11 April 2020

BLOODY TOURISTS

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. The museum is temporarily closed.