PRINT March 2011


Klara Lidén, Paralyzed, 2003, still from a color video, 3 minutes 5 seconds.

IN EARLY JUNE 2000, I visited Art Basel for the first time. I was naive, which meant that I was subsequently shocked and dismayed. The convention hall was filled with stalls, many of which were displaying objects I knew and loved (works by Piero Manzoni, Marcel Broodthaers), pieces made by people I admired from afar (Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham) or by artists of great historical merit (Piet Mondrian, Ed Ruscha). Then there were pieces by artists I knew personally. All of this gave me a charge of recognition mixed with a creeping sense of sadness; by the time I reached my hotel, unironically called the Hotel du Commerce, I realized I was suffering from a kind of equally unironic, decidedly old-fashioned heartbreak. For, more than being an assortment of proper names, the objects themselves had, up until that point, represented constellations of ideas to me, their primary form of exchange taking place in books and in journals, in buzzed late-night conversations in bars, and, increasingly (in ways that were deeply exciting), in the space of exhibitions. To see all those ideas hung up on the trade-show walls ready for sale was just short of crushing. The next day, as I made my way back to the Messeplatz to take another stab at this new form of art viewing, I ran into an artist I knew. She was one of the very few artists there, and on hearing that she had just arrived, I cautioned her not to go in. This was no place for artists.

Needless to say, a lot has changed in the past ten years. Art fairs have had their apotheosis. They rival, and often exceed in prestige, large-scale group exhibitions; and, in a perverse reciprocity, many exhibitions now replicate the look and feel of the fairs—rabbit-warren arenas in which art is densely installed, where the thrill and velocity of the search for the next new thing is privileged over the slower temporality of the forming of consensus. One of the biggest changes has been the role that artists have been asked to play in this new formation. They are no longer expected (or allowed?) to stay away. Rather, these trade shows increasingly thrive on the presence of artists, who are routinely asked to make “special projects” specifically for the fair and to perform their ideas in the guise of lectures and panels. For many artists, the fairs are as viable and legitimate a form of exhibition as a museum show. While this makes me uncomfortable, I can’t pass judgment. Artists are workers too, and the state of employment has changed dramatically, across the board. My father has a pension; I don’t. Shit happens. Capitalism rules.

SEVERAL YEARS LATER, while attending a fair, I scrawled “Klara Lidén/Reena Spaulings” in a small notebook. But because I am a bad archivist, I didn’t write down the name of the fair where I saw the work, nor did I write down the name of the piece. Recently, thumbing through that book, I found Lidén’s name in smudged graphite, and it was mnemonic enough for me to be able to summon my first impression of the piece—“cute baby butch, wielding a steel pipe, smashing up her bicycle good.” This short, low-tech video, Bodies of Society, 2006, seemed like the perfect early-twenty-first-century riposte to Pipilotti Rist’s joyful girl-smashing-cars video Ever Is Over All, 1997. Bodies of Society is affectless, rather than delightful; it is situated in a shabby domestic interior, rather than outside; and, counter to the random destruction on display in Rist’s video, the way Lidén stalks the bicycle is very precise and controlled. She toys with it at first, stroking it almost lovingly with the steel pipe, and then slowly she comes down hard, picking the bike apart bit by bit. In some ways the video is an erotic masterpiece—an s/m scene of inference, delay, and slow gratification. Another salient difference between Lidén’s and Rist’s destruction is that we assume Lidén is doing damage to her own property, rather than to other people’s, and that in doing so she is doubtless making her daily life just ever so slightly more difficult.

Watching Lidén pulverize her bicycle in the middle of an art fair was pretty great. Clearly indebted to the punk ethos of destroying your instruments, the video suggests a deeply ambivalent relationship to possession and use-value. If Rist’s video celebrates the 1990s Riot Grrrl’s ascendancy, and can retrospectively be seen as part of the latter’s ultimate commodification, then Lidén’s video heralds the muted, nearly autistic sensibility of the postgender, postcritique artist that may be the mien of our moment. The romance of crime (or guitar smashing) is not what is on offer, nor is the fantasy of rage turned to glee; no such redemption is imagined. Rather, the artist at work is imaged as silent, sullen, solitary, and quite possibly self-defeating.

