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Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art

The term permacrisis defines an atmosphere in which catastrophes accumulate with numbing regularity. Curator João Laia’s proposition for “forms of the surrounding futures,” the twelfth edition of the Gothenburg biennial, was to respond with tender anti-heroicism: The future is already being invented by those on the margins. The twenty-five artists (among them one duo) whose work was showcased across four venues subtly refuse to participate in normative understandings of the future.

Printed on cheap paper in the guise of a romance novel—including a seductively glossy cover—the biennial’s catalogue was emblematic of Laia’s emphasis on vernacular futurology. It contained no commissioned essays from well-traveled contemporary philosophers, only basic information about each work, written in accessible language. The curator’s essay ends with succinct, understated radicalism: “The future is queer.” Though his definition of the term queer is vague, Laia’s commitment to artworks and artists working against the socio-normative grain felt sincere, and the exhibition stayed loyal to the physicality of erotic fiction, a sticky and embodied intimacy. 

A series of juxtapositions structured the biennial’s sparsely installed spaces. In the main room of Göteborgs Konsthall, Guadalupe Maravilla’s looming sculptural installation Disease Thrower #7, 2019, overlapped visually with Outi Pieski’s delicate, textile architecture Guržot ja guovssat / Spell on you!, 2020. Maravilla’s work—composed of black foam claws, pampas grass, and twine, among other elements—draws aesthetically on holistic healing methods the artist gleaned during his treatment for cancer and proposes them as tools for repair from the damaging experience of migration. Pieski manifests Duodji, an Indigenous Sami handcraft tradition based on a holistic understanding of the relationship between humans and the land. Her installation staged a confrontation between myriad handwoven knots in black thread and a parallel composition in an array of bright colors. As the viewer walked around the hanging structure, darkness and the rainbow vied for visual prominence without entirely occluding each other. 

P. Staff’s abject visual essay On Venus, 2019, and Tarik Kiswanson’s restrained photographic work Passing, 2023, made an equally tense pairing. Staff’s thirteen-minute video is drawn in part from footage of industrial farming, including very graphic scenes of slaughter and disembowelment. Placed opposite Staff’s LED screen, as though to challenge it, was Kiswanson’s enormous ink-jet print, one of the few works Laia commissioned for the biennial. An X-ray image of clothing stacked in layers gave the impression that the forms and decorative details of Swedish folk costumes and traditional Palestinian dresses, among other garments, are entangled in time and space. Viewers found themselves caught between Staff’s exploration of visceral formlessness and the mechanical precision with which Kiswanson renders subjective disorientation. 

Shot well before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Roman Khimei and Yarema Malashchuk’s film Dedicated to the Youth of the World II, 2019, is a poignant portrait of a rave in central Kyiv. The work’s young protagonists dance methodically to a techno beat that infuses every other installation in the space with its intoxicating, escapist rhythm. Projected on the other side of the same temporary wall, Sky Hopinka’s video I’ll Remember You as You Were, not as What You’ll Become, 2016, functions as a conceptual counterpoint to the Ukrainian duo’s beautiful fatalism. Hopinka’s work is an elegy to a person, Native American poet Diane Burns, while Khimei and Malashchuk eulogize a generation, but the slow-pan aesthetics of both films are so well-matched that the techno beat leaking over the wall into Hopinka’s viewing environment seemed oddly appropriate. 

“Forms of the surrounding futures” was a welcome antidote to the well-behaved academicism of the two previous iterations of the biennial, both curated by Lisa Rosendahl. (Not that I condone pitting the queers against the anti-imperial feminist thinkers.) But while Rosendahl’s projects felt more intellectually responsible, Laia’s premise is that such responsibility assumes an investment in existing epistemologies. Recognizing a future that is already existing requires prioritizing embodied forms of knowledge.