Shipping out to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet

Inside the politics of Stockholm’s modern art museum

The Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin
Via Wikicommons

Somehow between all my exchange's failed Finish lessons and close calls with airport security, I managed to dive into Scandinavian modern art with Stockholm's Moderna Musseet.

To get cultured, my friends and I took a discount cruise ship from Helsinki to Stockholm. It was massive, housing at least two restaurants, a bar, a club and a mini casino.  The cruise company lets students have a cabin and a six-hour stay in Stockholm for pocket change, provided you keep a low profile and don’t steal the towels. 

This was my third time aboard.  In round one, I was almost kicked off for lying that I was 21 without a guardian. The other time I had to comfort a friend that was too ambitious with the ship’s duty free alcohol.

When we unpacked this time, I preemptively stole the towels — I didn’t have high expectations.

Miraculously, we weren’t kicked off the 16-hour boat-ride. We braved the crowds exiting the ship and made the 20-minute walk from Stockholm’s Old Town to the museum built on a pleasant island-turned-park. 

The Moderna Musset’s general collection featured an exhibit of political films by Loulou Cherinet, a Swedish artist and fine arts professor. Describing the exhibit for in-house promotion, Cherinet said she wanted to explore “what [politics] tastes, looks and sounds like when a nation manifests itself in our bodies, discussions and behaviours.” 

Cherinet’s work looks at outsiders and marginalized communities in Sweden and abroad. In her piece White Women (2002), Cherinet filmed a staged dinner with eight black men in matching peppermint-patterned shirts discussing their experiences with ethnic Swedish women.

During the film, the camera continuously revolves in the centre of the circular table to capture the flow of conversation between the eight men. Most of their discussion revolves around their emotional responses to relationships with white women. Disagreements and discussions emerge as one man criticizes the “myth of the black man being inquisitive to have sex with a white woman.”

Cherinet’s work goes on to chronicle her other home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with her 2014 piece Big Data. In the film. she analyzes the challenges facing the city’s poor. Likewise, her film Statecraft (2017) features a roundtable discussion on the Swedish political term “Outsidership” that tends to be used as a broad rhetorical device to refer to anyone considered excluded from mainstream politics.

These marginalized “Outsiders” in the film run the gambit. They are unemployed workers, homeless people, and stay-at-home parents,  to name a few. Together, they try to create a definition of “Insidership” that could replace its counterpart.

Cherinet’s work made me confront the human face underneath abstract concepts like poverty or race. I felt invited into the films’ conversations, as I learned from the different subjects. It created dialogue between the piece and the audience.

Beside politics, there was the usual Scandinavian art weirdness. One piece, Marina Abramović’s Double Edge (1996) replaced all the rungs of a ladder with kitchen knives. Another ladder in the same piece constantly poured white paint over the rungs. The other two ladders, for some reason, were made of normal metal and wood. 

They were every stereotype about modern art rolled into one inscrutable package. I didn’t have the time, energy, or internet access to parse why these ladders existed.  It made me wonder if I too could be a member of the high art scene, if I also just left things from my apartment in a museum.  

In another piece, Abramovic hollowed out two rocks into shoes and had them positioned by a window overlooking the waterfront. Shoes for Departure (1991/2015) asked the guest to “Enter the shoes with bare feet. / Eyes Closed. / Motionless. / Depart.” 

Standing in a pair of public rocks isn’t as liberating as it sounds.

The more unconventional pieces were balanced against historical pieces chronicling the rise of Russian communism, involving multiple propaganda posters.

Notably, a French reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s model for the Monument to Third International (1920; 1979) dominated one room with a spiraling iron structure.

My friends nodded at the piece thoughtfully and slipped away to our last work: Akira Kanayama’s Foot Prints (1955). True to its name, several footprints on a long piece of paper stretched across the floor before the footprint-paper continued up the wall and onto the ceiling.  At this point, my friends were ready to go. We were too exhausted to give these footprints another five minutes.  

There’s no amount of stolen towels in the world to keep someone in a modern art museum past two hours, cultured or not.

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