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Hermits, Fennel and out of Body Experiences

Notes on the 2023 MFA Degree Exhibition of Kungliga Konsthögskolan (Royal Institute of Art) Kungliga Akademien för de fria konsterna, Stockholm Curators: Kristina Jansson, Silvia Thomackenstein and Gunilla Klingberg May 26 - June 11, 2023

Installation view, Kungliga Akademien för de fria konsterna, Stockholm

So here's a few essential things about this year's, and for me as per ush very eagerly awaited spring degree exhibition of the Royal Institute of Art here in Stockholm (commonly known as "Mejan"). It's marked by contradiction and "fraudulence", in a sense where instant impressions are re-calibrated and rebutted over the course of entry, subsequent viewing(s) and later exit. Considering a broader audience, for some it'll appear the least instantly gratifying exhibition in recent years. Last year's plethora of painters is now reduced to a tally of mere three painters and in light of recent editions an unprecedented emphasis instead of sound-based installations. Of all the several rooms and spaces on the premises of The Royal Academy of Arts, only one room strikes me as a "blockbuster" room, in a "top of the pops" sense, designed to ignite thrills already from the offset of entry, and another the only room with such artistic breadth or charming "unruliness" in how disparate expressions are joined that it becomes what I imagine is the most children-pleasing room. In that same way that The Simpsons or Family Guy, or any other Seth MacFarlane outing often got to be a kids' takeaway during the heyday of television, in the absence either of else on certain broadcasting hours or on the account of its familiar "juvenile" visual language, despite the adult subject matters pouring out of the seams.

Elina Birkehag

This might give the impression of an artistically rigid and demanding show but there's a lot of humor at hand beyond where it's just obviously found. Yes. It might not be in-your-face-type of humor and sometimes instead wry or very dark but it exists actually in the plenty. Sure, the overall and single most glossy thing about the exhibition might be its reader/catalogue that is unusually glossy with its silver reflective surface, as though a poppy Douglas Coupland book sleeve by a mainstream publisher, but the exhibition itself too is visually easy and beautiful on the eye. Not quite what you might expect from the sound of hearing about the ratio of audio-based matter taking precedence this year. It is however visually coherently curated and often the stressed color schemes are understated and soothing and marked by an invisible "here's a room for contemplation" sign. The aficionados of leading conceptual art institutions (counting myself and the team in) will find their taste buds and appetites properly being met. The strongest rooms in the exhibition beams you away from art school realm and are an elevator ride up to group exhibitions at Haus der Kunst in Munich or Palais de Tokyo in Paris. As a figure of speech, I use those two venues often (would be nice if Moderna Museet would make the cut too as such "benchmark" but when looking at their nonexistent group exhibitions - ben, non!) with the gist simply being; very accomplished and very good.

Charlotte Landelius

The tone of the exhibition as "lean" and aerial is set already by the disposition in the core part of the entrance sculpture hall, Nikesalen, that in the past has either been filled to the brim and/or cleverly used in dialogue with the surrounding physicality of the sculptures. At the press viewing passing the flight of stairs, I catch small nifty video screens on stands (size XXL smart phone) by Elina Birkehag, showing what brings to mind Pipilotti Rist leaving marks of herself by pressing nose, mouth and lips against a surface. The broadcasting of self in this literally tongue-in-cheek fashion "pops" and strikes an interesting chord what with the play of scale seated amid the towering sculptures. The actual thought process might be lost on me, but it works at glance. At first I'm struck by the boldness of under-utilizing this space that has seemed so crucial and coveted by the exhibiting artists in the past but it's as though the curators and the artist saying; expect the unexpected; the joke's on "you" (us), for thinking you already knew what was coming.

Instead, the aisle before and in the outskirts of Nikesalen, is where triggers literally happen and where you are alerted on a pivotal pointer to bear in mind watching the exhibition; "seek and you shall find". Surrounding this retained brightness of Nikesalen is the burgeoning darkness. In a set of entrance lockers that I can't recall seeing ever used for art here before, plays house and windows to a series of self-portraits by Charlotte Landelius where a face marked by guilt and shame is mirrored by the gaped doors of the locker. The composed grid looks great and it's an instance of site-specificity gone right, where the chosen staging form magnifies the quality and the capacity of the paintings on display. Keep walking a few feet to the right and your movement will sensory set off an alarming, imposing sound by a sculptural installation by Simon Sjöström that sees a dead bird encapsulated in a Frankenstein-experiment-like display seated within glass.

The interplay between Charlotte Landelius and Simon Sjöström is terrific; so much drama without the exhibition barely having begun! I did admittedly catch these works the last, so they were rather the dark "send-off" and end in stark contrast to some prior breeziness, than the beginning note for me. A blend of Bergman, a whiff of John Waters at his darkest. If that thought came after, what I did think of at this point, true story, having seen two of the curators, professor Kristina Jansson and artist Gunilla Klingberg, both dressed to match in black and in blond appearance, was the Spellman sisters, the aunts of Sabrina the teenage witch (90's kids, rejoice). I was thinking; wow, loving the sinister vibes and the Stepford Wives feel of the exhibition, of having to scratch under the surface. The morbidity of Simon Sjöström's work is the mostest seen since a spring exhibition of this school that put forth an installation spectacle for self-execution which will surely go unparalleled for several more years.

