in his work before.
At the back of the konsthall, Argentinian artist Osías Yanov’s installation Orphan Dance (2018/2023) is the biennial’s most emblematic work, with its coloured lighting and meditative atmosphere. Little robot hoovers travel back and forth to create a clean and pleasant setting. It made me think of Henri Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904): luxury is the profusion of smells, sounds, and lights filling the exhibition halls; calm is the feeling of still reverie I experienced amidst the works; and voluptuousness is the sensuous pleasure enfolding the audience. In the end, I’m quite fond of how the 12th Gothenburg Biennial approaches art dialectically, rather than illustratively. At a time when many are struck in the trenches of the culture wars, this might be a positive indication that the world is ready to move on.