Religious Faith Persists in Welfare Society

Seeking to nuance the image of secularization in the Nordic countries, curator Nav Haq has invited actively religious artists to take part in the 8th Gothenburg biennial.

Nav Haq, curator of the 8th Gothenburgbiennial.

2017 is not merely Europe’s grand year of biennials. What is more, several of the large scale Nordic biennials overlap this fall. Momentum in Moss, Norway, and ARoS Triennial i Aarhus, Denmark, both last a ways into October, while Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) opened this past weekend in the small fishing village of Henningsvaer in northern Norway. Now the time has come for the 8th edition of Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA), which opens to the public on Saturday.

While the Nordic biennials thus far have engaged with speculative notions of nature and the future, the Gothenburg biennial relates more directly to the present political reality in the Nordic so called welfare states. About 50 artists and artist groups in total take part in this exhibition about the crisis of secular society. It includes a substantial exposition of about 20 works by Danish artist Jens Haaning at a number of different locations around Gothenburg. Yet another participating artist is Hilma af Klint.

Jens Haaning, Blondes – clippings from Danish newspapers, published between the 1st and the 7th of April 2008 (1 of 13 pages), 2008.

Curator of the 8th Gothenburg biennial is Leeds-born Nav Haq of the M HKA – Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp. The title of the biennial, WheredoIendandyoubegin, is borrowed from Indian artist Shilpa Gupta. Yet perhaps the allusion to right wing populism in the title of the auxiliary exhibition of Nordic video art – We’re Saying What You’re Thinking – might better capture Haq’s idea: that the Nordic countries’ statistically distinct secularization doesn’t necessarily reflect the nuanced reality of beliefs and ideologies.

– Studies have long ranked Sweden at the top, percentage wise, not only in terms of welfare and well being, but in the number of atheists as well. Yet after establishing a dialogue with Ola Sigurdson, professor of religious studies at Gothenburg University, I have come to see things differently, Haq tells Kunstkritikk.

– Historically speaking there has been a huge downturn in religious belief, yet occurring simultaneously as a kind of pluralization of both belief and non-belief in Sweden and Europe. This process has been reinforced by increasing migration and a decrease of people involved in organized religion, he continues.

According to Haq, the art world does not often look favourably on religious faith.

– Rather, artists of faith are spurned in an art context. So for me it has been interesting to invite actively religious artists, such as Danish artist Alexander Tovborg. Very interestingly, his paintings are strongly influenced by his catholicism, says Haq.

Etel Adnan, Freedom of People, Freedom of Animals, Freedom of Plants, Freedom of Nature, 2011.

Close to half of the artists participating in the 8th Gothenburg biennial are from the Nordic countries, exhibiting alongside artist from India, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan and Brazil among others. Nevertheless, Haq is wary of characterizing this as an international biennial from an audience perspective.

– I think many biennials make the mistake of trying to address a global audience, which is something I’ve deliberately tried to avoid. My focus is primarily on Europe and the Nordic countries, explains Haq, who describes himself as an atheist interested in what is usually called non-belief or the absence of organized, traditional religious practices; an interest that developed into this year’s concept for the biennial.

The Gothenburg biennial made a clandestine start already on Tuesday, with a performance and an artist talk at Bar 10, followed by the launch of the satellite program, GIBCA Extended, with the group exhibition I Want to Believe at Konstepidemin. GIBCA is also collaborating with Valand Art Academy and Gothenburg University on a special issue of Valand’s publication about artistic research, PARSE journal. The release will be held tomorrow, Friday, on the same day as the press preview of the biennial.

Basim Magdy, They Endorsed Collective Failure as the Dawn of a New Renaissance, 2013.