Optimism for the future meets anxiety and war in “Europa”

The artist Martin Wickström investigates Europe in his new exhibition. During his research he found a connection between Paris during World War II – and his own grandfather.

Martin Wickström’s new exhibition “Europa” is opening in three weeks. Paintings, installations and objects that are connected to the continent in one way or another.

– The title seemed inevitable, with all the anxiety, nationalism and the refugee crisis. I want to give the viewers “Europe” as a statement, but how my works are interpreted in relation to that I have no idea.

The art work will occupy one gallery, two large exhibition halls, at least eight walls. During the summer he has worked twelve hour shifts, seven days a week in his basement studio, windowless and with no seasonal changes. No one – not even his family or gallery owner – is allowed into the mess, he says when he opens the door.

– I have come so far in the process that it would be impossible to change anything if I received any criticism. There is no turning back, Martin Wickström says, which is why he only allows himself to be occupied by technical questions concerning painting (“I need to get this matte darkness to be really deeply black”).

I remain by an enormous painting depicting a woman with a dreamy gaze.

– She is looking at a lemon after having tried LSD for scientific purposes, which you did in the sixties. I found her in an old magazine, Martin Wickström says.

The work is far from complete. Large empty canvases.

– To be honest it’s always this way. The people I am close to suggest – for my own sake – that I should start earlier the next time. But it doesn’t work that way. Or maybe, it would be very smart, but you’re not, and this moment… When I’m on the edge things happen. Connections appear. If they’d called me today and told me that the gallery had burnt to the ground, that they’d have to postpone the exhibition to next year. I would be relieved, but I wouldn’t finish it. Next January this would all repeat itself.

What are the benefits of your method?

– It keeps me calm in a way. Instead of sitting around and contemplating and being anxious before an exhibition, I just run straight into the wall. But it’s also horrible in a way that makes me think: never again. Every time.

At what point in the process can you feel that it was worth it?

– The moment before the opening, when everything is installed and I can tell the gallery staff: “you can go home now”. Then I might buy three beers and sit down in the gallery, all alone. I look around and see that it works: it turned out the way I expected and these things belong together. My instinct was right.

Martin Wickström describes his practice as archaeology.

– Everything is buried in the sand and it is my job to search, find and put the pieces together. I know when I’ve found what I’ve been looking for, but I don’t know why – if I could put it into words I probably wouldn’t be an artist. I often get surprised by what shows up, and making art feels like a messy wandering where the exhibitions serve as points of control: a pause where you get at least a slight overview.

What surprised you the most about “Europa”?

– The connection to my grandfather, he says and shows me a medal with the name “Raoul Nordling”, an oddly enough unknown Swedish consul in France – who is said to have saved the entire city of Paris at the end of World War II. Hitler had ordered the total demolition of the city, but after nightly talks with Nordling the German general decided against it. The Swedish consul later gave the medal to Wickström’s grandfather, whose diary is included in the exhibition: everyday writing about the weather, during a period of war and nazism.

The work with “Europa” began with two impressions of the continent’s optimism for the future: a small photography, the world’s first portrait taken by a 19th century lawyer depicting his daughter, which is now shown at the national gallery in Amsterdam. And an image of a screen, a gigantic satellite dish, that he found in an optimistic children’s book from the fifties: “The wonderful world of science”.

Now the satellite dish is in the room, in exact miniatures and magnifications.

– It’s all to scale, we have been working hard to get it right, Martin Wickström says.

Even though his art universe is large and unpredictable, it’s controlled by a rigid order: exact depictions – that contain something more vast and ominous. Like the paintings of mountains that seem to get bigger and bigger and have occupied him since a fatal collaboration with his friend the mountain climber Daniel Bidner: Bidner was to climb mount K2 and place a blinking chair on the top – at the same time a replica would blink in Sweden. But he passed away on his way down, and the Swedish chair blinked alone for ten years.

– I have always been the coward who doesn’t dare to climb. That’s why I have been fascinated by my own littleness next to the mountains, ever since I was a child. After what came to happen I don’t think the mountains will ever leave me.

Another recurrence is the building facade: architecture from the Swedish welfare state with reflections from the sun, based on his own photographs.

– Those facades contain something archetypical. Many people recognize them, and some are totally convinced: “That is my grandmother’s house in Flen”, he says and shows me another photo. In the window of the house a flickering light is reflected, from the sky or the TV.

– I really want to paint this. It would have been perfect. But I don’t have the time.

Matilda Gustavsson

Dagens Nyheter 5/8 2015