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Issue 212

Art Against the Mother Tongue

At Accelerator, Stockholm, Johanna Gustafsson Fürst reflects on the systematic repression of indigenous languages in her home country

BY Frida Sandström in EU Reviews , Reviews | 11 MAY 20

‘Graft the Words, Whip My Tongue’, the title of Johanna Gustafsson Fürst’s exhibition at Accelerator, Stockholm, immediately brings you into the conflictual arena that is language. In L/anguish – But if the Word Gags, Does Not Nourish, Bite It Off (2019), 21 bentwood sculptures affixed to concrete pillars are spread across one of the two main exhibition spaces. Without bark and leaves, the wood is disconnected from its natural environment, while the soaring, twisting shapes into which it has been bent suggest both emancipation and subjection. A closer look, however, reveals that many of the sculptures have been grafted and are about to break. Grafting is a horticultural technique that attaches a part of one plant to another so that they grow together. While this has benefits in apple cultivation, for instance, the grafting of one language onto another – as the exhibition title suggests – is a far more violent process, which often sees one side repressed. 

Johanna Gustafsson Fürst, L/anguish–But if the Word Gags, Does Not Nourish, Bite it Off, 2019, installation view, Accelerator, Stockholm, 2020. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Christian Saltas.

While working on the exhibition, Gustaffson Fürst investigated Meänkieli, a Finnic language local to Sweden’s Meänmaa (Torne Valley) region. Part of a number of Finnish and Swedish dialects, it was long considered a threat to the Swedish nation state, which prohibited the use of Meänkieli in schools from 1888 – when state schools were introduced in the region – until 1992. Today, Meänkieli is recognized as one of Sweden’s five official minority languages but, as with the indigenous Sami language, the effects of linguistic repression are still evident amongst younger generations, who lack proficiency and are thus disconnected from local knowledge and histories. Although Gustafsson Fürst never explicitly refers to Meänkieli in her abstract sculptures, there are many indications that her exhibition focuses specifically on linguistic exclusion in Sweden and accompanying nationalist thinking.

VOX (2020) consists of structures made of deformed, aluminium poles and distressed barrier tape, giving the impression that the work has been in place for a long time. Scattered throughout the exhibition entrance, the installation calls to mind the restrictions of public space, as the visitors cannot move freely around the tape. The title, VOX, meaning ‘voice’ in Latin, underscores that these restrictions can also be applied to languages, calling into question which voices are missing today and which words are no longer used.  

Johanna Gustafsson Fürst, The Mothertongue, 2019, installation view, Accelerator, Stockholm, 2020. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Christian Saltas

Elsewhere, metal fence-poles pierce concrete rectangles and dangle from a truss structure that nearly reaches the ceiling. This work – The ABC-book (2020) – refers, in its title, to Johannes Bureus’s Runa ABC (1611), the first book to teach the runic Swedish alphabet in schools – and a major tool for Swedenification in the country. In naming this work, with its detached poles and newly jointed structure, after Bureus’s classic text of Swedish nationalism, Gustafsson Fürst points to the systematic construction of homogenizing languages while also emphasizing the way they can impose themselves on minority groups as stagey, unconvincing theatre.

The final piece in the show is The Mothertongue (2019), a horizontal sculpture made of furniture parts grafted with burls from Norrbotten: rounded, knotty growths that appear on trees. While most parts of the sculpture look like the seemingly perfect legs of a chair or table, the burls appear to be the only material that isn’t forced to conform. They remind me of the irregularities that define spoken languages, which can’t and mustn’t be standardized, if we are to speak at all.

Main Image: Johanna Gustafsson Fürst, VOX (detail), 2020, installation view , Accelerato, Stockholm, 2020. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Christian Saltas

Frida Sandström is a writer and critic based in Copenhagen, Denmark.