What creative forms would you expect at the near-ends of the earth? My recent trip to Stockholm, Sweden was weird in the way that travel usually is, more just-like-home moments than alien fears realized of winding up cold and frozen because I forget to transcribe the 17th letter in the name of the street I was staying on.
Honestly, I went for the close-to-the-North-Pole party (did you know you can swim just about anywhere in Stockholm? Sunrise after-afterparty dips abound), but surprise! I ran into artistic inspiration. That's really having your herring burger and eating it too. Here's four people and projects that really did it for me, Swedishly speaking.
Sweden has epic, resplendent design history that Ikea has made so common with its bastardized, disposable bedframes (I have a personal vendetta against a certain bedframe, pardon my vehemence.) Every time I walked into someone's Stockholm apartment I felt like I'd happened onto what taste was like before the Martha Stewart magazine happened – colorful, but with the acknowledgment that life is better amid function and simple form. Things make sense here. Men and women get 16 months of paid leave from work when they have a baby.
In contrast, the artists that most impressed me were all pretty bonkers. Call me contrary?
I've been down this road before, but there was no way I would miss checking in with the now-infamous Makode Linde, baker of Racist Cakegate 2012, worldwide Internet meme, and Stockholm club kid forever, when I was in his hometown. (He also directs rad videos, like this one for ex-Lykke Li chorist and current hit single maker Zhala.)
I first ran into real-life Linde one blurry Sunday afternoon in Berlin at Berghain's Panorama bar (the best place in the world for techno church hipster zombies.) In a sea of glassy eyes and black T-shirts, Linde had on a yellow plaid suit and a smile, which in my flair-adore book makes him artist enough to begin with. "Makode just gives it to you," as a friend of mine put it regarding his penchant for exuberant party dress.
Linde invited me to his retrospective at Galleri Kleerup's new showroom just around the corner from the opera in old town Stockholm and I acquiesed, only to wind up there with all my luggage in tow en route to the flight that would take me away from Sweden. The only thing there to greet me was a sign saying “TILLBAKA 16:30.” I waited until 17:00 and no one was tillbaka and I had a flight to catch. So thank god for massive plate windows and Swedish acceptance of creepers smashing their nose to them, because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to see the show.
The Linde retrospective puts his howling cake performance in perspective. His famous cake-head (himself, actually poking his face through a hole in the cake-table) blackface makes since when, after viewing his body of work, you realize that he's created an world that's entirely blackface. Giraffes, Betty Boop, bunny rabbits, Jesus on the cross, a Chinese good luck cat, a taxidermied crow. On a stack of shipping pallets in the middle of the room sat a small, ready-to-offend army of these talismans, all from his “Afromantics” series.
What are they warding off? Complacency, perhaps. In a country where the GDP continues to grow despite economic mushiness in other EU countries, it's still totally cool among even young alternative types to refer to any illegal after-party venue in Stockholm as a “black club.” Stockholm's not the whitest city I've ever been in (shout-out to my nonetheless beloved Portland!), but it's pretty close -- and casual racism still comes in a pretty raw form.
Linde's had some pretty heavy – and not at all misguided – accusations thrown at him. But standing in that pretty little cobblestone plaza in Stockholm, next to the Danish embassy in whose plate glass windows were displayed an immalculate and modest light pink ballerina gown from years past, I grokked him and his Rorschach test splotches of black faces with big red lips and wide white eyes.
I could understand how he was surprised when people said he couldn't claim the African experience, because in some superficial ways he has to rep for it in this town.
THE INDIE ACTION-ADVENTURE-PRISON-BIKER-HAIR BAND QUEER FILM
There was only one room devoted to screening a single movie trailer, over and over again, at Konstfack, Sweden's “second-best” (in the words of a friend) arts and design school. A few chairs sat complacently in front of a screen constantly counting down the seconds til the next screening of Dyke Hard.
Could this film have been shot in San Francisco? Yes, and if director Bitte Andersen succeeds in getting her entry into the Frameline Film Festival it most certainly it will find a audience here. A wacky tale of dyke band gone wild, taking on the forces of evil in a world where Lycra makes some, if not all injustices better? It's an SF no-brainer. Andersen, along with production team Alexi Carpentieri and Martin Borell, started the project as a series of trailers – a sci-fi movie, a prison movie, a biker flick, and a horror.
"I guess watching a very large amount of genre film for many years and being a queer woman inspired me to make some genre film that wouldn't be alienating for myself and other queers and/or women," Andersen told me. Eventually, she and her team decided to combine all the trailers into a single film, Dyke Hard.
Shooting is taking about a year (I narrowly missed being cast in a seminal scene in which the mayor – played by a prominent Stockholm queer club promoter – announces a venue conflict between a battle of the bands and a martial arts tournament. Sports fans and music fans attack each other, only to be reprimanded eloquently by a bighearted member of the protagonist band.) The Kickstarter for the project swings into gear next week, so holler at them if you want to ensure that we are indeed, dyked hard.
This is what public art looks like in Sweden: an emaciated giant propped up against (or propping up) the foyer of a luxury shopping mall. She's got on platform lace-up Timberlands, a studded leather jacket, and of course: no pants.
Her name is "Pretty Vacant," and her name is Cajsa Von Zeipel, the artist that is. In person, Von Zeipel somehow succeeds in being more glamorous than her drugged-out fashion waifs. She moonlights in boyfriend Tobias Bernstrup's Italo disco act, standing behind a keyboard and a wind machine in a patent leather bustier, silky kimono, ass-length blonde hair, and vertiginous high heels that she pretty much never doesn't wear.
The artist is from a tiny town of 3,000 in Sweden, where she told me for fun she tried out icecream as a beauty product (facials) and generally felt like the weirdest one in school. But if that was the case, then we're talking a serious ugly duckling-swan situation.
Von Zeipel and Bernstrup's shared studio feels like an ode to feminine beauty. He's been known to perform in triple-breasted lingerie armor and is partial to equally dangerous heel heights.
And early awkwardness might also give a clue into Von Zeipel's art. There are no creatures more high fashion than her sculptures, but at the same time there is a bite to them. Their faces are twisted, their height disorienting. Pretty beautiful, yes -- but also pretty freaky.
Of late, much has been made of craftivism, a reaction to the diminution of women's work and general aesthetic scorn for things that grandmas get up to around big round tables with their friends. The belittling depiction of craft has been addressed in a feminist takeback that's seen the rise of knit graffiti, the resurfacing of Gee's Bend quilts in fine art museums, and more.
In Stockholm, queer feminist radio and TV host-DJ Kakan Hermansson is taking these lessons straight to the nail salon. Her graduate school exhibition at Konstfack is half video installation, half baroque still life – two-foot tall ceramic statues of fingers, capped with nail art erupting with My Little Ponys, Destiny's Child collage, gems, sparkles, “GIRLS” spelled out in gold script.
If you view the installation as I did through the fog of a mid-afternoon hangover and a bag of popcorn, Hermansson's accompanying video is more than engaging -- it's important. Her mama bear voice soothes as hands (hers) confidently remove polish from, re-paint, and glitterize the paws of volunteers who spill personal trauma throughout their treatment. Sexual violence, drug dealing mishap, partnerships gone awry. This is a safe space, a place where women can go to recharge and strengthen bonds with each other. The ceramic statues call attention to the lushness that is art contained on the tips of our fingers, while the videos emphasize that not everything that goes on in beauty salons is superficial.