1 July 2020


From Global Kiruna, a project by Iwan Baan, Anne Dessing and Michiel van Iersel, 2020.

Kiruna as seen from Luossavaara mountain. The photograph was taken by Gregor Kallina on March 15, 2019.

All of man’s mistakes arise because he imagines that he walks upon a lifeless thing, whereas his footsteps imprint themselves in a flesh full of vital power.

– Jean Gino

Bang, bang, that awful sound. The thirteen people who were down there that night were knocked off their feet by the sudden impact of a terrifying wallop that occurred at 03:11 on May 18 this spring. Some miners were resting at 814 metres below the ground, while most of the unit was some hundreds of metres deeper when the largest mining-induced quake in Sweden’s history ruptured on a level between them. The early-morning seismic blow was something very different from the sixty tonnes of explosives which cause this place to flutter and ruffle an hour after midnight every single day of the year. It was a 4.9-magnitude jolt, a sneeze from Mother Earth.

Above this dramatic underworld sits an Arctic town with 16,660 residents. The state-owned mining company LKAB employs 2,175 people on this location, with a large workforce deep down in the intestinal dominions of the mine – the largest and purest body of magnetite on the planet is swaddled by an industrial complex that extracts and dispatches six Eiffel Towers’ worth of iron ore every twenty-four hours, imagine the scale of it. “Wherever you are in Kiruna the mine is always present,” writes Dominic Hinde in A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside the Swedish Model. “Kiruna is in a Faustian pact with the industrialised world outside, selling its mine wealth and its culture in return for being allowed to exist.”

There is an existential rift between the moods expressed in television chef Keith Floyd’s miserably inebriated performance in the Kiruna mine in 1997 in which he, drunk as a skunk, confounded the wine with the brandy and poured the whole bottle of the latter into the pot – and the bedrock kind of sorrow in Sofia Norlin’s dismal feature film Broken Hill Blues from 2013, in which a Kirunian kid is asking a young woman who is brushing his hair: “What’s my room going to look like afterwards, when no one lives here anymore?” “Well,” she tells him, “you might get some trees growing in there. It might even snow in there.” And here’s the thing about Kiruna as we know it: the here about Sweden’s youngest town, founded in 1900, is in the process of becoming a there, a place that will topple inwardly and, in a matter of decades, perish altogether.

“The citizens of Kiruna have been forced to face extraordinary, philosophical questions […] This urban landscape destabilises notions of time in an accelerated society. One can see a jump-cut version of a city,” argues curator Carlos Mínguez Carrasco in his essay to the necessary Kiruna Forever exhibition, on show at Arkdes – the National Centre for Architecture and Design – in Stockholm until February next year. The fine-looking catalogue, with the great cover photo by Gregor Kallina, has a panoramic view of the surviving mining district and the edging localities that will be the first to disappear, and reappear in some other form for the 21st-century version of Kiruna and its dynamic past. Mínguez Carrasco: “No other Swedish city embodies the 20th century in the same way as Kiruna. Its enlightened belief in progress, its hope for the future, its struggles for better labour conditions, its community building and social emancipation. It simultaneously epitomises the tendencies of the welfare state and capitalist statecraft.” 

Jump cut to a day in Kiruna’s history when the town was in its infancy. Borg Mesch’s one-hundred-and-nineteen-year-old and sun-soaked photograph Midsummer’s Night on Kiirunavaara (vaara is the local word for mountain) in the Kiruna Forever show is a remarkable testament to the hopes and dreams of the new settlers who have gathered here by the hundreds, some together with their wives or sons, all of them dressed and groomed for the occasion, with the mandatory long walking sticks, as they crown the top which will be the first to go in this Faustian pact. (Another thing about Kiruna and its peculiar sense of time is the five weeks around midsummer when the sun never sets and the three weeks of unending night in the winter.)

There is something very hard-wired and primeval about scooping out tunnels in the crust of the earth. The shafts throughout Kiirunavaara’s underbelly run two kilometres deep, which is likely the rock-bottom level of the four-kilometre-long and eighty-metre-wide slab of iron ore that was formed 1.6 billion years ago, and this is the curse and treasure that will keep Kiruna “forever”. It is the myriad of caverns and the massive hanging wall towards Kiruna society that are propelling the subsidence, and it just keeps getting worse since two-thirds of this gargantuan chunk remains for the next one hundred years of mining and the further extraction of 219,000 new Eiffel Towers.

As Dominic Hinde points out in his book, “Sweden colonised itself. Axel Oxenstierna, a Swedish nobleman and royal adviser in the 17th century declared ‘In Norrland [the country’s nine northernmost provinces] we have our own India.’ A few hundred years later it was declared that Norrland was Sweden’s own American west.” When Hjalmar Lundbohm arrived in this outback to establish a mining community between Kiirunavaara (Ptarmigan Mountain) and the smaller Luossavaara (Salmon Trout Mountain) for LKAB in the late 1800s, there were no routes to the area other than the rivers in summertime. The place was connected with the Iron Ore Line in 1899, the railway between Luleå on the Swedish side of the Gulf of Bothnia (which is frozen nearly five months a year) and Narvik on Norway’s Atlantic coast – Kiruna’s port for pretty much the lock, stock and barrel of what is brought up from its underbelly.

Lundbohm was a man who had seen the world. Most of all it was Port Sunlight, this new Merseyside town with its ideal concoction of business, industry, learning, culture and, of course, great architecture that made the strongest impression on him. In the academic journal Scandinavian Studies (vol 83, no 4, 2011), Kristin Kuutna describes Lundbohm himself as “a curious combination of hardboiled industrialist and sensitive intellectual interested in art and culture. He had amassed an impressive collection of art, and frequently hosted artist friends from the southern metropolis of Stockholm at his house in Kiruna. He also entertained musicians and hosted regular concert performances in the wilderness mining settlement. His controversial character, accompanied by the driving force of economic advantage and patriarchal superiority, nevertheless included affectionate sentiments towards the Sami.”

