What does 1968 mean today? Some view the anti-authoritarian spirit as the prelude to an era of debilitating individualism, while others see it as a valid and necessary attempt to articulate a new concept of political liberation. Some see a prolonged media spectacle, others a decisive limit for political thinking today, 50 years later. It is an intricate legacy that is complicated by the fact that every attempt to say something about it becomes part of a fixed-position conflict between those who were there: between self-redeeming conservatives, born-again liberals and a few adamant revolutionaries.
The interesting thing about Children of the Children of the Revolution at Färgfabriken in Stockholm is, therefore, that it deals with this legacy in an unexpected way: by seeing it through the eyes of the children. Curator Jonatan Habib Engqvist has put together works by five Nordic artists whose parents were active in the left movement of the 60s and 70s, and who are now able to reflect on the revolutionary fervor of their childhood. What does 1968 mean to them? That is the question that provokes this exhibition.
Installed at the center of Färgfabriken’s dim-lit exhibition hall is Joanna Lombard’s video work Orbital Re-Enactments (2010), which is based on her upbringing in what is said to have been one of the most radical communes in Sweden in the 70s. The four films are projected on screens that hang in a circle in the middle of the room. With a rotating camera, scenes of children playing are juxtaposed with adults engaging in group sex and other transgressive activities. Certain situations are marked by an everyday joy, while others make the viewer painfully aware of the children’s vulnerability. And yet, the hypnotic movement of the camera appears just as significant as what the images show. This produces the effect of a memory that you keep coming back to, without being able to see past the situation or view it in a different light.
This circular movement is repeated in the exhibition, which lacks dividing walls and other spatial hierarchies. Everything is open as the rotating camera captures the predicament of constantly returning to the same moment in the past. At times, the works are placed in such an intimate relation that it becomes difficult to view them as separate experiences. Shown in opposite parts of the room are Lina Selander’s video installation When the Sun Sets It’s All Red, Then It Disappears (2008) and Signe Johannessens Protector (2018), which consists of a horse’s skin in a suspended aluminum frame. Opposite hangs an equally-sized frame with a number of screens showing Rorschach tests made with the blood from the animal’s body. The images appear and fade in a slow rhythm, mirroring the movements in the red projection of foliage moving in the wind, which is the dominant visual element in Selander’s work.
Johannessen’s work is part of a larger project about the horse as a victim of history, while it also relates to a tragic event in her childhood in a Norwegian green wave collective. Yet, its immediate effect in the exhibition is being part of a montage that takes an intensely emotional hold of the viewer. On the one hand, Selander’s reflection on the Rebel Movement, a Maoist separatist group that is said to have created a cloister-like existence where they renounced all individual liberties and placed themselves in the service of the revolution. On the other hand, Johannessen’s mutilated horse that puts us in touch with a definite moment of truth that surpasses individual existence. And in the middle is Lombard’s work, which appears to encompass a reckoning as well as a longing to be part of something greater than oneself. Here is also a textile work by Nikolina Ställborn with skeins of red yarn welling forth onto the floor.
According to Habib Engqvist, the exhibition seeks to allow for an “ambivalence,” yet I see it more as giving form to a passion that is both tempting and highly perilous. This must be the significance of Johannessen’s stretched horse skin. The poor animal is not crucified, I think, as much as it is archived, dissected or even edited. Something similar happens in Selander’s installation, where text and sound talk about the desire for breaking down words to give them new meaning, since the words we already have are not enough. “We have to put an end to the linguistic terrorism that delivers us into the hands of our enemies,” writes French philosopher Alain Badiou in an essay about the legacy of 1968. I suspect that Selander would agree.
At the same time, this is an exhibition that testifies to a deep fascination for the image, which here is something that is constantly placed in a tense or unstable relation to ‘the frame’, i.e. the discursive and physical space where images appear as images. Why? Again, I think it has to do with a deceptiveness, where the image is always seen as two-sided, always, potentially, something other than what it shows. Surely, this treachery is vital for the image’s ability to take hold of us; and the danger of being touched, I believe, is exactly what Selander wants to show in her installation. The montage of images depicting Mao Zedong or bombs falling over Vietnam cannot really testify to anything, at least not anything important. There seems to be no answer to why Selander has chosen these specific images, other than that they in one way or another have touched her. That is what the glowing red foliage is meant to demonstrate. What Habib Engvist describes as a “naivety,” is another side to intelligence, a madness which can never be thought out of the image or the revolution, if we really want to understand their significance.
Like Selander, Ylva Snöfrid works with different combinations and layers of images in a way that forces the viewer to approach them from different angles and edit them by moving through the room. Her painting installation The Painter’s Studio In the Shadow World, and Art In the Light of Conscience (2015–2018) consists of a monumental, five-meter-long canvas that has been installed in the space as if it were in the studio. In front of and behind the painting she has placed a number of smaller canvases, which gives the impression of memories drifting through an into each other. The main motif shows the artist painting an exposed girl that is supposedly also an image of herself as a child. The blue and pink tones are pale as in a photographic negative. Ominous figures tower over the naked girl.
There is something transient about Snöfrid’s installation, as if it could be disassembled and pieced together differently. This applies to the motifs as well: a fleeting caress, the brush that touches the canvas, figures about to disappear. I come to think of the animated diagrams in Selander’s video, Diagram of Transfer No. I (2018), made together with Oscar Mangione, which is shown at the far end of the room: short sequences where graphs are drawn and redrawn against a black background. It might be that Snöfrid’s work, as well, is a graph drawn over a hidden world in which essential relations are impossible to articulate or describe. What has actually happened? We are never told. Instead of a communal life, we are confronted with a private scene of whispers and obscured relationships. This is something entirely different than Lombard’s work, which depicts the children’s vulnerability in relation to a collective experience where everything is seemingly exposed by the camera taking in the entire room.
It is not demonstrations, strikes or occupations that are at the center of this exhibition, but rather social contexts and relations. We are reminded that the political revolt of the generation of ’68 was not so radical as to escape being premised on men. Several of the works bear witness to children not getting the care that they need. And one cannot escape that the protagonist is not just any child, but a female child. In this sense, the exhibition presents the past as a wound that is still open, building a strong continuity to new forms of resistance and demands for political change in the present.
Habib Enqvist speculates that the artists in the exhibition share a “common experience horizon,” yet without really addressing what this horizon would be. I come to think of what Badiou describes as the “mystical intensity” of 1968 that, according to him, springs from the difficulty in determining that symbolic year as the beginning or the end of an epoch. That is to say, that the time of 1968 is still alive for us, or rather, that it must be kept alive because fundamental demands for liberty and equality are equally relevant to us today. The exhibition does this, I believe, through the idea of the child seeking a form to carry on the legacy of the parents. It may be a legacy that is expressed as a “hopeless and necessary longing” for different life. Yet, it is arguably a more productive alternative than the cynicism that thinks it has seen through it all. Something has been won: more life, less apathy.