“It’s not outside, it’s in me… my life is poetry,” announces one of the actors in Ane Hjort Guttu’s two-channel video Practicing Poetry (2019), from which this exhibition takes its title. Staged across two small galleries in the rear of Virserum Konsthall, this presentation of the Norwegian artist’s work is part of an inaugural ‘collaborative triennial’ for contemporary art organised by New Småland, a project which aims to rebrand Småland, a sparsely-populated rural region in southern Sweden dominated by dense forest and associated quintessential figures such as Astrid Lindgren (the creator of Pippi Longstocking) and Ingvar Kamprad (the founder of IKEA), as well as Vilhelm Moberg’s classic novel The Emigrants (1949), and Lasse Halström’s film, My Life as a Dog (1985).
Despite its cultural cachet, Småland faces many of the same challenges confronting other rural areas in Sweden: depopulation, lack of services, and social stigma, just to name a few. Headed by curator Jonatan Habib Engqvist, together with artist Mike Bode, New Småland aims to address such issues by initiating dialogues with contemporary art – an instrumental approach to development that harkens back to the early aughties when attracting the so-called “creative class” was embraced by struggling municipalities as a strategy for urban regeneration.
Part of what makes New Småland different from old Småland is to be found in places like Virserum, a long-declining town with an ageing population of approximately two-thousand, roughly fifteen per cent of whom are newly arrived from Syria. While Hjort Guttu’s presentation doesn’t speak to these conditions directly, it does pose a number of questions about the efficacy of art – and poetry, too – as well as its distribution throughout the broader social field.
On a pair of CRT monitors, the titular work features two actors – a woman to the left, a man to the right – apparently trapped inside a white cube, their faces painted to match. Intermittently fading into and out of white, they speak to one another about freedom, solitude, and artistic autonomy; at times, they speculate as to whether or not someone has entered the gallery. Passages from André Breton’s ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ (1924), are also quoted: “Farewell to absurd choices, the dreams of dark abyss, rivalries… the artificial order of ideas, the ramp of danger, time for everything! May you only take the trouble to practice poetry.”
What, the woman inquires, does it mean to practice poetry? Apart from reading, writing, and publishing, that is. Her male counterpart answers with clichés and farcical outbursts in an attempt to prove that he is free and in a place where “poetry has won.” And he’s right, to a degree. The European avant-garde program of merging art and life has triumphed insofar as it is imperative under late-capitalism that individuals be creative and liberate their potential by practicing their passions, realising their dreams; the “end of money” that nearly a century ago Breton predicted was at hand has today been achieved in ‘cash free zones’ and increasing levels of abstraction.
When everything is poetry, nothing is. Which is fine if by poetry one means, as I think Hjort Guttu’s character does, asserting individual freedoms against the social field’s rivalries, dark abysses, and ramps of danger. Even if, as Adorno argued, the lyric poem is an expression of a social antagonism, this is a profoundly conservative view of both poetry and social life, and one that I doubt many poets today actually share. But for the sake of argument, what would happen to poetry in a non-monetised society in which there was equal opportunity and access to the means of cultural production – in which there were time, say, for reading, writing, and reflection? It would cease to be distinct as a category, much less a specific set of forms and practices. At least, this contradiction is what I think the artist wants us to consider here.
Perhaps more relevant to the local audience is Furniture isn’t just furniture (2017). In this short film, viewers encounter the same two characters, this time embedded in various furnishings inside an IKEA showroom. Throughout the film, the couple discusses white middle-class problems while reflecting on the banality of their surroundings and flipping through the company’s latest catalog. “Freedom,” moans one, “is never pleasant.” This is a work that, to paraphrase Simen J. Helsvig’s 2017 review for Kunstkritikk, registers a deep ambivalence towards the idea that a space of human authenticity actually exists, one in which the furniture is almost or merely furniture.
Of course, in the context of Virserum, which as recently as 1970 was home to over forty furniture manufacturers specialising in traditional craft techniques, furniture is rather more than furniture. This makes the self-described “konsthall of the countryside and periphery” an appropriate, albeit somewhat impertinent choice of venue, especially given that IKEA’s rise was a contributing factor to the town’s rapid downturn – a history painstakingly chronicled at the nearby Virserum Furniture Industry Museum. To perpetuate such friction seems deliberate, consistent not only with Hjort Guttu’s overall approach, but also her apparent skepticism regarding the use-value of art. Still, this feels like a missed opportunity for New Småland’s organisers to have made good on the project’s purported ambitions to establish long-term relationships and “creat[e] a dialogue between international contemporary art and local knowledge.”
While I’m broadly sympathetic to New Småland’s focus on peripheral and rural settings, if this exhibition is any indication of the project’s partnerships with smaller cultural institutions deep in the region, then the scope is far too limited. Because it’s in underserved and remote communities like Virserum that autonomy isn’t just a bourgeois dilemma, but a condition for social life and aesthetic activity. Precisely the sort of antinomy that Practicing Poetry reflects upon.