What is it like to open an exhibition when the rest of society is shutting down? To present new works when no one comes? Lina Bjerneld’s show at The Royal Academy opened a few weeks ago, around the time when most art institutions in Stockholm were closing their doors to the public. Shortly thereafter, The Royal Academy also decided to shut down; when, or if, the exhibition will open again is presently unclear.
Curiously, Bjerneld’s new work captures precisely the sense of isolation and despondency that proliferated as a large part of the world went into quarantine. The odd thing is how she prophetically has managed to capture the present in paintings which she must have been working on for months. The only explanation I can see is that her work intensifies a malaise that previously required a certain sensibility to detect, but which has now become integral to everyday life. In the same way, the current state of exception can be discerned as an extension of a condition that was already in place. In the exhibition catalogue, art critic Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen relates this to cultural theorist Mark Fischer’s idea of depression as a natural response to neoliberalism as a structural closure of the future. Indeed, this is exactly what Bjerneld’s images feel like.
The dominant feature of the exhibition is a number of sparse, large-scale paintings of carillons. In front of the large canvases are black benches built for two. On one of the walls is a series of drawn portraits of men depicted after carrying bodies from the rubble of Syrian bomb raids. The men’s unseeing gaze equals the depleted visuality that emerges in the paintings. The carillons are depicted from below, and looking at them is akin to being submerged, gazing upwards at something above the surface. It’s as if we are caught in an eerie underwater world and cannot get to those above us.
Another recurring motif is people singing or playing music. To the right of the entrance is a painting of a lone figure playing the trumpet, and in the adjacent gallery hangs a painting depicting a singer at a rock concert. The compositions rely on the tension that arises between the figurative elements and the empty areas surrounding them. These spaces function as visual representations of silence, of the music we can see but not hear, intensifying the muteness of the imagery and latent force of the paintings.
What is perhaps the oddest picture in the entire exhibition is installed in the innermost room. In Trampa vatten (Tread water, 2020), an individual walks assertively along what I assume is the bottom of the sea while holding a large catch of birds. Around their body is some sort of lifebelt, and where the head should be, a warm energy radiates up towards the surface. The figure looks like an automaton aimlessly trudging forward with the sole objective of accumulating more riches. An allegory of how the constant pursuit of growth turns people into soulless, catatonic machines? Perhaps. In any event, the image perfectly illustrates Marx’s theory of base and superstructure, where the experience of freedom is tied to exploitation on another level. If the submerged figure appears to have no worries, it’s only because it lacks a mind and eyes to see beyond its own horizon.
Hanging adjacent is a small painting of a tormented man burying his face in his hands. I interpret this pair as the artist pointing to two paths for the contemporary human: either you put on your underwater suit and become an obedience machine under capitalism, or be paralysed by anxiety. The current state of political despair is a consequence of both paths leading to passivity, despondency, and isolation. What the artist seems to suggest is that there is no movement that could truly lead us in another direction.
That Bjerneld is not looking to portray a psychological state, but to capture a cultural mood is made clear by how she works with series and repetition. She is not after the individual Syrian man’s inner life, but rather the common experience of the men as a group. In the large paintings, the carillons represent an order that is larger than the individual, indicating that Bjerneld’s work is the antithesis of an introverted or formalist art. What she wants, I think, is to depict a condition that people can identify with in order to give them an experience to gather around. I interpret this as an attempt to restore art as a social sphere where people can reflect on a reality in which life’s vulnerability and exposure is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The fact that it is not possible to sit on the benches right now does not render the gesture less relevant, only more tragic insofar as it reinforces the thesis that what can bring people together today, what can unite them, is not a common dream or utopia, as much as the weariness and resignation that living in a world with no future entails.
It occurs to me that Bjerneld’s chalky and scarcely painted surfaces are reminiscent of Bible scenes in medieval churches. Perhaps this is her searching for a new painting, one that could function as an exorcism of today’s extreme privatisation of contemporary art. Instead, I think that she wants to find a hidden or forgotten communism in what people fear most. If this was once monsters scraping at the church door, then in today’s burnout society it is the passive or depleted who violate the command to be connected to the growth economy 24/7. Improductivity, it seems, is the latent fear which manifests itself in the exhibition as a sense of anxiety.
I come to think of the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s anachronous demand that art must be abstract and immobile. Wouldn’t that just mean restoring non-figurative modernism as an aesthetic ideal? Not necessarily. It could also refer to an art that looks much like Bjerneld’s. Her work does not strive for ’presence’ in the way that painting usually does. Instead, it looks haunted, or caught in a state of permanent dissolution. Maybe Bjerneld would agree with the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund that death is an argument for a common care for life in its continually ongoing final stage. Here, the benches do not appear as a site for the individual viewer to confront their fear of dying, as much as an attempt to represent everyone’s equality before the fact that they will one day disappear.
What is most fascinating is that Bjerneld manages to convey this without being lofty or bleak. Instead, her work feels searching, rich, and sometimes quite entertaining. In a few places, she has wedged paintings under the walls so that they partially protrude, as a humorous way of reinforcing a sense of disengagement and fatigue. At times, I suspect that her vision might be too strong for the intellectually and socially conformist Swedish art scene. Maybe this exhibition could change that? If it’s seen, that is. To me, it confirms that she is one of the foremost painters of her generation.