Charlotte Landelius

Again, seeking and finding, but that doesn't necessarily entail every find feeling or looking spatially apt. There's definitely some awkward positions in the exhibitions that are neither here nor there, like the head of a duck buried in sand on the steps of one of the stairs (?) or some findings in the cafeteria section amid the wooden seating arrangements that just looks out of place and stuffed in there without apparent "logic".

This dichotomy of life and death recurs later in the exhibition, as does the relationship between parent and offspring sentiments therein. In what is one of the most hand in glove stagings through the exhibition, Charlotte Landelius later presents a large-scale aerial mobile of suspended upside-down white ships in various sizes. In connection to the view, her text in the catalog begins; "I remember the moment I found out what my father did for a living. I saw a photograph of a massive ship.", before continuing; "My family fell apart and at the same time I learned that the water in the picture wasn't actually black - it was contaminated with tar that leaked from the ship's tanker. Just as shame, the tar was seductive, and sticky.". The title of the sculptural mobile might already tell you all you need to know about the allegory being struck; Family. Relation. Ships.

Linnéa Ndangoya Palmcrantz

Linnéa Ndangoya Palmcrantz whose MFA solo at Galleri Mejan I found razor-sharp, in this exhibition confines to a room of her own and again shatters the comforting notion of the maternal figure in society as something inherently benevolent, stressing to equation the inheritance of trauma and transmittal diseases like HIV. The text-based sculptures on display might give you chills about a fraught-relationship between parental unit and child but also here is some possibly unintentional humor offered for relief. A vertical of cubic monitors offers one view that is television noise; that random dot pattern you will remember (some of us at least) from when no transmission signal was obtained by the television antenna. In Sweden the phenomenon is often called "myrornas krig" (the war of the ants). On another display is actually big ants crawling on each other. Ha! The backstory here is the artist's mother served her a vision as a child that allegedly etched into her mind of murderous ants crawling into the bodies of small puppies and eating them alive from the inside. A sentiment did arise that too much of a whole exhibition was being crammed into a small space and that an edit would have been beneficial.

Here's another pointer; make sure to catch the titles of the artworks. There are instances where poetry happens also in the words beyond the views. Take what is the most meticulously unison and impressive room in the exhibition where immediately after entry the words on the credit signs on your left might give you a hunch of how well works are joined together. "Utan anledning/Stjärnklar natt" (=Without reason/ starry night), "Time Teller", "Infinite extinction and rebirth". If the words alone do not, independently from the views, then certainly they do once looking at both together.

Simon Sjöström

In the center of the room; a stripped down formation of speakers at the hands of Mari Mattsson, aligned on the floor by their respective chords; almost anthropomorphically representing the human choir from which the voices you will hear stem. The ingenious simplicity almost calls Félix González-Torres to mind. The presentation is an iteration of her MFA solo at Galleri Mejan but scales away the visual and demonstrative aspects of what is conceptually a very awe-inspiring work of a musical partiture meant to be able to be interpreted by anyone provided the allocation of their time of day (literally). The sound piece is a merger and overlap of several such interpretations, from a number of voices independent from each other. But it's no sonic noisy concoction you are getting, but instead a harmonious choir in parts. I'm quietly, with only minor hesitation going to say that for me it was the absolute strongest experience and take-away in the whole exhibition. I loved it. An out-of-body experience in terms of sound that I last feel was only matched in the group exhibition The New Human at Moderna Museet in 2016, experiencing Santiago Mostyn's work Delay (with sound/music score by Slow Wave; Susanna Jablonski and William Rickman, that was so intense and achingly good, I seeked them out to curate their first exhibition as duo, at Erik Nordenhake Gallery, in 2017). Moderna museet, now how's that for contradiction!

Django Giambanco, Mari Mattsson, Elina Birkehag

When I caught Mari Mattson's sound installation last time around it was in a blue lit room that felt celestial and visually created an accentuating setting. The fact that work now is staged in bright "daylight" without any added formal gestures, while producing the same intrinsic response is a testament to its strength as artwork. But credit has to be given to every singe artist in the room; it clearly is a team interplay, where that once blue titillating setting has now been replaced with art that comes in harmony by Simon Sjöström (graphite drawings alluding to sonic waves!), Ossian Söderqvist, Django Giambanco and Elina Birkehag, and in various dialogues with each other. The quiet elegance of their work accentuates Mari Mattson, just as her work lends generously to the work of the rest of the artists. Ossian Söderqvist's play on form and pattern through repetition by "carving" on beech looks hand in glove in the room and the sawdust and pellets on the floor is an exciting way to ruffle up the edges of the room and easing it up just slightly from its equilibrium.

