What exactly are those men doing with that sheep? On three screens, we see grainy CCTV footage of a couple of guys crouching down in a cramped wooden pen, massaging an ewe’s pale, wooly flanks. Their lips moving silently (does the docile creature hear lullabies, threats?), the men might be the frazzled patrons of a therapeutic petting zoo or apex predators gearing up to let rip their basest instincts. Beside the screens, a label informs us that this is documentation of an early performance by Annika Eriksson, Two Men and a Sheep 1-3 (1995–96), and that the interspecies trio spent four hours in that pen, making each other’s acquaintance. Did this experience foster fresh sympathy between Homo sapiens and Ovis aries? Maybe it’s simply that CCTV makes everybody look guilty, but I picture the guys sneakily grabbing a lamb kebab on their way home.
Eriksson begins her exhibition at Moderna Museet with a Wikipedia-derived wall text, which defines its title, ‘The Social’, as ‘the interaction of organisms with other organisms and […] their collective co-existence, irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary’. Written, like much of contemporary Malmö’s civic signage, in Swedish, Arabic and English, these words funnel us towards an open, town square-like space, home to a cluster of works also titled The Social (2017). At its centre is a bone-white, scaled-up foam replica of Axel Nordell’s 1972 rosy-red, fibreglass public sculpture-cum-kids’ jungle gym The Apple, which is on permanent display in a nearby park. Denied the opportunity to clamber over Eriksson’s bleached-out homage, visitors to the exhibition must contemplate what other models of sociability this object might prompt and whether, here in the sterilizing environs of the museum, it might still smudge art into life. A few feet away looms a huge, black and white photograph of a 1970s children’s art class (think Jackson Pollock’s 1949 LIFE shoot by way of Lukas Moodysson’s nostalgic commune flick Tilsammans (Together, 2000), along which runs a shelf of painted papier-mâché animals, created in a family workshop. Each of them – fox or rabbit, cat or mouse – is roughly the same size, as though harsh nature itself might be reformed as a peaceful, egalitarian democracy, through sheer force of human will.
While Eriksson’s ‘town square’ offers a gently skeptical vision of the Scandinavian social contract, and of art’s ameliorative potential, elsewhere the show treads darker terrain. In the bleakly brilliant video In Preparation for a Psychodrama (2015–16), the residents of a dying mining town prowl an abandoned community centre. As they await a future that seems never to arrive, they bicker, perform a series of excruciating am-dram warm-up exercises, recite curdled poetry and confess to terrible crimes. Other purgatories are suggested by the daffy ghost that haunts Eriksson’s light-box work Something Is Here, Nothing Is Here (Horror) (2015), and the punks who mooch about a patch of Berlin wasteland in the video Wir Sind Wieder Da (Here We Are Again, 2010), smoking, drinking and clowning about with their dogs. Are these career dropouts the last zombie-like remnants of a dead culture of resistance or are they harbingers of a new society, in which technology makes much of the human workforce surplus to requirements, Mad Max (1979) haircuts or not?
When the social feels too real, fantasy is a refuge. Eriksson’s video Past Lives Selector (2016) features two young female members of a cosplay community, posing in an open-air folk museum, their steampunk garments creating an odd temporal judder. In thrall to an imagined past and its fantasized future, these women are, despite their best efforts, the perfect products of their time.