Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Stockholm Metro Art Tour

Stockholm is busy right now branding itself as The Capital of Scandinavia, a title I can only guess they have seized upon without bothering to consult their neighbours. So, what does the Scandinavian 'capital' have to offer beyond painful prices and Abba nostalgia tours?

For starters, it has free guided tours of its subway's art programme organised by SL, the company who run the trains. The tour began with an introduction to the city's transport network: facts and figures stuff.

We then descended down into the metro, our spritely granny guide leading the way.

She seemed to enjoy guiding us; she told us she had been giving tours of the metro's art for 16 years. Just as it is difficult to maintain a stage show for such a length of time, it is is also very hard to give a tour for such a duration and for it to not become sleepy. Bizarre Bath is one of the rare examples of an old walking tour/show that still feels fresh despite its age, but this tour did not have such vigour: spontaneous it wasn't. Still, we slowly made our way through the station listening to the same story that had been spun out time and time before.

We were to be shown a number of the cave-like subway stations such as this one. The tour only ran to one hour in length and we visited just four stations, however, we learnt that the majority of the 100+ stations in the city feature artworks of one kind or another. In this way the tour was an eye opener as now, after the tour, I continue to look out for the art at each stop.

At the same time as getting a basic art appreciation tour, we also got some background history. The basic story was that the country was more powerful in the past and that not participating in the major world wars of the 20th Century has made the country rich again. 

Since the tour was spread over a number of stations, was interspersed with short metro rides, and the artworks were very different to one another, it was always going to be a difficult tour to hold together and frame through any coherent narrative. The solution of not bothering to develop anything across the tour was of course predictable, but I would have liked to have seen something to elevate it beyond a succession of moments. In situations like this I try to find something of my own to explore but even that largely eluded me till some time later when I got focussed on her hands.

Some of the locations were elaborate and more than a little kitsch. I can imagine this arrangement sinking into the background if I lived in Stockholm, but as a visitor I found it quite amusing.

Others were rather more predictable showing themes like sport or folklore. This is a 3D picture which we were encouraged to explore from both sides. In terms of art appreciation this was quite unlike the tour I took of the Kunstmuseum in Stuttgart, which aimed to get the public talking about the art themselves. This tour was more of a one way affair in which the guide pointed out the art and made some short comments such as, the footballers in this picture are the Swedish national team from the mid-seventies.

Whilst her face was not particularly expressive and the descriptions of the artworks anodyne, I came to notice that she used here hands a great deal to explain her ideas. I remember once coming across a theory of there being different cultural uses of hand gestures based on some studies in New York City back in the 70s: Italian Americans used their hands for emphasis, Jewish Americans used theirs to indicate the causality of ideas, etc. This got me focussed on her hands trying to figure out how she was using them. For a while, this completely revived my flagging interest in the tour. If I were to describe her hands I'd say she mostly used them to draw maps and demonstrate physical processes such as how layers of concrete and paint are put together, though now and again she was doing other things with them too. In fact, once I started noticing her hands and the two chunky blue rings she wore, I got far more interested in looking at them than at her face or even at the art itself. In this respect she reminded me of Jeff Goldblum who, in my opinion, has the most interesting hands in Hollywood and who can make a Spielberg movie watchable simply on account of his gesticulation.

One of the more impressive works was a large-scale piece that took up a major intersection of the subway. We were told that the figures were all based on real people.

She made a point of how even many Stockholm residents were not aware of some of the art works, such as this black trumpet on black tiles. I like subtlety and believe there should be more space for it in public art, but this struck me as something else. It looked to me like a not so interesting decorative art work that was largely invisible to the casual viewer. Maybe there are levels that escape me here but I had to think back to a conversation I had earlier in the day with a choreographer living in Stockholm about the generous level of public financial support for the arts in Sweden. We were having this conversation as we both came from places with much less public financial support and we were caught in the dilemma of both admiring it, and in his case benefitting from it, yet also doubting its effectiveness in producing great, or even half-reasonable, art. The old theory goes that if you want the great art you need to also have the depressingly mediocre and the downright terrible art too: any head requires a body.

These doubts didn't seem reflected in our guide's commentary, however, it was upbeat about the art right down to this final scratching on concrete with which the tour came to end. My overall feeling was that the tour could have been a great deal more dynamic and it was popular mostly because it was a rare free tourist activity in an otherwise over-expensive and under-exciting city. That said, there is always something to enjoy if you look hard enough and her hands really made the tour for me. There are more tours to come, however, so maybe the city has some unexpected delights waiting around the other side of the proverbial corner. 

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