“But while his mining pursuits destroyed the Sami habitat on the one hand, Lundbohm energetically articulated the need to record and preserve Sami culture on the other,” explains Kuutna. “Lundbohm expressed the necessity for Sami to retain their rights, while the biggest menace seemed for him to be the new circumstances which, ironically, he himself had fundamentally created. Lundbohm’s mining practices were riddled with contradictory features: he was strongly opposed to hiring Sami to work in the mines, which he saw to be destructive of their lifestyle and ancient culture.”

Hjalmar Lundbohm’s direction to his friend Gustaf Wickman, the architect who designed early Kiruna’s most significant buildings, was that the wooden church – one of the most loved buildings in Sweden today – would be made with references to a Sami hut and a Norwegian stave church, and that it would also serve as a pleasant and useful meeting place for the townspeople in matters other than the Almighty & Co. The church (1909–12) with its eight hundred seats is painted in Falu red and safeguarded by twelve golden sculptures which each embodies a human state of mind absorbed in a saintly posture. The church together with the belfry and the Maria Chapel (holding the remains of several thousand Kirunians) will be dismantled and moved in 2026, exactly one hundred years after the “uncrowned King of Lapland” was put to rest here under the tallest headstone.

In order to develop the town plan, Wickman worked with his colleague Per Olof Hallman, whose clever layout to face the Arctic cold was accepted in April 1900. In his book Demokratins genombrott: Människor som formade 1900-talet (Breakthrough in Democracy: The People Who Shaped the 20th Century), Curt Persson describes how “they designed an irregular street network where both hills and cavities were taken into account. Instead of excavating elevations in the terrain, they suggested to wrench the street network through or on the side of the craggy terrain. To counteract and create a protective barrier against the prevailing northwest mountain winds that constantly circulate in the area, they constructed irregular street systems with small square-like places where several streets met to divide the advancement of the winds. The plan itself can be seen as a gigantic work of art – in harmony with the conditions.”

Obviously far from everything was a piece of art in this frontier outpost at the beginning of the century. Makeshift sheds were squeeged all over the town and the miners had to lurch kilometres through the snow and brave the immense cold during wintertime and, in addition, climb up the Kiirunavaara before their workday had even started. A tram and a funicular were put into service in 1907 – however, by 1909 thousands of settlers left Kiruna, among these were five hundred people who were trying their luck in Brazil where their misfortunes only went on. (A group of optimistic migrants were the “Kiruna Swedes” who moved to the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and onwards. Most of them were murdered by the regime when it dawned on them about the realities of Communism.)

Around 1920, Kiruna had become the focal point of the massive machinery that was designated as the Norrbotten [County] Technological Megasystem. When LKAB’s ore production regained strength after the nadir of World War I, a three-month strike in 1920 brought on a twenty per cent rise in earnings for the workers on the mountain. Another decline in production led to a three-day working week in 1922, until the output spiked again in 1927, only to crash anew during the Great Depression. The Megasystem kept the Wehrmacht going throughout WWII, but outlanders were banned from entering Kiruna and soldiers were protecting every train bridge across the Iron Ore Line on the Swedish side.

When Kiruna obtained its city rights in 1948, vast sums of the wealth from the mining business began to pour into the Municipality. The mine itself was modernised and the town progressed in terms of new neighbourhoods, created by the country’s leading architects in the 1950s and 60s when the future was something to look forward to. One of them was a twenty-five-year-old Englishman who arrived in Sweden on his bicycle in 1939 with a fresh set of idealistic concepts for the new welfare state, Folkhemmet.

“The architect who has possibly spent the most time and effort in planning Kiruna is Ralph Erskine. He was out of work in the late 1950s and started on his own initiative to draw up a new Kiruna. He was very interested in the climate and developed theories of Arctic ideals on how to build in a cold climate. We have a fantastic material of this work that kept him busy for years. Unfortunately, not much of this was built but you can look at his ideas here in our collections,” says Frida Melin, curator of the collection at Arkdes. “The exhibition shows how Erskine has described Kiruna as a metropolis in the Arctic landscape. There is also a very nice perspective where he summarises his Arctic ideals and demonstrates what the Arctic city could look like.”

Artur von Schmalensee’s Town Hall building from 1963 was demolished in 2019. The Kiruna Forever exhibition does not only show von Schmalensee’s original drawings for this marvellous piece of architecture, but also a thoughtfully grief-stricken installation-of-sorts made out of genuine parts from this building’s very beautiful and very gone public atrium. “We wanted to make sure that the audience would experience, physically, the features of these fantastic details the building had. The building was also very symbolic for the citizens of Kiruna. It was located in the mining area and it hosted very important public events. A Picasso exhibition happened in the building [in 1965], but also concerts, weddings and political speeches,” says Carlos Mínguez Carrasco.

“The main reason for the demolition of the Town Hall was because it was located in the most affected area due to the expansion of the mine. There were many discussions and studies about looking at the possibility of moving the entire building, but it was too expensive and technically very difficult to move. It has been one of those elements which has been super complex – lots of years of discussions, documentation and records – and the reality today is that it is gone. I think it is sad, it was a fantastic building.”

As the curator points out, “The reality of a city is impossible to portray in an exhibition, there are so many aspects, it’s infinite. Once you start to see this, you see how impossible it is.” Mínguez Carrasco and his team at Arkdes have started from a pocket full of miracles and created an exhibition of many elements that in essence balances like a Calder mobile. Whether you are on a speed dating with Kiruna Forever or are mesmerised for hours (time flies in here), you will get a great sense of Kiruna’s lineage and new directions – with one critical exception.

