Lars Nilsson

Milliken Gallery

In 2004, Lars Nilsson created his masterpiece, the video In Orgia, which blithely leafs through shades of human experience—banality, fun, dread, passion, violence—somehow sparking a nostalgia for life that makes you feel lucky to be along for the ride. Then, except for one installation at Schloss Agathenburg in Germany the next year, the artist took an unprecedented six-year hiatus. Nilsson’s long break has ended with this new exhibition, “Ruins,” which, unlike In Orgia, is laser-cut around an endgame of dangerous emotions but has an irresistible moral icing. It’s no masterpiece, yet with an artist as gifted as Nilsson, one is happy, after six years, for the return from a voyage. What did he discover? That the world is not as “get-along, go-along” as In Orgia made it out to be; these days, with emotions stretched between baleful woe and puerile play, life seems rather warped.

“Ruins” sets several post-apocalyptic landscapes—seen in two photographs and one DVD— in juxtaposition with a gargantuan but capricious mise-en-scène of stairs winding though a gothic ruin toward heaven. In Nilsson’s photograph Farewell, 2009, two figures in creeping darkness prepare to take their leave from each other in a thicket rivaling the one in Sleeping Beauty. The climax of their sad adieu shrinks beneath the growing tenor line of the harrowing future that awaits them. Its sanguinity recalls that capstone of the postapocalyptic genre, the 1983 movie Testament. Made in the years when Ronald Reagan had his finger on the button, the film portrays a suburban mother who survives a preemptive nuclear strike; her children die from radiation sickness, but still she finds a place for hope. Farewell, like In Orgia, then, confirms that Nilsson is above all a scenographer and a dramaturge. The other and much larger photograph, 8 November, 2009, shows a wild vista of desolation just after sundown; fully mature birch trees have been snapped in half. This might be a veiled overture to local lore: On November 8, 1520, Danes invaded Sweden and took their due in the Stockholm Bloodbath. Either way, eerie wretchedness heaped onto lost hope remains the picture’s loathsome ballast.

Against the dusky melancholy of Nilsson’s pictorial forest and thicket, the pearly gray stairway in Un-home-ly, 2008, sweeps ludicrously through medieval ruins before setting course toward cloud nine. After the jagged hopelessness of the photographs, walking into this Disney-scale set piece is like jumping down the rabbit hole. Bearings are as easily lost as in a Piranesi plan (Un-home-ly happens to bring to mind Carceri d’ Invenzione, Plate VII, Untitled [The Drawbridge], ca. 1780); then you regain your poise, seeing that this hulk of sacred culture has become the launchpad for a miraculous expedition toward salvation. Is this some sort of profane morality tale? I think so, and it likely meant as much for Nilsson to contemplate as for you. The zing of the spiraling stairs has the rambunctiousness of a comic book page, but Nilsson’s art does not trade in juvenility, nor is it about preaching or excavating innocence. It opens up to life—as unpleasant as it comes—with resilience and aplomb. In this way, the work happens to remind me of the wisdom of an eight-year-old I know who, every so often, when life doesn’t go his way, quietly takes stock before inevitably declaring: “I love this life.”

Ronald Jones