The turnout was large, but not overwhelming. The mood was tense, at times indignant. Tensta Konsthall had organized a debate on the different forms of financing contemporary art, but it was naturally the Konsthall’s collaboration with Bukowskis – owned by the Lundin family – for the Abstract Possible show that was the focus. Not in the least after Sinziana Ravini’s article in Dagens Nyheter the same day (2/23), where Maria Lind was accused of having sold out to oil money. And yes, the evidence is damning: Lind has entered into an economic collaboration with Bukowskis, without uttering a critical word about the company’s role in the art market or the owner-family’s interests in the genocide industry. Nor is there anything to suggest that she intended to initiate the discussion that she’s now been forced to participate in.
“The project is not about taking a position,” Lind stated when she was asked about her position on Lundin Petroleum’s activities – “this is what the world looks like.” Only after repeated questions from a consternated public could she acknowledge, “if the charges leveled against Lundin are true they are serious, and they should be condemned.” But, as the artist Andreas Gedin pointed out, regardless of the verdict, Lundin Petroleum has been the subject of considerable criticism from both Amnesty and the UN. And unlike other economic relationships that involve entering citizens into dubious affairs, this is about an active decision to collaborate with a company who is under investigations for humanitarian crimes against international law.
To dismiss the criticism and give the impression of having been forced to enter into a collaboration with Bukowskis is not credible – everyone realizes that. Not in the least as Tensta Konsthall has actually seen an increase in public funding since Lind was appointed director, at the same time as her own fee and the sum of sales from the exhibition at the auction house – startlingly enough – have been withheld from the public. This is a question that unfortunately did not make it to Ellen Wettmark, who participated in the panel as a representative from the Swedish Arts Council, one of the Konsthall’s public funders.
Lind lamented that the debate focused on her as a person, something that unfortunately is unavoidable. Yet it is true that missing from the debate were the artists, who still do have the opportunity to speak out about their own participation in the exhibition. Bukowskis’ vice president, Michael Storåkers, did participate, however, and interestingly enough insisted that his company has no need to mirror itself in Tensta Konsthall’s progressive self-image. What he is after, in other words, is not the critical varnish and the possible legitimacy that it offers, but the ideas themselves.
It is worth noting that Storåkers does not only represent a specific economic interest, but is also one of those who were responsible for redrawing the Swedish political landscape over the past decade. He is a member of the Moderate Party’s leadership in Stockholm, and as the president of the advertising bureau Storåkers McCann in 2006, he was responsible for the victorious “new worker’s party” campaign in that year’s election. The key to success? Undermining your opponent’s credibility by annexing their message and introducing it as your own.
Not surprisingly, Storåkers’ ambition here is to convey that it is he and Bukowskis who represent what is new and exciting: the commercial galleries and the public institutions are presented as entrenched in their traditional roles and ways of thinking, while the auction house can integrate new markets, create new jobs and generate possibilities for artists. This is an image that Lind is now helping him to convey, at the same time as she has effectively wiped out her own ability to act critically in relation to the oil money that is the basis for the collaboration.
Nor does it help that the part of the project that could have contributed with a critical sting – the book Contemporary Art and its Commercial Markets. A Report on Current Conditions and Future Scenario – does not contain any particularly controversial information, and that most of it does not seem particularly relevant in relation to the direction the discussion has now taken. Certainly there is a lot in the report that Lind and others who are interested in today’s art market can find useful for their activities, but it is also the case that this book was (partially) financed by the proceeds from the so-called Primary exhibition that Lind compiled as part of Abstract Possible and that went to sale at Bukowskis.
But maybe there are grounds to reconsider our condemnation, as Lind’s strategy has actually shed light on important questions: how many people were previously even aware of the Lundin family’s influence over Swedish art life? Also everyone understands that it is Lind’s decision is to implicate herself in the system she wants to discuss, building on an ambition to work within the structures that are or will be subject to criticism.
But is it not precisely this elusive idea of an “immanent critique” that is the problem? That this has functioned by shielding art from the real issues is obvious. And as the artist Henrik Andersson touched upon during the debate, Lind’s ideas form a perfect match with the ideology that Storåkers made his career in marketing: capitalism as an exchange of floating, “abstract” values, separated from the human bodies – in Ogaden or other places – which in fact produce the surplus-value that this market builds on exploiting. That Storåkers expressed several times throughout the night his admiration for the clarity of Lind’s ideas is, in other words, not surprising: they both speak capitalism’s language, as I seem to remember Andersson putting it.
The question is if the type of curatorial practice that Lind represents can still be considered credible or if we have in fact witnessed the death knell of the type of institutional critique that she has been such an important advocate for over the past decade. This is perhaps excessive, but worth considering. It seems at least clear that supposedly offensive, preemptive initiatives like Abstract Possible actually exemplify a deeply defensive position that, by all accounts, functions affirmatively in relation to the system it purports to criticize.
The general mood during the debate, and in Stockholm’s art scene, seems deeply skeptical of Lind and her actions, especially after her aversion to accept the criticism that was directed towards her during Thursday’s debate. At the same time I understand that there is still the hope of continuing to be able to respect Lind as the uncompromising curator she has become known as over the years. What gave me hope was her point during the debate that we who work with art have long been bad at identifying and formulating the value of art. She is completely right about that. And with Abstract Possible and her collaboration with Bukowskis, she has shown exactly how not to proceed to allow the emergence of an actually offensive, critical art. Here there is a lot to learn from, for all of us.
On Monday morning, just before this text was posted in Swedish, Maria Lind published an article in Dagens Nyheter where she once again highlights how we are all more or less implicated in the structures that she wanted to make visible, and that there hadn’t previously been a major public debate about the Lundin family’s involvement in the art world. This is true – even if Kerstin Lundell mentions it in her book Affärer i blod och olja (Business in Blood and Oil), which Ulrika Stahre drew attention to in Aftonbladet already in October 2011 – and she has a point that it has taken a long time to generate a debate about this in the Swedish public sphere. Also, it naturally cannot be ruled out that Lind’s venture will give results in the long run.
However, I cannot – no matter how hard I try – see any reason to revise or take back the criticisms that have been made. If it was the public debate she found missing, why didn’t she write the debate article about Lundin Petroleum herself, or take up the question when she was an art critic at Dagens Nyheter, a position she had until recently? Lind is concerned – as I am myself, together with many others – about art’s freedom of action when it becomes all the more commercialized and simultaneously instrumentalized by public funders. The problem is that she describes this as an indomitable force, without taking responsibility for how her own actions actively contribute to this particular development. It is completely incomprehensible – and utterly deplorable.
Translation from the Swedish by Jeff Kinkle. Article in Swedish.