Installation view Malmö's Burning 2017 Moderna Museet Malmö. Photo: Helene Toresdotter/Moderna Museet


Curator Clemens Altgård gives a background to the exhibition Malmö’s Burning and a picture of the development of Malmö during the period 1968-1988.

In the early 1980s, just before the redevelopment of the city started in earnest and the economy took off, Malmö could still feel like a rather bleak place. People who lived through that time will recall the many “bomb craters”—the vacant lots left by tearing down old buildings—and the provisional barracks around the Triangeln plaza during the 1970s and early 80s. The city’s flat terrain and broad streets were swept by the strong prevailing winds, and when it rained those vacant lots awaiting construction turned to mud. I remember a walk through muddy fields in the heart of the city one New Year’s Eve in the 1980s. Fireworks exploded all around me, and for a moment it felt exactly like a war zone. That was part of growing up in Malmö.

Malmö is not a particularly easy city to portray. One of the literary portraits that were read in our circles was Jacques Werup’s deeply personal and colorful book Hometown, which came out in 1981. It ended with a bitter, despairing epilogue in which the author finds some words scrawled across the wall of a building on the edge of the Gamla Väster neighborhood. They say, “A city of demolished buildings—a city without memories.”

Development in the city, according to Werup, seemed to be headed toward a kind of uniformity and anonymity. A lot has happened since that time in Malmö, and today the city is associated with anything but uniformity. But those of us who were young here in the early 80s weren’t nearly as worried about the city’s direction as Werup was.

Several years ago we, Clemens Altgård and Ola Åstrand, began to discuss the idea of producing an art exhibition about, among other things, the city of Malmö as we knew it in our youth. In conversations with John Peter Nilsson (Moderna Museet Malmö’s director 2012–16) we developed plans for an exhibition that would span from the 1960s to the 1980s. That planning effort turned out to be a long process due to a number of different circumstances. In 2013 we began reaching out and initiating a number of parallel conversations with potential contributing artists. Those conversations continued, and have now finally culminated in the exhibition Malmö’s Burning: An Exhibition about Revolt, Dreams, and Passions, 1968–1988. Those years are not a strict delineation of when the works in the show were executed, but rather a symbolic construct that has served as a temporal framework for us to relate to, and sometimes as a boundary for us to cross.

The bearing idea for Malmö’s Burning is to be an exhibition that offers a new and different picture of the city and what has happened there in terms of its cultural history and even sociological aspects. We have assembled a mixture of art in the conventional sense with a variety of expressions for the subcultures that have left an impression on the city. We have also been influenced by Lia Ghilardi, an international expert in urban cultural planning who believes that most western cities, in competing with one another to be the most attractive place, have often missed what’s most essential. It is ironic that most cities promote themselves using either attributes that are borrowed like stencils, in the form of culture prestige objects like world-famous musicals, or obvious tourist brochure clichés. According to Ghilardi, it is actually the subcultures and minority groups that give a city its dynamism. We are inclined to agree with her.

The concept of not doing a conventional art historical and linear exhibition, and of not basing it on established and customary values, emerged gradually. At one point we even changed the working title to Malmö Redux. The word redux comes originally from Latin, is fairly common in English, and has been used in film contexts in Sweden. It means restored, or returned, but in everyday speech it can mean to do over and experience anew. Because we were hunting for a vanished city, trying to reflect our subjective experiences of Malmö, redux seemed to fit perfectly. The sound of the word also recalls remix, and it was also our intention to produce a kind of remix of cultural historical elements. And that is what we’ve done, even though we decided to stick with the original title Malmö’s Burning. So this redux and remix approach has guided our thinking throughout. Both of us have found some inspiration in the British author Jeff Noon’s novel Needle in the Groove (1999). The book’s narrator is a musician, and joins a group that tries to develop music with the help of a new tool—a sphere filled with a liquid drug that allows the protagonists to travel back in time to bygone musical venues. Manchester is the center of the action, and in Noon’s imaginative interpretation the dreary and dilapidated city is transformed into a stage for a peculiar drama. The author mixes lyrical prose passages with samples and an advanced editing technique that leads to thoughts of a literary master from an earlier era, William S. Burroughs. Noon’s writing is saturated with rhythms, resonance, and references to popular culture in Britain. Contrary to what one might expect, all of this results in a distinctly personal book whose form thoroughly illuminates the content rather than becoming an end in itself. For example, Noon recreates the last night of Manchester’s legendary punk club the Electric Circus—a night that repeats itself in several different versions over the course of the book. But which version is the right one, the truth?

