“The unending rows of homogenous pine forest planted across the country, intended for the pulp mill, can be understood as the monument of a culture, comparable to the pyramids in Giza or the sky scrapers in New York,” writes curator Lisa Rosendahl in her introduction to The Society Machine at Malmö Art Museum, summing up the exhibition’s concept of industrilization as a “cultural revolution” with radical effects on the physical and mental terrain in Sweden. What emerges in the exhibition is an image of how people and nature have been exploited in the struggle for efficiency, productivity and increased welfare. “For better or worse”, as it is said.
In 2010 Rosendal was one of the curators of the hegemonizing Moderna Exhibition, which launched the idea of a contemporary art that would be unaffected by notions of national identity and community. In Malmö the eye is instead redirected back to “the image of contemporary Sweden”. What does this image look like? It is quite similar to The Moderna Exhibition, actually. Presented is largely the same visually muted, strongly formalized and research oriented art, with the crucial difference that it is now turned toward investigating its own historical premises.
To begin, let me establish that The Society Machine is one of the most convincing exhibitions I have seen at a Swedish art institution. The artists are for the most part well-known names from Rosendahl’s (as well as my own) generation, and yet it is as if the exhibition casts them in a new light, as though I were seeing their work for the first time. The narrative of the Swedish welfare state is not new either, but I am struck by how rarely it is presented in this way, beginning with its material base in industrial production. In addition, the exhibition’s narrative appears to resonate deeply with many of the participating artists.
THE WORKERS HAVE LEFT THE SOCIAL FACTORY
The exhibition bases its operation in montage, and works by around thirty artists are presented next to objects from the cultural history collections of Malmö Museer. On the whole, the display is strikingly homogenous, but in a way that encourages close, in depth examination of the materials. The overall impression is museum-like. Current issues of mining, refugee reception and weapons export are commented upon, yet at times the present appears far away. Instead, contemporary time is understood as a complex historical horizon stretching back in time, toward the enlightenment, and forward towards a time that has already begun to be formed by the consequences of industrial capitalism.
What above all distinguishes The Society Machine is an understanding of how an exhibition develops through different rhetorical devices for selecting and presenting works. The younger artists receive historical weight by their placing next to a number of strategically installed works by Björn Lövin (1937–2009), as well as Luleå based photographer Erik Holmstedt’s (born 1952) work over many years of documenting the environment around the mining town Malmberget. The exhibition actually begins already in the stairwell with Holmstedt’s image of a snow covered forest road leading to “The Land of Truth” [“Sanningslandet”] (as the road sign actually says). Next is a room held together by associations to brick as a material: a workers’ union flag and a few bricks from the museum’s collection are placed next to a video about one of Jan Svenungsson’s public chimney sculptures. A stuffed yellowhammer in a glass vitrine stands as an emblem to how industrialization transformed the country’s natural environment into cultural landscapes. From Svenungsson’s video a computer generated voice is heard counting down time. The feeling is of an era coming to an end and passing into something else. What?
The answer is given in the last room of the exhibition, again in the form of a single photograph by Erik Holmstedt: a windowless building that, according to the information sheet, shows Facebook’s European server center in the northern town of Luleå. We learn that the cold climate and the water power, which was once constructed to provide energy for the country’s steel and paper industries, is “now used to attract the global computer industry.” The image points indirectly to something happening inside, which we cannot see, thereby illustrating the exhibition’s notion of industrial labour as something that remains living as traces in the landscape, as well as in the brain and cognitive labour of post-industrial workers.
AN EXHIBITION UNFOLDING FROM ITS CENTER
In contrast to contemporary, Swedish literature, which in recent years has shown a strong interest in depictions of labour, The Society Machine doesn’t really present any works that give form to experiences from today’s working life. The manual labourer is not included in the “we” rhetorically construed around the exhibited art and its intended audience. An entire category of people are written out of history. Many of them have a different ethnical background than the majority of the academically educated artists exhibited here. They belong to a different class of society and are therefore excluded from the exhibition’s image of contemporary Sweden.
Nevertheless, The Society Machine really is an exhibition that tells us about marginalized and oppressed people in today’s society. Meira Ahmemulic’s (born 1974) filmed portrait of her mother is placed against Gustav Hillbom’s och Erik Viklund’s (both born 1982) video about two young boys in Malmberget, the town that is constantly torn down and relocated following the expansion of the mine. On the soundtrack Hillbom speaks about his father, who has died, while Ahmemulic’s story is set against images of the Gothenburg suburb Angered, where she grew up. There is something valuable, almost healing, about the way that the exhibition makes it possible to read these different experiences as part of a common narrative about Sweden, as a country shaped by industrial mining and the large scale housing project of the 70s. In Malmberget, the mine shaft eats its way ever closer to the house’s lot, which results in a feeling of powerlessness that recurs in severed ties to the past of the large housing projects.