The more I encountered Lidén’s work, the more I was intrigued by it and the quality of the affect it exhibits. In Paralyzed, 2003, Lidén does a wild, uninhibited dance on a train in Sweden, mildly terrifying her fellow passengers as she tries to squeeze into the overhead luggage rack and hurls herself into and out of seats. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009, she built an enormous white cube and placed it in the center of a small room so that it occupied the majority of the floor space, leaving only a narrow passageway around its perimeter. Carefully placed on top of the cube were scaffolding, tar paper, and large bundles of cardboard for recycling, instantly transforming the useless cube into a humongous plinth. It was hilarious: a white cube in the ultimate white cube, used as a base for a “sculpture” composed entirely of trash. Take that, MoMA! And yet it’s clear that Lidén understood that the work was still bounded, even precisely delimited, by the gallery. She didn’t break huge holes in the wall à la Urs Fischer or Kate Gilmore; she just riffed on pedestals and garbage—Manzoni and Arman—in the White House of modernism.

View of “Projects 89: Klara Lidén,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2009. Photo: Jason Mandella.

All three of these works traffic in a kind of high school rebellion: Trash your bike, spaz out on the subway, and flip the bird to the biggest museum in the land even as you accept its constraints. In this sense, the pieces also share a deep, almost repressed, feeling of bodily frustration. Things are bound, folded, and tied up, or they are propulsive and borderline violent—they shift between the restraint and immobility connoted by the title of Paralyzed and the wild behavior that ensues. The difference between Lidén’s work and a temper tantrum, though, is the former’s knowing allusion to the history of modern sculpture and dance, early cinema, and the practices that compose site-specificity. The rage is so tightly controlled, so precisely sublimated, that instead of evoking exasperation (the parent in the face of the small child), it provokes a kind of empathy (“Dude, I know how you feel, but you know how it is, you’ve just got to keep it together”).

These pieces led me to recommend Lidén for an Artpace residency in San Antonio last year. There, she presented two works. One was a short video in which we see the artist at a spare desk, her back to the camera, in what we assume is her studio. Nothing much happens until she gets up and, very deliberately, begins to fold herself up into the adjacent garbage bin, as if her body were no more than a crumpled piece of paper. The work is laugh-out-loud funny, and as if to counteract its outsize emotiveness, Lidén showed it on what was certainly the most modest television monitor available at the local Best Buy. Meanwhile, upstairs, she had constructed an elaborate installation out of tar paper, within which were projected three videos, each of Lidén performing a completely futile but nonetheless arduous physical activity. In one wall projection, she climbs down a concrete column outside. All we can see are her legs and arms gripping the pole, her head a good twenty feet above the ground. On the other wall, we see her on top of what looks like an abandoned parking lot. It is the dead of night, and she is rocking slowly back and forth on her feet until she hurls herself into an athletic somersault, hits the asphalt hard, and bounces back up. The ensemble, from 2010, was given the title Corps de Ballet, the term for the dancers in a ballet company who, despite their inestimable skills, are not the stars of the show—the dancers whose role it is to remain in the background, filling the stage with plenitude, thereby allowing the soloist’s star to shine ever more brightly.

WHILE THE FIRST THREE PIECES I had seen by Lidén had traces of humor in them, the San Antonio works amplified her slapstick sensibilities in ways that brought to mind the silent performances of Buster Keaton and that still indispensable text of Henri Bergson’s, Laughter. Keaton’s work is frequently seen as emblematic of a crisis of masculinity in early-twentieth-century representation. His persona developed around his physical diminutiveness and the fact that he never smiled on camera. His films repeatedly trap him in bodily dilemmas in which the classic Hollywood use of suspended time not only creates a kind of physical tension in the viewer but also brackets the codes of masculinity as such. Long before Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, there was Keaton’s exposure of masculinity as a set of conventionalized responses to stimuli, responses that could be performed either well or badly. The badly part is where Bergson comes in. In Laughter, Bergson observes that things are funny when they break down or don’t work properly. This is the language of slapstick, and the malfunction of either a device or the body is the basis for much of Keaton’s mournful form of humor. But I would add to the list of “malfunctions” here Keaton’s failure to properly inhabit the conventions of masculinity, indeed of agency itself; in this failure, he shows us masculinity’s very constructedness.

