Curated by Nav Haq, the 9th Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art departs from the assumption that Europe is experiencing a crisis of non-belief. ‘WheredoIendandyoubegin: On Secularity’ takes its title from a 2012 work by Shilpa Gupta: a neon sign installed on the rooftop of a warehouse located between the city centre and its northeast suburbs. Viewable by tram, it points to the conciliatory tone of Haq’s biennial, which seeks not only to span divisions, but also to safeguard a notion of secularity that it defines as ‘a space for negotiation between different modes of life.’
The works on view across the biennial’s 12 venues range from an embassy for The Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland (1991–ongoing), a fictional state founded by artists Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren that has annexed all the world’s borderlands, to a series of sculptures and performance by Michèle Matyn referencing maritime myths surrounding dried ray carcasses. Historical artefacts are also on display, such as a number of anti-Semitic, Swedish fin-de-siècle cartoons, sharply presented adjacent to a selection of Etel Adnan’s more recent leporellos written in shaky Arabic script.
While including such diverse positions, Haq’s exhibition raises questions as to whether or not a biennial – and the art context more generally – might itself be a model for a reinvigorated and broadly accommodating form of secularity. From this perspective, the show tends to lapse from the negotiation of difference into the absorption and mitigation of conflict. It’s a risk made evident by one of two shows-within-the-show, a mid-career survey of work by Danish artist Jens Haaning. Although a few of Haaning’s works, such as Turkish Jokes (1994), sound-recordings of jokes in Turkish played over loud-speakers in public spaces, retain something of a critical edge, his particular brand of agonism registers as artistically stale and politically effete – palatable to a white, middle-class audience.
Other difficulties arise in Masthuggskyrkan, a 19th-century church in the national romantic style holding two abstract paintings from Alexander Tovborg’s series ‘The Rape of Europha’ (2016). In 2015, prior to the implementation of passport controls along Sweden’s border with Denmark, the church played a crucial role in marshalling relief efforts for asylum-seekers and unaccompanied minors fleeing conflict. Although the Danish artist’s work uses the human migration crisis as a frame, the history and present-day realities surrounding this highly charged site are inadequately explored. It’s one of several puzzling moments that limit the biennial's scope and trouble its ambitions.
The show is perhaps most productive where it enacts tension between art's representational capacity and its powers of invention. Nowhere is this more clearly wrought than in Göteborg's Konsthall, where Hilma af Klint's Blue Sketchbooks (1907) are crammed alongside recent drawings by Fahd Burki, and Sicherheit (2017), a ‘parafictive road movie’ by Saskia Holmkvist with Ellen Nyman and Corina Oprea. Here, artistic practice comes into view as a mode of living in its own right, capable of developing forms that, at least in the case of af Klint, have the potential to shift art’s social functions. In Sweden, a country that still provides ample funding for the arts, such claims to autonomy might seem a defence of a bourgeois status quo – art's separation from the state being as improbable as its separation from the church might have once seemed. At a time when an institution as conservative as the Catholic Church has taken a stance against the expansion of the neoliberal economic policies arguably at the core of the current crisis, the image of secular Europe that ‘WheredoIendandyoubegin’ brings forward is less complex and less contradictory than its real-world references.
Main image: Shilpa Gupta, WheredoIendandyoubegin, 2012, installation view, 2017, Göteborg. LED-based light installation, 880 x 68 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Hendrik Zeitler