The Nordic Miracle: Rethinking the Past

John Peter Nilsson

In 1649, during the reign of Christina, the French

philosopher Rene Descartes was invited to Sweden to teach the Queen about Catholicism. Within two years, he had died of pneumonia. According to legend/ he caught it because of the cold weather - and the lack of cultural stimulation!

In 1982, the group show "Sleeping Beauty — Art Now" was shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It was part of something called "Scandinavia Today", a project that spanned the United States, celebrating Scandinavian culture — and business. The show contained works by ten artists from Sweden/ Denmark, Norway/ Finland and Iceland. In the catalogue/ the curator Pontus Hulten writes: "For somebody looking at the Scandinavians from the outside, it is, however/ probably easier to see how they are alike. For us, it is more interesting to contemplate how we are different."

Mr Hulten follows this with a variety of assertions about the differences between the Scandinavian countries, and an attempt to apply them to art. Among other things, he focuses on the inter-war years/ "a relatively dull period cultural speaking. /.../ Only Sweden remained neutral/ perhaps mainly due to its geographical situation. This lead to a greater isolation for Sweden that could be felt for a long time, perhaps even today, more than a generation after the end of the war,"

The conclusion that can be drawn from both examples is that the unique quality of the Nordic countries is that — they are boringi? The Nordic countries are a cultural cul-de-sac, with a cold climate, long distances between people/ and extreme differences between the perpetual light of summer and the incessant darkness of winter. It is as though the region was custom-made for the melancholy temperament, steeped in a taciturn gloom that verges on desperation — and suicide...

Art, literature and films that have gained international recognition often also confirm such preconceptions. But/ with hand on heart — who really believes such stereotypes ^nowadays? And/ are we even justified in speaking at all about unique/ characteristic differences in a world that is shrinking/ particularly through the spread of communications technology?

The Nordic countries have the highest densities of mobile phones in the world. In Finland/ it is estimated that over 40 per cent of the population now have a mobile phone. In the other Nordic countries/ subscriptions vary between 26 and 36 per cent. Of course/ this is an indication that the Nordic countries are still an economically prosperous region. Ownership of computers and Internet access are also on the rise. Having an e-mail address will soon be as normal-as having a mobile phone number.

The explanations for this trend are more than just economic. It has occasionally been claimed that the key factor is a combination of the local geography and the number of inhabitants. Communities are situated far apart/ which in turn creates distances between individuals. People make contact by phone or e-mail just as frequently as they actually meet in cafes or in their own homes.

The spread of communication technology has drastically altered the way we view the world (and ourselves). This applies to the Nordic countries as much as it does to the rest of the world (at least the rich part of it). We live in a global village/ in which the world has paradoxically both shrunk — and expanded! This has given rise to a new kind of closeness to — and curiosity about — formerly remote regions and marginalised cultures/ for instance/ the Nordic zone. It is no longer obvious what is centre and what is periphery.

"In the past few years/ the legendary northern communion with nature — cold purity/ metaphysical solitude, conceptualized light and space — has ceased to suffice for many artists as a fertile ground for artistic production. It has given way to an art of social and psychological pressures," writes Kim Levin in the foreword to her exhibition "The Scream, Borealis 8/ Nordic Fine Arts 1995-96".

If we take a look at the Nordic art of the last two decades/ we can also perceive certain interesting changes. During the 1980s/ there was a parallel development to that of international art. The Neo-Expressionism that focussed on the historical and the psychological produced numerous offshoots in the North. The metaphysical landscape was given new shape/ but often with one eye on the melancholy Nordic tradition. Artists discussed the Nordic heritage in ambiguous fashion/ with a mixture of irony and the profoundest solemnity. They played with the old stereotypes with postmodern elegance. The aim, of course/ was to disrupt or distort these stereotypes.

The discussion/ nevertheless/ largely took place outside the

major art institutions. At least during the first half of the 1980s/ the art academies and museums were marked by petrifaction. Historically/ since the 1950s/ most of the academies in the Nordic countries have been dominated by a cross between the French "beaux art" tradition and American "color field painting". But the shrinking of the distances to the rest of the world has lead to a dramatic reaction. A new generation of artists and critics went off in another direction. A large number of alternative spaces were opened in the larger Nordic cities/ and private galleries took up and showed more debutants than ever before.