In the room outside a large, black painted cube has been placed to mark a separation in the middle of of the art museum’s corridor-like exhibition space. Inside the cube a film by Jonas Dahlberg (born 1970) can be seen displaying the enlarged mechanism of a musical box. This is an open, speculative moment of the exhibition, where the moving parts in Dahlberg’s work can be read as a metaphorical image of how society and art is run by a common, internal machinery. At this point one has just passed a room that deals with the limestone quarries characteristic of Skåne in southern Sweden, followed by a constellation of works revolving around the mining industry in the north. It is as though the exhibition opens and is unfolded in different geographical and thematic directions starting from Dahlberg’s enigmatic machine room in the middle.
One of the most touching exhibition montages is the juxtaposition of Holmstedt’s photographs with Katarina Pirak Sikkus (born 1965) work consisting of a large white cloth placed on a low podium in the middle of the room. The cloth is visually connected to Anna Ling’s (born 1971) drawings on the other side of the black cube. Where Ling’s drawings depict the white walls of the Lindhamn quarry, Pirak Sikkus cloth carries traces of the dirty tires of a police car summoned to disperse protests against a new mine outside of Jokkmokk in 2013. These works highlight the limestone quarry and the mining industry as different expressions of industrial production’s depletion of the landscape. Placed against Holmstedt’s photographs of demolished and removed houses, Pirak Sikkus work additionally turns into a literal testemony about how authorities and companies over-ride the people, pushing a development without regard for land damage or the effects on the Sami people’s livelihood from reindeer.
The exhibition opens up the possibility, as well, of connecting Pirak Sikku’s work with the photograph of Facebook’s server center outside of Luleå, which is seen through the opening into the next room. As an image of the present, the montage is emptied of contents and visual imagination, while at the same time it constitutes a reminder of the recent years’ shortsighted politics for exploiting of the country’s natural resources, which pits local and indigenous populations against the interests of the multinational companies. This has a melancholy aspect, but also a rage and an appeal to stand up against a political injustice.
AN UNRESIGNED POLITICS
The Society Machine attaches great importance to how art is shaped by its historical conditions, yet at the same time contends that it is art’s very distance to society, and its temporal delay, which opens the possibility of connecting different perspectives, narratives and chronologies. The quasi-museological display is an expression of the same critical notion, which builds on the lack of opposition between the present and past, or between a political conflict and how it is represented in an exhibition. This is in many ways a “generational exhibition” in which the children of the war generation look back on the Swedish society that gradually seemed to disappear while they were growing up. And yet the exhibition’s strength lies in its ability to hold many different narratives and perspectives.
This does not mean that The Society Machine is without its faults. Björn Lövin would probably have needed a more precise presentation to come into his own, and the treatment of the object based works is not always ideal. Edward Clydesdale Thomson (born 1982) works with conceptual tapestry that appears as decoration while Karin Ohlin (born 1961), on the contrary, works with forms that appear as decoration – but function as sculpture. That they are placed next to each other in the room glosses over this crucial difference, resulting in that the visitor will easily walk past their works without taking notice of them. But these are exceptions to an exhibition that otherwise displays great respect for the integrity of the art works and their internal differences.
That the question of who is included into the image of contemporary Sweden has been subject to intense debate over the last years has not been missed by anyone. If national identity at the time of The Moderna Exhibition in 2010 could still be regarded as negligible for contemporary art, the rise of political populism and national sentiments has since then displaced public discourse, in parallel with more and more people of different backgrounds publicly claiming their rightfull place in society. In this context, The Society-Machine can be seen as taking a conservative stance by giving priority to an historical model for who is included in the category of contemporary Sweden. Among the well-ordered objects there is accordingly no room for performative, disruptive or in other ways dissenting elements. Each thing in its place, as the conservative watchword says.
Yet this is of course not the whole truth. Rosendahl’s decisive move is to break with the notion of the contemporary as a time taking place in the present, and in places where power and capital is accumulated (the large cities). Instead, the contemporary becomes the name for a time that largely takes place in smaller towns around the country, where the effects of today’s politics is most tangible. Production is relocated, factories shut down, countryside districts become depopulated. It is in the places abandoned by history that the country’s true future becomes visible. The description of these places as “colonized” opens for new political conflicts and potential communities between different parts of the country, from north to south, from suburb to depopulated district. Although The Society Machine is a melancholy exhibition, it is therefore not resigned but, on the contrary, highly charged with political force.