“The mine is the heart in Kiruna,” convinces a voice in Liselotte Wajstedt’s video piece Kiruna the Drift Miner (2020) in which the residents in Erskine’s soon-to-be-razed neighbourhood have their say as so-called ordinary Kirunians. (Three ladies are asked about the future and they reply, “It is behind us.”) Wajstedt is a Kirunian herself and her parents and siblings are working in the mine, however this is as close to that heart as the whole exhibition aims to take us. There is a side room in Kiruna Forever with two pieces of “meta art” which could have served so much better as a space that would have given us just the tiniest sense of going so deep down in the mine that the ears pop – the claustrophobia, the disorientation, the moisture, the quivers and the odd smells, even the tactile physicality of the iron ore pellets would have done a lot for the understanding of the forces that this show, after all, is dealing with. 

Arguably the most illuminating new piece in the show is Ingela Johansson’s solemn Silver Tongue, the Great Miners’ Strike 1969–70 (2020), a fifty-seven-minute video work displayed over three screens, about the wildcat strike that broke out on December 9 and stalled the Norrbotten Technical Megasystem for fifty-seven days. The origins of the strike were several, but a great incentive was the author Sara Lidman’s interview book Gruva (Mine) that was published the year before the strike with pictures by Odd Uhrbom (you will find a few of these in the show).

I have no hesitation in saying that Sara LidmanGruva is not at all representative of the circumstances up at LKAB,” vented the Minister for Finance, Gunnar Sträng (who held this post for twenty-one consecutive years in the Social Democratic Party), during a speech in November 1969. “When I say that I know this, it is because I have had the opportunity to personally speak with people, municipal people and direct employees, in those places and they have been quite indignant about this presentation of their workplace which has, quite unexpectedly, fallen upon them.

What one day began as thirty-five miners’ spontaneous sit-in strike in an underground tunnel quickly rose to this massive work stoppage, involving four thousand five hundred men (and of course, the miners were all men until 1979). “My film is an in-and-out-zooming of press images that I have digitalised. The three tracks serve to create a flow, and obviously I have worked rhythmically which I hope will provide a cinematic feeling,” explains Ingela Johansson. 

“It is also nice that Silver Tongue is in dialogue with the installation, the reconstruction of the Town Hall. The design of the work grew in conversation with Carlos Mínguez Carrasco who likes performativity. This video work is a montage from all the speeches held at the major meetings, mainly in Kiruna. The Town Hall is the centre space, but the speeches were also held in the sports hall in Kiruna and in [the smaller mine town] Malmberget. The microphone on the Town Hall podium is the original model of the one that was used during the strike.”

Silver Tongue is a very apt title. The eloquence, the fairness, the humanity of these mineworkers’ speeches is a joy to listen to – “You are wonderful people and you will remain people. We have to persist – we have to fight for our right to be people. It is difficult to comprehend that you have to do that in 1969” – and what a different world from the demagoguery of today when we are expected to kneel before the entire female/minority victim game of fashionably baleful idiocies. Orwell was the first to recognise that the next wave of Fascists will call themselves anti-Fascists. In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Winston tells Julia that “every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” Here are we now.

Norm Form was the title of the last of a decade’s worth of predominantly cheapjack exhibitions at Arkdes before Kieran Long took over as the adult in the room in 2017. Norm Form was presented by three disposable heroes of hypocrisy (all rendered with academic titles), and this was the vilest attempt in a public museum to promote the endorsement of fallacious, totalitarian and sociologically disastrous ideologies based on a chauvinistic, nonsensical sorting of people in which everything fits a template narrative. This is the crybully hogwash and rabidity that the Swedish taxpayers are forced to patronise when the voices of reason are squelched and we have stupidity at that level. One of the last things that H L Mencken wrote before he died in 1956 was that “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.”

Director Kieran Long puts forth some relevant questions in the Kiruna Forever catalogue: “What does it mean for our sense of our place in the world if the cities we live in are movable, friable, if they simply disappear from the Earth because of a judgement about the greater good? What is the ethical basis of a city established on land populated by indigenous people for centuries? What happens when the monuments that define our history are saved, moved or demolished according to the arguments of historians, architects, judges and politicians? How do we remember our town histories, when the places we remember no longer exist?”

Are there answers to these reflections in the exhibition? Yes, somewhat and quite considering that we live in an age obsessed with questions for the sake of questions. The problem with Kiruna Forever is to a certain degree the catalogue. It has the looks all right and everything that you can wish for from the physical exhibition – however, apart from lacking the flavour of considerate editing, reading the essays is like watching two current Swedish television commercials where a woman and a man are trying to eat crispbread, but are interrupted too many times by a voiceover that is more like a strafing attack of jolly PC slogans for the targeted viewer: the well-formatted Swede, the world champion. Such are the schemes that pester our institutions and government bodies as well, and the question is if we want them repeated in these catalogues? There is a straight-up answer to that: no.

A big table in the exhibition over Kiruna’s topography etcetera, Kiruna Forever: A Visual Exploration in Five Acts (2020), is a reasonable starting point to appreciate this show. Four plates at one of the short sides reveal the city’s (and the table’s) development phases from the early 1960s to the absolute now of today. There are various projections on the table and there is a screen at the other end. A great deal of information is involved in this installation – which is like the spaceship environment in Alien (1979) with the jagged old analogue versus the high-tech – and as much as the table is indeed confusing it is also illuminating and very helpful for the understanding of the course of Kiruna. (Two markings on the floor are related to the big table: the airport strip at the side of the table, and a faraway dot that marks the Esrange Space Centre, the only civilian rocket station in Europe.)

