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Dear Old Umeå, or Art Where It Never Gets Dark

It’s one thing to know that there are places on this planet that never get dark at certain times of year. It’s quite another thing to actually be somewhere where it feels like the afternoon is just starting to peak at 11 pm. The fact that it doesn’t ever get dark makes for a strange and wired rapture. You’re high on light. This can make for fantastic art viewing.

Umeå, Sweden is on the same latitude as Reykjavík and Fairbanks, Alaska. In the summer, Umeå (pronounced OO-mi-oh) is a gorgeous city on a river, thick with birch trees and surrounded by piney forests. (In the winter, they say it’s pretty grim.)

Downtown Umeå

Besides being a place with extremes of light and darkness, Umeå has become known in the past decade as the home to a remarkably good public sculpture program. About 20 years ago, a local industrialist purchased a decaying psychiatric facility from the state, and ever since has been turning it into a pleasant residential area. The old hospital grounds, called Umedalen, have shed their sad past and now feature groovy apartments, Montessori schools, a spa, and a fancy retirement community. There is also Galleri Andersson/Sandström, which curates and hosts the Umedalen Skulptur program.  

Galleri Andersson/Sandström

Every other year the gallery invites international artists to contribute new works, some of which end up staying there permanently.  Through the grit and vision of gallery founder Stefan Andersson (and the funding from Umedalen’s owner Krister Olsson), the Umedalen sculpture program has grown, transforming this city and providing a unique opportunity to visiting artists. [Full disclosure: I was in Umeå because The Art Guys, one of whom is my husband, were reinstalling a piece there.]

Homage to the instigators

We celebrate the Texas art scene in part because we like our weird corner of the world, and a program like Umedalen Skulptur reminds you that there are many such corners out there. I knew, for instance, that we were in good hands when they kicked off the opening ceremonies with a performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown” by some middle-aged Swedes who used a vintage tractor from a local farmer as their percussion. (Click here for a Youtube video by the same guys.)

Tractor exhaust pipe, with microphone


A similar sensibility informed many of the curatorial inclusions this year. To wit: German artist Wilhelm Mundt’s piece “Trashstone 389,” from a series he’s been working on since the early 1990s. Fed up with his studio practice, he rounded up all the trash in his studio and began to bind it in layers of highly polished fiberglass. Each Trashstone is chromed or brightly colored (or, in this case, glossy white), and assigned a number.

Trashstone 389, 2008...Production waste in polyester/fiberglass, 110 x 303 x 112 cm

This shiny, lumpy blob had a wonderful presence sitting on the grounds of Umedalen.  You wouldn’t guess from its lovingly polished surface that it’s just the waste from human society that normally fills dumps. Especially nice were the moments of shellacked transparency where the wadded tinfoil and other debris inside could be glimpsed:

Another witty piece was Swedish artist Michael Johansson’s large construction “Self-Contained.” It got a lot of deserved attention from the Swedish media and from local residents. Johansson has made table-sized works of everyday items that are intricately placed together in a puzzle-like cube. For Umedalen, Johansson executed the idea on the grand scale of a 3-story building:

Self-Contained, 2010... Mixed media, 1140 x 825 x 245 cm

Rubiks Kök (Rubik's Kitchen), 2007


It’s a pleasure to poke through Johansson’s website and look at some of his other work. As with almost all the artists in this show, it would be great to see more of his stuff over here.

Most of the sculptures are sited on the grounds of the old mental hospital; but for the first time this year, two were placed downtown. Umeå’s city government had this to say about their participation:

So why not join Krister and Balticgruppen? Work together? This time, we will restrict ourselves to hosting two temporary installations; one by Jacob Dahlgren and another by Lotta Hannertz. Well enough! But, we will set no such limits when seeking out forms of social interaction in the future!
Lars Sahlin, Chief curator, Umeå Municipality

Here’s something fun: try to imagine this statement coming from a Chief Curator of Austin, or Dallas: So why not join Michael and Dell Computers? Work together? Try to imagine a city in Texas even having a chief curator.


One of those downtown pieces was “Venu?” by Lotta Hannerz, a Swedish artist who lives in Paris.

Venu?, 2006... Glass fibre and polyester, h. 340 cm


In this image, the river was unusually high from the spring thaw after
one of the worst winters on record. Evidently at its normal height, you
can see a bit more of the wrist. 

Hannerz has done other such sculptures, notably “Water Mobile Venus” in 2006 at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris:

Just as the serene face fit the quiet, decaying beauty of the Medici Fountain, the pointing finger of “Venu?” worked well in the vigorous river—though it might have come off quite differently if it were pointing against the current.

Also sited along the river was Jacob Dahlgren’s “Constructing a New World,” a large minimalist piece that managed to be not-too-minimalist.

Constructing a New World, 2010... Painted steel, 350 X 400 X 400 cm

Dahlgren likes his color, as evidenced by the glossy pink surface of "Constructing," as well as his other work in the show, inside Galleri Andersson/Sandström:

The wonderful world of abstraction, 2006... Silk ribbons and aluminium, 525 x 525 x 400 cm

Viewers were invited to walk through the thousands of silk ribbons, which seemed like a fun prospect. But actually walking through the piece was claustrophobic and smothering. Standing in the center, there was very little light. Maybe abstraction isn’t so wonderful after all.

