Luleå Biennial 2020:
Time on Earth

Information regarding Covid-19

Last chance The Luleå Biennial 2020: Time on Earth

Wednesday February 10, 16~20 and Saturday February 13–Sunday February 14, 12~16
Galleri Syster is open. Group show with Augusta Strömberg, Susanna Jablonski and Ana Vaz.

Thursday February 11–Sunday February 14, 12~16
Havremagasinet länskonsthall in Bodenis open. Group show with Beatrice Gibson, Susanna Jablonski, Birgitta Linhart, Fathia Mohidin, Charlotte Posenenske, Tommy Tommie and Danae Valenza.

Saturday February 13–Sunday February 14, 14~18
The former prison Vita Duvan is open with an electro acoustic installation by Maria W Horn.

Saturday February 13, 15~19
The artist Markus Öhrn and the poet David Väyrynens sound installation "Bikt" is exhibited on the ice by Residensgatan in Luleå. Listen to older generations of Tornedal women and their testimonies.

Book your visit via Billetto. Drop in is possible as far as space allows.

For those of you who do not have the opportunity to physically visit the Luleå Biennale on site, a radio show including artist talks, sound works and specially written essays will be on stream on Saturday February 13–Sunday February 14. Visit our radio page here.

The exhibitions at Norrbotten's Museum, Luleå konsthall, Välkommaskolan in Malmberget and the Silver Museum are unfortunatly closed.

Real Art: Realist activity yesterday, today and tomorrow
Stefan Jonsson
  1. As an essayist and critic I have learned that there are at least two ways of addressing an artwork. One is normative: based on an idea of what art is and should do, you discuss to what degree the artwork has achieved its aesthetic goal, and you pass judgment. The other approach is investigative: you examine how the artwork even has come to exist and what it seeks to tell about the world and the human condition. In front of each work of art you ask: why this work, why here, why now, why in this historical situation?

    Over time I have become convinced that the latter is the more reasonable approach to art. We should not evaluate art in regard to a separate, aesthetic sphere. Rather, we regard it as a means to represent, comment on or change the human and social whole. Only when art stands out as relevant it becomes thoroughly interesting.

    During at least a couple of decades the cultural situation in many countries and many places has been vitalized by a vast number of critical and investigative art projects and oeuvres. Art institutions have put themselves at disposal to artists who address global political issues, from borders and migration to capitalism and environmental destruction to racism and genocide, and who often embed such issues in local and deeply existential contexts. Sometimes, these artists initiate democratic processes that prompt the audience to take a stance. They place society at centre stage so that we catch sight of it.

    Usually we do not really see society, despite that we live amidst it. We also trust society’s resilience, even though we know that the current order is not sustainable in the long run. When art of the investigative kind puts society on display, we begin to understand its internal mechanisms, fathom its shortcomings, are upset by its injustices, and grow irritated by its self-assurance. Didn’t we want something more, didn’t we wish for something else in life, than this societal apparatus that cuts back our freedom, restrains our desires and destroys the future of our children?

    And suddenly: what previously appeared as sober, realistic confidence in the state of affairs turns out to be grounded in fantasy, credulity and bad faith, whereas the so-called fantasies and exaggerations of the arts actually guide us toward realistic alternatives to the false world we uphold.

    Socially engaged art of today therefore fulfills a need, and this is especially so because our political systems and journalism lack the ability to properly deal with the issues that are decisive of our future. When today’s artists, like here in the Luleå Biennial, explore the hidden, make the abstract concrete, expand the real and give voice to the concealed they break down established world views, make truths appear as lies, bring unseen possibilities to the fore and promote people who resist and movements that change society. In all of this, they continue along modern art’s perhaps most fascinating and seminal trajectory: Realism.

    At least, this is the way it appears if we look at substance and method. By contrast, if we look at the self-understanding of contemporary artists and the critical discourse in which they are embedded, realism is conspicuously absent. In a cultural climate marked by art that openly owns to its political and critical mission, it is rather strange that neither the artists nor the critics show much interest in the idea of realism.

