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ÖREBRO, Sweden — Festivals and biennials are typically the purview of curators and organizers, backed by endowed institutions. But in the Swedish city of Örebro, a new paradigm has been building momentum: since 2008, the Swedish city roughly two hours outside Stockholm has celebrated OpenART, a biennial art festival conceived, organized, and conceptually driven by artists. “I’m just an artist,” says co-founder and organizer Lars Jonsson. “I don’t want to be alone, so I do this for my friends.”
The festival began as a collaboration between Mats Nilsson — then the head of a city-run art gallery looking to radically alter the perception of public art in Örebro — and Jonsson, an artist who was just returning from years in Germany to rekindle his relationship with his homeland. OpenART has built over the last seven years to become the largest public art biennial in Scandinavia. As Nilsson has largely stepped back from organizing this year’s OpenART, I caught a moment with Jonsson in the hectic few days before the festival’s opening on June 14, which kicks off a summer of installations, events, and tour activities which will engage the work of 72 international artists all over Örebro through early September.
“The idea is that it has to be so much art, that when you come here you will not miss it. If it’s bad weather, when you go inside a mall or something, there will be art. You have to be conquered by the artist,” Jonsson says. The OpenART temporary office headquarters are an ebullient chaos of artists and organizers who have been overseeing intensive installation protocol on some 130 pieces within the relatively small area of downtown Örebro.
Detroit artist Michael McGillis walked me around the central exhibition spaces, pointing out works-in-progress, unfolding even in the final days before the festival opening. Big objects seem to be the unofficial theme of this year’s OpenART — I witnessed the installation of giant popcorn, by Swedish artist Anton Hjrätmyr, and the construction of a jambox of epic proportions by Spanish, Brooklyn-based artist Eduardo Balanza Martinez.
The festival features a host of artists from China, showing in a group at the Örebro Läns Museum. There is also a gastro-intestinal fountain of sorts by Cheng Dapeng in the moat surrounding the city’s historic castle, and an installation by one of the event’s biggest names, Ai Weiwei. Ai’s piece “Think different” was installed in 10 hours, overnight, creating the illusion that an entire alleyway of hanging biohazard suits had appeared suddenly above a main thoroughfare. These multi-colored rows of suits, given life by the breeze that rustles through the open-air corridor, are the same as those worn by the factory workers who labor in devastating conditions for low wages in order to construct Apple electronics, among others.
Ai wasn’t the only artist working with loaded protest imagery: Cuban artist Erik Ravelo showed work from “The Untouchables,” his controversial series that addresses issues of violence against children with sculptures that feature children crucified against the perpetrators of their abuse.
McGillis’s work, by contrast, is subtler; his interactive installations flirt with the edges where natural sciences meet imagination. His piece appears in four pieces, under the title Systema Naturae, lifted from the series of publications of Carl Linnaeus, a Swede, who popularized modern classification systems of nature. McGillis has attempted a new classification system, with “Umbra Vitae (Shadow Life), Infra Omina (Below Everything), Supra Omina (Above Everything),” and “Respicere Post Tergum (Look Behind You),” each designating one of his installations, which feature ghostly coyotes, indistinct skeletal remains, and an entire viewing chamber that allows participants to observe nature through screens that look like nighttime security monitors. McGillis, a champion of repurposed materials, was in his element in Örebro, as many of the artists displaying work scoured the city for materials, transforming the communal workspace outside the city center into a flurry of activity, paralleling its former incarnation as a truck stop.
OpenART is too eclectic and too diverse to yield a single takeaway, but much of the work seems to address issues of commerce. In seeking support for the festival, Jonsson sought and found corporate sponsorship — a practice unheard of within the Scandinavian art scene. Yet, despite the corporate funding, he says, “A lot of the art is against consumerism — utilizing all this salvaged material. Putting this message against consumerism, because they’re [the artists] twisting perception.”
“Art goes under your skin,” Jonsson says, “but it feels nice.” True enough, and Jonsson is to be commended for cleverly wielding resources provided by consumer agents to challenge the very values of consumer culture. At the end of the day, though, OpenART is an art festival with artists — not sponsors — in mind.
OpenART 2015 continues throughout 80 venues in Örebro, Sweden through September 6.