On left: Jessica Cooley and I lecturing on disability and art in Göteborgs Konsthall on March 5, 2016; On right: We were greeted with art the minute we arrived at our hotel, which looked out on this Jaume Plensa sculpture, Dream Material, in the Drottningtorget.
New Dream Material: Lecturing on Disability and Art in Gothenburg, Sweden Scholarship Report for SWEA – NC, April 2016 Ann M. Fox, Ph.D., Professor of English, Davidson College When my colleague, collaborator, and co-curator Jessica Cooley and I stepped off the airport bus at the central station in Gothenburg on the evening of March 3, 2016, the first work of art that greeted us literally seconds later was Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa’s public art piece, Dream Material (see above right). The sculpture’s three seated figures, beautifully illuminated at night, are each huddled over; they are the literal embodiment of the old aphorism “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” as each figure strikes the according pose. That we should run into sculptures where each of the figures cuts off one of their senses seemed a striking coincidence, given that we were there to speak about disability and art. But we were there to push past the old use of disability as a simplistic metaphor, and in so doing, dream different kinds of artistic material into place in collaboration with our hosts. As the recipient of one of SWEA – North Carolina’s annual scholarships, I was able to travel to Gothenburg, Sweden from March 3-6, 2016. I was invited by artist and cultural producer Josefina Posch, along with her colleague curator Sofia Landström, to give a sculpture talk on “Disability, Women, and Art” with Jessica Cooley. Our lecture was part of a sculpture talk series organized by Snowball Cultural Productions and SculptureHUB in collaboration with Galleri Box and Göteborgs Konsthall. It was my hope to learn more about the contemporary art scene in Gothenburg, as well as something about disability in Sweden; I was also curious to see how the work Jessica and I did curating a disability arts-related exhibition would be received. How might our exploration of disability aesthetics read to those who visited our talk? To address how the visit addressed each of these topics, I have broken my report down into three sections: Art, Activism, and Aesthetics.
Art: What is the contemporary art scene like in Gothenburg?
Josefina Posch gave Jessica and I a tour of several galleries in Gothenburg. We viewed different kinds of art spaces to give us an idea of the range of exhibition spaces and curatorial opportunities in the city. We learned that the commercial art scene is actually quite limited in Gothenburg, with only one truly commercial gallery. Nevertheless, the local art scene is vibrant. What did we see? •
We small a small pop-up gallery called “A-venue,” where students from the University of Gothenburg were curating their own exhibitions of each other’s work. The cleverly named gallery is located in an empty storefront on Kungsportsavenyn, Gothenburg’s main avenue, thereby bringing contemporary work and programming that is open to passers-by in a vital, dynamic area of the city. We saw an exhibition entitled Fomerly Known As, described as “an exhibition about roots and transformations, about seeing the past in a contemporary context and…[creating] stories out of other stories.” The gallery is also the site of programming about topics ranging from feminist art to critical arts pedagogy.
We visited several small galleries in the city, representing a wide range of genres and curatorial concepts. We visited Grafik i Väst, a gallery which specializes in printmaking. While there, we had a chance to view a small show entitled “The World As We Know It,” an exchange between Chinese and Swedish artists which included works such as the striking print below by the Chinese printmaker Zhang Minjie:
We were also able to visit another pop-up gallery in the wonderful Haga district, where we encountered the installation work in front of which I am pictured standing, below. The work creates a visual web of connection picturing artists from all over Gothenburg, tracing their artistic and social connections as conceptualized in the mind of the installation artist.
Finally, we also had the chance to visit one of our sponsoring organizations, Galleri Box, and see an installation by Swedish visual artist Conny Karlsson Lundgren entitled The Spheres, a reinterpretation and reconstruction of Music of the Spheres, a 1938 composition by ultra-modernist German composer Johanna M. Beyer. •
We visited Göteborgs Konstmuseum, where we were able to see a selection of Nordic art throughout history, including some very striking contemporary work. For example, we saw a special exhibition of the work of Finnish photographer Esko Männikkö, entitled “Time Flies.” In it, he examines the idea of decay and the derelict, in spaces from the Nordic countries to the American Southwest; I found it fascinating to have such seemingly disparate topographies placed in visual conversation with one another.