It’s interesting to try to think about Lidén as operating in the “tradition” of Keaton.¹ For what failures or breakdowns are on offer here? Lidén’s work is so resolutely low-tech that mechanical failure itself isn’t the engine for laughs as it is in traditional slapstick. While it’s true that her spasms of performance are interpellated by the mechanical and technological (the train, industrial products, the structure of cinematic and video-based motion) and are in dialogue with them, failure as a specific term, a designation for screwups and mishaps, is only part of the issue. Futility, here articulated as a pervasive condition of contemporary life in general and of cultural production in particular, is what’s really at the heart of the matter. It’s not that the bicycle doesn’t work, but the very idea that it should have a sole efficient function at all is what appears to be on the chopping block.

Klara Lidén, Toujours Être Ailleurs (Always to Be Elsewhere) (detail), 2010, found billboard posters, slide projections. Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London.

This failure/futility nexus is seen again in Lidén’s video Kasta Macka, 2009 (Swedish for “throwing a sandwich,” idiomatically translated as “skipping stones”), in which we watch her on three different screens, at the banks of three different rivers, skipping stones. But the childhood pleasure of this activity soon changes tenor, as Lidén begins to throw increasingly large objects into each river in an almost desperate, and resoundingly futile, attempt to return all of the materials washed ashore to an ultimate resting place in the water. In Ohyra, 2007, we see her in a cramped, dingy kitchen, facing the camera as she berates herself for things not done (seeing her grandmother) and for things not done well (doing the dishes, keeping her mind off girls). Wearing an old-fashioned leather helmet, she punctuates this litany of negative self-assessment with punches to her head. She has failed at some of life’s most rudimentary tasks, but watching the video, I can’t help wondering: Even if she succeeded . . . what would it matter? What would “success” in these arenas mean? For Lidén, the futile action and the productive action are essentially one and the same. The cumulative effect of these petty failures is the staging of what may be the central dilemma of today’s emerging artist: the futility of being one in the first place.

The other breakdown that Lidén’s work flirts with is her own failure to occupy any kind of conventional gender assignation. Writing this piece, I feel hemmed in by the pronouns she and her, as Lidén never appears to perform any characteristic typically associated with either women or the feminine. At the same time, as her diminutive butch body moves through cities draped in the everyday camouflage of jeans, tank tops, and hoodies, she hardly appears masculine, either. But the ruthless binary of gender still haunts the work. This intractability is apparent in a photograph taken on International Women’s Day in 2008 that shows two people wrestling on the ground in what looks like a street fight. The caption in the exhibition catalogue explains that one of the figures is Lidén, but there’s no way to prove it, and neither person’s gender can be ascertained from the picture. Because Lidén makes an issue out of the bodily effort and expenditure involved in the work’s own production, I feel tongue-tied as I try to sidestep the grammar of gender in describing it. This jamming of language isn’t limited to my own critical efforts; the work’s concentrated, brute physicality makes it seem deeply mute. Indeed, muteness operates on several levels here, both as tactic and as affect. There is the pronounced lack of spoken language, which when combined with the droning noise of the post-punk sound tracks indicates a mandated or enforced silence. And there is the foiling of gender’s linguistic imperative, which seems, in turn, to squeeze out the differences between bodies and between actions. Just as the voice is mute, the body, despite its aggressive force, is routinely denied the agency we typically afford artistic presence—which is to say, there is no physical action that is unmediated (by either video or photograph). The conflation of mediation and muteness is not an attempt to stay outside of language or of representation (the work is far too canny to imagine an “outside” of anything); it is only maybe, and just maybe, a way of staying one step ahead.

