Pop-Up Screw-Up

Malmö Sessions is the first in a planned series of exhibitions in vacant properties in Malmö and Gothenburg that puts local art scenes at risk.

Installation view from Malmö Sessions, with works by Buck Ellison, Constance Tenvik, Jason Matthew Lee and Travis Fish.

On Saturday, the group show Malmö Sessions, co-produced by Erika Hellman, CEO of the real estate company Gullringsbo Egendomar, and Milan-based art dealer and collector Carl Kostyál, opened with a private viewing. Staged at ‘Spinneriet’ – a former industrial complex that, in addition to artist studios, houses the collective workshop KKV Monumental, Lilith Performance Studio, and Skånes Konstförening – the exhibition is a showcase not only for “image-making and portrayal in the digital era,” as stated in the press release, but also for the property owner Svenska Hus AB.

The company (a subsidiary of Gullringsbo) shamelessly installed in one of many small rooms, an informational booth distributing glossy pamphlets advertising rental opportunities: premises suitable for commercial art galleries and co-working spaces for creatives. As the first in a planned series of exhibitions in vacant properties in Malmö and Gothenburg, the occasion also marked the launch of a catalogue featuring selected holdings of the Gullringsbo Collection, edited by Oscar Carlson, from Issues Gallery in Stockholm, with an introductory text by artistic director of Acute Art, Daniel Birnbaum.

Sara Cwynar, Cover Girl, 2018.

Indeed, a handful of works by the collection’s bigger names were on view, including Alex Da Corte, Gina Beavers, and Jon Rafman, as well as art world Instagram celebrities Chloe Wise and Austin Lee (both were among several artists flown in for the opening). However, by and large Malmö Sessions favours ‘emerging’ artists, most of whom are American and under thirty. Such focus on younger, lesser-known practitioners is perhaps unsurprising given Kostyál’s reputation rests largely on his ‘discovery’ of Helen Marten, whose international career was launched – a mere six years before she won the Turner Prize – with a solo presentation for the showrooms inaugural exhibition in its present location on London’s storied Saville Row. As the dealer boasted in a 2014 interview for Stockholm’s Auktionsverk, “to buy very early before anyone else believes in [an artist] is probably the most fun.”

Of the eighty-six works on display throughout the former office space, a majority are paintings (just large enough to hold their own alongside a conference table, say, or fit snugly inside a decorator’s lorry), many of which announce themselves in expressive gestures and bold colours made even louder by the preview’s fair-like atmosphere and deafening DJ sets. Spectacle notwithstanding, the show includes a few thoughtful presentations playing off traces, such as idle equipment used in analogue printing and reproduction processes, left behind by the former tenants. Among them, a video by Sara Cwynar is shown in a former darkroom (safelights and all) on what appears to be silkscreen exposure unit. Nearby, a commercial illustration ca. 1890 by Hilma af Klint is paired with a yellow sculpture by Éva Mag in a remote corner cell painted ochre.

Still, it’s clear that art is only part of what’s at stake here. By now, Kostyál’s status as a real estate man who, as one Malmöite put it, “plays with art” is well-established in Sweden. Beginning in 2013, the dealer began staging pop-up exhibitions in Stockholm in vacant locales across the city, with the most recent exhibition taking place in 2017 inside the former Gant headquarters on Nacka Strand in what is now the ‘Stockholm Fashion District’ development area. Nor is this the first time that Kostyál has worked together with Hellberg; according to a statement on the gallery website, the two have been collaborating for nigh a decade.

Austin Lee, Sun with Sunglasses, 2019.

In the same statement, the gallery makes the rather patronising claim that Malmö Sessions wishes to contribute to the city’s “already healthy art scene.” Of what does this contribution consist, and to whom, exactly, is it being offered? The answers are obvious enough. Particularly since, apart from a handful of students used as cheap labor, the organisers failed to meaningfully involve stakeholders from the local arts community. Perhaps even more egregiously, no Malmö-based artists were included among the fifty-one exhibitors. Although, given the project’s politics, it’s difficult to imagine anyone agreeing to participate. But, as my plus-one observed, in an art scene with limited opportunities to exhibit and advance one’s career, such an invitation would be difficult to refuse.

As art historian Michael Sanchez and others have noted, the ‘provinces’ are often the most vulnerable to normative prompts from globalism’s alpha cities like London and New York. That is, there are not only aesthetic, but also spatial consequences to the accelerated spread of the global network structures, valorisation processes, and market feedback mechanisms which are represented by Kostyál and his cohort. These are perhaps less acutely felt in Malmö – an art scene known for its independent, do-it-yourself ethos, and which, since the closure of Johan Berggren’s storefront gallery last year, has lacked a significant commercial presence – than they are in, say, Stockholm. At least, for the time being. But the potential effects of a project like Malmö Sessions for Spinneriet’s current tenants, not to mention the community living in the surrounding neighbourhood of Seved, are nonetheless real. What these might be remains, for the moment, uncertain. (However, according to a statement Hellman recently gave to the regional daily Sydsvenskan, “this location probably won’t continue to be an exhibition space.”) Suffice it to say that this exhibition is at best a vanity project done in bad faith; at worst, it is a speculative exercise that flaunts art as an instrument of gentrification.

Installation view from Malmö Sessions, with works by Petra Cortright and Austin Lee.

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