On and On and On

Kristian Vistrup Madsen at the Luleå Biennial

Malmberget, Norrbotten County, Sweden. All photos by author.

ERIK MET ME for dinner in Stockholm, where I had a few hours to kill before my night train north. We sat alone in the large and self-consciously old-fashioned restaurant in the central station while a second wave of Covid-19 ravaged the Swedish capital. Unlike in Germany, establishments—and, crucially for my visit, exhibitions—remain open here. Throughout the pandemic, the state has declined to enforce the use of masks and social distancing, appealing instead to people’s sense of civic responsibility to control the virus, though the government is now reconsidering this strategy. “It sounded dignified on paper,” I sighed. “Cheers to dignity,” gloomed Erik, the clink of our wine glasses echoing through the empty room. “We might just take it to the grave.”

Sixteen hours later I arrived in Malmberget, a mining town in the arctic circle, and one of the Luleå Biennial’s several sites scattered across the Norrbotten region. The name translates to “the iron mountain,” and everything there is titled with the same self-evidence. One neighborhood is called “The Middle Area,” another “The Other Side.” Installed at Välkommaskolan, a defunct high school awaiting demolition, Giorgi Gago Gagishidze’s video The Invisible Hand of My Father, 2019, tells the story of the artist’s dad, who lost his lower arm working at a construction site. Here, the illogic of the relationship between the so-called invisible hand of the market and the actual hands that do the labor of capitalism is made perversely literal. Gagishidze’s father can still feel his hand, though he can’t see it. Likewise, we can visit Malmberget, and the people who live there, but, officially, it no longer exists.

When you collide with the reality of the capitaloscene in Malmberget, the contradictions are absurd. The town would not have been there at all were it not for the mine; now the mine is also the reason for its disappearance. As more iron waits beneath the ground, it evidently makes more financial sense to relocate the community’s remaining inhabitants—as well as every home, shop, and ice-skating rink—to newly built settlements in nearby Gällivare, rather than stop extracting. The gradual evacuation of Malmberget is projected to be completed by 2032. On the map, the area is shrouded in a transparent gray film, as if it had sunk into limbo.

“You feel very small when you see everything that you took for granted, even the roads, just disappear without a trace,” David Väyrynen, a poet who has lived most of his life in the town, told the small group of freezing journalists. The sun started its descent in the early afternoon, and by 2 p.m., the sky had gone from icy lilac to fire. The light and vast distances really warp the space-time of the north. The few people that have yet to be moved out of Malmberget are anxious to leave what’s increasingly become a ghost town, the rumbles of the mine growing louder beneath it. “But what they’ll really miss,” Väyrynen said, gesturing at the white slopes in the distance, “is the view.”

Poet David Väyrynen with journalists in Malmberget.

The weirdest thing about the far north is how much pizza is eaten there. One might picture themselves eating reindeer and cloudberries with cutlery carved from antlers, but no. Pizza and a local variety of Sauerkraut that the Swedes call Pizza Salad. This is simply the restaurant concept that works in remote locations. (Add to skewed temporality, anatopism.) I thought about this as I took in Thomas Hämén’s Still Life, 2020: a famously perdurable welwitschia plant placed inside an artificial aging chamber in Välkommaskolan. Most organic things would die in there in no time, but this, the pizza of plants also known as a “living fossil,” will merely travel forty years into its own millenarian future during the span of the exhibition.

Hämén, usually London-based, has spent the pandemic at his family house on a mountain called Thunder not far from Malmberget. His neighbor is an ex-convict who killed a man with a hunting rifle in a drunken dispute over a woman, and when the police came to arrest him, they found a whole trove of artworks stolen from a local exhibition hidden under his waterbed. It became the foundation of the LF Norrbotten insurance company’s art collection, which now also includes one of Hämén’s works. What an unlikely flower to grow from such a nasty seed, is probably what he tells himself when he goes to sleep on the mountain he shares with the murderer.

Luleå Konsthall.

From Malmberget, it takes three hours to reach the city of Luleå by bus. It is 4 p.m., and pitch-black on both sides of the road, like driving through a tunnel. At the center of the Konsthall, a six-spouted coffee pot turned into a fountain by Måns Wrange continuously floods a neatly set table—an ambivalent monument to the Swedish welfare state. Adjacent, an installation by Isak Sundström presents the tattered magician's cape and wand found at the site of the Nordic Factory of Wizardry Appliances, which was abandoned on the banks of the Lule River in 1964. Titled “Time on Earth,” the exhibition is structured by the question of what realism might mean today, and, in lieu of an answer, many of the works on view offer flights of fancy. Reality, it turns out, is best viewed from its disintegrating fringes.

At Galleri Syster, three people at a time were allowed to attend the incredible art-world debut of Augusta Strömberg, a painter who was born in 1866 and who spent most of her life in mental hospitals. With Strömberg the biennial’s curators—Karin Bähler Lavér, Emily Fahlén, and Asrin Haidari—really struck gold. Her tightly surfaced pictures call to mind Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930, or L.S. Lowry’s depictions of industrial Britain, except earlier (for the most part), flatter, and more hieroglyphic. Thirteen of her works from 1900–30 are joined by those of twenty-first century artists Susanna Jablonski and Ana Vaz, who both seek to relativize presence and perception by breaking open what we think we know about materials and images. In this context, it is striking how keenly Strömberg clung to reality in her work, how objective and almost mathematical it appears. 

A few of the artists and organizers assembled for an intimate pizza party at Luleå’s Konsthall. When stories from the 2018 biennial came up on Agnes’s Instagram we huddled around her phone like tweenagers around pornography. I feature in the video clips too, melted and messed up with what seemed like all of Stockholm, flipping out to gabber music and drinking from the same bottle of prosecco. So many outfits! So much excitement! A butch police officer proudly shut down the party with a huge smile on her face. Maybe this isn’t a time for realism, but romanticism—escape. In 2020, we ended the night doing karaoke in an Airbnb, wailing into a ritually sanitized microphone: If I had to do the same again, I would, my friend, Fernando. Back in Berlin and under house arrest, I can confirm, I would.

The author viewing works by Augusta Strömberg.

Måns Wrange, Monument, 1993.

Artist Maria Horn in her installation at the former prison Den Vita Duvan, Luleå.

Lukeå Biennial Artistic Directors Asrin Haidari and Emily Fahlén.