  2. Contemporary art has at least two good reasons to remain at distance from realism. As to the first one, we associate the word realism with an artistic style that seems obsolete. When the idea of aesthetic realism emerged, most likely at the end of the 18th century with the German writer and thinker Friedrich Schiller, it represented an outlook on art that emphasized the unmediated or “naive” depiction of the raw and prosaic aspects of life and society.1 The second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th was the era of realism. It was first born by the intellectuals of the progressive bourgeoisie. Thereafter came the artists of the working class who gave the concept a sharper political tooth, as in social realism or socialist realism. Painting made visible the working people, the infrastructure of industrialism, the shapes of urban life, the rupture between farming and factory; it took a stance in the struggle between rich and poor and gave prominence to the collective over the individual. Interwoven with a bourgeois and a proletarian realism was a feminist realism – represented by a vanguard of female artists whom history has neglected but in recent years have been reintroduced by scholars like Griselda Pollock and other advocates of a feminist art history – which in similar ways explored the female-sphere of reproduction.(2)

    In these contexts, realism appears as a style and an epoch. It was subversive for its time. The arts caused scandal and ignited debate by showing up society for what it was, without make-up or idealisation. In its critique against the current order, realism also pointed toward better conditions for living together. It was driven by a vision of a different future state of things, a utopia. But from the horizon of our own time, the style of realism is not subversive but rather a closed chapter. Contemporary artists who would profess themselves to realism would run the risk of being misunderstood as wanting to paint as Gustave Courbet or Albin Amelin. And we could not have that, could we.

  3. The second reason as to why today’s engaged art avoids realism is that it is regarded as a European tradition. As a style and an epoch realism contributed in the creation of the modern European nation-states. Courbet depicted the burgeoning French society, Amelin the Swedish. Both viewed the historical transformation of their nations, with all their injustices, from below. However, works of art that portrayed similar conflicts in the imperialist world were scarce. Those who could have made such portrayals, that is, non-Europeans with experience of the raw and prosaic sides of colonialism, were never given the chance. If they at all were recognized as artists they were regarded as inherently inferior. When European realists set out outside of Europe, their point of view from below was lost. On home ground they were critical realists. When they approached the colonized world they unavoidably slipped into the position of the oppressor. The result of this was exotism, orientalism, primitivism, or other art-historical expressions of racism.

    Colonial relations still mark the art world. Most large art institutions are governed by Western money, and hence by Western norms. Practicing artists have to a greater extent come to terms with colonialism. They often process questions related to colonial legacies: global poverty, the exploitation of natural resources, climate change, migration and armed conflict — subject matter of a similar kind to what realism once unearthed. But if these artists admitted kinship to realism, they would be at risk of buying into a Eurocentric legacy. Why would they want that? Especially since many of these artists have their roots in non-European societies and, for very good reasons, wish to tear down an art-historical paradigm that has elevated the various epochs and styles of European art history to an imperative model. From their perspective, realism is not even a historical phenomenon, but an irrelevant one.

  4. Yet, notwithstanding these qualifications, I submit that present-day socially engaged art is deeply connected to realism, not in terms of its style but in terms of its practices, or what I would like to call its realist activity. The benefit of bringing in realism into the discussion on contemporary art is that it provides a better understanding of what this art can achieve, and why it is important.

    Realism is an indispensable concept because it forces us to pair two things that in our culture and discourse are often seen as each other’s opposites: art and truth. The founding premise of realism is that these two are related, or even that they presuppose one another. Art is not real art if it does not illuminate the truth about human society. Vice versa: the truth about human reality is at its most profound only accessible through art.

    Realism therefore has a double loyalty. On the one hand, it claims to be art. On the other hand, it maintains that it is truthful to reality, that it is “true”. The work of art is both an aesthetic presentation and a cognitive tool. What makes realism fascinating and significant are these grand claims. It sees art as an instrument of knowledge in its own right, with a particular capacity to give shape to society.