The show has a generous draught of old maps, architectural drawings and early models. I Am Mountain – Measurements (2016) looks like a real-time seismograph that would measure Kiruna’s underground movements, but is instead another share of “Me”-ism, care of an artist who has mixed a 1902 sound recording of Sweden’s highest peak Kebnekaise with the twang of her own body. Things to love in the show, however, are Lars Harald Westman’s Miroslav Šašek-y illustrations to Ralph Erskine’s Arctic City concept, the paintings by Carl Wilhelmson, Helmer Osslund and Axel Törneman where early Parisian modernism meets the mining realities of Lapland, and Rolf Dahlström’s graphic photographs (1967) of Örjan Lüning’s buildings and twenty-six-metre-high iron wind organ for LKAB’s industrial complex in Svappavaara northeast of Kiruna.

Hakon Ahlberg’s office building for LKAB, that sits on solid ground in front of Kiirunavaara, is a beautiful piece of architecture with the looks of the opening sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (though it was finished a year after the film’s premiere in 1959), and we are presented to a sweet sequence of Polaroids of this building. Photographer Gregor Kallina’s pensive and very poetic Iron Heart series from 2019 is a delight, and the same goes for Iwan Baan’s Global Kiruna (2020). One of these images by this undisputed master of architectural photography is an overview of three railway tracks stuffed with iron ore freight cars. These trains are seven hundred and fifty metres long and are pulled by the toughest locomotives in the world.

“I often wonder what Sweden would have been like today without this mine,” asks the last writer (a Swedish woman with a professional career in academia) in the catalogue, in an essay that would never have been published in this context in a less unwell society. “What would it have looked like today if the land’s rightful owners had been in charge? If the land had not been stolen, not been colonised?”

The great (black) American thinker Thomas Sowell highlights how little it is today that measures up to even an agreeable academic standard, and that our collective human story is being misrepresented all the time for ideological purposes. In “Twisted History” (can be found in The Thomas Sowell Reader), he deals with the actualities about slavery: “Everyone hated the idea of being a slave but few had any qualms about enslaving others […] although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century. People of every race and colour were enslaved – and enslaved others. White people were still being bought and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire, decades after American blacks were freed.”

There are a number of Sami works in the Kiruna Forever exhibition and they look like the kind of indigenous art that one has come to expect. The Sami victim narrative looms large in this last essay – a text that addresses such different and victorious topics as “colonial and scientific racism”, “racial studies”, “massive carbon dioxide emissions”, “dramatic changes to the climate”, Stockholm’s “rising sea levels” (never mind factual life at all, never mind that the land rise after the last Ice Age is much more significant), the (asserted) malevolence of Kiruna’s founder towards the Sami and the (asserted) awfulness of Western culture.

“In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull that authorised representatives of Christianity to kill or enslave enemies of Christ,” she writes in an attempt to show that the Sami “also fell victim to this greed masked as Christianity”. “This was followed by further edicts that justified the killings or enslavement of non-Christians in Africa, Asia, and in what would become America (named after the Christian ‘explorer’ Amerigo Vespucci), as well as the seizing of their lands – all in the name of Christianity. In 1492, the Moors – of Muslim faith – were expelled from Spain, and with them we lost the scientific knowledge and medicine that they had translated and developed from ancient Greek philosophers and scientists.”

For those interested in something else than this self-serving gaga – after eight hundred years of the most fiendish fundamentalist oppression, this was the best thing that could ever happen to the Iberian Peninsula. “Historians often gloss over Islam’s destruction of Visigoth Spain. The Islamic invasion is frequently described as bringing enlightenment to a cultural wasteland,” delineates Darío Fernández-Morera in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. “Never mind that modern archaeology has confirmed that the ‘Dark Ages’ were less dark than is usually proclaimed and quite enlightened when compared with Muslim culture prior to the Arabs’ conquest of the Middle East and North Africa.”

“Moreover,” he continues, “unlike Muslims, the Visigoths had not been motivated by their religious faith to conquer the land and force its inhabitants to convert, or submit and pay a particular tax (jizya) designed to humiliate them and remind them of their submission, or die. In fact, the Visigoths did not make their faith (Arianism, a form of Christianity that orthodox Christians considered a heresy) the dominant religion of the land; they eventually converted to the existing and prevalent form of Christianity, Catholicism.”

In the good old-fashioned monster movie Tremors (1990), in which a sudden threat from the underground takes over the lives of a group of Middle American people, Val McKee (Kevin Bacon) looks over a map of an area that almost appears as desolate as Swedish Lapland and exclaims: “This valley is just one long smorgasbord!” For the Kirunians, who have folksy names for everything around, the locality three kilometres northeast of town that variably functioned as a dumping ground, a junkyard and an industry area was commonly known as “Death Valley”. It is here where the new Town Hall has been put as the cornerstone and emblematic first building for what, in the next few decades, will emerge as Kiruna 2.

Kiruna 2 is just one long smörgåsbord for the architects and urban planners that will substantiate the transformation. On September 19, 2011, the Kiruna Municipality partnered up with the Swedish Association of Architects and the following year in June they had ten contestant parties in a competition that was briefed with the following goals in mind:

(a) “To show a vision for the Kiruna of tomorrow. The watchwords of that vision must be sustainability, attractiveness and identity. The vision must affirm growth and new, robust patterns of living,” (b) “To describe a strategy and a basic sustainable structure for accomplishing the urban transformation eastwards in a dynamic, quality-creating process, in which the new and the pre-existing will form a holistic entity and will function throughout the transformation process,” and (c) “To suggest ways of shaping a sustainable, distinctive and pleasant city centre in the east, within a holistic structure encompassing the entire city.”

The word pleasant is the only surprise in here. The way to go with architecture in Sweden is to positively respond to the word sustainable in any entry declaration, cue it with this lingo called architect jargon – and you are free to erect the most stale and unimaginative buildings you like. 

