Sculptural remains

When Josefine Östberg Olsson presents a work, it is rarely just a matter of showing something she made previously, or to intervene in this or that art discussion. On the contrary, what we often encounter in the actual exhibition space is sculptural remains, or props from staged situations that cut right into a socially complex situation. To her, art needs to claim its territory, in a way that may seem defiant and irrational, but which also forces us to reconsider the context of which the work becomes a part.

In her graduation piece for her Master´s degree, for instance, Shift into a Racing Strip in the Still of the Night (2016), it was the public space around Götaplatsen and the stately Avenyn in Gothenburg that were at stake. Her installation in the exhibition at Göteborgs Konsthall consisted of parts from a car race organised by the artist along Avenyn, which proved to be exactly the length of a drag strip, 201 meters. The starting point for was the different worlds that co-exist around Götaplatsen at the top of Avenyn, comprising art institutions on the one hand, and the raggare and car culture that takes over on some days and nights, on the other. The sculptural element just inside the doors, in the Konsthall rotunda, consisting of metal parts and headlights, was accompanied every 20 seconds by an audio recording of a race, activated by a sensor when a visitor entered the Konsthall. Thus, Shift into a Racing Strip in the Still of the Night practically thrust us into a new field for reflection, where the installation itself could be interpreted either as referring to something about to happen, or something that had already happened.

Josefine Östberg Olsson is an artist who utilises the traditional exhibition space and what a visitor may expect to see there at any given time. That is, a before and after the time when the visitor is encountering the work in the exhibition. When I saw her master´s graduation piece, I was reminded of what she had presented two years earlier at her BA graduation, after years of artistic experimentation: her paintings Midnight Demon, Scorch Barracuda and Challenger in the Night (2014). These three monochromes in car paint were based on a few car wrecks that were no longer roadworthy. Perhaps you could say that these works mark the artistic ground zero that impelled her in later works to engage directly in the empirical reality outside the art space, while integrating it in its form. A form that, in this particular case, reflects a tension between disparate “cultures” in the community, without allowing the work of art to dissolve these polarities, let alone consolidate these different forces and interests.

Another example of this is WORKHORSES (2015), where Östberg Olsson engaged a group of unemployed who had been classified as Phase 3 by the then labour market policy, that is, the last stage before unemployment benefits is cut. Their “job” in this work was to gamble on the Jack Vegas slot machines, also known as “workhorses” among gamblers that are operated by the government-owned gaming company Svenska Spel, wearing identical T-shirts. They picked up their shirts at the gallery. Visitors to the gallery don’t know if this is actually happening. The only evidence in the gallery space is the contracts between the participants and the artist: contracts outlining the gaming schedule, payment agreements, and the addresses of the bars where they are to play on the slot machines. There is also a wardrobe with hangers where the jobless hang their T-shirts when they are not working. The work evoked uncomfortable, not to say absurd, connections and conflicts between the political consequences of Swedish labour market measures and an economy driven by gaming.

This gaming economy is also addressed in an ongoing project launched roughly at the same time. The poster for Your Local Gambler (2014-) says: “Become a venture capitalist tonight / you invest you get the profit”. By staging events such as “drum battles”, “burnout competitions” and wrestling matches”, she explores the psychological mechanisms of gambling addiction. The artist herself plays the parts of bookmaker and organiser, and the audience is transformed into participants who have the power to end the game or to encourage it, but never to stand outside the work of art. At Moderna Museet Malmö, a “drum battle” was held, where drummers competed to see who could keep playing the longest. The artist mingles with the audience, collecting bets in this wager in the name of art, in an allegory on our contemporary economy.

Today, when aesthetic opinions are not limited to references to beauty and the sublime, terms that are perhaps primarily associated with the origins of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline; offspring of the Enlightenment and colonial modernity. Instead, we often use words like “interesting”, “thought-provoking”, “cute”, “attractive”, and so on. These characterisations lack a strong cathartic effect.[1] That is, they are relatively mild, far from upsetting or startling. The reason why terms such as these have taken over aesthetic commentary is complicated. But one of the explanations is probably that the avant-gardist desire to shock the bourgeoisie has increasingly com to be associated with an unfashionable, heroic masculinity and capitalist over-exploitation, where shock and catastrophe have acquired a constructive function.[2] Josefine Östberg Olsson´s art breaks this norm. But this is far from a one-way return to the past. The aesthetic category that she values the most is “goose bumps”, a physical reaction she gets from a Heavy metal electric guitar riff, or a revving V8. However, as we have seen, her works do not have that kind of effect directly at the exhibition site; instead, it is intimated as a possibility, “outside the picture”, as in the case of Shift into a Racings Strip in the Still of the Night. Unlike many other artists who have worked with the rock’n’roll and motor culture we associate with the origin of youth culture in American movies such as Rebel Without a Cause by Nicholas Ray, or Dennis Hopper´s Easy Rider, her approach to these lifestyles, attributes and rituals is neither exoticising, ironic, documentary nor critically scrutinising. On the contrary, she has a veritably matter-of-fact relationship to this culture of rebellion that she is part of and uses in her art, and insists that even if its attributes have been usurped and de-radicalised, they retain the potential to stir things up and to stake out territory even in contexts where it would usually not belong. Maybe this is why her works never seem to be solely about the environment where the material was gathered? A feeling that is enhanced by the titles of the works, which are often in CAPITAL LETTERS

Fredrik Svensk
Art theoretician, Valand Academy, Gothenburg University

Text written by Fredrik Svensk in the exhibition catalog for the exhibition Fredrik Ross Stiftelse Grant exhibition at Moderna Museet malmö (2017) 


[1] This has been described by Sianne Ngai in Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Harvard University Press: 2012

[2] See, for instance, Naomi Klein´s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Metropolitan Books: 2008