For Lidén, staying a step ahead has, up until now, meant one of two things: ducking out of view or controlling the space in which her videos are displayed. In Untitled (Back Room), 2007, she built a room in an art-fair booth (later replicated in a gallery) where only a handful of people could be at a time. The door to this hideaway was occluded behind a “painting” composed of an approximately ten-inch-thick layer of old billboards, which Lidén had cut out of their street frames, topped with a snow-white layer of paint (leaving only the borders of the posters showing), and hung on the wall. Or there was Hus AB (House Inc.), 2003, a small subterranean shelter built along the banks of the river Spree in Germany. Unmarked on the outside, the space was only large enough to accommodate two people and was invisible to passersby. These structures, along with other provisional interventions into gallery spaces, usually composed of fitted pipes and rudimentary drywall, have led many to write about Lidén within the framework of architecture (she studied as an architect before going to art school). While it would be silly to refute the architectural impulse in her work, I don’t find myself particularly engaged in the idea of Lidén as a maker—or attacker—of space. Her blocked and stuffed rooms and secret passages are more interesting to me as morphological analogues to her obstruction of the grammar of gender than they are as a critique of architecture and its institutions. Are Lidén’s hidden rooms and curious constructions a proposition about what a room of one’s own might look and feel like today, eighty-two years after the need for one was first made public?

Klara Lidén, Hus AB (House Inc.), 2003, found materials from site. Installation view, Spree River, Berlin. Exterior.

If they are, then it would seem Lidén is suggesting that it might not be a discrete place complete with a steady source of income. In Virginia Woolf’s day, the maintenance of gender and class distinctions was transparent and unabashedly top-down. We, on the other hand, operate within a society in which the policing of these categories is typically invisible but always nimble. To stay one step ahead of this game, the artist needs to be nimble, too.

LIDÉN NEVER STOPS MOVING; she continually reuses and reformulates her own work, for example by creating new contexts for screening her videos. In Unheimlich Manöver (Uncanny Maneuver), 2007, she studiously packed the entire contents of her Stockholm apartment into a dense sculptural form in the center of the room, within or around which a video was displayed. She has repeated this installation, as well as others, elsewhere and frequently changes the videos she shows inside them.

At her recent solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, which travels to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm this May, she drastically reconfigured the videos originally made as part of the environment at Artpace. The footage of her clinging to the concrete pole and inserting herself into the studio garbage pail were folded into a new work, Toujours Être Ailleurs (Always to Be Elsewhere), 2010, which comprised two parts (and which was first shown at the Jeu de Paume in Paris). First, there was a room completely filled—floor to ceiling—with folded billboards, which made entering the space impossible. These obstructions were echoed by billboard “paintings” also arrayed throughout the show. In an adjacent room, three slide projectors shuttered away, each projecting large-scale, degraded black-and-white images so rasterized that they were almost illegible. Slowly, as you got used to the pace and the atomization of the images, you could begin to glean Lidén—or, rather, you could discern a figure in relation to a ground, a slightly denser accumulation of black dots of ink (and, let’s face it, it’s particularly perverse to go about ascribing gender to ink spots)—in stop-motion, folding herself into the garbage pail, climbing the pole, and, in the third projection, riding her bicycle into the Seine. In order to achieve the pixelated effect of the images, Lidén took photographs of frame grabs of each video, greatly enlarged them, and had the images printed onto clear acetate, which she subsequently fashioned into homemade slides. The click-clacking of the slides added a metronomic dimension of time to the videos, thereby neutralizing their original belly-laugh comedic pacing. Sure, they were still funny, but in that “I’m laughing on the inside” kind of way. This feeling of suppression was exacerbated by the works’ inhabitation of a medium that no longer exists—Kodak stopped producing its legendary Kodachrome slide film in 2009. It’s one thing to be low-tech, but another to have to reinvent a once low-tech technology via DIY means, the effect of which was to render the work a kind of slapstick for the digital age.

The temporality of Toujours Être Ailleurs points everywhere to what has been—the disused billboards, the documentation of performances past, the ghostly summoning of the slide projection, and the previous iterations of Lidén’s own work. In other words, while the title implies a constant dislocation of place (the global nomadic art worker, forever on the road), the piece is also incapable of being fully present in either a temporal or a spatial way. (So much for the “You had to be there” immediacy of performance or reperformance). Once again, Lidén degraded the frames of art’s production and distribution, building into its network such a vexed relationship to functionality that I wouldn’t be surprised if the next iteration of this work were invisible.