    These claims also imply a choice of paths. The term realism is a call to arms, wrote the literary scholar Kurt Aspelin at the end of the 1970s.(3) Anyone who does not accept that the aesthetic and the political are separate spheres, or that art is marginalised to a matter of feelings, entertainment, private life or business will sooner or later take a stance for realism. Why? The literary historian Georg Levine offers an explanation, as he states that realism as a term compels us to wrestle with some of the central problems of art and criticism.(4) Each time somebody uses the term realism, to define the term or to apply it to something, to form an opinion of an artwork or to demonstrate an artist’s distinctiveness, a door between art and society is opened. The central problem of realism has always concerned the artistic process’ contribution to a deeper understanding of society and to radical social change.

    A present-day artist who literally took position for realism was Allan Sekula. At the beginning of the 1990s he wrote: “The key choice I made in the seventies was for documentary social realism, founded in the intuition that this supposedly exhausted genre contained submerged possibilities. At least one of these possibilities, it seems to me, is a broad democratic legibility, …”(5)

    In Sekula’s work we are able to find some crucial points of departure. What does realism mean? To establish contact, put in connection, play off one thing against the other, to insert each event and each detail in its correct place in the totality of the world. What is realist activity? An activation of the inherent cognitive power of art. A continuous artistic investigation into determining forces of the forces, conflicts and powers that determines our historical moment. Why is such an investigation of the dominating powers necessary? In order to defeat them and create another order.

  5. Realist activity enjoins the aesthetic and the cognitive sides of art so that they can no longer be separated. Aesthetic effect will here become one with a true image of reality. In turn, a true image of reality will provide the feeling of intense meaning as is transmitted through artistic effect. When Georg Lukács, perhaps the strongest theorist of realist art, writes about a culture “where beauty is the meaning of the world made visible”, he is speaking of a culture permeated by realist activity.(6)

    The fact that we today regard realism as passé or irrelevant is probably because aesthetic and cognitive practices have drifted apart and developed into isolated or even opposing spheres of activity. We no longer expect art to provide knowledge. Today, we detect symptoms of this split in the phenomena of “artistic research”, which in its attempt to bridge this division only confirms a sad depreciation of art’s inherent cognitive powers.

    In one of his essays, the cultural theorist Fredric Jameson advocates what he calls cognitive mapping.(7) He begins by describing a time at the dawn of capitalism when a person’s experience and senses could still grasp the societal and economic forces that conditioned her life. From then on, the development has moved toward evermore complex relations between humans and the system in which they live. The phenomenological experience of the individual subject, the raw material for each artistic practice, can no longer provide knowledge of the actual state of things.

    According to Jameson, this process explains the decline of realist art and the rise of modernism. Modernism is a symptom of our loss of orientation within structures that are so intricate that they become incomprehensible. At the same time, the modernist movements pursue an intensive cognitive mapping of their own, a search for forms which make it possible to comprehend the mechanisms that master us. We can define this kind of modernism as a kind of realist activity. Its aim is to reveal historical connections and to “make the images take position” as the French theoretician Georges Didi-Huberman writes in his book on the modernist and realist Berthold Brecht.(8)

    In a dense paragraph Jameson encircles the starting point of the aesthetics of cognitive mapping: “There comes into being, then, a situation in which we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be true; and that if a scientific or cognitive model of the same content is true, then it escapes individual experience. It is evident that this new situation poses tremendous and crippling problems for a work of art”.

    Yet, only art can close this gap, Jameson argues. Step by step, stroke by stroke it fills in the void between man’s experience of society and the powers that govern it. In the completed artwork the viewer can understand her place in the system, her situation. In this way, the artwork puts her in a state ready to change her situation.

