Graft the Words, Whip My Tongue is the largest exhibition I’ve seen by Johanna Gustafsson Fürst. It occupies two rooms in Stockholm University’s konsthall Accelerator. It also expands in time, as works are continuously swapped for new ones, and a second part of the exhibition will open in March. Perhaps it’s part of the point that the audience will never gain a complete view of the subject, which in the exhibition text is described as, “the language violence that was part of the Swedification process of Tornedalen.” In 1865, this process was described as “oppression,” which, in light of an article from 1990 by the linguist Nils-Erik Hansegård, seems like a euphemism. He uses the term “cultural genocide.”
Tornedalen (Torne Valley) is a Finnish- and Sami-speaking area which has belonged to Sweden since the 15th century. As a result of political modernity’s idea of the nation state inextricably tied to linguistic unity, the population was to become Swedish, which included speaking Swedish. Finnish was banned in schools, children were placed in Swedish-speaking homes, names were changed to make them sound more Swedish. The paradox in all this is how this Swedish population group first had to be identified as de-Swedified, identified as “Tornedal Finns,” in order to then forcibly become Swedish. My parents – my entire extended family – were subjected to this. When I grew up, I was not allowed to learn how to speak what was in fact my mother tongue, Finnish. I was obedient and never did. Anytime I hear art students being forced to discuss their work in English, I think of what an enduring policy this is. Monolingual primacy applies the art world as well as to the policies of the nation state, but with other connotations. Perhaps Gustafsson Fürst never gives us a complete overview precisely because the politics of this are far from concluded and comprehensible.
The first thing that happens when I enter the exhibition is that I get a strong light shined in my face. It feels like I’m being illuminated for inspection by some power entity that I cannot see. I’m led towards the lamp by barricade tape, along the barrier, until I reach a cage-like structure which seems to have been lowered from above. Hanging out from the wall to the right of the cage, there’s a small stick with a piece of ripped fabric on it, drooping like a tatty flag. This must be the whipped tongue of the exhibition title. The work is called Vox (2019). Voice, but in a foreign and extinct language of scholarship spoken in an empire that has since become a symbol of political authoritarianism. Voice is both that which carries language, but also that which makes itself heard politically – for example by voting.
The barricade tape is fastened to aluminium poles, which Gustafsson Fürst describes as “formants,” the name for the resonance of the human voice in the cavities of the skull (mouth, throat, nose), and which appears as bands in spectral analysis. These are what the poles are based on. Just as the word “voice” has a physical and political meaning, this work’s use of tape stems both from the body and practices of law enforcement; the combination establishes a boundary that controls the visitor’s movements. This is about the physicality of language, and I realise that this was what Rasbiologiska institutet (the Swedish Institute for Racial Biology) was once tasked with investigating! The language policy was scientifically constructed in that the “Tornedal Finns” were first identified as a “Swedish tribe,” which means that their Finnish was an alien language, a kind of parasite on a Swedish body. What Gustafsson Fürst, as well as the racial policies, seem to be after, is language as a basis of political intimacy. The native language, the mother’s tongue. Further into the exhibition there’s a lumpy wooden sculpture hanging from the ceiling, The Mothertongue (2019), accentuating the intimacy of language and the connection between the spoken and tongue. The work’s physical presence becomes imposing when I picture it as a tongue.
The transition between body and politics that takes place in Vox is critical. If the formants can be conceived of as materialisations of the voice, the cage has been covered in fabric reflecting the beam from the spotlight. A transformation has taken place in which the voice has gone from being an expression of the body to becoming a reflection of power. I get in the cage, and this worries the gallery attendant. They obviously don’t know the exact rules here, but still accomplish the apt instruction: “It’s best to stay outside of it if you can.” This is the effect of power, to create a concern that deforms language, since interpersonal relations must be deformed in order to match the hierarchies that power maintains. The attendant could just as well have been dressed in reflective clothing.
The unsettling nature of Vox, and the experience that it’s my own language, my own tongue, that I’m looking at in The Mothertongue, makes me think that the Finnish language wasn’t the only casualty in the Swedification of Tornedalen. Swedish also suffered. The work is an assemblage of wood which has been worked in chair factories, and burl wood which is used by woodworkers in Tornedalen to make bowls and Guksi (a traditional mug). The combination reminds me of my Swedish, which I often feel is both rigid and conformal, like dead material, unyielding and unfit for anything but amateur activities. Swedish is a minority language for my generation of Tornedalians who weren’t supposed to learn Finnish – a bizarre kind of minority language matching the language of government. In this case, the confrontation between minority and government languages is not external, but internalised in the Swedish language. At the same time, there is no other language, which risks making someone as uncertain about their use of language as the gallery attendant was about the behaviour for which there was no rule.
I often find myself thinking “Is this Swedish?” when I’m about to use some common word. I’m afraid I may have made it up. This was exactly my reaction when looking at The Mothertongue: I saw how I envisage my own language, how it occupies my mouth. I assume Gustafsson Fürst was mainly thinking of Tornedal Finnish (Meänkieli), but seeing her exhibition I can’t help thinking of my own Swedish, as a shadow image of Meänkieli, or an aimless reflection of the language of authority. Also, when the artist spoke to people in Tornedalen in preparation for the exhibition, the language she actually encountered there must have been Swedish, not Finnish.
As a counterpoint to the uneven contours of The Mothertongue is a monumental sculpture made out of parts of a metal fence. The work, The ABC-book (2020) combines the function of a barrier with the notion of educational and ideological language conveyance. The relationship is mediated by the light, which falls in spots extensively from above. The shadow under The Mothertongue moves slightly, considerably more gracefully than the sculpture itself. In the next gallery, the shadow play returns to the floor. The shadows from the various wooden shapes, made of chair material, are dancey dream images of notebook doodling. Freedom. Are we looking at the language of The Mothertongue or The ABC-book? Neither. These sculptures are less polished than The Mothertongue. The round shapes seem to be determined by the breaking point of the material: they have cracked and pointed wood chips which protrude. The shapes are grafted onto each other, not with the usual smoothness of joinery, but with other kinds of holes. Glue trickling, wooden plugs sticking out. The wood also doesn’t look like handicraft from that area; it’s completely dead, cut in stone that is sometimes treated so that it is reminiscent of ordinary artificial plinths, sometimes rougher, more like paving stones. These are materials which have broken away from the process and tried to bring life out of the breaking points.
When I speak with Hans Isaksson, an artist from Tornedalen, we’ve both been reminded by the same thing: speaking in tongues, liikutuksia. I mention the Finnish word because it was also used in Swedish to denote the ecstatic parts of the religious speaking in tongues within Laestadianism, the revival movement which originated in Tornedalen. Before seeing this exhibition, I hadn’t really thought of speaking in tongues as a way to escape the intimacy of politics in language. But I think this is what the exhibition proposes: to seek liberation though behaviour that doesn’t adhere to social norms of communication and responsibility. Stop obeying, stop being good! This is not only the largest and most eye-opening exhibition by Gustafsson Fürst, it’s also the most stunning.