Once every four years, Moderna Museet set themselves a challenge on a grand scale. Their exhibition Modernautställningen brings together work from a wide range of artists, all connected to the Swedish art scene, with the aim of proving an insight into that scene and into Swedish society in general. The exhibition, which ran for the first time in 2006, returned this autumn, curated by Joa Ljungberg and Santiago Mostyn. We met Ljungberg to discuss it.
So first of all, the title of this exhibition is ‘With The Future Behind Us’, can you expand a little on the meaning of that title for us.
Joa Ljungberg: It’s a title that might sound a bit sad, even apocalyptic, and in parts of the exhibition you can even read it like that. But in other parts you can find it in a more positive way. When we chose this title, we were inspired by the unique concept of time amongst the Aymara people [an indigenous group from the Andes region], who think that we move in time with our backs towards the future. Instead of thinking of time orientation as we do in the West, they see it as moving into the future facing backwards, looking out into the past. We thought we could learn something from this thinking. We find ourselves in a very precarious time, when xenophobic, populist and fascist winds blow throughout Europe, and with more and more of us realising that we are facing catastrophic climate change. So maybe it’s time to face the past, and see which political priorities and values and ways of thinking have caused us to stand where we stand today.
Time is something that re-occurs as a theme in this exhibition, and there are several works that think about how we orientate ourselves in time, and how we have maybe made time move ‘faster’, with the consequences that has. There are also other works that create meetings in time, pieces that compare the time before and leading up to the Second World War with the time we live in today, of course with the hope of signalling something.
The exhibition is constructed around four themes, can you run us through those themes.
We said four, but maybe it’s four and a half. The human body is very present throughout the exhibition, but in the first part even more so. I would say that in this grouping we see how the body has been exposed to various kinds of pressures, pressures of power, political pressures, pressures of norms. The themes also mix with one another, they move in an organic way in and out of each other. This thematic grouping, with the body in the centre, also meets the next, with Swedish society, and the processes that have shaped the Swedish society in the centre. We have works that go back to the beginning of industrialisation, looking at how that process has shaped people’s lives, but also how nature has been transformed. But the body is present here as well. The third thematic grouping takes place in our contemporary time, but with some of the works looking like they take place in the future, but actually they’re talking about phenomena happening now – urbanisation, fast technological development. And again they’re talking about how they affect bodies, us as human beings, our environment, and the way we think of reality and ourselves. And the fourth thematic grouping moves us into this more optimistic room. There are no solutions to the future, but here are examples of searching in a positive way. And there’s a strong feminist presence in this room, a strong queer presence, pieces about pedagogical processes, about how a child can grow and bloom. And there are also other blooming processes taking place, more to do with a search for uncorrupted sexuality, for renewed relationship to the body and senses. And artists looking back on history in a positive way, looking back at figures like Elin Wägner for example, who in 1937 was trying to find a counter to the fascistic development she saw in her time. And then as we move out into the corridor, we also encounter a spiritual search. We were a little surprised I think by what we saw in our research, that a lot of artists seemed interested in finding a spiritual dimension beyond the big religions, often with nature as a companion into the mysteries of life. So that’s what the exhibition ends with, bringing us out into the cosmos.
So, the themes tend to focus on things that are familiar to us from our everyday lives, like the ‘The Body’, ‘Nature’, ‘Civilisation’. But they present them in ways that, you might say, break the way we look at them in the everyday. And the one that reminded me of this is Anja Örn, Thomas Örn & Fanny Carinasdotter’s ‘Att använda landskap’, when they show a quarry, which is a relatively everyday thing, but it’s only when they present it up-close and in this way that you start to consider it more and the place it has in our society. And I guess that’s also in play in the short film about the little boy and the border he can’t go over [Knutte Wester, ‘Här är gränsen’]. It makes you reconsider the impact of a border. So was part of the exhibition’s aim to present things from the everyday in ways that break the sheen of normality and get us to look at them in new ways?
There is maybe more than one answer to that question. When we got this commission, to curate this quadrennial survey of the Swedish art scene, we of course were very enthusiastic, but also a little puzzled, because we wondered what it meant to do such a national survey today, not least considering the political winds I mentioned earlier. We probably never found a clear answer to that question, but we found a way to navigate around it. We noticed when we did our research, that a lot of artists today are interested in their local environment, in their own society and history. If you compare even with ten to fifteen years ago, many more artists were looking for the big stories, geographical very far away. Whereas today, many seem to be digging under their own feet. This we found inspiring, and it made us think of this exhibition as more than a survey of artistic practises in Sweden, and also as an opportunity to look at Swedish society through art. So that’s one explanation, there are quite a number of works that bring up topics that are very relevant and very present in our own society, but here via art. I’ve not asked the artists this, but the aim of many of them is to bring up these kinds of questions in a way that talks to our bodies and sense, and break through the barriers that we sometimes build up when we read about things in the news or hear about them in our everyday busy lives, and actually present them in a way that encourages reflection and engagement. One thing that I think is nice with this exhibition, is that it presents many important and strong narratives that need to be told, but need to be told in a way that speaks not only to our intellect, but also to our bodies and senses, and visually and aesthetically they are strong.
How long does the curatorial process take for an exhibition like this, and how much goes into it?