Some of the artists have gone for intervening the premises with "domestic" and mundane fixtures. David Grønlykke presents a meld of a cupboard front and a bulletin board complete with a back-to-basics personals ad in what looks like comic sans and "clip art", reading; "Seeking Ornamental Hermit??". It continues "A young man, who wishes to retire from the world and live as a hermit, in some convenient spot in England, is willing to Engage with any nobleman or gentleman who may be desirous of having one." The humous is hillarious for someone like me whose standard joke is that in some regards life is currently being prepared towards a life as a chaste monk high up in some mountain one day.

David Grønlykke

Alex Valijani

Alex Valijani's rusty metal railing installed on the wall in a slopey angle, dressed around the middle with a black and white Swatch watch marked by a big X in the dial plate is a very intriguing sight inside the grandeur of these pristine premises. By a stretch it brings to mind Hassan Khan's Bank Bannister ; a golden handrail sculpture relating to a Cairo bank, with connotations to socioeconomic and hierarchicial divides. It's difficult not to imagine this architectural display as a possible comment on the architecture it is found in and what these rooms with their ingrained blindspots represent. Pristine at face value and yet so marked by the old. Time's up, change is coming?

Even in what I would call the "blockbuster room", there's a blatant degree of stringency that finds itself, among more crowd pleasing displays, and that come from works that have something playful about them, either in form or concept. A gorgeous and grand grid by Julius Nord is a spin on the linear formation of tennis courts (Team C-print is all for sports and tennis) but calls also to mind board games, and with a yellow sculpture in front of it by Aron Agélii something along the lines of Mikado (”plockepinn”) springs before the eyes. A neighboring starry sculpture appears like an unintentional but fun nod to Gunilla Klingberg (one of the three exhibitions curators).

Aron Agélii (front), Julius Nord (back)

The grad in the cohort who has experienced the greatest amount of success already during school years and who like peers before him in recent years surprise you with their presence in the degree exhibition and artist list, mostly because they at the point of the exhibition have been so established and regarded outside of school already, is Erik Thörnqvist. In this context you can call to mind as well Lap-See Lam, Salad Hilowle and Afrang Malekian Nordlöf from their time in MFA exhibition. Full disclosure; have also exhibited Erik's work, in a two-person exhibition at Konstnärshuset in 2021, co-curated with Alida Ivanov. One particular of his tiled colour grids that hangs site-specfiically as a bend of a doorway and wall, rounding up a 90 degree-angle, and with the top part sitting just centimeters below a light switch is a sight for sore eyes. The sort of precious-unpreciousness with a venue like this that makes an MFA exhibition a joy to watch. His bendy anthropomorphic sun and lounging chairs are endearing and stunning to look at feels like a fun return in my mind to a mid 10's when you might have expected to find anthropomorphic sculptures in nifty exhibitions by the likes of seminal galleries or platforms like Chez Valentin, Cura or Frutta. What I don't get and find a slight curatorial nuisance is the placement of fennel on the floor that looks frankly redundant and like over-embellishing the room where need exists not. Also something you would have expected to see in perky group exhibitions in the mid 10's; some organic crops either alongside or as part of the body of an anthropomorphic sculpture. I for sure know I reviewed an exhibition like this held in Rome in 2015.

Erik Thörnqvist

Erik Thörnqvist, Julius Nord (wall)

Carl Henry Ek

Carl Henry Ek's audiovisual portal constructed with modular video screen panels looks "state of the art" in presentation form well beyond anything or most things you will ever see in a grad exhibition. This is where the "institutional" air skyrockets and I relate to what I'm seeing as the sort of measures you'd expect at the hands of the likes Jesper Just, Doug Aitken or Cyprien Gaillard, and that lot. The footage of display that appears a meditation on and declaration of love for the ocean as a liberating haven clearly is underpinned by intellectual discourse but works very well also as visceral experience. If the narrative connects to and backtracks the occurrence of finance corporations having invested humongous amounts of money to build fiber optic links under the ocean surface just to gain a few milliseconds of connection time over competitors, then certainly the shell and exterior of the portal aid such visualization.

Joakim Havaas

As a painter Joakim Havaas evolution only from the BFA exibition he participated in at Marabouparken is immense. I think I first spotted his work at Gallery Steinsland Berliner in an edition of Got it for cheap and had a work of his in hand for most of my stay there until ultimately deeming it perhaps a little too "juvie" for my taste. At this point his scenes and painting feel internationally very potent; there'a s lot of potential here for him to have that his significant moment soon. A kin to artists like Marie-Louise Ekman or perhaps even more notably Richard Johansson. The presentation of a string of his paintings vis-a-vis sculptural objects, mounted on the wall next to the paintings (one painting - one sculpture) is nicely done. Take a plastic black food container with characteristic "ready-made" microwavable food you might expect at ICA (boiled potatoes and carrots) next to a scene of a man jerking off to porn late at night. The trifes of involuntary singlehood? Relate. Or a scene of the therapist presumably so bored by what is being said that they begin to entertain themselves with "hang the man" and grocery lists rather than scribbling down patient notes. The patient not looking particularly enthusiastic either for that matter. Whether it's your style of painting or not, it's impossible not to be bowled over.

Ashik Zaman


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