The Far Side of the Swedish Doofus

Peter Johansson’s double exhibition in Malmö is a heartbreaking reckoning with the sexual abuse the artist was subjected to growing up in the 1970s.

Installation view from Peter Johansson’s exhibition Barnatro (Childhod Faith) at Galleri Leger och Galleri 21 in Malmö. Photo: Matti Östling.

Peter Johansson is perhaps the only Swedish artist that could be described as an entertainer. If the opportunities to show art were as diverse as those for performing music, he would probably make it all the way to Las Vegas. Instead, he tours Sweden like a popular dance band, with lots of exhibitions: at the moment, two solo shows in Malmö and one in Linköping, two hours south of Stockholm. This broad appeal is probably due to the fact that, apart from just being damn good and funny, he’s also distinctly unpretentious: his art is farcical, assured, and ironic; his subject matter often has a popular appeal, ranging from bird houses to militarism, or skinheads. What’s more, he doesn’t shy away from presenting himself as ‘the Swedish doofus’, that is, a comical and harmless male figure traditionally embraced by Swedes.

Additionally, there is often a sort of retro folksiness to his style, even though that’s also something he’s suspicious of. This certainly applies to his double exhibition Barnatro (Childhood faith), shown in tandem at the artist-run Galleri 21 and the commercial Galleri Leger in Malmö. With pictures from family albums, blown-up and plastered on the walls at Leger, and re-enactments in closed rooms of kitchen scenes from his childhood shown through peepholes at Galleri 21, he casts a disquieting shadow on the folky sociality of the 1970s. How many miserable or disturbed mothers don’t I suddenly remember from those years – though now as a cultural feature – and how unnervingly secretive weren’t those dimmed lights in the dens! Transparency and surveillance were distant to the mentality of that time, and it is on the far side of that freedom and happiness that the exhibition takes place.

Peter Johansson, Spelad ilska (Feigned Anger) (detail), 2019. Photo: Matti Östling.

Art as a form for truth

Surprisingly, Barnatro is not in the least entertaining. On the contrary, it is about how the artist was abused as a child, sexually molested and bullied. His five-year-old face, with huge blue eyes and a little hand raised to the forehead in a salute, has been wallpapered over a whole wall directly inside the door at Galleri Leger. Knowing the background story, anyone can easily imagine the emotions this elicits. However, it’s difficult to conceive of the intensity of the experience, the feeling of not being able to escape. I walk breathlessly through the exhibition rooms. The worst thing of all is what can be seen in the pictures: the persistent presence of those who want to hurt you. Each of the tormenters’ faces is covered by a white dot: five on the school picture (out of 13 possible); one on the picture where the artist hugs a large dog; one on the confirmation picture; one on the picture from his father’s funeral; two on the holiday pictures from the mountains. There is even a white dot between his grandparents’ heads. They’re everywhere!

But Johansson’s approach is not documentary, and the exhibitions are permeated by the question of art’s possible relationship to traumatic memories. The key work is probably Spelad ilska (Feigned anger), an assemblage of the artist’s expressive face as a child in an enlarged black and white image. A steel cage with a rolled-up polar bear skin has been mounted on the image. The polar bear has a falukorv, a thick Swedish sausage, between its teeth. The picture shows what must have been the true feeling from that time, the anger that existed, but which could only be documented as fiction. Perhaps it means that, for a young Johansson, art had already emerged as a form for truth? The importance of the image is emphasized by the fact that it returns in the exhibition. The other part of the work seems to say that the picture is simply like the polar bear’s skin. The body is dead and gone, but what remains is still sufficiently threatening to have to be caged and humiliated with a sausage – or made to be absurdly funny with sausage between its grimy teeth.

Peter Johansson, The Boyhood Room (detail), 2019. Photo: Matti Östling.

The spirit of the 1970s

The fact that that photograph is fiction, or fantasy, means that it’s linked to memory from the very start. Another photograph is a double exposure, people who weren’t actually there appear like ghosts. One of them is covered by a white dot. The work is called Försvunna minnen (Lost memories), clearly indicating that this is less about coming to terms with the past, and more about an exploration of memories. Not of whether they are true in relation to the documentary material, but on the contrary, whether the documentary is able to make memories available as further artistic material.

Mamma, pappas skåp och korvknullaren (Mom, dad’s cabinet and the sausage fucker) is a test of that thought, as it were. In front of a large, wallpapered photograph of a tired mother on a skiing trip is a small cabinet made by the father, the inside painted with a folkloristic kurbits pattern in white on a background in traditional Falun red. On one of the cabinet doors, a machine inserts a yellowish falukorv through a hole. This is the titular sausage fucker, the materialisation of the family friend who sexually abused Peter. The sounds from the machine are audible throughout the entire exhibition space, and a sausage fucker is also included in the presentation at Galleri 21. Swedish folksiness comes into play again with the cabinet and the skiing holiday; with the red paint typical of the Dalarna region, and with the particular use of the falukorv, a reference to the porn classic Fäbodjäntan (Come and Blow the Horn) from 1978. The work is saturated with these references – the spirit of the time and the culture is visible through the child’s situation, and the child casts a shadow over the culture.  

Peter Johansson, detail from installation at Galleri 21, Malmö. Photo: Matti Östling.

A horrific moment

And yet, Johansson does not cease being funny! In the middle of the room at Leger is something similar to a windmill, but it’s perhaps supposed to be a big fan. The blades are clad in a picture of the end of a falukorv: When the Sausages Hit the Fan. Next to it is a crucifix-like maypole in dark metal with sausages hanging from the arms, Pedofilstång (Pedophile pole). Another work, Parasoll med skugga (Parasol with shade), is what the title describes, but made with pictures of various perpetrators who have been stretched out to form a sunshade, and piled up on the floor – which somehow goes well with the use of the polar bear. I have never encountered such an accumulation of vicious humour and bitterness in works that simply sit so well!

The exhibition at Leger is open and filled with works. At Gallery 21, however, the space has been filled with small rooms made from large, Falun red blocks (a bit like the Holocaust memorial in Berlin) with furniture in relief. The path between the blocks is cramped, and in some places there are holes to peek through. One of the rooms is reminiscent of a furnace, with falukorv concoctions covered in something brown which seems to symbolize blood – the results of domestic violence. In some places, there are films in which Johansson plays his mother. Her most common word is an exclamation, “Hello!” or “Hello?” She’s cooking without being sure there’s someone at home who wants to eat. In one of the films, which you have to kneel to see, she seems to be bending down to look out through the oven. With a steady gaze, she mouths to the viewer in a way that is equal parts defiant, confused, scathing, and resigned: Hello. It’s a horrific moment. Such a complex reality comes at you while reading those lips, one that is wildly funny, sincerely despairing, and leaves you helplessly moved. It is a truly powerful exhibition.