“Whatever Happened to Social Democracy?”


Leaving its own provocative title unanswered, “Whatever Happened to Social Democracy?” was mostly comprised of works that blandly provided what the curators Pavel Büchler and Charles Esche promised in their text accompanying the show (published as a free newspaper): “independent thinking without a direct political purpose.” The problem is that inciting independent thinking without building consensus toward a direct political purpose is a blank virtue, unmoored from realpolitik in both ambition and effect.

Where Büchler and Esche got it right was choosing Malmö to stage the exhibition. Sweden’s third-largest city once seemed destined to become a multicultural Xanadu attracting waves of immigrants with the prospect of jobs and the welcoming social-democratic embrace of Swedish immigration policy. The city claims inhabitants from 164 countries who speak 100 languages; 40 percent of whom are foreign born, with large numbers coming from Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Iran, and Iraq. Sweden faired better than most in facing the consequences of ethnic diversity, but as the economy stiffened and factories closed, upholding an unprejudiced attitude became thornier. Still, the city’s inhabitants are defining what it means to be Swedish today, and one of them, the Swedish hip-hop MC Timbuktu, captures something essential in his music about a culture moving from uniformity to multiplicity: resentment and fear know no strangers. Ask Timbuktu whatever happened to social democracy and he has an answer. What a shame it wasn’t included.

Instead, the exhibition’s eighteen artists largely contributed routine multicultural exercises like Amikam Toren’s Plan B, 2003. His approach is simplicity itself: Touristy souvenirs, seemingly from exotic places like Africa but all purchased from markets in London, have been glued together to form two three-dimensional parallelograms set onto two rickety drafting tables, reminding us that it is indeed time to go back to the drawing board where ethnic assimilation is concerned. In counterpoint to Toren’s effortlessness was the bewildering Frida Hultcrantz, singing the Finnish national anthem while lying atop the tomb of the country’s former president, Urho Kekkonen, and wearing just undies and a fur coat. According to the curators, Hultcrantz’s video, Mission Impossible, 2003, is meant to mimic Marilyn Monroe’s notorious rendition of “Happy Birthday” for John F. Kennedy. If you say so. But when they go on to account for her mangled pronunciation of Finnish as telegraphing the message that this Swedish artist felt culturally estranged while living in Finland, things slip quietly beneath the tides of stupefaction.

There were a few bright spots. The camera in Aernout Mik’s video Middlemen, 2001, spins with cycloramic effect, making us central witnesses to catastrophic human disarray on par with Dante’s seventh ring: Stock market traders—some human, some automatons—appear aghast, bewildered, psychologically adrift, and physically spasmodic staggering along the dark fringes of fiscal ruin. Can we lend them our empathy, these pathetic middlemen, who will probably never find empathy for those who are even more vulnerable to their greedy misjudgments? This is a true morality tale for Malmö, and by extension anyplace in our globalized economy. In Per Hasselberg’s installation OPTION, 2005, a video projected onto shards of gypsum board leaning against a wall, shows a droning, aged Swede—Bengt Göransson, who was a politician in the Olof Palme government—unfold with sweet irony the open-handed Swedish identity that ingenuously fueled Malmö’s predicament with diversity. Behind the wallboard debris, a taped conversation with the journalist Christer Larsson offers up the secrets of Sweden’s nuclear weapons production, hidden from the International Atomic Energy Agency for twenty-two years after the program officially concluded in 1972. With the IAEA pressing Iran to defer production of weapons-grade plutonium, Hasselberg justly wonders how creditable open and democratic societies can appear when their own history of secret wrongdoing has destabilized the social and political ideals Göransson tenderly remembers. Could it be that on the backs of Mik, Hasselberg, and other artists a consensus toward direct political purposes—ranging from disarmament to cultural diversity—might reemerge? Maybe, someday.

Ronald Jones