Surprisingly enough, there is a linear story inside Noon’s experimental prose, and the coherence of the plot becomes increasingly clear the more we read. We hope the coherence of Malmö’s Burning is gradually revealed to viewers in the same way.

We should note that we are not the first to use the title Malmö’s Burning. It was also given to a large-format multiple-artist exhibition arranged by the Drömmarnas Hus cultural center in the Rosengård neighborhood in 2005, and it’s still a controversial title—so loaded and provocative, in fact, that we needed to think long and hard before deciding to use it. There’s definitely something unsettling about it, even ominous. And maybe that suits the demonic narrative about Malmö a little too well—a narrative that lately has begun to spread not just throughout Sweden but abroad, even reiterated by the tweeting President of the United States. My response is that fire itself is a polysemantic, ambiguous metaphor, a fact the Drömmarnas Hus exhibition played on too. The point of departure for their production is the argument that “either Malmö is going to burn to the ground or else there’s a lot of incendiary power in Malmö,” and the show made a convincing case for the latter. We want to show that these incendiary forces have been smoldering in Malmö for some time, and make the connection between the fire we see today and the events of the past. Malmö did not in fact burn to the ground in 2005, but twelve years later we are still accustomed to recurring street crime and gun violence, fires we can’t ignore. At the same time it’s extremely important to provide a nuanced picture of the city, and to convey that there are and always have been strong positive forces here as well.

There is another way of interpreting the word burning. The word was just as charged when the British punk band The Clash sang “London’s burning…” in the late 1970s, but they were referring to a smoldering discontent: “…with boredom now.” The song also includes the lines “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home / I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone.” Those words were easy for a young kid in Malmö to relate to in the late 70s. And that wind is something all of us, young and old alike, deal with to this day. Thus we have thought less about burning cars and more about how an inner spark can be ignited even in the most dreary or wind-buffeted places, whether in protest or with the realization that something needs to be done, and that we are going to have to do it ourselves. In fact, it’s probably true that boredom leads to creativity. And I sometimes wonder if that no longer applies to kids today, since they always have access to stimulation in the form of digital entertainment. But perhaps that screen-time overload can lead to a new kind of boredom that in turn leads to a new kind of creative expression. I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s a fact that today’s Malmö has been home to a long series of business successes in the field of computer games and digital production, which depend on young people with innovative ideas. What’s more, the city’s leaders show much more willingness today than ever before to support new forms of cultural expression, and that ambition has generated a lively cultural scene with music, experimental theater, artist-driven galleries, and more. The era our exhibition examines was still burdened by the need to clearly distinguish between high culture and popular culture, and in general the conditions in society were more openly hierarchical and patriarchal than today. Anyone with new or different ideas often had to arrange and run their innovative project on their own, whether it was starting a band or organizing more or less informal events and exhibitions.

When Ola Åstrand and Ulf Kihlander together produced the 1998 exhibition The Heart Is on the Left: Swedish Art 1964–1974 at the Gothenburg Museum of Art, it was the first major retrospective of Swedish art from the 1960s and 70s. In writing an article for the exhibition catalogue I was reminded what a wealth of imagery emerged during that period. There were actually several different revolutions going on at once. Alongside the leftist political wave came the more apolitical hippie movement, which formed part of the youth revolt. Mind-expanding psychedelic drugs played a central role in hippie culture, of course, but there were other essential attributes. For example, there was a strong faith in collective action, communalism, and non-hierarchical forms of organization. Freedom and love was their primary message for the surrounding world.

In the early 1970s Malmö suffered from a serious shortage of musical venues, and in response some people with ties to the alternative left and the music scene started the Folk Festival in 1971. One of them was Lasse Hejll, who has become known primarily for his art posters, but also worked as a photographer. He made a poster for a multi-activity evening at Malmö Museum in 1971. The event had been given the name “The Museum’s Burning!” and in Hejll’s screen print Mona Lisa smiles at the viewer.

In our exhibition we’re showing some of Hejll’s more seldom viewed satirical posters, which were a protest against the cultural politics of the city’s leaders at the time. They featured photos from the Folk Festival that so effectively united people in a spirit of radicalism during a time when much was made of the distinction between high culture and popular culture. Ola Åstrand recalls the Folk Festival as a manifestation of the possibility of an alternative future, and how people who wanted to improve the world gathered together, sustained by faith in the future. He remembers as well the lack of advertising, the Mother Earth Collective’s vegetarian food, and how the sounds from the stage were borne aloft by the wind.