I think we have been working with this for one and a half years, maybe a little bit more, and for the last year we have worked particularly intensively. We spent a certain number of months just going around and meeting lots of artists, travelling around and going to many different places. We organised four seminar days, in Malmö, Gothenburg, Stockholm and in Umeå, where we invited 48 curators, museum directors, researchers, and we asked all of them to give short presentations about artists that they found interesting, or trends that they could see on the scene. And the most important thing of all was encounters with artists. Maybe artists who before we didn’t even know existed. Many of the artists in the exhibition, I didn’t know about before we stared this research process. Then of course later on you work intensively with text production, look at what you have found, what you have found interesting, how you select what themes you choose to focus on and how the different works talk to each other. And then to connect the machinery of Moderna Museet, with all the staff that have to prepare the instillation, transport, everything. It’s quite a huge process, and so many people are involved.
The fact that this exhibition takes place every four years makes it quite an interesting opportunity to observe the Swedish art scene and how the Swedish art scene has changed over the intervening four years. So what have you noticed as the big themes and techniques that have emerged in this 2018 batch of artists?
Well, one I mentioned earlier, the growing interest in not looking for the big stories far away, but actually looking more at your own society and how it has shaped who you are. So this growing interest in the local is one thing. I also think that there is an acceptance of the importance of the non-verbal, aesthetic aspect. There has maybe been a period when art moved in a very academic direction, where the idea or the narrative was most important, but not so much what you met visually. I think that has changed, and many artists have realised that we are not only brain, we are also body and we have senses and something very interesting can happen when you engage all those different sides of us.
You mentioned quite a lot when we were looking at the exhibition, that many of the pieces were very open for the viewer to interpret themselves. Do you think there’s been a move to create pieces like that, that have quite open meanings, and are more designed to get the viewer to look at them and figure out their own interpretation, rather than a piece that has a very clear meaning and idea and tries to impose it on the viewer?
I haven’t thought about it, if that’s a new trend. But it is true of many works in the exhibition, and perhaps there is something in our time, that people, me included, are getting a bit tired of everything being categorised and counted and registered and put into boxes. We can see how that has played a very dangerous role in history, how the white man has categorised human beings and put them into boxes.
Which the Sami works [by Anders Sunna], in the exhibition are a clear example of?
Exactly. So I do think this knowledge of history, and also the fact that we live in a society where technology registers our every move and offers to count our steps, calories, whatever, has maybe created a longing for something else, for a more fluid, organic and open way of approaching life.
So, what are the challenges involved in creating an exhibition, where the brief is to some extent to try and capture what the Swedish art scene looks like in 2018?
I think we moved a little bit away from this idea, that this show should present the coolest, most important artists right now. One reason was that the task is impossible, we would need a much larger space and more time and more money to do it, basically. So of course, we have chosen to focus on certain themes, that we feel are relevant in the time we live today. We also chose to approach this Modernautställning differently, considering that we live in a time where xenophobic, nationalistic winds are blowing all over Europe. It is challenging, and I guess we just dived into it, and we used it as an opportunity to learn more about the Swedish art scene, to meet new artists and learn about Swedish society. So I guess we tried to forget a little bit what a challenge it was, and just go for it and be as open-minded and receptive as we could. The result of our process brings up certain themes, so there are of course very important artists that are not in the exhibition. And we have also chosen some names that are not so known on the scene at this point. Other artists who are very important have maybe been in previous editions, so we chose to make this an opportunity to introduce artists who are not already super-famous. So the result is an exhibition that we feel presents strong artistic practises we think are very relevant and important now, but saying that there are of course many relevant and important artists who are not part of this show.
Did you try and capture a variety of styles and viewpoints to try and get as wide a range as possible?
I think to be honest we looked at and discussed what had the strongest impact on us artistically. So we tried to collect those practises and works that we really felt were strong and important. And from what we had selected we tried to figure out, ‘well, what do these say together?’, and we found these four themes from it. Actually, the fact that it became such a mix of video, performances, painting was not something we planned, but it’s something we welcome. It just happened naturally.
In addition to the static exhibition, you’ve also got live performance and film showings as a part of this, so can you tell us a bit more about those.
There is a very interesting film programme. We chose to screen the longer films in the cinema, so you can have a comfortable seat and good sound. We have a film by Sophie Vuković. We have two films by Tor-Finn Malum Fitje. One is a collaboration with Thomas Hill also. And one of the films is a completely new production, it just finished before the exhibition. It has a similar interest to Christina Edlund’s work, looks into communication within the world of plants and other living organisms. And we also have a video by Cara Tolmie, who also performed on the opening day, and her work is also shown as a film in the cinema. And then we have Fatima Moallim who is an artist, who will appear in the exhibition and will work on a huge drawing on the wall. At times she’ll be announced, and you can come and stand by her and observe while she’s drawing. What she draws is a mixture of her own energy and experiences and what she senses in the room while drawing. And then we have Dinis Machado, who is doing his performance twice every Tuesday and twice every Sunday during the exhibition period.
As a final question, there’s a lot of pessimism in the exhibition about the future, but also a lot of optimism. So was it important to have that kind of balance in what you included?
In my view, there is not a balance, the dark moments maybe are a bit more prevalent than the light ones. But in our research we encountered examples of searching for positives, and I do think when you enter an exhibition it’s more difficult if everything is just very dark and very heavy, and in the end you get numb. So there has to be some light, some alternative viewpoints in order to be able to see and reflect upon what it dark.
The Modernautställningen 2018 runs until January 6 2019.
Main Image: Santiago Mostyn and Joa Ljungberg. Photo Albin Dahlström, Moderna Museet.