But/ with a few exceptions/ these artists failed to achieve visibility on the international art scene. Conversely/ a new kind of closeness arose between the Nordic countries. Galleries worked together, and there emerged an informal network of artists/ critics and curators in the North. Added

The explanations for this trend are more than just economic. It has occasionally been claimed that the key factor is a combination of the local geography and the number of inhabitants. Communities are situated far apart/ which in turn creates distances between individuals. People make contact by phone or e-mail just as frequently as they actually meet in cafes or in their own homes.

The spread of communication technology has drastically altered the way we view the world (and ourselves). This applies to the Nordic countries as much as it does to the rest of the world (at least the rich part of it). We live in a global village/ in which the world has paradoxically both shrunk — and expanded! This has given rise to a new kind of closeness to — and curiosity about — formerly remote regions and marginalised cultures/ for instance/ the Nordic zone. It is no longer obvious what is centre and what is periphery.

"In the past few years/ the legendary northern communion with nature — cold purity/ metaphysical solitude, conceptualized light and space — has ceased to suffice for many artists as a fertile ground for artistic production. It has given way to an art of social and psychological pressures," writes Kim Levin in the foreword to her exhibition "The Scream, Borealis 8/ Nordic Fine Arts 1995-96".

If we take a look at the Nordic art of the last two decades/ we can also perceive certain interesting changes. During the 1980s/ there was a parallel development to that of international art. The Neo-Expressionism that focussed on the historical and the psychological produced numerous offshoots in the North. The metaphysical landscape was given new shape/ but often with one eye on the melancholy Nordic tradition. Artists discussed the Nordic heritage in ambiguous fashion/ with a mixture of irony and the profoundest solemnity. They played with the old stereotypes with postmodern elegance. The aim, of course/ was to disrupt or distort these stereotypes.

The discussion/ nevertheless/ largely took place outside the

major art institutions. At least during the first half of the 1980s/ the art academies and museums were marked by petrifaction. Historically/ since the 1950s/ most of the academies in the Nordic countries have been dominated by a cross between the French "beaux art" tradition and American "color field painting". But the shrinking of the distances to the rest of the world has lead to a dramatic reaction. A new generation of artists and critics went off in another direction. A large number of alternative spaces were opened in the larger Nordic cities/ and private galleries took up and showed more debutants than ever before.

But/ with a few exceptions/ these artists failed to achieve visibility on the international art scene. Conversely/ a new kind of closeness arose between the Nordic countries. Galleries worked together, and there emerged an informal network of artists/ critics and curators in the North. Added


The explanations for this trend are more than just economic. It has occasionally been claimed that the key factor is a combination of the local geography and the number of inhabitants. Communities are situated far apart/ which in turn creates distances between individuals. People make contact by phone or e-mail just as frequently as they actually meet in cafes or in their own homes.

The spread of communication technology has drastically altered the way we view the world (and ourselves). This applies to the Nordic countries as much as it does to the rest of the world (at least the rich part of it). We live in a global village/ in which the world has paradoxically both shrunk — and expanded! This has given rise to a new kind of closeness to — and curiosity about — formerly remote regions and marginalised cultures/ for instance/ the Nordic zone. It is no longer obvious what is centre and what is periphery.

"In the past few years/ the legendary northern communion with nature — cold purity/ metaphysical solitude, conceptualized light and space — has ceased to suffice for many artists as a fertile ground for artistic production. It has given way to an art of social and psychological pressures," writes Kim Levin in the foreword to her exhibition "The Scream, Borealis 8/ Nordic Fine Arts 1995-96".

If we take a look at the Nordic art of the last two decades/ we can also perceive certain interesting changes. During the 1980s/ there was a parallel development to that of international art. The Neo-Expressionism that focussed on the historical and the psychological produced numerous offshoots in the North. The metaphysical landscape was given new shape/ but often with one eye on the melancholy Nordic tradition. Artists discussed the Nordic heritage in ambiguous fashion/ with a mixture of irony and the profoundest solemnity. They played with the old stereotypes with postmodern elegance. The aim, of course/ was to disrupt or distort these stereotypes.