That brings to mind the prematurely passed British critic Mark Fisher, author of the book Capitalist Realism (2009), and his ideas about French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s book Specters of Marx (1993). Derrida asserts that “time is out of joint,” referring to the state of things after “the end of history,” but he also writes about how the past comes back like a plague on the present. Fisher finds examples of such plagues in contemporary music. He sees things like the obsession with vinyl discs and the eclectic recycling of older musical styles as expressions for a melancholic and yet vital longing for “lost futures.”

In the anthology Post Punk Then and Now (2016), Fisher expresses the idea that we are also plagued today by the political left’s inability to channel and make something of the resistance and the energies that have found expression in musical culture. In the same way, perhaps Malmö’s Burning could be seen as a kind of plague. It also makes me wonder about how the populist right has been able in recent years to appropriate the word “alternative,” as in “alt right.”

When I look today at collections of works from the era of the first youth revolts, I am struck by the thought that it is primarily in times of upheaval that creative individuals on the margins of society are allowed into the public realm, when established values are being overturned with Carnival abandon. The hierarchical order is reestablished soon enough, and it is typical that several of the most interesting visual artists of the 1960s and 70s had already been lost to public memory just a couple of decades later. That was the case with the artist couple Sture and Charlotte Johannesson. But it changed with Sture’s contribution to The Heart Is on the Left and Charlotte’s contribution to Light the Darkness!, an exhibition about the Cold War of the 1980s that followed it, both curated by Åstrand and Kihlander. In our younger days, Ola Åstrand and I got to know the Johannessons, who were among Malmö’s hippie pioneers. In the early 1980s they also emerged as digital trailblazers. They were open to other new influences of the day as well, including punk. I remember them complaining about old friends who had turned their backs on them—not for their interest in punk but because they worked with computers. The time was not yet ripe for the digital revolution, but the seed had been planted….

In Malmö’s Burning we do have something reminiscent of a computer, but the piece is more of a science fiction fantasy of a digital future. I’m thinking of Jacques Zadig’s The Wall. He first got the idea for the work back in the fall of 1968, but did not complete it until 1976. Zadig gives form to something of the terror of Big Brother and the surveillance society of George Orwell’s 1984, a book that was familiar to many of us. Most citizens today take the personal computer for granted, along with their smartphone and even the tablet, but at the same time the surveillance society has become such an integral part of everyday life that many no longer think about digital surveillance at all. Back then there was no social media or email. Distant communication was achieved through telephone landlines or with letters and postcards. In the late 1980s the fax was still commonly used. The Leger brothers ran a gallery in Malmö at the time, and they’ve told me that many works of art were sold via fax during the art boom that occurred in the final years of the decade. Then in 1990 Sweden was struck by a bank, finance, and property crisis that lasted for four bitter years—but that’s another story.

We should also say something about how this exhibition reflects the last decades before the world started being digitalized at an increasing pace. It was a time when it was still quite unusual for artists to use digital tools, even if an increasing number had begun to do so, especially the teenagers. It was also the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of “the end of history,” and before the processes of globalization and digitalization really took off. We know now that it wouldn’t be long before history found a new life and the world was rocked by new conflicts and war. But globalization and digitalization have changed the conditions for daily life, and thus the analog world—for those of us who were around to experience it—has become a lost world that lives on only in our memories and dreams.

Speaking of memories and history, though, it has not been our intention to make this some kind of nostalgic exposé. Instead of simply reiterating a story that has already been told, we have striven to assemble an alternative view of that story that embraces diversity and the margins of society. That also explains why—in case anyone’s wondering—certain works and artists that one might expect to see as a matter of course have not been included in this exhibition.

Therefore, having begun with our own memories and social networks, we have searched for artistic works that are unusual and locally unique, highlighting those that are important to us, while at the same time making a subjective inventory of a particular period in time. Some viewers will thus recognize a few pieces while others, particularly those who didn’t live through the era, will hopefully discover something they’ve never seen before.

Furthermore we would like to illuminate some common threads that run back and forth through time and space. One era transitions into another. Social ties are formed and dissolved—and then in some cases formed again years later. So instead of a history lesson, this has become a process by which different times collide as in a dream. And we have also wanted to include some real dreamers in the show, like Annika Wide and Elisa Halvegård, two artists with roots in the 1960s’ more romantic tendencies each of whom in her own way seems to have been working with dreams since their youth. Wide has done it more explicitly, analyzing her own dreams and manifesting them in paintings or objects. This establishes a kind of interlinking between dream and art. Looking back on that time, Wide recalls, “In the 1970s and 80s I was painting my dreams so intensively that I could interpret them while I was still asleep!”