The new Town Hall is called the Crystal due to the angular barracks on top this circular building which, in fairness, would better suit a less important section of an airport. The Kirunians’ brand new “living room” is already suffering from leaking roofs, which means that the Norrbotten County Art Museum, as a twist of fate, has been forced to delay its in-house Kiruna Forever exhibition for an unknown period of time. The new town centre will be dense, which was what the citizens wished for, and feature a hotel that has the quirk of a ski jump tower, a big enough culture centre and some smaller housing blocks. It looks like a very sustainable place indeed, a place that forgot or really never much bothered about the pleasant side of things.

The wooden houses from the Kiruna of Hjalmar Lundbohm’s days are noticeable for their special joinery and colouration and quite nice as such. (However, let’s not make a perfect past of a town that was known for its lugubrious parking lot in the middle of everything.) Thirty-one of these old buildings are being moved – as Jane Jacobs argues in The Death and Life of American Cities, “Cities need old buildings so badly it is impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them” – along with a hundred birches because hardly anything grows up here, one hundred and forty-five kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

“Sweden has a long tradition of moving buildings. During agricultural land reforms in the 18th and 19th centuries, villages were split up and the houses, typically wooden, were relocated to allow more large-scale farms,” informs Jennie Sjöholm in Authentic Reconstruction: Authenticity, Architecture and the Built Heritage (a book with Stari Most on its cover, the dazzling Renaissance bridge in post-Yugoslavia that was shelled for days in 1993 and then rebuilt a decade later). In her part of the book, Sjöholm articulates how incertitude took over the initial aplomb after Kiruna’s new electricity and sewerage systems were ready for use in 2009:

“One argument has been that reconstructions would not be authentic; the reasons behind are not dwelled upon, but seem to relate both to notions that buildings which have been moved lose authenticity at a new setting, and that new constructions, looking like existing buildings, would be pastiches. It is also clear that the authority prefers to build anew without references to Kiruna as a historic site, other than to continue a tradition of building what is new and innovative of the time.”

Kiruna discovered itself in the 1980s. The Kiruna Municipality’s preservation plan in 1984 was succeeded by a decision by the Swedish National Heritage Board to declare the whole town a historic site in 1990. The government agency regarded Kiruna as “an early 20th-century town setting and industrial landscape where a vision of a model society was realised in an unprecedented manner in previously unexploited mountain scenery”.

After LKAB at the beginning of the 2000s had established that underground cracks were moving towards the town at a rate of fifteen metres per year, the then-councillor and chair of the Municipal Council – the aptly-named Kenneth Stålnacke (Neck of Steel) – expressed that “The most important is that the town does not split but is held together and allowed to grow.”

Six thousand Kirunians are going to have to leave their homes since four hundred and eighty thousand square metres of living space will be left in the fissure zone like a set from a Tarkovsky film. Furthermore, thirty thousand square metres of commercial space and an equal amount of office space will have to be remodelled in and about the old “Death Valley”. The winning competition entry of 2013, Kiruna 4-ever, and the entire relocation will cost LKAB 372 billion kronor or 330 million euros, a drop in the bucket compared to the value of the nugget underneath.

Lennart Olson’s 1960 photograph of Hakon Ahlberg’s iron ore hoisting and separating plant, which was built during LKAB’s transition to underground mining in Kiruna, shows a tower with what seems to be a futuristic outlook storey topped with a mast with the vigorous alchemy symbol for iron. These days are long gone and in A Utopia Like Any Other, Dominic Hinde pokes fun at LKAB’s smugly fashionable self-image in the Social Democratic utopia where sustainability (and the catchphrase alone) is the answer to everything:

“Each year the company uses over twenty gigawatt hours of electricity, equivalent to around two per cent of Sweden’s total consumption. In the LKAB promotional film played to visitors this emphasis on sustainability builds to a crescendo as helicopter shots of the Arctic landscape are mixed with a voiceover and ambiguously ethnic music. The narrator explains how the source of both Kiruna’s prosperity and the developing world’s sustainability emerges from the untainted and pure Norrbotten earth. It looks and feels like an advert for mineral water, presenting iron ore as a lifestyle product for the ethically aware.”

Lena Stenberg’s piece at Arkdes, Deformation Zone (2016), is a dollhouse in a total disarray, as if someone has been kicking in chairs and knocking down tables in an act to precede the unpreventable. Architecture is shaping and enclosing cities – on a touchscreen in the Kiruna Forever show you can browse through a wealth of press clips from 2004 to where we are now in this thoroughgoing process. This is a very good thing in a very good exhibition.

The Last Light (2018) is a series of interior pictures taken by Erik Lefvander during the old Town Hall’s last sigh. In the catalogue, Kieran Long describes how he and the staff of Arkdes “sat stunned when we first saw the photographs of Artur von Schmalensee’s Kiruna Town Hall being demolished in early 2019. A great work of architecture lost, a listed building demolished, a place of democracy erased.” Esaias Poggats’s round door handles for this squished masterpiece (lovingly known as the Igloo) is now on the new Town Hall whereas the thirty-three-metre-tall campanile, from the same time and place, has been reassembled outside. And there is a weirdly reassuring announcement on Google Maps for those who want a further piece of Kirunian foreverness. It says that the old Town Hall will open tomorrow again and every tomorrow at eight.

The famous first words – In my beginning is my end – and the famous last – In my end is my beginning – in T S Eliot’s “East Coker” from 1940 make this poem go on forever. And between these lines is a greater knowledge, a circumstance that a Swedish town with a very old lump and a whole new essence (wherever it is) should be able to vouch for:

Houses live and die: there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation.

The Engineer’s Villa, LKAB’s thirty-ninth building from 1900. The picture was taken on the last day of August 2017 by Jessica Nildén.

Kiruna Forever at Arkdes in Stockholm through February 7, 2021.

11 April 2020


From Lasse Åberg’s book Souvenirs: A Glimpse of the World of Form that Flies Far Under the Radar of the Aesthetics.

