Reinstating the Genius

Iris Smeds’s exhibition at Bonnier’s Konsthall is an exorcism of neoliberal exceptionalism.

Iris Smeds, The Average (film still), 2019.

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s is bound to remember that decade’s ubiquitous narrative about the lone hero standing up to a social conformism threatening to quash individuality and independent thinking. Soviet communism versus Western cultural imperialism, those were the options. Or rather, there was no option. The onslaught against the 1970s spirit of solidarity imbued culture with the message that exceptionalism and self-fulfilment were within reach for everyone, regardless of social or economic background. An indoctrination that engendered the neoliberal policies which society is suffering the consequences of today.

Hardly surprising, then, that contemporary youth seems to view self-expression with suspicion. The exceptional no longer has the same allure, the everyday isn’t as frightening. “Something has happened,” as Swedish artist Iris Smeds (b. 1984) puts it in The Average, a four-part film shown together with scenographic props in an exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. What has happened? Well, “it’s the story of a separation,” we are told. Or: a tale about severe human and planetary suffering, and the sense that socialism might not be that bad, after all.

Iris Smeds, The Average (film still), 2019.

That last part is perhaps not articulated verbatim, but the separation at the core of The Average, formally and in terms of content, isn’t one in which the individual distinguishes their self from others through a series of remarkable acts. Rather, it’s a separation which produces the ordinary, the mid-range, or mediocre through an internal differentiating operation.

This is not as complicated as it might sound. Especially not since Smeds provides us with relatable examples in the form of common sandwich spreads. In addition to the four films, a series of sculptural objects have been placed in the small exhibition room that Smeds shares with Olof Marsja, the other recipient of the 2019 Maria Bonnier Dahlin Foundation grant, the occasion for this presentation. A sculpture of a sausage cut in half shows how a body can be divided into two equal parts. This is elaborated upon in the films, which revolve around reproduction as separation, i.e. how something can be produced by separation into two parts which remain interdependent over a divide that constitutes their common “mean value.”

In the films – which are really one film separated from itself by being screened on different monitors – the separation is represented by a centipede being divided in two. This first scene,  shows a football coach training an insect in a contraption where several people are hidden under pink fabric. Suddenly, the body separates and the parts fall to the ground. This drama is then featured in the opposite film, a TV interview in which a journalist interviews an author who supposedly has written the book The Centipede That Broke in Two (“one of our times most devastating crimes / one body carried by a thousand [sic] legs / that suddenly fell apart”).

The scene is brilliantly conceived, with the artist Roxy Farhat cast as the reporter, whose critical questions force the self-assured author to reconsider her conclusion that the crime has an obvious victim and perpetrator. It is implied that the women have been romantically involved, and the questions increasingly seem to be about their separation (the journalist: “but who would gain from such a separation?” Author: “well, I would say the party that wasn’t so interested in talking”). Next, the conversation turns to political analysis, then slips back into the personal. The scene vibrates with suppressed emotions, and in the next film the couple has reunited, embracing tightly in a still dance. The narrative arc suggests an eternal repetition of a drama recuring throughout history.

Iris Smeds, The Average (film still), 2019.

In the work’s third part, however, the journalist and the author are just extras. Instead, the protagonist is mythic Icarus, in the role of a sober alcoholic reconsidering their past. Rather than burning in solitary majesty on a mountain top, or being on TV, they want to live like common people. The role is played by a ventriloquist, whose whiny voice emphasises the self-pitying lines of Icarus, who regrets flying too close to the sun, but has difficulty adapting to a life without constant attention or liquor. The film ends with them singing their old credo “better to burn out, than to fade away,” while the journalist and the author dance into frame. We are back where it all began, before the separation which produced the humdrum life we have now, with monogamy and dreary breakfast spreads. Cheese or sausage, it’s your choice.

The Average opens up to a variety of interpretations. Here are a few: 1) The work is a realistic rendering of a reality that has become surreal. Something has broken within society, which is suffering from a long lost sense of community that it is trying to stun with increasingly heavy drugs (Trump, Brexit, and so on). 2) The work is a political appeal focusing on the fact that people are burnt out and must find their way back to a life where everyone can live better lives together. 3) The work is a critique of normativity, which separates individuals from themselves and gives rise to an alienation when life is quantified rather than lived. 4) The work is a song about humanity’s eternal tragic existence. Life is absurd, we are all doomed to suffer.

But I think there may be a comprehensive idea that can accommodate all these interpretations, namely the idea of the genius. As Giorgio Agamben has emphasised, genius does not actually signify an exceptional person who rises above other people. The term, on the contrary, comes from the Latin word for the protective spirit (genius) that we all carry within us from birth. In Roman times, this protective spirit was each individual’s unique dimension, which was put in a tense relationship with another impersonal element that supposedly united them with other people. Isn’t it precisely this idea of the common genius that Smeds conjures in The Average? That is to say, she wants to break with the patriarchal notion of genius, replacing it with a genius building on an expanded normality that can accommodate everyone.

Moreover, isn’t it the role of such a protective spirit that Smeds plays in the film’s preamble, where she speaks directly to the viewer while wearing fake breasts in the form of melting foam rubber clocks? Does this scene not represent the work’s inner voice, which in reference to Salvador Dalí suggests that the genius must be separated from its exclusive male version? I think so. The alternative would be the death of art, since art presupposes a vibrant dynamic between a personal and impersonal element, just as Agamben outlines. Without this dynamic, art becomes one-dimensional and dogmatic. The Average, on the contrary, embodies the ideal of an art for all – and a society that could encompass such an ideal – not just for those privileged few who are able to survive in the harsh, neoliberal desert of today. A life without exceptionalism would not have to be bleak, but, as Smeds shows us, could be animated by proper genius.

Installation view from Iris Smed´s exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm.