Suffering Into Action

Our Red Sky at Gothenburg Konsthall embodies how women’s experiences of sexual and racist violence can become tools for political change.

Roxy Farhat, I’m in Love (still from music video for Zhala), 2015.

If anything, this past year has exposed human vulnerability – to everything from viruses, racist violence, and financial crises – and how physical suffering emerges in this vulnerability. This is what first crosses my mind as I walk into the exhibition Our Red Sky at Gothenburg Konsthall. Initially, I figure this is probably because I haven’t been to an opening in so long, and I’m unusually occupied with what it feels like being in an exhibition space again. Gradually, however, I realise that it also has to do with the fact that each of the five artists presented here in different ways address what it means not only to be vulnerable, but also, as several of the works indicate, to become strong through that vulnerability. 

Installed in the first room, Moa Israelsson’s Go Gone (2019–20) consists of eight gigantic sleeping-bag-like cocoons hanging from the ceiling. In hard to describe colours (perhaps beige-y brownish yellowish grey would do) they look like plants or insects that have been hanging outdoors through the changing of seasons, and have now been brought inside. I think they’re supposed to smell bad, but all I sense is a whiff of wax. The padding has cracked and the fabric has fallen apart in several places, which makes me want to poke and touch the different materials. These mega-cocoons confront me physiologically, on a basic sensory level; their size and the fact that they are hanging above me makes me aware of my insignificance as a human being, as well as my being part of something much bigger.

The elusive existential state of emotion brought on by Israelsson’s nests is reinforced by Sara-Vide Ericson’s paintings in the same room, all of which have a strange, almost sacred light to them. In the large painting The Lab (2020), a woman carries five or six copper vessels, glittering in the bright light. It is as if I can feel the sun’s heat and hear the vessels banging up against each other. If the woman’s body is visually present in The Lab, then it is as noticeably absent in the large-scale painting Silent Witness (2020), in which the protagonist is a large cupboard. The title alludes to the pantry-like cabinet as a witness to whatever happened in the painting’s wood-panelled room, but also makes me aware of my own function as a witness in this and other situations.

Sara-Vide Ericsson, The Lab, 2020.

If Israelsson’s decaying cocoons make the viewer think about the human condition in a physical and concrete way, then Ericson’s thematisation of the home dialogues with Joanna Piotrowska’s series Frantic (2017), which comprises black and white photographs of women who in different ways have built themselves shelters not unlike the caves that children build with mattresses and blankets. In one image, two young women in long white dresses sit under lace fabric hanging from a balcony door down and around an arrangement of pillows on the floor. In another, we see only a woman’s head sticking out of a mountain of mattresses and pillows covering her body, as if she were trying to suffocate herself. Shown alongside Piotrowska’s second series Untitled (2015) – in which young people take defensive positions, such as crawling into a ball or covering their face with their arms – these photographs clearly comment on how women are exposed to physical violence in the home. Perhaps this is because they have the same eerie stillness as Ericsson’s large paintings. But since Piotrowska’s photos are staged physical acts, they become concrete. They do not portray victims; their subjects are people who act and build defences, alone and with others.

The same hopeful energy appears while I lie on a bean bag watching Roxy Farhat’s I’m in Love (2014), a music video for the Swedish singer Zhala. In it, women and young children stand in a row braiding each other’s hair, or stroking each other’s heads. Several of the women, including Farhat herself, lip-sync alone and in unison to the upbeat and slightly dreamy pop song. The theme is the female collective’s determination and ability to care for its members. But caring is not and end in itself. Seen in profile, this line of women with almost warlike braids shows that the tender act also points to real, perhaps even military, future actions.

A similar intermingling of the vulnerability of women and their ability to turn it into care and action can be seen in Gabrielle Goliath’s video installation This Song is For… (2019), a tribute concert to victims of sexual violence. On two big screens, different musicians, singers, and choirs cover songs like Beyoncé’s ‘Save The Hero’ and ‘Ave Maria’. The songs were chosen by the women whose testimonies are posted as lyrics on the nearby purple wall. While the singer and guitarist Masaki – with a voice so sweet that I want to cry – sings REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’, I read Sinesipho Lakani’s testimony about how she was raped in a taxi during her first year at university. The installation becomes a direct comment on the protests against violence against women that took place during the autumn of 2019 in Cape Town, and which emerged in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The immersive, almost church-like, concert atmosphere that arises during each song is interrupted when the music begins to skip, like on an old CD. For example, I heard the phrase “everybody hurts” for almost a quarter of an hour before the next song began. The effect is that the installation, despite its enveloping form, never becomes frictionless, and instead of rocking the audience into passivity, calls for action. This was made clear by the fact that some of the gallery visitors walked out every time the music skipped, while others pushed through. A reminder that some wounds never heal, and that the only thing we can do is keep listening.

Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2015.

The difficulty with making an exhibition based on human suffering and experiences of vulnerability, care, and tenderness is that it can easily become an ahistorical phenomenological investigation in which the body only appears as a passively feeling vessel, without reason or the ability to act. Israelsson’s cocoons and Ericson’s eerie paintings are the works that, in their melancholy and abstract beauty, could be accused of just that. Even here, however, suffering is connected with traditionally female-coded materials and techniques (Israelsson) and with a certain type of female experience and the domestic (Ericson). It becomes more complex in Piotrowska’s photographs, Goliath’s installation, and Farhat’s video, where lived experience and the body are situated in a social and historical context. This becomes particularly clear in one of Goliath’s testimonies in which poverty and segregation are described as the background for the sexual violence.

Although the exhibition’s title alludes to the sky’s evening blush, the theme is far from the occasionally perplexing signs of the weather and forces of nature. Although the works all address human vulnerability in general, this exhibition is explicitly about women’s experience of sexual and racist violence – and the sisterhood and collective forces that arise in opposition. And just as the current pandemic was not created by mysterious forces of nature, experiences of various kinds (both when they involve violence and vulnerability, but also when they are manifestations of action and strength), do not naturally occur, but are rather constructed. Our Red Sky shows both poetically and concretely the hope that what may be the principal characteristics of being human – suffering and vulnerability – can also be mobilised to bring about change.

Installation view from Our Red Sky, with works by Moa Israelsson (in the middle) and Sara Vide-Ericsson (on walls). Photo: Hendrik Zeitler.