Gothenburg

Bouchra Khalili, Foreign Office (detail), 2015, digital film, ten ink-jet prints, silk-screen print, dimensions variable. From the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art.

Bouchra Khalili, Foreign Office (detail), 2015, digital film, ten ink-jet prints, silk-screen print, dimensions variable. From the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art.

Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art

Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA)

Bouchra Khalili, Foreign Office (detail), 2015, digital film, ten ink-jet prints, silk-screen print, dimensions variable. From the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art.

The eighth edition of the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art, “A story within a story . . . ,” curated by Elvira Dyangani Ose, was by far the most pedagogically and conceptually consistent to date. Dyangani Ose was inspired by anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s conjecture that history is written by many, and by Umberto Eco’s idea of “the open work” (as espoused in his 1962 book of that name). The majority of the nearly forty works by thirty-three artists and collectives that were presented at Göteborgs Konsthall, the Hasselblad Center, Röda Sten Konsthall, and surrounding nonprofit spaces engage with real events from the past hundred years, a period of colonial and postcolonial modernity.

The biennial encompassed two distinct methods for handling what we might call the aesthetics of historical revision. Some of the works are like montaged documentary essays that reexamine a historical past, while others engage in postcolonial institutional critique. Both methods critically question how history passed on. Bouchra Khalili’s video and photo installation Foreign Office, 2015, represents the first method. In it, a man and a woman reflect on images of Algiers between 1962 and 1972. During this period, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and other black leaders came to the city; as Amílcar Cabral put it at the time, “Christians go to the Vatican, Muslims to Mecca, and revolutionaries to Algiers.” The work connects political optimism and solidarity among movements with what subsequently happened to these men; some became martyrs, others dictators, and one, Mandela, became a worldwide hero. Khalili’s essayistic installation is superb in its subversive rewriting of history.

Exemplary of the second method is Meleko Mokgosi’s Modern Art: The Roots of African Savages, Addendum, 2015. This work uses didactic panels from the 2012–13 exhibition “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as its point of departure. The panels were enlarged and printed on linen fabric with commentary on how they inscribe art into a colonial discourse. By blending matter-of-fact, poetic, comical, political registers, Mokgosi opens history to multiple possible readings rather than categorically executing (assassinating) the colonial gaze.

For the 2015 House of Words project, architect Santiago Cirugeda and artist Loulou Cherinet invited individuals and social groups to intimate roundtable discussions to debate terms that regulate daily politics. Concepts used by Swedish politicians today, such as utanförskap (“outsidership,” or social exclusion), are subjected to critical deliberation in front of a slowly panning camera, changing the art discourse in real time. A few works deal directly with the history of Swedish modernity, such as Sara Jordenö’s The Diamond People Project, 2005–15, about the intricate relation between a Swedish factory and South Africa, and Petra Bauer and Rebecka Thor’s And all is yet to be done, 2015, based on a history of the early socialist-liberation movement in Sweden.

Alongside these subversive approaches were more modest interventions into the difficulties of writing history. In Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s new figurative oil paintings, characters carry unspoken histories that neatly weave together the significance of hidden things. Maryam Jafri’s Independence Day 1934–1975, 2009–, presents fifty-two remarkable analog photographs taken during the first independence days of former colonies around the world. The visual uniformity of the celebratory rituals seems to suggest the survival of a latent, uncanny imperialism.

“A story within a story . . .” demonstrated a distinctive, somewhat detached way of showing how a biennial can be used to write history in different ways and for different reasons. One can even say that it was trying to decolonize the gaze of the art institution while leaving the biennial format itself more or less intact. Perhaps the show’s greatest achievement was to provide fresh answers to the difficult question: What would it mean, in the age of digital reproduction, to use an art exhibition to challenge both the form and the content of our historical consciousness?

Fredrik Svensk