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Issue 237

For Tarik Kiswanson, Identity Is a Careful Balancing Act

At Bonniers Konsthall, Sweden, the artist’s gravity-defying sculptures create a series of unsettling encounters

BY Cathrin Mayer in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 12 JUN 23

When Tarik Kiswanson’s Palestinian family fled Jerusalem in the early 1980s and arrived at an immigration office in Halmstad, Sweden, their surname was changed by the authorities from Al Kiswani to the Swedish-sounding Kiswanson. This autobiographical anecdote – included in the show’s introductory text – provides an entry point to the artist’s substantial solo exhibition, ‘Becoming’, at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. Telling of the high demands placed on migrants to fit into their adopted homes, this personal story also enables the audience to decode the often-overlooked political aspects of Kiswanson’s overarchingly minimalist practice.

Tarik Kiswanson, Cabinet, 2019, stainless steel, 120 × 40 × 40 cm (3 pieces). Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut 

Split into five loosely connected sections across the institution’s spacious galleries, ‘Becoming’ explores themes of memory, heritage and belonging from the artist’s perspective as a second-generation immigrant. In the first room, Kiswanson has built a raised platform partly obscured by a wall. Through an opening on the left-hand side, the viewer can look up to see three metal filing cabinets tucked away in the right-hand corner of the space (Cabinet, 2019). Despite the ubiquity of these everyday objects, their odd placing suggests that something is not quite right, a feeling that only intensifies after noticing an ovoid sculpture – painted the same shade of white as the gallery walls – which seems to float in the dark, shaft-like space between the platform and the floor (Cradle, 2022).

The Cradle, 2023, wood, fibreglass, resin, paint, 3.3 × 1.2 × 1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut 

Part of the artist’s ‘Nest’ series (2020–23) – which explores natural forms such as cocoons, pupae and seeds – Cabinet is one of five nests made of fibreglass and epoxy resin populating the niches, walls and ceilings of Bonniers Konsthall. Seemingly defying the laws of gravity, these works give the uncanny appearance that they are floating effortlessly in space despite their substantial mass. In creating these unsettling encounters, Kiswanson subtly evokes the displacement his own mother must have felt when she arrived in Sweden all those decades ago. A photograph in the main exhibition space from 1986 shows her leaning against an Ikea cot. Kiswanson revisits this moment in his installation The Cradle (2023), in which a similar cot, affixed to the gallery ceiling, appears in tandem with a human-sized egg form, based on the dimensions of the artist’s body, which floats about a metre above the floor.

Tarik Kiswanson, ‘Becoming’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut 

Throughout the show, balancing acts are used as visual metaphors to explore what the artist refers to in the exhibition literature as the ‘interstitial states of the human condition’. The Fall (2020), for instance, is a slow-motion video – screened on a vertical, LCD wall – of a boy teetering on a school chair. The child  who it might be presumed bears a resemblance to the young Kiswanson  is filmed falling towards, but never quite hitting, the floor, suspending him in a permanent state of flux.

Tarik Kiswanson, Grandfather’s Blazer, 2022, inkjet on cotton, 2.5 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut 

At times, however, the works can slide towards excessive pathos. Passing Mother (2022), for instance, is one of a series of large-scale, inkjet-printed canvases in which Kiswanson overlays X-ray images of garments belonging to family members and from the textile collection of Hallands Konstmuseum: here, his mother’s embroidered Palestinian dress, a 17th century bodice and his own hoodie. To me, this too-obvious, literal layering of heritage and identity evokes a sentimentality at odds with the artist’s deft handling of these themes elsewhere in the exhibition. Luckily, this dissipates in the exhibition’s final room with ‘Recall’ (202023) – a series of seven, small-scale resin blocks, one of which takes on the dark red of the artist’s blood contained inside (In My Blood, 2020). It is in these simple but effecting moments that Kiswanson’s work transcends both personal narrative and formal minimalism to occupy the slippery space in between.

Tarik Kiswanson’s ‘Becoming’ is on view at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, until 18 June.

Main image: Tarik Kiswanson, Cradle, 2022, resin, fibreglass, paint. Courtesy: the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg and Beirut

Cathrin Mayer is a curator and writer. She is based between Stockholm, Sweden, and Berlin, Germany.