When asked to name her sources of inspiration, Elisa Halvegård said, “I admire and am inspired by John Bauer, Ernst Fuchs, William Morris, Edward Gorey, Anna Casparsson, Aubrey Beardsley, Hieronymus Bosch, and some of my contemporaries like Annika Wide. I’ll never forget her detailed early paintings from the Scania County Collection at the Malmö Museum.”

But it has also been our intention to incorporate art with a political content, like works by the artist Allan Friis, for example, whose interest in social issues intensified during the 1960s. His pictures took on an increasingly political and social critical character in the early 70s. Thus the overall title for his portion of the exhibition is The Aesthetics of Resistance. The works we’ve included are from the 1970s, but the resistance they portray is in fact timeless.

We grew up during a time characterized by progressive rock and hippie culture, but were eventually drawn to punk and what has come to be called post-punk. Punk was actually an incitement, a counterpart in a way to Dadaism’s “zero point,” while post-punk sought new and sometimes experimental ways. But during the 1970s no one was making a distinction between the two. Post-punk is a term that emerged long after, when enough time had passed to reveal the difference.

I keep coming back to one book in particular about Malmö: Niklas Qvarnström’s book of essays Memento Malmö, which was published in 2001 by a little house called No Fun. Qvarnström portrays a city that can seem like a dream game, always slipping away from us even as it reveals a number of precisely rendered details. He writes that Malmö is a kind of passage that isn’t really in Sweden, and explains the title Memento Malmö thus: “It is not the fatalistic ‘What are you gonna do?” or the isolation and desolation of northern Sweden, but rather an awareness that anything at all can happen, but that nine times out of ten it doesn’t happen, that the world is lying there a stone’s throw away, but mostly like a reminder of which side of the world you’re on, a Memento Malmö.”

Malmö as a passage. Malmö as a border zone. Malmö can be perceived as either a big city or a small town depending on your perspective and your points of reference. In social terms it is more of a small and close-knit community, one that offers more opportunity for different subcultures to mix and for meetings across boundaries and barriers. In that way Malmö may be seen as a kind of gray area—in a positive sense.

Punk was decidedly more disillusioned and individualistic than progressive rock, but they shared a common do-it-yourself approach. That approach created a kind of collective self-confidence that resulted in cultural expressions that can be appreciated for their originality even today, and in Malmö the hippies, progressive rockers, punkers, and post-punkers mixed with the artists and poets in meeting places throughout the city. Thus, for example, conceptual artist Leif Eriksson could be found in a bar full of subcultural elements, lecturing informally to rock musicians about idea-based art.

It also generated some unusual cultural expressions. For example, several of the local punk bands (which we would today call post-punk bands) had a distinctive style that incorporated elements of psychedelic rock. One of the artists from this era, Stry, coined the term psynk to denote the psych-punk amalgam he considered a genre of its own. Stry plays a central role in Lena Mattson’s video piece When Hades Bursts with Blooms, which she produced just for Malmö’s Burning. I even appear in the piece as a representative for Malmöligan (The Malmö League), a group of local poets. Another member of the group was Per Linde, who has contributed a text/sound piece called Malmö, a poem performed by the psychedelic rock band Technicolor Poets, which is currently active on the local music scene.

Ola Åstrand played in a series of local bands, and his retrospective piece The Ghetto is a search through the years of his youth in Malmö to explore the connections between things and his own identity during that era.

Both punk and progressive rock inspired grassroots creativity, a kind of joyful amateurism if you will. That was true not just in music, but in creative expression generally. And here we can see the connection to a slogan that was borrowed from Lautréamont and used by the Situationists in Paris during the social unrest of May 1968: “Poetry must be made by all!” In Malmö you could have said during that era, “Punk must be made by all!” Nevertheless it was an environment that I remember as profoundly male-dominated, a problem worth reflecting on today. We have chosen to make space here for a series of women artists who were punk rockers at the time: Jessica Nilsson, Maria Tomczak, Pernilla Frykholm, Ninni Benediktsson, and Anne Nummila Rosengren. Frykholm’s works are based on the 1970s, but they communicate consciously with the here and now through titles that celebrate rap artists of today, Jason “Timbuktu” Diakité and Joy Mbatha.

Christian Cavallin had his breakthrough as an artist in the late 1980s, but here he shows photographs he took a decade earlier of various punk stages, frequently in Great Britain, where he often traveled. Cavallin says, “The pictures are what they are, but the music itself—the atmosphere, the mayhem and the magic—I couldn’t have captured it if I hadn’t been participating in it myself. Taking pictures was secondary. Several of them are taken from behind the band, looking out toward the audience, which I considered a very important component—the crush of the fans. I tried to bring that out. As a fan myself I was one of them, part of the horde.” This is also an example of how some individuals’ joy of traveling brought new experiences and ideas that later spread through their own hometown. If not for all these trips to other cities, Malmö would probably never have enjoyed such a vibrant subcultural scene. Of course the proximity to places like Copenhagen and Berlin has also been important in this regard.

