Fables before Earth´s downfall

– Johanna Theander, Art Writer

A solitary truck races past an abandoned rest stop at night. A street lamp flickers and a neon sign that’s on its last legs buzzes. Just like most rest stops, there is a distinct lack of aesthetics beyond the purely functional. This is a place where everyone’s welcome but never really belongs. And yet for some people it’s part of their day­ to ­day lives. In Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s film The Burden, these people are the leading characters. The film Bath House is centred around a bath house that’s falling into disrepair. It cracks and crumbles like the welfare state that built it. Here, a gaggle of awkward characters come together for an even more awkward meeting. Although the film Tord and Tord is also about a meeting, it focuses more on the loneliness and mental ill health of the individual. In her latest film, Something to Remember, the characters sing a lullaby to an adult who is resigned to a looming disaster yet hoping for something more. What was initially a goodnight song by Alice Tegnér has been transformed into a film featuring a series of melancholic and surreal contemporary scenes set to Hans Appelqvist’s musical interpretation and with text written by Martin Luuk.

Melancholy permeates Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s films. The four films in the exhibition hark to a tradition of Swedish cultural production that is full of existential anxiety and dominated by life’s toil and struggle and a sense of its futility. Yet there is also a longing for redemption, for salvation. It is easy to draw comparisons to Roy Andersson with films such as Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living. Niki Lind­roth von Bahr’s films also have absurd, dreamlike undertones. Perhaps this stems primarily from the medium itself, where painstakingly con­structed miniature models create a skewed perception of reality, and the boundary between reality and the model world becomes blurred. Each environment is carefully designed right down to the tiniest detail, such as the rows of cornflake boxes under the relentless fluorescent lights of the grocery store, the writing scrawled on the lockers of the bath house changing room, and the depressing houseplants that adorn the offices. All of this demonstrates a deep understanding of our contemporary everyday environments, but it also generates uncertainty about where reality ends and fantasy starts to take hold. This is something we also find in films by David Lynch and Jessica Hausner.

The characters who populate the bath houses, rest stops, and small sub­ urban cafés are all dolls representing miniature animals in Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s films. Through the use of time­ consuming stop motion and thousands of hours of work, they dance, talk, and sing in fluid motion. Oddly enough, because the characters do not represent people, it actually becomes easier for the viewer to relate to them. It’s as if Niki Lindroth von Bahr uses these dolls to condense what it means to be human, while also creating a comfortable distance that makes it easier to understand and relate to them.
All of Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s films have political agency, albeit more or less explicit. She uses the animal dolls to tell modern fables with a political sense of morality. The society that emerges in her films is that of the humdrum nine­ to ­five, working at meaningless jobs just to bring home the dough and worries about precarious employment. The increasing wage gaps and social injustices are personified in The Burden by the rhesus monkeys who sing “own dreams and own needs”, and the beagle hound who looks out over the shattered supermarket and says, “No worries, no hassle, when the burden has been lifted from my shoul­ders.” It’s all too easy to interpret the burden simply as a low ­paid job and, by extension, as the absurd injustices of capitalism. But if you look further, it’s also about the loneliness that lives within all of us, which Niki Lindroth von Bahr also portrays in different ways in her other films.

It’s about the loneliness that emerges in the promised land of neoliber­alism where solitude is strength and happiness lie in your own hands—a land without mercy for all of us who also fail. Or the loneliness of those who suffer from mental illness, as portrayed in Tord and Tord, where the main character seems to be in an early stage of schizophrenia. In Bath House Niki Lindroth von Bahr not only deals with the downfall of the welfare state, but uses it to drive home the thesis on the individualism of liberalism in the characters’ absurd lack of empathy.

In Something to Remember, Niki Lindroth von Bahr connects the voices and impressions she created in her earlier films and condenses them into a lullaby for adults. The lullaby becomes a memorial of our time as we stand on the edge of the abyss. There is the criticism of the injustices of capitalism. There is the never­ ending sorrow and loneliness. And ul­timately there is the result of man’s manipulation of nature where the CERN particle accelerator creates a black hole in the search for the particle for God. At the same time, the scientists at CERN ask God for emancipation—is this the utmost possible irony?

It’s difficult to put into words the mood that Niki Lindroth von Bahr brings to life in her films, despite it being tangible and constantly pres­ent. It arouses emotions that are difficult to define, such as deep sorrow and sadness mixed with hope and a hint of rebellion. Those born in the 80 ́s have perhaps already noted similarities with the introduction to the classic Swedish children’s programme Skymingssagor (Twilight Fairy­ tales), where a solitary train runs around a model land not unlike Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s model rest stop in The Burden. But it’s not just the visual that coheres—the music, text, and imagery create the same diffi­cult­ to ­describe melancholy that you can just about experience and feel.

Maybe that’s for the best... Rather than try to put it into words, we should instead enjoy Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s tribute to all the lonely beings with the existential worries of precarious, never ­ending drudg­ery, creatures who also have an intense longing for something more. 


© Johanna Theander, Färgfabriken 2019.

The text is written by Johanna Theander on behalf of Färgfabriken for the catalog made for the solo exhibition Something to Remember with Niki Lindroth von Bahr, produced by Färgfabriken 2019.


Something to Remember
Solo exhibition Niki Lindroth von Bahr

Färgfabriken, 2019