  6. How does realist activity work, in practice? If one looks to substance it manifests itself in a great deal of what today passes as political, investigative and documentary-based art. This practice results in artworks of many different kinds in a number of artistic genres, styles and media. It is a common misunderstanding that realist activity aims to directly reproduce or mirror reality, that it is mimetic and has to render or represent something that already exists. On the contrary, realist activity often makes use of an abstract, absurd or idealistic imagery. Realist activity’s main question is the artist’s interpretation of historic traces and testimonies. The main question, moreover, is the artist’s capacity to synthesize these traces and testimonies with such an aesthetic intensity that the artwork illuminates otherwise invisible historical situations or political conflicts so as to encourage the viewers to take a stance and transform reality along with all the accompanying constraints on human freedom. In this way, Brecht, according to Didi-Huberman, elucidated the imperialist order with his ingenious montage of news clippings and political laconism. In this way, Harun Farocki depicted both the history of capitalism and humankind by examining a brick – while also pointing to the ways in which people have employed hundreds of different methods to construct their houses as well as their societies more generally. In this way, too, Carrie Mae Weems makes visible racial oppression in the United States, as well as resistance to it, through a series of arranged photographs of Black families and individuals in the US.

    Strictly speaking, realist activity is less interested in the immediate reality than in still unrealized possibilities. Realist activity is therefore not only guided by its fascination for and horror of the present-day society in all its detail and plurality, but also, to an even higher degree, by its desire for social justice, equality and freedom. In this way, realist activity is fundamental to the realization of the possibilities of democracy.

    Our perception of reality is to great extent determined by those images of reality we are faced with, in the same manner as our perception of art is largely determined by which parts of the world are displayed in the arts. The decisive factor is the framing: What is allowed to be visible in the images that we meet, what ends up outside the frame? What is regarded as significant enough to beget artistic form, what is regarded as irrelevant? Realist activity expands the frame for both our perception of reality and our perception of art. In this way, images of possible and alternative realities are produced.

    The Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar illustrates what is at stake. He declares that he has never come to terms with the art world’s priorities: “For what reason is a subject like the tree in eighteenth-century landscape painting seen as more worthy of research and resources than the genocide in Rwanda?”(9) Such a question is in itself an example of realist activity. At once, it becomes possible to imagine the genocide in Rwanda as obvious material for artistic practices and interpretations, or at least as obvious as the tree in European landscape painting. This expansion of the concept of art also entails an expansion of democracy: an egalitarianism of the image, out of which new solidarities can grow.

    Jaar’s remark alludes to yet another dimension of realist activity. In its aspiration to a more truthful view of the world it often puts focus on human types that have been “ex-framed”, or situated at the margins of our social as well as cultural institutions. Present-day artists who search for figures that embody or typify the world order often point toward people who are exposed to exploitation or political violence. As cognitive mapping in this way assumes the position of the victim and the oppressed, it inevitably elicits a politico-ethical reflection that invokes ideas of resistance and even, perhaps, of a world order not founded on oppression and violence. In this sense realist activity gives direction for utopian thinking: How to construct a world in which genocide is unthinkable? A world without racism? In which nobody goes hungry? In which we do not destroy the planet for coming generations?

    Such questions are elementary. Yet, since present-day politics so rarely address them, it falls upon the arts to respond by way of realist activity. Art offers to its viewers and audience an exercise in cognitive mapping. Only a careful, detailed mapping of the powers that surround and oppress us will enable us to discover openings toward real alternatives. Put differently, the realist is not a person who has all her senses disposed toward the reality at hand — the façades of houses, corridors of bureaucracy, the objects on the table, or the documents from the latest political crises — but she is rather a person who wishes to realize a different society, and who understands that the first step toward such a society is a careful investigation and ideological unmasking of existing society, or perhaps even an absurdist or satirical assault on it. Realist activity identifies the gaps in the system, the possibilities of a different order, paths toward freedom.

  7. One of the strongest attempts at realist activity during the post-war era is Peter Weiss’ novel The Aesthetics of Resistance. Toward the end of the first part, the narrator of the novel sits with his friend Ayschmann in an orange grove outside of Valencia. The year is 1938. The two young German workers have joined as volunteers on the republican side in the Spanish civil war.

