The Björn Identity


Left: Gallerist Claes Nordenhake with participating artist Magnus Wallin. Right: Curatorial Assistant Mia Zeeck with Quadrennial co-curator Magdalena Malm.

“Not a punch in the stomach,” ventured the Goethe Institut's Dr. Berthold Franke last Friday. He was summarizing “The Moderna Exhibition 2006,” the Moderna Museet's first-ever quadrennial of contemporary Swedish art and the reason I found myself in the frigid Scandanavian capital last weekend. The show, which features fifty-nine artists and is impeccably installed across about a dozen spacious galleries, is indeed understated, almost to a fault. The private reception and dinner for 220 guests held on Thursday night was equally restrained, with chatter at the dinner table, where I sat with video artist Annika Larsson, artist and writer Amy Simon, K21 deputy director Julian Heynen, and artist Jockum Nordström, ranging along a narrow, familiar spectrum, from notable names not on the artist list to wagering on how long the welcome speeches would drone on for.

The pleasantries were interrupted by a burst of Swedish from artist Dorinel Marc, who grabbed the microphone to passionately (though somewhat incoherently) castigate all this English-language civility as a product of forces undermining the Swedish identity that the exhibition was supposed to project. My neighbors translated his screed on the fly; the assembled dignitaries, vivified at last, whooped and cheered.

The next day, on a tour of the city's commercial galleries, each dealer offered a variation on the same story: “I find young artists at the art schools—which are really very good—give them their first exhibition, and then try to find international exhibitions for them.” The refrain pointed up the need for “The Moderna Exhibition,” which aims above all to foster greater local awareness of Swedish art production. But the artists themselves seem uncertain about what, if anything, this exhibition will mean to them. At Thursday's dinner, Larsson noted how odd it feels to be shown in a Swedish context, given that she has lived abroad for years. At Friday night's after-party, held at the opulent Berns restaurant on Berzelli Park (the setting for August Strindberg's novel The Red Room), a young painter dismissed the whole affair as “just another line on my résumé.”

Left: The magnanimous Karen Diamond. Right: Quadrennial co-curator Pia Kristoffersson and curator John Peter Nilsson.

“Berns was, until recently, one of Stockholm's hottest nightclubs,” reported magazine editor and critic Kim West, but on this night the one-thousand-plus visitors who trekked across the bridge from the museum (where three thousand had packed in) were greeted by a jazz combo playing standards in one of the restaurant's two wood-paneled, chandelier-lit grand halls. Nathalie Djurberg, a young Berlin-based artist included in the survey, tried in vain to find dance partners, while in a smaller lounge fashionable students—candidates for “The Moderna Exhibition 2010,” perhaps—made their own fun, alternating lascivious and disaffected poses for a friend with a tricked-out digital camera.

I returned to the museum on Saturday for a panel discussion on art's boundaries, featuring Heynen, Christoph Tannert, director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Elena Tsvetaeva, director of the National Center for Contemporary Art in Kaliningrad, and five others. The conversation ping-ponged between outlining formal and ethical frontiers for art; a closer look at the show upstairs revealed little work exploring either. There were, of course, underknown talents among all the large-scale projections (about one-third of the artists in the show make videos). Jenny Magnusson's intuitive, barely there sculptural assemblages stood out, albeit quietly, and Christian Andersson's tableau, ringed by floodlights, of a brick flying through the wall was an engaging visual trick. But most of the artworks seemed to be on their best behavior, and a visiting critic aptly summed things up: “Where are the bad boys?”

Left: Gallerist Aldy Milliken and curator René Padt. Right: Participating artist Ann Böttcher and gallerist Natalia Goldin Lundh.

Left: Artist Jonas Dahlberg. Right: Cecilia Gelin, director of NIFCA (Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art).

Left: Participating artist Oskar Korsár and gallerist Gío Marconi. Right: Swedish National Television's Emelie Pehrson and artist Jockum Nordström.

Brian Sholis