Secularity, the theme of this year’s Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art (GIBCA), is often imagined as something akin to the cartilage between two vertebrae: a tissue that separates church from state. But what would it mean to consider secularity not as tissue but as bone, as a structure that stands alongside civic and religious society? What, then, can we say secular culture looks like? Does it have a time, a space, an aesthetic of own?
Featuring 30 artists spread across two main venues, Röda Sten and Göteborgs Konsthall, as well as a number of off-site spaces, the biennial’s ninth edition focuses largely on artists and histories connected to Scandinavia. Curator Nav Haq borrowed the title, ‘WheredoIendandyoubegin’, from a light installation by Shilpa Gupta, which glows atop a building in an industrial no-man’s land between the city and the suburbs. Applied to the theme of this year’s GIBCA, Gupta’s question expands the field of secularity beyond the chasm between church and state, to the more immediate difference between ‘you’ and ‘I’.
On the occasion of the biennial, Platform for Artistic Research Sweden (PARSE) have published a discussion on secularity, between Haq and two professors at the University of Gothenburg, Andrea Phillips and Ola Sigurdson. In this discussion Haq, an Antwerp-based Brit, describes Sweden’s second city as one full of contradictions: at once working class and incredibly bourgeois; of a social-democratic persuasion yet remarkably socially segregated. Such contradictions are laid bare in Sicherheit (2017), a video installation at Göteborgs Konsthall by Ellen Nyman, Corina Oprea and Saskia Holmkvist, which shows refugees living in accommodation directly adjacent to a site of Sweden’s immense weapon industry. Combining vox populi with testimony from asylum seekers, the work illustrates how the benevolence and tolerance frequently associated with Swedish society exist alongside the simultaneous and active production of crisis elsewhere in the world.
One of a three-part video installation at Röda Sten, Stone Wall Nation (2014) is a cinematic short by Norwegian artist Sille Storihle, in which an actor re-performs an interview with the gay rights activist Don Jackson, originally conducted in 1986. Back in 1970, Johnson had a dream of making a gay homeland in the small town of Alpine County, California, one he hoped to achieve by encouraging enough gay voters from elsewhere in the state to register to vote, in order to topple the local government. ‘We regard ourselves as a people. A cultural minority with its own traditions, customs, ways of thinking and an ancient cultural heritage,’ Jackson’s words resound through the actor. ‘So where can we live? Where can we function?’ Storihle shows us a gayer shade of land-grabbing: technically secular, perhaps, but Jackson’s conviction in the right to annexation is on par with Zionist thinking, and even the religious reasoning behind colonialism.
In the discussion published by PARSE, Sigurdson defines secularity as ‘a space for negotiation between different modes of life’. As the works in the biennial show, such a space may undermine itself in two ways. Firstly, as it does in Don Jackson’s plan for Alpine Country, by promoting the production of ever more lines of division. And secondly, in developing what Sigurdson calls a ‘secularistic hegemony’: a climate so hostile to belief that it threatens the very room for disagreement on which its definition relies. This year’s biennial follows a decade of violent responses to blasphemous depictions of the Prophet in Danish and Swedish newspapers, in turn followed by ever harsher attitudes towards the presence of Islam in Scandinavian societies. This toxic dialectic has begun to reveal precisely such a hegemony as Sigurdson describes: secularity not as a means of peaceful cohabitation, but a bone that is increasingly used as a weapon.
In works by Danish artist Jens Haaning, produced from the 1990s onwards and displayed across several of the biennial’s venues, the artist mines newspapers and magazines, as if undertaking a systematic search for some kind of sense to secularity’s visual landscape. A collection of tabloid page three girls, complete with mini-interviews, are matter-of-factly hung on the wall to a simultaneously tender and transgressive effect. Elsewhere, white sheets of paper are filled with blond heads, or the words ‘Dansk’ and ‘Danmark’, sourced from across national media and gathered in crass unison. Where collage and archival work has often tended to adopt a pleasingly post-minimal aesthetic, Haaning’s pieces are visually ruthless. His assemblages of tits and typography act a mirror to a society that doesn’t just stare back, but screams – whether in ecstasy or agony, it isn’t easy to tell.
‘This period of the 1990s is somehow coming up again and again in the biennial in curious ways,’ Haq tells Phillips and Sigurdson in the PARSE article. ‘It seems important to reflect on the change that has happened since then.’ As is the case with Haaning’s collages, what characterises these works is a kind of unafraid rawness. In Norwegian artist Jannicke Låker’s Nr. 17 (1997), one of a number of films screening at the public library, the artist records her encounter with a blue-eyed American tourist in Oslo on a handheld camera. She takes him back to her flat, and makes him dance around with his shirt off. ‘Push it’, she keeps telling him, demonstrating a loss of boundaries as vertiginous as it is horrific, ‘yeah come on… do as I say’. When finally the good-natured boy refuses, Låker kicks him out. At only eleven minutes long, Nr. 17 makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing: a chilling scenario in which the agency of one means the abuse of an other, and freedom of expression is anathema to empathy.
Haq doesn’t elaborate further on what it is about the 1990s that made it such a lucid moment for reflecting on this topic. But it is clear that this decade – with its confident libertarianism and belief in multiculturalism – licensed an audacity in culture that subsequent political climates have subdued. From these works, especially, emanates the very spirit of secularity: abrasive, confrontational, and as fragile as it is relentless.