    In the midst of the war they are at the same time intensely occupied with art. On the grass slope before them they spread a large reproduction of Picasso’s painting Guernica, a late cubist montage of invented and broken forms and constellations – an image that provides the two communists with a mirror in which they can read their own situation in the night of fascism.(10)

    In the conversation on Picasso between the two friends, Peter Weiss presents a definition of realist activity in three dimensions. First: a subjective depiction of the suffering, violence or death through which the ruling powers strike down common people. Second: a detailed and piercing mapping of these ruling powers. And finally, as a third dimension generated by the relationship between those in power and their victims: a flash-like apparition of the resistance that those repressed, shipwrecked, and defeated ones are capable of, captured at the very moment in which it reaches, as Weiss puts it, its “highest degree of emotional intensity”.(11)

    If such a realist action succeeds, the artwork becomes a condensation — Weiss speaks of crystallisations — of all the previous collective struggles for a just world. This explains why the history of realism cannot be restricted to an epoch or a definable style. Rather, it consists of a series of artworks from the beginning to the present and into the future. Each crystal in the string is a result of realist activity, a piece of condensed reality, discovered and cut through the artist’s investigation of reality, and at the same time a condensed possibility, testifying to the ways in which the artist resisted the dominant current order, uttered their No, and created alternatives.

Stefan Jonsson (b. 1961) is an author, critic and professor at Linköping University.

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  1. Friedrich Schiller, Über naive und sentimentale Dichtung (1795), in Schillers Werke in fünf Bänden; del 4: Gedichte, Prosa (Berlin & Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1959), 577~658.
  2. See Griselda Pollock’s Mary Cassatt: Painter of Modern Women (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998); Differencing the Canon: Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1999); and Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1987).
  3. Kurt Aspelin, Poesi och verklighet. Part II. 1830-talets liberala litteraturkritik och den borgerliga realismens problem (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1977), 196.
  4. George Levine, “Realism Reconsidered”, in The Theory of the Novel. New Essays, red. John Halperin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 234.
  5. Allan Sekula och Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conversation,” In Allan Sekula, Performance Under Working Conditions, red. Sabine Breitwieser (Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2003), 38.
  6. Georg Lukács, Die Theorie des Romans (Berlin: Dietz, 1963), 22.
  7. Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping”, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, red. C. Nelson och L. Grossberg, Hampshire: Macmillan Education, 1988, 347~360.
  8. Georges Didi-Huberman, När bilderna tar ställning. Historiens öga, 1, övers. Jonas J. Magnusson (Stockholm: OEI Editör, 2019).
  9. Alfredo Jaar, “The Mise-en Scène is Fundamental: A Conversation with Wolfgang Brückle and Rachel Mader,” Camera Austria International, no 86 (2004): 47.
  10. Peter Weiss, Motståndets estetik, band 1, övers. Ulrika Waldenström (Stockholm: Arbetarkultur, 1975), 367~401.
  11. Weiss, Motståndets estetik, band 1, 385f.

Radio 65.22 is an auditory cross section of the biennial’s theme and contents, which amplifies and makes accessible written texts, framed situations and artistic voices. Radio 65.22 also enables an encounter with chosen parts of the Luleå Biennial’s activities for those who cannot experience the biennial in situ.

With Radio 65.22, we want to inscribe ourselves into an experimental and exploratory radio tradition, where the media itself becomes a platform for our ideas on radio and its capacity to depict and mirror the world around us. The task of Radio 65.22 is to tell of reality, in further ways that may not be possible through the image or the text.

Under Fragments: Time on Earth you will find radio programmes and sound pieces in different genres and forms that reflect this year’s biennial in various ways. Spirit of Place is a touring series of literary conversations on language and place. The culture journalist Kerstin Wixe takes us along to places that have played a significant part in an author’s stories, or carries the story’s history. Woven Songs is a deepening series of radio programmes that accentuate singing, the voice and the role of storytelling in the creation of new world views and orders, produced in collaboration with Public Art Agency Sweden.

Listen, reflect, enjoy!