When creativity happens at the grassroots level, it often produces a kind of outsider art—work that doesn’t look like what you find in the established galleries but is art nonetheless. Now there are those who strongly object to the expression “outsider art,” and there are a number of arguments for why it’s not a good term. But this is not the place for that discussion. Since I do in fact use it here, I will rely on the Chicago author William Swislow, one of our most eloquent proponents of outsider art. Swislow offers a clear definition: the person behind the work must have created it without concern for established conceptions of what art is. Nor can an outsider artist be motivated by a desire for commercial success or recognition from the art establishment. Swislow talks about individuals who are driven by creative force but lack formal training in the field of art, and therefore don’t even see themselves as artists—at least until some expert tells them that what they’re doing can actually be considered art. Do we have any such pieces in Malmö’s Burning? Well that’s something for those of you visiting the exhibition to think about! In one case the outsider perspective is plainly expressed: Isabel Rayo Planella doesn’t want to call herself an artist even if we who have curated the exhibition consider what she makes to be art. Her spatial installation Souvenir is a kind of staging of the home environment she created over the years by assembling a multitude of objects and images in an enormous, changeable bricolage.

It should also be noted that Rayo Planella has been very active in Malmö’s cultural scene, contributing to films and posing as one of the country’s best-known life drawing models. She came to Sweden from Chile in the 1970s, and is an example of how Latin American immigrants have brought new impulses to the city. Another artist, Pepe Viñoles, fled from Uruguay to Chile in 1972, and after the 1973 coup d’état in that country came to Sweden. For several years he worked mostly with making posters, which often had a political message. In the 1980s he came to Malmö, and he has contributed a new piece to our exhibition entitled Remnants, a reflection on the time that has passed and on his career as a poster artist.

Abelardo Gonzalez is an artist and architect who immigrated to Sweden from Argentina in 1978. He quickly made a name for himself in Malmö. He left a strong impression as a designer, with an innovative interior featuring mirrors and zebra hides that was a hit for Club Trocadero when it opened in 1979. It became a queer meeting place where everyone was welcome. He has produced a new video piece for our exhibition that offers a look back at Trocadero’s heyday and at an era when public life in Malmö was becoming a little more open than before.

Malmö evolved gradually and became in time less of an industrial city. The photographer and filmmaker Paulina Hårleman moved here in 1985. She brought with her experiences from Paris and from stays in cities such as Milan, London, and Munich. In Malmö she found a lively art scene with new magazines such as Nöjesguiden and Reflektion. She built up a company here together with her life partner, Roger Hynne, that came to work with photography, journalism, film, music, and events. For Malmö’s Burning Hårleman has put together a slideshow she calls Adu, lugna ner daj tösabid (roughly, “Hey now, easy does it, little girl”), a comment someone directed at her in the local dialect as she wandered around Malmö taking photographs. Some viewers will probably recognize some of the people in the pictures. For example, the conceptual artist Leif Eriksson appears in a couple of them, as does Kristian Lundberg, who was a member of the group of poets known as the Malmö League.

The late 1980s is also represented in Malmö’s Burning by the artist and set designer Åke Dahlbom, also known as Art Bomba. He designed the sets for Darling Desperados, a theater troupe he helped found in Malmö in 1987. His piece Funeralism: Impressions of a Vanished Future comprises several parts that together form a picture of interdisciplinary expression characterized by spontaneity and expressivity. During this time, Stina Ebers was a central figure in the wave of new art that was being shown in Malmö galleries. Her sculptures and installations attracted attention for being so uncompromisingly executed. In 1973 she participated in a group exhibition at Galleri Lång, and in 1986 she had a solo show at Galleri TV, which was at the time an important meeting place in the new cultural environment emerging in the city. These were followed by a series of exhibitions in Stockholm as well as in Germany.

Explicitly political art was not particularly sought after in the late 1980s, but it later made a comeback beyond and outside of the point in time where our exhibition ends. But as I said, our time frame is mostly symbolic. The present moment figures throughout the exhibition, and we have mixed the times in the space of the gallery. Several of the works are newly produced, and the retrospective pieces are not entirely uncritical. It is our hope that Malmö’s Burning will inspire viewers to take a stance and will awaken in them a desire to do something creative themselves.

Clemens Altgård

More about this exhibition