The discussion/ nevertheless/ largely took place outside the

major art institutions. At least during the first half of the 1980s/ the art academies and museums were marked by petrifaction. Historically/ since the 1950s/ most of the academies in the Nordic countries have been dominated by a cross between the French "beaux art" tradition and American "color field painting". But the shrinking of the distances to the rest of the world has lead to a dramatic reaction. A new generation of artists and critics went off in another direction. A large number of alternative spaces were opened in the larger Nordic cities/ and private galleries took up and showed more debutants than ever before.

But/ with a few exceptions/ these artists failed to achieve visibility on the international art scene. Conversely/ a new kind of closeness arose between the Nordic countries. Galleries worked together, and there emerged an informal network of artists/ critics and curators in the North. Added


The Nordic Miracle: Rethinking the Past

In 1649, during the reign of Christina, the French

philosopher Rene Descartes was invited to Sweden to teach the Queen about Catholicism. Within two years, he had died of pneumonia. According to legend/ he caught it because of the cold weather - and the lack of cultural stimulation!

In 1982, the group show "Sleeping Beauty — Art Now" was shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It was part of something called "Scandinavia Today", a project that spanned the United States, celebrating Scandinavian culture — and business. The show contained works by ten artists from Sweden/ Denmark, Norway/ Finland and Iceland. In the catalogue/ the curator Pontus Hulten writes: "For somebody looking at the Scandinavians from the outside, it is, however/ probably easier to see how they are alike. For us, it is more interesting to contemplate how we are different."

Mr Hulten follows this with a variety of assertions about the differences between the Scandinavian countries, and an attempt to apply them to art. Among other things, he focuses on the inter-war years/ "a relatively dull period cultural speaking. /.../ Only Sweden remained neutral/ perhaps mainly due to its geographical situation. This lead to a greater isolation for Sweden that could be felt for a long time, perhaps even today, more than a generation after the end of the war,"

The conclusion that can be drawn from both examples is that the unique quality of the Nordic countries is that — they are boringi? The Nordic countries are a cultural cul-de-sac, with a cold climate, long distances between people/ and extreme differences between the perpetual light of summer and the incessant darkness of winter. It is as though the region was custom-made for the melancholy temperament, steeped in a taciturn gloom that verges on desperation — and suicide...

Art, literature and films that have gained international recognition often also confirm such preconceptions. But/ with hand on heart — who really believes such stereotypes ^nowadays? And/ are we even justified in speaking at all about unique/ characteristic differences in a world that is shrinking/ particularly through the spread of communications technology?

The Nordic countries have the highest densities of mobile phones in the world. In Finland/ it is estimated that over 40 per cent of the population now have a mobile phone. In the other Nordic countries/ subscriptions vary between 26 and 36 per cent. Of course/ this is an indication that the Nordic countries are still an economically prosperous region. Ownership of computers and Internet access are also on the rise. Having an e-mail address will soon be as normal-as having a mobile phone number


to that, during the 1980s, the private galleries, in particular, were very active in introducing new international contemporary art.

Now, however, a fair bit of the way into the 1990s, we can discern a change in the climate of Nordic art. Ms Levin also takes up this question when she scans the Nordic art of the 1990s with her American eyes. "Moving beyond the formal and spatial landscape-based investigations that characterized much Nordic art in the 1970s and 80s, it investigates an inner landscape of extreme psychological states, psychosocial issues, and private sensations. It positions itself at cross purposes to nearly everything," she writes in her foreword to "The Scream".

The current differences between the Nordic countries and the rest of the world can be traced neither to lack of culture nor to specific temperaments that have emerged out of a specific geographical reality. For good or ill, the standardisation of information and media excess is taking place all over the world. For example, art schools are no longer so very different from their counterparts elsewhere.

This development is linked to a broader global discourse. We cannot point unambiguously to the roots-of identities. As the sociologist Paul Gilroy put it, it is equally both "routes" and "roots" that create a person's identity. The same applies to cultural identity. Nothing is simply black or white. Cultural identities are cobbled together out of adulterated nuances. They are hybrids of different expressions and influences created along the multifarious routes taken by cultures as they wander the planet.

The Nordic miracle is rooted in paradox: the region has become aware of its peripheral status while liberating itself from its Nordic heritage. It is possible to detect a new brand of tacit individualism (which has, for example, temporarily resulted in there being relatively few alternative spaces in the region). Modern social welfare policy has created a secure, democratic cultural climate. On the other hand, it has resulted in a desire to transgress accepted norms.