In the autumn of 1649, Queen Christina of Sweden summoned the French philosopher René Descartes to Stockholm to serve as her tutor. The queen’s early-morning regimen, coupled with the harsh Swedish winter, evidently took their toll on Descartes, who caught pneumonia and died the following winter. (Another variation on the story says he was poisoned by members of the clergy, who considered his views heretical.) Roughly two decades later, when Descartes’s remains were repatriated to France, parts of his body were missing – fingers, ribs and vertebrae – out of which, it is said, the Swedes made pendants, charms and rings. Since then, his corpse has been exhumed, relocated and re-buried multiple times. At some point, his head was even separated from his body. Presently, there are at least three institutions that claim to possess the philosopher’s skull.
Although Queen Christina only occupied a minor place in ‘The Birth of Stockholm ..!’, Georges Adéagbo’s recent installation in the city’s Moderna Museet, the associations that her biography evokes – historiography, philosophical dualism, faith vs. reason, fetishism, the circulation of materials and cultural exchange – were picked up in several threads interwoven throughout the exhibition. Adéagbo’s installation pieces together complex narratives using a mix of objects purchased or found on location, as well as items gathered in Cotonou, Benin, where he lives. Comprised of a vertiginous array of stuff, ‘The Birth of Stockholm ..!’ moved casually across the walls of one of Moderna Museet’s ground-floor galleries, in and out of wall-mounted vitrines, as well as a smaller central room and an adjacent alcove. Along with the found objects were artworks that Adéagbo commissioned from Beninese artists – typically in the form of illumination-style paintings and carved wooden sculptures. Several handwritten texts in French were projected on the gallery walls, quoting aphorisms such as, ‘In front of the ocean, which is the beach, and behind the ocean: religion’ as well as longer, more poetic passages. Other notes, in French and Swedish, were interspersed amidst the many colourful paperbacks, newspaper clippings, photographs, vinyl records, clothes, memorabilia and knick-knacks Adéagbo assembled and displayed.
The suggestion of words becoming images was just one of the many transformations initiated by Adéagbo in ‘The Birth of Stockholm ..!’ Others included a 16th-century painting depicting celestial phenomena above the city, which had been reproduced by a Beninese craftsman as a wooden relief. Its composition and shapes were reflected in the various consumer objects, ephemera and pop-cultural artefacts assembled in the gallery. Meanwhile, more prosaic images (of iconic football players, for instance) were placed alongside depictions of Pippi Longstocking and commemorative plates featuring portraits of Olof Palme, the outspoken Social Democratic prime minister who was assassinated in 1986 – referred to, in Adéagbo’s cosmology, as ‘the sacrifice’.
Visually recalling Aby Warburg’s unfinished Mnemosyne Atlas (begun in 1924), Adéagbo’s bricolage not only traces the movement of formally similar occurrences across different periods, continents and mediums, it also charts their differences, inversions and misappropriations. For example, several of the album covers in the show (mostly classics from the 1970s such as Ola Magnell’s New Perspective) were less reflective in the context of Stockholm’s cool conceptualism, or the streamlined pop that Sweden has produced during the last decade, than broader cultural tendencies that couple folksy nostalgia with contemporary trends. In fact, few of the materials used in the installation dated from later than the 1990s. And, aside from the projected texts, there were no digital media included.
Adéagbo’s practice is a far cry from much contemporary work dealing with global networks, online visual cultures and computerized systems of display. There is no ennui or ironic detachment here, no dematerialization. Although appropriation, archiving, citation, distribution and reproduction clearly occupy a central place in his method, his work also insists on materiality in a way that pays more than lip service to what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls ‘the social life of things’. Indeed, the ways in which audiences ‘read’ objects differently according to their contexts is partly what’s at stake in Adéagbo’s work. His rejection both of the identity of ‘artist’ and the rhetoric surrounding the democratization of art might seem paradoxical or disingenuous coming from someone whose work largely consists of assembling what is ready-to-hand. But Adéagbo’s tactics were here aimed more at communication across cultures than critiquing contemporary art frameworks. If Conceptualist discourse imposes cultural and geographical exclusions, then ‘The Birth of Stockholm ..!’ argued for an expanded mode of address.