I approached Lidén’s Serpentine exhibition already intrigued by the quality of embodied silence in her work. Discussing it with a friend, I was steered toward Roland Barthes’s penultimate lecture, The Neutral, in which he meditates on the neutral as the third term that disrupts the binary logic underwriting Western civilization. “As everyone knows, speech, the exercise of speech, is tied to the problem of power,”² writes Barthes, and hence “Neutral = postulates a right to be silent—a possibility of keeping silent.”³ I read this with delight. I should just stop talking forever, I thought. It’s the only way “out” of the unbearable way in which we have all been turned into consumers, “voting” with our dollars, most of us unable to live according to our own internal code of ethics (all those unavoidable Chinese imports, frequent-flyer miles, cell-phone batteries, and casual drugs). And yet any reliance on silence as a “position” would become unbearable. Such silence, as Barthes argues, “congeals itself into a sign (which is to say, is caught up in a paradigm): thus the Neutral, meant to parry paradigms, will—paradoxically—end up trying to outplay silence.”⁴ And therein lies the rub; to transform silence into a strategy is to risk turning it into doxa. This helped me think through the ways in which Lidén is always morphing her work into something else. Her restlessness is not in the service of producing novelty but is yet another (futile?) attempt to avoid congealing into an image, to avoid successful deployment in art’s current modes of circulation: the art fair, the survey show for an artist in her thirties, the endless residency programs . . . all of which appear on her résumé as markers of her increasing success and legitimation. By never settling into any one of these channels of distribution, she tries (and fails?) to outrun the congealment system itself.

Klara Lidén, Unheimlich Manöver (Uncanny Maneuver), 2007, every object from the artist’s Stockholm apartment. Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2010.

THE TWO MENTAL PICTURES I carried away with me from the Serpentine exhibition were of blankness and of static. The beauty of the billboard “paintings” is undeniable; I felt immediately covetous. I wanted to own one. To make plain, to erase, to white out all the noise of the spectacle culture’s mind-numbing address in a mixture of petty vandalism (is it a crime to steal out-of-date ads?) and artistic autonomy (ah, the monochrome), was to condense punk and modernism in a way that thrilled a girl like me, who came of age in the 1980s believing that art and criticism were still arenas in which change could happen. But Lidén went to art school in the years after 9/11. And spending time with her work, one realizes that the twentieth-century paradigm of art’s utopian aspirations is not what’s at stake. Lidén offers blankness—and its aural handmaiden, muteness—less as a critique or a way out than as a condition, less as a program than as a given (reduce, reuse, recycle). In her work, I sense a tacit acknowledgment that the jig is up, that being an artist is just another way of getting by, a coping strategy for living under late capitalism.

Lidén’s reinvention of static, on the other hand, may function slightly differently. Her projected “slides” look remarkably like the kind of snow that used to appear on analog television. Seeing the slides made me realize that one of the things missing from the digital age is this kind of static. Without question, interrupted signals and interference happen all the time today: We need only think of the degradation of the image and sound on cell phones, slow bandwidth, and watching YouTube videos amid stuttered buffering. But there is something different between watching the download circle spin around indefinitely on your handheld and being immersed in the archaic, televisual version of downtime: an allover composition of moving lights, complete with accompanying white noise. For me, there is something about that experience that is tied to the time when I fully believed in art’s redemptive potential—not as transcendence but as the possibility of alternate paths, other worlds. Lidén’s makeshift static foiled my laughter and gave me a glimmer of (something less than) hope; it slowed me down—visually and cognitively—so that rather than being frustrated by technological delay, I had to adjust my internal temporality of perception. I had to wait for myself to catch up to the image, rather than wait for the image, its concentrated transmission, to catch up to me. Lidén’s static offered a dispersed energy that was far from unmoving or unchangeable. It was trying, modestly and continuously, to outplay (déjouer, a favorite word of Barthes’s) art’s contemporary conditions of speed and density. However somber, then, her exhibition managed to be my primary antidote to the art fairs of fall 2010.

“Klara Lidén” travels to Moderna Museet, Stockholm, May 14–Oct. 9.

Helen Molesworth is chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.


1. John Kelsey mentions Keaton in passing in his catalogue essay “Klara’s Moves,” in Klara Lidén, exh. cat., ed. Sophie O’Brien et al. (London: Koenig Books, 2010), 15.

2. Roland Barthes, The Neutral, trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 22. My gratitude to Marina van Zuylen for knowing that I needed to read this lecture.

3. Barthes, op. cit., 23.

4. Ibid., 27.