Letter from Sweden

http://lilithperformancestudio.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/pressbild-eden-HENNASIDAN.jpgHenna-Riikka Halonen, Eden, The Pow(d)er of Fear at Lilith Performance Studio

Starting out my Swedish escapade in a disappointingly bleak Copenhagen, I found shelter from the torrential rain in Learning Site’s eco-friendly mobile home. The Danish/Swedish artists’ collective explores informal urban planning and sustainability through their often immaterially-based practice. The compact triangular-latticed modular construction is complete with wood-burning stove, greenhouse, water collection and recycling system, and hollowed walls where decomposing vegetable waste both warms the dwelling and produces nutrient-rich compost. Co-founder Rikke Luther has until recently been living here with her partner and young child; they now plan to use it as a residency and event space to further the collective’s research. This dedication to alternative approaches became a common topic of conversation during my visit to Sweden.

Leaving Denmark behind, I crossed the Øresund bridge to Malmö. With an abundance of deserted industrial and dock buildings providing cheap studio spaces, many graduates from Malmö Art Academy settle here, making for a markedly youthful and energetic art scene. While the Malmö Konsthall and Moderna Museet Malmö deliver more formal programming, the city has a rich history of artist-run spaces. One at the forefront of artistic production, Signal, has published A Parallel History – The Independent Art Arenas of Skåne 1968-2008, a lucid and insightful survey of the region’s independent art scene. Speaking to Signal’s co-directors, Elena Tzotzi and Carl Lindh, they are steadfastly artist-led in their programming. Lindh, himself an artist, elucidates how their collaborative curatorial approach has a direct relationship with his artistic practice. I found that this attitude towards creative collaboration resonated throughout other organisations too. The Lilith Performance Studio was particularly inspiring; established in 2007 by artists Elin Lundgren and Petter Pettersson, the organisation is unique in its remit and structure. Focusing purely on visual art performance, the duo work with four artists each year – including local as well as internationally renowned names, such as Emily Wardill and Laura Lima – to produce new large-scale performances, each exhibition open to the public for only a handful of days. Here the performance is given as much gravitas as an exhibition in a conventional programme where, as Lungren points out, ‘performance art can explore its full potential’. Recognising the importance of practical artistic research, artists are encouraged to work in the space over a period of time and in close collaboration with the directors – particularly important since many of the invited artists have not previously worked in performance.

Completely transformed for each exhibition, I am lucky enough to get a sneak preview at Lilith of Henna-Riikka Halonen new monumental project Eden, The Pow(d)er of Fear. Having built a labyrinth of different ‘scenes’ complete with furnished bedroom, dazzling clinically white corridors, brightly coloured Perspex screens and a blackboard spanning the width of the building, her set sits somewhere surreal between asylum hospital and a walk-through Mondrian. Working with a single technician over a two-month period, Halonen has had ample time to reflect on repositioning her video-based practice in the physical world. There is a real integrity to Lilith’s approach to creative production and, as Lundgren explains, they have fostered a dedicated following. Each performance will be packed out – and not necessarily by an art audience, she is keen to emphasise.

After spending the weekend in a remote beech forest for the reopening of the Wanas sculpture park, I head to Lunds Konsthall. Inaugurated in 1957, it has an impressive history of showing challenging and timely exhibitions of both Swedish and international artists. Refurbished in recent years, the expansive, airy modernist building now also includes black-box and more intimate exhibition spaces, and the highly educated audience of this university town engages avidly with the programme. The Konsthall is also responsible for the city’s public art collection, dispersed between the city’s municipal buildings and public spaces. For every new building or renovation, 2% of the total budget is allocated for public artwork; a seemingly endless opportunity for the Konsthall to support the production of new works, and over the years it has amassed a vast collection of works by both local and national artists, working site-specifically in the city. However, this incredible opportunity is about to come under threat. While publicly funded art always entails a certain amount of political negotiation, the government is introducing a new policy that will force all creative projects – including exhibitions and residencies as well as commissions – to follow open competition procedures in line with commercial

industries, with each opportunity open to submission and ending collaborations through invitation. For the Konsthall – as with all other art institutions in the country – a vast increase in bureaucratic paperwork, while artists are faced with a future of endless proposal writing without any guarantee that their projects will be realised. Party-political interference is even more contentious with regard to the exhibitions programme; the upcoming September elections are highly visible, and in the frenzy candidates have turned their criticism towards the Konsthall in a misplaced attempt to attract support from the local electorate. Director Åsa Nacking has come under direct attack but, as she explains the situation, it is clear that she refuses to allow this to have any influence over her programming. Their current exhibition, ‘Don’t Embarrass the Bureau’ – a group show questioning the legitimacy of the structures that exert control over our social, political and economic lives – seems a rather apt response.

Onwards to Gothenburg, where I find a general air of disillusionment; artists repeat the same complaints – that the city is overlooked by the predominantly Stockholm-based critics, there is a lack of commercial galleries and, as everyone keeps claiming, Swedes hibernate in the cold, dark winters and ‘don’t speak to each other again until the summer’. Nevertheless, with the warm spring weather and bright evenings, there is an energy in the air. As I work my way through a day of studio visits, much of which is spent in parks or cafe terraces, I gather a real sense of an artist community. I am fortunate to be in town for the monthly artists’ get-together, Bar10, an artist set-up of live music, performance and installation taking over what is a pre-school nursery by day. Artists who I had been speaking with earlier in the day had since put on a homemade feast, laid out in a hodgepodge of plates, pans and Tupperware. A makeshift bar sells cheap 20Kr cans of warm beer, bands play among the crowd to a festival vibe and the vivacious organiser, artist Linda Tedsdotter, schedules in impromptu performances by other attendees as the night rolls on.

The night is housed in a former epidemic hospital which now accommodates over 100 artists’ studios and is known as Konstepidemin (Epidemic of Art). The complex also houses Gothenberg’s City of Refuge residency, which has been providing a secure environment for persecuted authors since 1996. The current resident, Palestinian hip-hop artist, Khaled Harara, considered an ‘enemy of the state’ back home, has previously been imprisoned, interrogated and tortured because of his open expression against Hamas rule. He had intended to perform at Bar10 but was hampered by technological hitches. There is bound to be another opportunity though; this close-knit artist-led community have a tendency to make things happen.

Concluding my trip in Stockholm, it seems decidedly metropolitan by comparison. Each of the cities that I have visited, whilst internationally engaged, sustains an attitude of provincialism which moulds a sense of individualism and distinct art scenes of their own, with a determination by both artists and institutions to do things their own way. Despite the changing political climate and the direct impact that this is having on Swedish creative infrastructure, there is a continued headstrong sense of art being a means of defiance.