This episode is about the public art, mostly in Stockholm. From statues to weird shapes, it's all here.
Letter from Sweden by Gary (not Alistair) Cook
Letter dated 3 June 2021
I’m not sure that you’d call it a life’s ambition but I’d quite like to sit in the lap of Chairman Mao. And, it’s completely, if unexpectedly, possible in Stockholm. This is due to a large piece of public art called Efter badet (or After the Bath, in English).
Public art in Sweden is a big thing. There’s even a government department responsible for it. It’s called the Public Art Agency Sweden. It was created in 1937 and is under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture. They commission and install artworks in government buildings for the appreciation of the public. In Sweden there is a belief that art has an important role to play in society and therefore should be available to everyone.
There’s also a group in Sweden called ArtMadeThis. It highlights and promotes female artists of outside spaces. There’s a lot of painted buildings in and around Gothenburg and Uppsala thanks to ArtMadeThis.
This art for the general public thing is just about everywhere. For instance, there is an amazing mural on Sodermalm painted by identical twins, Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo. They started off as break dancers then moved to graffiti in an obvious career progression. Now they paint the most incredible six storey masterpieces.
Then there’s the Stockholm Metro system. It claims to be the longest art gallery in the world with each station a blank canvas for some artist to improve. We’ve seen some and they are quite…decorative. One in particular felt like we had descended into the pits of hell. Quite disconcerting when all you want to do is catch a train. Still, it’s better than boring old plain tiled walls.
Meanwhile, outside there’s a plethora of sculptures. From famous troubadours like the incredible Cornelis and Evert Taube, who has two; to a chap in a gold lame onsie doing the vacuuming near Norra Bantorget.
Some of the art is figurative and easily understood, like the man coming out of the manhole near Slussen, while other pieces are not so obvious, like the brightly coloured shapes on Shepsholmen standing among remnants of the Industrial Revolution.
By the way, something we learned the first time we visited Stockholm was that in order to sound like a local, you have to complain about the never ending road works around Slussen. My wife has been mistaken for a local ever since that first day. It makes the man coming out of the manhole so much more relevant. I’m assuming he will move to another building site once Slussen is completed. Possibly not in my lifetime though.
The most refreshing thing about the public art, in Stockholm at least, is the fact that there are not quite so many old, white, bearded men towering over everyone. There’s a gender equality in the public art here in Sweden. Or so it seems to me. Of course, there is a few old white bearded men, and kings, of course, but there’s also some clean shaven men as well. Like the rather Greek version of August Strindberg high atop a hill in Tegnérlunden. There’s a few Strindberg statues dotted around Sweden. He’s a popular subject. In this one, he’s perched on top of a rather craggy looking rock.
Speaking of rocks, there’s an art gallery here called Artipelag which features a lot of outside art. My wife and I were particularly taken with many of the pieces. The gallery also boasts the oldest bit of art. It is 1,800 million years old. It’s a big old rock, protruding up through the floor of the café. It’s rather beautiful. And it proves the Swedish love of nature. And rocks. (To hear more about rocks, listen to last week’s podcast.)
Finally, there’s the bench where you can sit in the lap of Chairman Mao. It was not very controversial when it was originally created in 1976 by Pye Engström but became so in the early noughties. It is outside Västertorpshallen, a municipal public bath house which is now a swimming pool.
The sculpture also features a load of other people in what could only be described as: the guests you’d invite to a dinner party if you wanted some lively discussion, reality TV show. I haven’t seen it yet but really want to.
I’m not the sort of person who has a bucket list…Actually, I have a sort of Post bucket list, meaning if I see something amazing I’m suddenly glad I saw it before I died. I find that is a lot less disappointing.
So, one day I hope to sit on the lap of Chairman Mao. But, if I don’t, then I’ll no doubt do something just as memorable in Stockholm that I haven’t heard about yet.