The relationship between the tourist and the environment that surrounds him is only rarely genuine, and it is this veil of falseness, imitation and admiring sentimentality that more often than not makes the world, as it appears to the tourist, vomit kitsch all over itself.

– Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste

From a Hindi murder mystery movie on everyone’s television set, as the sprightly dancing-and-singing overture for Ghost World (2001), to a most miserable high school graduation party in the next turn – which of course is just too real and ugly to be left uncommented by the film’s sarcastically sound teenage girls. Rebecca: “This is so bad it’s almost good.” Enid: “This is so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again.”

For John Waters, the American director of camp, kitsch and the jizz-and-dogshit trash of Pink Flamingos (1972), “bad taste is what entertainment is all about”: “But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste,” Waters explains in his book Shock Value from the early 1980s. “To understand bad taste one must have very good taste. Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humour, which is anything but universal.”

This good–bad cyclicity in which miscellaneous mantlepiece keepsakes in the vein of kitsch Casanovas, mermaids after midnight, ashtrays with inscriptions, bits of mass production and tacky tigers loop through the tasteless, the gooey, ridiculous, grotesque and the astonishingly inept has created a world of memorabilia that is, in effect, and largely inadvertently, uproariously funny.

All of this is auriferous stuff for kitsch connoisseur and souvenir collector Lasse Åberg, the Swedish filmmaker, artist and (in his own words) jack of all trades who is one of the country’s most famous and popular figures (Åberg turns eighty this spring). “There are some who think that kitsch is nice,” he says. “And then there are snobs like me who have gone full circle and have learned to love it in a different way.”

“Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and fake sensations,” argued Clement Greenberg in his famous essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939). “Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.” Such sentiments have always prevailed around the table of those illustrious Good Taste makers where clues of a twisted sense of humour would always be less expected than the day when hell freezes over.

“Kitsch is dead the moment it is born,” enforces NYC scholar Celeste Olalquiaga: “The perceptual process that eventually leads to kitsch is that aspect of experience constituted by what consciousness leaves out: the intensity of the lived moment,” as she writes in The Artificial Kingdom: On the Kitsch Experience. “Despite appearances, kitsch is not an active commodity naively infused with the desire of a wish image, but rather a failed commodity that continually speaks of all it has ceased to be.”

That she is somewhat mistaken about the value of the souvenir – “the souvenir must wait, perhaps forever, to become part of a personal universe” – is more than obvious downstairs at Dansmuseet (the Dance Museum) where Lasse Åberg presents his goodly and passionate collection of kitschy souvenirs, built in the form of a cabinet of curiosities. Dansmuseet is situated in a beautiful Art Nouveau building at Drottninggatan 17 in the Swedish capital. What seems to amuse Åberg even more, however, is that this old bank palace is in the midst of “Stockholm’s souvenir ghetto”. Souvenirer, as the exhibition is called in Swedish, is Heaven and Las Vegas and it is absolutely badass. It is indeed a very personal universe that one will enter through the white fringe curtain.

Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard suggested that “The best demonstration of the misery of existence is given by the contemplation of its marvels.” One is shocked, marvelled and overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of underwhelming artefacts and this acme of artifice that are living la vida loca in Åberg’s Wunderkammer, which greatly pushes you to think about the essence and the shifty nature of kitsch, and why its issues are so fraudulent to some, an emotional rescue to others.

“What do these themes have in common? The answer is: they are all highly emotionally charged. They are charged with stock emotions that spontaneously trigger an unreflective emotional response,” implies Tomas Kulka in Kitsch and Art. “The aim of kitsch is not to create new needs or expectations, but to satisfy existing ones. Kitsch thus does not work on individual idiosyncrasies. It breeds on universal images, the emotional charge of which appeals to everyone. Since the purpose of kitsch is to please the greatest number of people, it always plays on the most common denominations.”

Souvenir is French for remembering. But what is there to recollect from these foolishly inadequate remembrances that always seem to come with a default factory setting and some kind of urge to tickle us with a mighty impression of auralessness – which yet keeps morphing in our minds to the point of amusement chained with repulsion? “Kitsch isn’t simply an artistic failure, a work that has somehow gone wrong. There is something about kitsch that sets it apart from bad art,” writes Tomas Kulka. “However, the question of how kitsch performs such wonders, as well as the question of what its appeal consists of – which are essentially questions of aesthetics – have not been fully answered. The same applies to the question of why kitsch is worthless.”

The thing with great kitsch is that it keeps morphing and morphing between these poles of good bad taste and bad bad taste, and that it doesn’t give a fuck about decorum. Kitsch’s objective is to dupe you like a car salesman, please you like comfort food and to mess around with your brain chemistry like an artificial sweetener. Lasse Åberg calls his show “an astonishing sea of tastelessness” and all these wacky items quite beyond recovery “a mishmash relying on naïve confidence trickery and unintentional humour”.

But Åberg does not proceed through Dansmuseet’s basement gallery with a snob’s sneer on his face, not at all; the onomatopoeia of the day is rather the many shy little tee-hees of his film alter ego Stig-Helmer Olsson, a geeky mummy’s boy in yesteryear’s golf clothes who really wasn’t made for these times, but who is nonetheless pulled out by his nice Norwegian friend Ole to see the world in spite of his fear of flying and his general awkwardness. The poor donkey-that-poops-real-cigarettes souvenir from the first film about Stig-Helmer – a guilty pleasure of sorts, Sällskapsresan (The Charter Trip, 1980) – is of course included in the Souvenirer exhibition.

When Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax interviewed hundreds of individuals for their book What We Keep, they were struck by the fact that none of them had chosen an object that had any kind of financial value: “Our hearts are not accountants; we cling to the meaningful, not the monetary. What makes these objects so evocative for us is that they hold the memories of people, of relationships, of places and moments and milestones that speak to our own identity.”