For me, however, the most intriguing art space we visited was one I had not imagined existing: Galleri Konstepidemin. This cultural center, consisting of gallery spaces and artists’ studios, is housed on the grounds of what was once a hospital for infectious diseases. It was delightful and striking to see the repurposing of this space in order to create, as the center describes it, an “epidemic of art.”
Activism: What are disability concerns in Gothenburg?
While we were in Gothenburg, we had the chance to have fika with a local disability activist, Anna Bonnevier. We talked to her about the presence of disability culture and disability activism in Gothenburg. Not surprisingly, one of the central areas of activism we discussed was access to public transportation. The trams, though theoretically accessible, cannot always carry more than one wheelchair user; Anna shared a story with us about how a tram driver once did not want to transport her and her partner at the same time. Her partner refused to get off, and continued to protest over time against inaccessibility in Västtrafik, the local public transportation agency. Anna’s own work as an artist and activist has covered issues from physical access (she created an amazing installation of stairs to which she then set fire!) to information about sexuality and disability. She also shared with us the gendered nature of disability benefits in Sweden: for example, as a woman, she gets accorded funding for fewer hours of attendant care per week than a man would. This policy assumes hers will be, as a woman, a primarily domestic and at-home life, although Anna works full time. III.
Aesthetics: How was our lecture received?
Jessica Cooley and I gave our lecture, entitled “Re/Formations: Disability, Women, and Sculpture” on Saturday, March 5. 2016 at Göteborgs Konsthall. What did we talk about in the lecture? We moved through several different topics; beginning with an overview of disability studies as an academic field, we then moved on to talk about how the subject of disability has traditionally been imagined in art. We emphasized that there are very specific ways disability has been imagined in art. It has been seen as a visual metaphor, as that which an artist may have overcome to create, as “brut art,” or as only the province of disabled people in the therapeutic realm. But we emphasized that disability is also an identity which has been explored in art, as well as an opportunity for aesthetic innovation. We talked about several artists who represent for us different ways to imagine this innovation, framing their work as “disability gain,” or the creativity generated by disability (which is typically only defined as lack or personal tragedy). Disability also can create opportunities for curating or creating access in ways that allow us to reimagine the presentation of art, and we discussed some of those strategies as well. Finally, we each spoke for a bit about our personal projects related to disability and art; I spoke about my most recent exhibition on representations of HIV/AIDS in art, and Jessica spoke about her own scholarly work on “crip materiality”—or,
5 what happens if we value the broken and degraded materials of artworks? SculptureHUB also has a blog entry which recaps the lecture, which can be viewed by clicking here. The lecture was very enthusiastically received by an engaged crowd, one which was eager to pursue several lines of thought in the Q & A that followed. One line of discussion that really intrigued me was a conversation about why Jessica and I claimed the word “disability” (as opposed to using a more euphemistic term like “special needs” or “physically challenged”). We emphasized the importance of claiming disability as an identity so as to fight stigma (i.e., the assumption that “disability” is a negative term). We also believe the term should be given pride of place alongside other identity categories such as race, gender, and sexuality. There was likewise a great deal of interest in how we defined the category “disability,” and the question of whether we would consider invisible impairments like mental illness disabilities (and the answer was, of course). We spoke about the importance of curating work by both disabled and nondisabled artists around the topic of disability; in the end, disability is an essentially human and common experience. After all, we all live in contingent bodies and we will all become disabled if we live long enough. It was a pleasure to make connections at the talk with Swedish scholars and artists in attendance; for example, we met Elisabet Apelmo, who is a scholar who works on disability and performance, and Katarina Franck, a psychologist who is also an artist interesting in creating work about the brain. As I hope you see from this report, it was an edifying and invigorating trip. In the space of two and a half days, I was able to make connections and learn about Nordic art in ways that were exciting, engaging, and definitely make me want to go back to Sweden. I am also talking to Josefina about how we might bring her to Charlotte, so hopefully, this trip will yield more crosscultural connections within our own state. In the meantime, I want to again express my gratitude to SWEA – NC for sponsoring my time in Gothenburg with the scholarship I was awarded. It is my hope that what I’ve described here aligns with your intentions for how those monies be used and what they make possible. Thank you!
A post-lecture dinner with Swedish colleagues and hosts; from left to right: Elisabet Apelmo, Jessica
Cooley, Ann Fox, Josefina Posch, Sofia Landström. Thank you, SWEA – NC!
Published on Jul 8, 2016