Looking up inside The Wonderful World of Abstraction

Next to Dahlgren’s ribbons was another entirely different square artwork. The Finnish duo Grönlund-Nisunen has a solid track record of polished, somewhat dry artworks about concepts like light, randomness and movement. “Oscillatorer,” a concrete square with magnets swinging continuously over it, was in many ways the mirror opposite of “Wonderful World,” where the color and materials undermined (or enhanced?) the minimalist form. With “Oscillatorer,” the stainless steel, aluminum and concrete was straight out of Chinati, as was the serious vibe.

Oscillatorer, 2010...Concrete platform, aluminium frame, stainless-steel weights, stainless-steel wire, permanent magnets, electronic magnets, control unit, transformer, 3.0 x 3.0 x 9 metres

Also inside the gallery was “Forget me not 3,” a remarkable video by Norwegian artist Trine Lise Nedreaas. It showed an elderly speed eater pushing about three dozen sausages down his throat in the span of a minute. The man is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, where Nedreaas found him for this video.

The only audio was a loudly ticking kitchen timer, which rang well after the man had successfully swallowed all the sausages and raised his hands in triumph, revealing his toothless gums.

Time lapse still from Forget me not 3, 2010... Video transfer to DVD with sound, Duration: 01.30 minutes.

Back outside, there was a handsome tiled monolith by Stockholm artist Astrid Sylwan, a painter in whose work Texas art fans might recognize a thick, expressive paint handling similar to that of David Aylsworth.

Black, Grey, Broken Sky and Palest Blue, 2010...Ceramic tiles, steel structure, 275 x 225 x 50 cm

Sylwan is known primarily as a painter, but it being a sculpture festival, there were none of her 2-D works on view. I’d have liked to have seen her work without the intermediary ceramics process. Judging from the images of her paintings, she’s got skills:

"Gravity is Personal History," date unknown, [image via Louise Malin]

One of the biggest names from this year was Jaume Plensa. Unfortunately I missed his show at the Nasher Sculpture Center this spring [sidenote: which is not even listed on the Nasher’s notoriously bad website]. Plensa’s work is hit-or-miss, with the curtains of text and the Crown Fountain in Chicago being a high point, and the figures made from mathematical symbols lacking much conceptual or formal interest. His piece at Umedalen was the weakest link in an otherwise strong show:

Nosotros, 2008...Painted steel, 500 x 360 x 340 cm

It got a prominent site, too.

In contrast, Danish artist Bjørn Poulsen showed a terrific, muscular hunk of stainless steel that could have benefited from a better location. The parking lot behind it distracted from his piece “Loop,” an aggressive suggestion of chaotic forms that repeat in an infinite cycle.

Loop, 2010...Stainless steel, 170 X 230 X 180 cm

For Magnus Petersson’s piece, the viewer walked into the blackness of a shipping container and was greeted with pulsing electronic music and a ghostly model of a gas station.

, 2009…Mixed media, 250 x 250 cm (container 250 x 600 cm)”]

Inside the container: model of a gas station

To my ears, the techno music added an almost comical aspect to the work. Hard to say whether this was intentional or not.

Most works at Umedalen only remain for the duration of that summer’s festival; others stay permanently. Here is an older piece, from 1998:

The most lonesome story ever told, 1998... Stainless steel, 150 x 130 x 85 cm

 Jonas Kjellgren’s “The most lonesome story ever told” illustrates how a) goofy Western cliches have an evergreen appeal to some international artists [witness countless ArtPace residencies of past]; and b) how the taste of the Umedalen organizers has developed over time. This year’s grouping held no such examples.

There are other, better works from past years still on view, like this great Tony Cragg:

Stevensson (Early Forms), 1999...Bronze, 90 x 144 x 107 cm

And Antony Gormley:

Still Running, 1990 –1993...Cast iron, 276 x 317 x 148 cm

This bulbous form works much better than Gormley’s figures, one of which is also permanently sited on top of a building at Umedalen.

 One of my favorite of the older works was Torgny Nilsson‘s "Dysfunctional Outdoor Gym" from 2004. It’s easy to walk past this piece without noticing that the ropes have no knots for climbing, the pull-up bars are too thick to get one’s hands around, and the see saws can’t move.

Dysfunctional Outdoor Gym, 2004... Wood, metal, rope, 4,5 m


Finally, representing the US this year, The Art Guys were on hand to reinstall their 2004 car lot flag piece called “Love Song for Umeå.” Used car lot flags are not a part of the Swedish urban landscape, so local visitors presumably have a very different experience of the work than someone who associates them with the sort of cheesiness that goes with trying to move ’95 Nissan Altimas.

Love Song for Umeå: Banner Work II, #7, 2002–2010... Metallic polyurethane plastic banners


The week in Sweden made an impression: back in Houston, I found myself at IKEA, still mispronouncing the vowels in the products’ names but hungering for a shingle of Wasa bread and some cleverly designed knicknack. It was about a hundred degrees outside, and later on it would be getting dark.

Umedalen Skulptur 2010 will be on view through August 15, 2010. 

Rainey Knudson is the Founder and Director of Glasstire.

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