In the film Richard Jewell (2019) we follow the overzealous (and frankly rather immature) security guard by that name whose life was left in shambles after rescuing a great number of people during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta when he located a backpack with three large pipe bombs under a bench in Centennial Park, but instead got the FBI accusing him of being the bomber. One of the Feds’ “proofs” was that Jewell kept a splinter from that bench as, as he called it, a souvenir.

In the preface to his Souvenirs: A Glimpse of the World of Form that Flies Far Under the Radar of the Aesthetics (2008) – the title is translated here as the book is in Swedish only – Åberg wryly remarks about how “The anaemic stone-cold aesthetic that is ‘Scandinavian Design’ has a firm grip on our time.” Jacques Tati said something similar in 1972: “I am not against modern architecture but I believe it should come with not only a building but a living permit.” Tati, who had his own workspace at Sveriges Television in the early 1970s, described Monsieur Hulot (in his overcoat, hat and pipe) as a tall, odd figure who simply cannot hide from the current affairs of modernity. It is hardly a coincidence that both Tati and Åberg, and even more so their alter egos, are compelled to address the sepulchral efforts of modern life with some kind of a muddle.

The road to Lasse Åberg’s vast collection of chirpy-chirpy-cheap-cheap souvenirs began during the same time as a seventeen-year-old by the name of Pelé won the World Cup final, when the Brazilian team defeated Sweden by 5–2 at the Råsunda Stadium in Stockholm in 1958. That year, Åberg purchased a kitschy little porcelain cat in Italy during his first charter trip to allay his mother. “Why would two happy eighteen-year-olds go to the Riviera dei Fiori? The travel cost two hundred and fifty kronor [€23] and my mother was very annoyed so I thought that I would buy her something very nice, and she was delighted of course. The flight was very exciting, it took one day: Bromma–Copenhagen–Basel–Nice and then coach to San Remo.”

He says that there are not that many who would use the word nice for souvenirs. “But a lot of people laugh and bring them home as something funny. When you see them like this in a collection, it becomes like what in art language is called installations.” Åberg discovered in the late 1980s that he had developed an actual weakness for splashy travel trophies, and that too-much-of-a-good-thing is the guiding principle for really understanding and enjoying these aesthetical unmentionables. An artist friend’s cabinet that was used as a hideout for the unwanted tee-hee gifts that Åberg had acquired for him on his journeys was the awakening.

The idea of the souvenir is as old as human journeying. One example is the porcelain knick-knacks that were commonly obtained by the sailors at the whorehouses and brought home as pardons for the missuses. “Kitsch and tourism; two words which go nicely together. Why is every monument, every landscape, every object from folklore instantly made kitsch by tourism?” asks Gillo Dorfles in Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste (published in 1969). “People who go to foreign countries [and] who have prefabricated their (borrowed) feelings, their indignation, compassion and admiration in advance; people who take every feeling, myth, legend, piece of folklore for granted – such people come prepared.”

The 1950s and 60s were the heyday of kitsch. Åberg explains that most of the articles in the Souvenirer exhibition are bargains from flea markets and online auctions. “When my wife and I are at flea markets, we have a laser beam in our eyes that tries to find these wonderful things. Sadly, I must confess, they are running out. Now it is the same mug in [Swedish polkagris stick candy small town] Gränna as in Barcelona because it is the Chinese who manufacture them. So, this is a dying kind. Unfortunately.” The vapidity of today’s Made-in-China souvenirs are no laughing matter, they are produced as if they were in a chroma keying (greenscreen) process where anything universally blank can be switched into “New York”, “London”, “Paris”, “Munich” and boogie with a suitcase.

Marita Sturken is dealing with this issue in Tourists of History: Kitsch and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero: “This economic network responded rapidly to the events of 9/11, apparently fully aware that certain kinds of objects, such as models of the towers, had instantly become desirable. Souvenir distributors in New York produced new designs about 9/11 as early as September 12 that were then faxed to their manufacturers in Korea and China, who churned out new merchandise in four days. Once air traffic resumed, the souvenirs were shipped in, and pins, decals, and buttons with the flag, the twin towers, and the Statue of Liberty began appearing on street corners within a week.”

Åberg admits that being a collector, of his magnitude, does have its perils. “Yes, beware! I have a diagnosis. But this stuff is really an amusement.” The other stuff is of course his famous Disney memorabilia from the company’s early era (1928–38) – including a painted celluloid element that was used in Steamboat Willie (1928) – a collection of international repute that is always on show at Åbergs museum (mus, interestingly, is the Swedish word for mouse) some tens of kilometres northwest of the capital. He was studying at Konstfack, the University of Arts, Crafts and Design, in Stockholm during the early years of Pop Art, and Mickey has ever since been a figure that Lasse Åberg has based his collecting and his art on, though it is the un-wimpy and pretty faulty humanity of Donald Duck that he really dotes on.

“Earlier in the [20th] century, when modernism’s victory over pompier academicism (one of the most gorgeous and self-righteous forms of kitsch) and other similar corruptions of taste seemed irreversible, the art world indulged in the optimistic illusion that the benevolent and sinister monster of kitsch would never again haunt its precincts,” writes Matei Călinescu in Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. “But the polymorphous monster of pseudoart had a secret and deep-rooted power that few modernists were aware of – the power to please, to satisfy not only the easiest and most widespread popular aesthetic nostalgia but also the middle class’ vague ideal of beauty, which still is, in spite of the angry reactions of various avant-gardes, the commanding factor in matters of aesthetic consumption and, therefore, production.”

Amongst the artists in the Schwabing borough in 1860s Munich, there was a new term for all those poorly painted little children with big teary eyes, paintings thriving on the cliché-ridden, the banal and the cheap, works that purport to be “art” when the one thing that is really genuine about them is the wretched comedy – kitsch. Călinescu – who regards kitsch as “one of the most typical products of modernity” – describes how kitsch after World War II “came to enjoy a strange kind of negative prestige even in some of the most sophisticated intellectual circles”. Magritte, for instance, made some of his most splendid series appertaining to kitsch: Sunlit Surrealist (Renoir), 1943–46, and the paintings from his gorgeously bonkers période vache, 1947–48. 

