Sophie Tottie

Liljevalchs Konsthall

There are twenty-four Truth Commissions in business around the world today. Undertaken by new political regimes that follow dictatorships guilty of systematic violations of human rights, they usually have no capacity to prosecute miscreants. They are great pretenders, playing their part in “regimes of truth,” where claims for an unambiguous version of reality are established, if not acted on. In her midcareer retrospective, “Fiction Is No Joke,” spanning more than a decade, Sophie Tottie serenely eviscerated truth systems, including her own, with the double edge of relativism, leaving it to us to clean up the mess with our conscience. Her work is consistently politicized but stands well apart from the usual preachy routines of political art. On the other hand, Tottie has been so promiscuous with media—video, painting, installation, billboards, photography, text-bound work, drawing, even architecture—that her exhibition could have been mistaken for a wide-ranging group show.

Tottie puts relativism to good use by looking into assorted species of “truth production” from astronomy to politics, but always allowing viewers to weigh the proportions of truth in each. Isolario, 2005, is a room-size installation with repeating pictures punctuating Tottie’s jets of red and white text, which criss-cross, ticker-tape-like, on a massive wall. This is a work ostensibly about Johannes Kepler, who, back when astronomy and astrology were indistinguishable, founded celestial mechanics, explained planetary motion, and established the modern notion of universal and verifiable laws of nature. Tottie qualifies this achievement with some declarative finger-pointing supplied by anonymous disclaimers—“he was obsessed by the quest for the center” but “repulsed by the idea of infinity”—that fan out across the wall. For all the relativistic thinking that stimulated his leaps forward, Kepler wanted things nailed down; he even derived the birth year of Christ, still universally accepted.

Into the middle of Isolario’s cross-examination of Kepler’s belief system, Tottie pops the famous image from June 5, 1989: A man stands his ground before a column of seventeen tanks trying to make their way down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, just around the corner from Tiananmen Square. Should such defiance ever constitute a universal truth about resisting tyranny? Deng Xiaoping said no for reasons King George—he issued the 1776 Proclamation of Rebellion requiring action against “traitors”—would have recognized. One person’s patriot is another’s traitor—that’s relativism, and two can play the game. But don’t some things deserve recognition as common truth, ideological, scientific, or otherwise? Here I think Tottie says yes, admitting that the right to defy tyrannical law is a universal truth. Tottie sensibly acknowledges limits to relativism; in her world, like Kepler’s, some things deserve to be nailed down.

Cartographers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, unable to map the world as a whole, described each location on a maritime chart as its own nexus, with radiating bearings stretching toward other sig- nificant points on the map. Each position gained its identity relative to all others, just as Tottie fixes her own ideological truth in relation to Kepler’s laws or Deng’s politics. Tottie’s question is not whether truth is true or false or even whether it reflects humane aspirations or pragmatic solutions but how it is created, disseminated, and transformed. Another line of text in Isolario quotes a volunteer who unearths the remains of an unnamed despot’s victims: “My ideas are exactly the same . . . as . . . the people buried here . . . if I had the ill fortune of having been born then, I would have ended up buried in a ditch.” In a sea of relative truth or a storm of idealism, Tottie knows that people will touch bottom on their own sense of right and wrong to create a reality Foucault once called “the twilight zone of knowledge.”

Ronald Jones