Klara Lidén embodies contradiction: a young, androgynous woman playing macho-Minimalist art hero; a trained architect intent on destruction; a ballet dancer specializing in slapstick; a dandyish flâneur, accidentally born angry street urchin. In the Swedish artist’s Serpentine Gallery exhibition, these multiple artistic personas were played out in a potent body of work, comprising mainly sculpture and video. At the entrance, the entire contents of her Stockholm apartment were stacked together, a jumbled matrix of ready-mades forming a wall. This sculpture, Unheimlich Manöver (2007), seems a manifestation of the awkwardness felt when someone you hardly know enters your home and observes the way you live: their eyes roam over books, furniture and accumulated crap, dissecting the content. Sigmund Freud developed the term ‘unheimlich’, in his 1919 essay on the uncanny, to refer to the repetition of the same – when things normally hidden are revealed. Yet Lidén’s gesture is completely controlled: a performance of self-exposure, she has hidden overt signifiers (books, DVDs and magazines are stacked with titles inverted), obscuring any real view of her daily life.
The short video Ohyra (2007) was projected from a shelf within Unheimlich Manöver. ‘So fucking bad at washing the dishes properly… Haven’t visited Grandma in so fucking long… Think about her too much of the fucking time… and I can’t even fucking clean, just sleep around way too much lately and get drunk,’ intones Lidén, as she bumbles around her kitchen (a small, dilapidated mess), wearing a white vest and a boxing helmet. She washes dishes whilst smoking, flitting towards the camera to spar like a boxer, sometimes punching herself in the head. Funny, absurd and familiar, I felt a rush of empathy as Lidén bemoaned her failures. Staged with knowing precision, Ohyra seems both homage to and deconstruction of the clichés of macho artist and lover.
Filling the large central gallery space was ‘Untitled (Poster Painting) series’ (2007–10) – sculptural layers of bill posters, removed from walls and pasted over in white, colours peeking from the sides. (Lidén has previously pasted blank paper over advertising hoardings in Copenhagen and, in a grand gesture, once worked overnight to remove all the billboard posters in Stockholm.) In several works, the artist seems to lay bare an intimate relationship with urban spaces – yet this is always a performed intimacy. In The Myth of Progress (Moonwalk) (2008), Lidén ‘moonwalks’, Michael Jackson-style, at night through empty streets in New York. Her arms and legs flow rhythmically, body gliding elegantly backwards as the camera tracks her movement. As street lamps glow and house lights flicker, the aching romance engendered by her performance is reinforced by a melancholic piano, forming both an elegy to Jackson (a master of the performed ‘self’) and to the city at night – yet the title implies a sharp sense of irony.
One of Lidén’s most emotive works is Bodies of Society (2006), a video of her in an empty room, hitting a bike with a metal pipe. Yet, rather than a clinical act of violence, it seems more like a highly charged form of love (or hate) letter to a failing relationship. One where the contradictions of feeling deeply for someone – and tussle between strong physical and psychological emotion – are so unspeakable, that they are enacted through an external conduit. Accompanied by a whining voice singing ‘I don’t want to talk about it’, Lidén intersperses violence with caressing strokes, sometimes seeming to pause for thought. As she continues, aggression wins: the bike falls apart, lying frail and broken, as she turns and leaves. Lidén has previously been discussed within a specifically masculine lineage – Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta-Clark, Bruce Nauman – but if anything, aside from the obvious architectural relations, she’s poking fun at these artists’ more ‘manly’ gestures. Much of her work operates as a series of staged paradoxes: thus, her androgyny should not be confused with asexuality; her acts of aggression or anarchy should not be read as ‘authentic’; and her urban exploration should not be assessed in literal terms. Rather, the uncanny friction that occurs when emotion collides with action, object or architecture, lies at the core of Lidén’s brand of romantic conceptualism. She is a self-styled anti-hero.