Spånga

View of “Frederick Kiesler,” 2015.

View of “Frederick Kiesler,” 2015.

Frederick Kiesler

View of “Frederick Kiesler,” 2015.

The Frederick Kiesler exhibition at Tensta Konsthall was a testing ground for Sweden’s dedication to progressive democracy, and in this spirit, the exhibition sang the anthem of social reform, of things going from foul to fair. The venue is nested in Tensta, a suburban complex of nearly six thousand apartments, which sprang up as a direct result of Sweden’s 1965–74 Miljonprogrammet, or Million Program, an initiative to create a level playing field by giving those living on the social margins a middle-class home, and therefore a meaningful place to live. The konsthall opened in 1998, when Stockholm reigned as Europe’s “Cultural Capital,” and seemed to exemplify the harmonious union of Sweden’s political and artistic ambitions.

Yet while Sweden’s social-democratic vision for both the neighborhood and its konsthall was awash in goodwill—political, social, and cultural—the hard-bitten reality of day-to-day life in Tensta remains troubling. According to the NGO Tryggare Sverige, Tensta is the most dangerous neighborhood in Sweden: The konsthall exists within a miliéu that includes street gangs, drug addicts, and alcoholics. It seems that culture hasn’t quite saved the world yet. Of course, like the konsthall and the public housing nearby, the exhibition had its heart in the right place. It was designed to foster community spirit—and did I mention its heart was in the right place? The konsthall invited partners, artists and others, to codesign its programing, not least students ranging in level from fifth grade to postgraduate, all presumably inspired by Kiesler’s transformative visions. But at the same time, the show seemed to graft more contemporary values onto Kiesler’s modernist ambitions—offering a transfusion of “relational aesthetics” under the assumption that artists are facilitators rather than makers. As one walked through it, the exhibition seemed a meager affair, but then one assumed that meant, or was supposed to mean, that what you saw here would be even more “inspirational,” a Cinderella story: from nothing comes magic, or at least something.

The exhibition itself? On paper, it was brilliantly conceived and provocative—the aforementioned Cinderella story at heart, and certainly loaded with ample ambition. But its actual appearance was a little sad, with dimmed lighting for predominantly works on paper. Still, there were high points: A model of Peggy Guggenheim’s legendary Art of This Century gallery, designed by Kiesler in 1942, made me wonder if that first substantial exhibition of Surrealism in New York seemed as alien to its audience as this Kiesler exhibition might have seemed to its public in Tensta. Unlike the bleeding-edge exhibition seventy-three years ago, this one was historical in character, and on the face of it revealed little new about Kiesler. But while there may have been nothing new to see, Kiesler’s ideas and ambitions were reanimated here; they must have seemed abundantly fresh to the eyes of his newest viewers in Tensta. And isn’t that the point? I would like to believe that, but I’m not entirely sure. It still felt condescending. “Fail again. Fail better,” Samuel Beckett said. And where better to learn that lesson again than in Tensta? The district is living its own legacy along with all the crumbled-forward-leaning Swedish social reform you can stomach. It all makes me wonder why. And that’s the point.

Ronald Jones