A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT
“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin, thought Alice; but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
Reality is said to exceed the fiction, and from personal experience this is true at an accelerating rate. For example, had someone told me a few years ago who the “leader of the free world” would be today, I would have taken it for a big joke. Similarly, public debate is no longer about utopias or broader visions of a possible joint future; instead, the discourse focuses on single issues in a pragmatic, non-ideological, and unconvincing way. There is also a tendency of suspiciousness, not to say hostility and rejection, towards poetry, art and fiction. This means, of course, that the arts, the realm in which we can mirror the society we live in, get less and less space in politics and public debate.
For the Borås International Biennial 2018, I chose a theme from Alice in Wonderland, the marvellous children’s book by Lewis Carroll, because of its relation to the surreal, and the interest in nonsense.
A century ago, the art of expressing nonsense was an act of resistance, and a means of voicing discontent with a rationalism that seemed only to lead to violence, war and nationalism – and, above all, a challenge against structures in society. Among the cultural expressions were the DADA movement and surrealism.
Carroll’s novel has inspired artists, scientists and philosophers worldwide for more than a century. Recently, the Cheshire Cat, with its ability to disappear bit by bit until only the smile remains, lent its name to the Quantum Cheshire Cat, when scientists for the first time separated a particle from one of its physical properties, and astronomers have even named a galaxy after the illustrious creature. The famous philosopher Gilles Deleuze was specifically inspired by the Carrollian brand of nonsense in his radical rethinking of meaning. In his seminal book Logic of Sense (1969), he suggest that Carroll was cutting up reality in bits and pieces, and thus rather innocently revealed that reality is already an organisation of cut-up pieces.
The artists invited for the 2018 edition will be exhibiting both in the Museum and in public spaces, which sometimes proves problematic, as art now has to compete with an intense bombardment of commercial messages. This year, Sweden is having a general election, and towards the end of the exhibition period there will also be other forms of political activities in the public space. Somehow, art is scrutinised very differently from other messages in public, and by a different set of standards. Public art is supposed to be somewhat invisible and still captivating. Historically, and in simplified terms, public art has been a direct reflection of the current leadership – a crude form of monumentality for the king/ruler, the richest person, or the “moral” leader. One of the benefits of democracy is that art is liberated from the strings of supremacy. Many of the works in this exhibition address different power structures directly or indirectly, and in that sense reconsider our reality.
Børre Sæthre is interested in the utopian ideals connected with art and architecture; Christian Jankowski’s film has a head-on approach to the monuments of the past while Iman Issa presents a more contemplative formulation about how we interpret historical works of art today. Simon Mullan is making a new monument for a different, more “silent”, force: the common; Hassan Khan comments on the absurd and burlesque tendency in today’s discourse and Katarina Löfström explores how messages are altered and enhanced by different perspectives and abstractions, using a Las Vegas format; Jonah Freeman’s and Justin Lowe’s films speak about past visions of utopia.
Many of the invited artists work in ways similar to how Deleuze imagined Carroll’s novels – by cutting up reality and rearranging it, enabling the audience to change perspective and position.
Chiara Bugatti reinterprets her surroundings and rearranges the result in spatial and interactive installations; Latifa Echakhch removes details from, or diassembles, artifacts and with small gestures changes the focus; and this is also a similar work process of Sofia Hultén, although with a different, more absurdist, result. Carroll wrote a sequel to Alice in Wonderland a few years later, Through the Looking Glass (1872). Alice climbs through a mirror and finds herself in a world where everything is strange, and she finds a book written in a seemingly unintelligible language. But she understands that it is written in mirror-writing. Even when holding it up to a mirror and reading the reflected poem Jabberwocky, it still makes little sense, but it’s nevertheless puzzling and captivating. This poem was the direct inspiration for Jan Švankmajer’s film from 1971. Švankmajer, in turn, is one of the major inspirational sources for the Quay Brothers who also work with puppets and animation, where the more uncanny sides of our consciousness are explored. Fears and how we deal with them are also among Johan Thurfjell’s main tools for his sculptures. The subconscious and parts of our most secret life or guilty pleasures are also the root of Nathalie Djurberg’s and Hans Berg’s films, sculptures and installations.
Hopefully, visitors will find a work of art, or several, in the exhibition that can serve as a mirror, or magnifying glass, forever changing their perspective on what we call reality a little bit.