There was a very important circle of artists between the world wars, however, where the members were closely engaged in “identifying, collecting, displaying and revering certain types of ‘things’” found at the marché aux puces just north of the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris: “[André] Breton recognised at these flea markets the fullest possibility for ‘chance encounters’, for unexpected, novel associations, for the discovery of objects torn from one set of circumstances and thrown into another,” explains Louise Tythacott in Souvenirs: The Material Culture of Tourism. “Many of the activities of the Surrealists were concerned with seeking out and attributing sacredness to banal, forgotten, devalued things in a deliberate attempt to defy Western systems of value.”

Souvenirer exhibition bonus is a vitrine with objects lingering in a twilight zone between art and kitsch from Lasse Åberg’s collection of Swedish contemporary artists. Some examples behind this glass are a hideously attractive radio receiver that transmits a conglomerate of ceramic whimsies (The Parade), and different kinds of Dalecarlian horses – the best known of all Swedish souvenirs – such as the sliced, packed and supermarket-ready folkloristic wooden horse by Peter Johansson (How to Cook a Souvenir) and Ylva Ekman’s procession of animal species (mostly African) in that characteristic red-painted livery with the kurbits decoration (Rinkeby Horses).

Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) emerges from the sea as an Aphrodite in a creamy bikini in Dr No (1962) with two naughty seashells in her hands. The seashell section of the show is a monstrosity of kitsch and as such an impeccable circuit of nausea and delight (and look out for the cowry-bodied, scallop-footed Mickey). A picture of a seated JC adored by children and framed by an orgy of shells is probably the one work in the exhibition which vacillates the most between lowbrow and highbrow because it comes with that smart look of art imitating kitsch. The Redeemer walked on water but isn’t able to slip slide over the ice without skates as a hockey player in a particularly weird piece that spells out “Jesus Is My Coach”.

“Among the earliest Christian souvenirs were stones, soil, and water collected at holy places associated with Jesus Christ and his apostles in the Holy Land and around the Mediterranean. These items were commonly placed in small containers, sealed up and blessed,” imparts Dallen Timothy in Shopping Tourism: Retailing and Leisure. “Thus, these bits and pieces of sacred sites became popular keepsakes for pilgrims, and eventually resulted in concerns among guardians of holy places that too much of the sites was being looted or destroyed as pilgrim numbers increased. As a way of mitigating this problem, caretakers responded by producing mementos and tokens that symbolised the sacred nature of the location. This is often regarded as the beginning of the manufacture and trade in souvenirs purposefully made for travellers.”

“Shellcraft” and “Religion” are some of Åberg’s many “pseudoscientific” category-breakdowns for this collection – “Terribly Tragic Souvenirs” and, of course, “Propaganda” are two others. “Kitsch can simultaneously provide psychological comfort and reinforce a host of natural mythologies. It has an immediacy that art must avoid,” asserts Catherine Lugg in Kitsch: From Education to Public Policy. “Manufacturers of kitsch are aware of a given audience’s cultural biases and deliberately exploit them, engaging the emotions and deliberately ignoring the intellect. As such, it is a form of cultural anaesthesia.”

“DDR and also the Russians and the Chinese were masters of sending out strange gifts to people,” Åberg notes in front of a showcase that is a mishmash of agitprop, old mainstream culture celebs, Swedish bluebloods, Jimmy Carter as a peanut and despots from Idi Amin to Stalin – but not a model of the Malmö–Zlatan statue which is such a splendid piece of dictator kitsch. “Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements,” argues Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (fittingly published in 1984) which takes place during the 1968 Prague Spring. “Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition: the individual can preserve his individuality. The artist can create unusual works. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.”

Souvenirer is a wonderful dog and pony show where the delightful flounders with the brutal (and the spin cycle is endless). And what is evident is that Catholicism is both the originator of the most splendid works in the history of art and of the most scabrous and lewd souvenirs – as explained by Karl Pawek in Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste: “Catholicism does not make accusations of heresy, i.e. it does not cast off genuine theological substance, but merely puts it cautiously under the carpet from time to time (centuries are irrelevant here) and this often leaves room for cheap psychic and moralistic odds and ends to spread themselves.”

In the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, Dr Miles Bennell has something to say us about the world that we are in today: “I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind … All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realise how precious it is to us, how dear.” This is where the benefits of the sour old kitsch of the 20th century come in handy: in his work Meaning of Modern Art, German philosopher Karsten Harries argues that “If the world does not satisfy our demands, what remains except to enjoy ourselves? In kitsch man strives for an immediate relationship to himself which offers an escape.”

“Why?” is the sickest section in the exhibition, a quelle-sensation-bizarre where absolute tastelessness is reaching out towards the kitsch sublime (and switching to and fro). A coarse pizza parlour “installation” (with a man-in-the-moon-faced pizza) is a souvenir from Swedish town Örebro. With a reversed sense of outdoors–indoors, we are actually looking into a huge window which displays a pine tree, a white deer and the Örebro water tower “Svampen”. (This mushroom-y landmark that was built in 1958 later got thirty-one duplicates in Kuwait City.)

“Why?” is the question one keeps asking, but what really takes the cake is another “installation” of three disgusting froggies – straight outta Wuhan wet market? – tippling away in a shady boozer, and this piece is vomiting kitsch all over itself. You wouldn’t believe it, but the name of the bar is Corona. 

Look Mickey, we’ve gone full circle!!

Souvenirs at Dansmuseet in Stockholm through July 26, 2020. Dansmuseet will reopen on September 1 without this exhibition.