The House of Sweden is reopening to the public on April 17, and visitors will be welcomed back into the space with a trip to “Dreamland.”
The exhibition, which features two photography series by Swedish artist Helene Schmitz as well as an outdoor sound installation, takes a hard look at the impact of humans and technology on the natural world. In the photo series “The Bedrock,” Schmitz delves deep into the Aitik copper mine outside Gällivare, while in the striking group of photos that make up “The Forest,” the artist explores the ramifications of a fire in the former production forests of Västmanland.
“As a visual artist, I’ve also been interested in the image of nature, and I wanted to show also the scar or the abstraction, something disturbing, so I work with a contradiction of beauty. It’s not that I only show the destruction. I’m also relating to history, to landscape,” Schmitz told reporters via a video call from Sweden in March.
The Scandinavian architecture of the House of Sweden plays well with this exhibition, with water features inside and massive windows looking out onto the trees that line the walkway next to the embassy, providing a mirror to the often dark content within. The exhibition, specially curated for the building, offers an opportunity to reflect on climate change and environmental policy — and it’s also an important moment of “self-criticism,” Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter told reporters.
“Sweden, even though Helene shows the backside of our economy and so on, we are on the forefront of trying to do things [on climate change] even though we don’t like self-criticism. This is also what this exhibit is about, to show what we have done and having discussions on what we can do better. So we really want to use [the House of Sweden] as a place where we can combine art and political discussions on topics that are really important and urgent, and, of course, climate and biodiversity and so on is really a topic of importance,” Olofsdotter said.
“And Helene Schmitz, through her art, really reminds us of how urgent it is for all of us to act,” she added.
As for Schmitz, she said “it’s very courageous and brave of the Swedish Embassy to approve an exhibition that … questions two really important contributors to the Swedish economy, which is forestry and also mining.”
Schmitz’s work is an arresting, and unrelenting, exploration of how people interact with, alter and reflect on the natural world. In the “The Forest,” large-format pictures are set against stark black walls that are particularly striking backdrops for Sweden’s snowy landscape.
Schmitz’s 2017 images show trees lined up like bar codes, weighted with snow. The 2016 pictures were taken immediately after the fire, dire and terrifying. Meanwhile, with her return in 2019, there’s endless, endless trees on display — and yet little life. There’s an absence of what else makes up a forest — birds, animals, flowers, insects. It’s just trees, lined in rows, drowning in snow and stripped from fire. You’d expect tons of animals in a picture called “The Marsh,” for instance, but there’s a severity to it. There’s a silence to these pictures that plays well with the accompanying music, composed by Lisa Montan.
“I haven’t considered myself a political artist. But lately, in the last 10 years, with all the information but also what I have experienced with my own body, I felt I wanted to do something on this topic. And as a photographer, also the traveling around the world, I wanted to do something about Sweden, about my own country,” Schmitz said.
The second room of “Dreamland” focuses on mining. In addition to the large-format photography, there’s a video display for visitors to check out. While the other room definitely maintains an exhibition feel, the one housing “The Bedrock” feels a bit more like a conference room, but it’s still infused with the House of Sweden’s emphasis on light and the environment.
The photos here are archival pigment print on cotton paper, unlike the chromogenic prints of “The Forest.” These images are more washed out, in contrast to the bright vividness of the forest pictures, but this brings a sense of history and depth to the collection.
Once again, Schmitz effectively focuses on the linear elements of the natural world, reflecting on mankind’s transformation of nature with repetitive lines and cuts. In “Aitik Copper and Ice,” the copper strikes like blood on the rock face. It’s unyielding. Then you see the shards of ice clinging to the rock face. The lines pierce through the image.
“I really prefer that you see my work in person because you can go into the details, you can step back and you can notice something new, something really different,” Schmitz said.
People are small or barely present in Schmitz’s photographs here, although they loom large.
“We really think that this exhibit ‘Dreamland’ is both timely, of course, and extremely important because these are discussions that we’re having all over the world on how our behavior is influencing species and our nature,” Olofsdotter told reporters.
And after you step outside the exhibition space, don’t forget to stop by “The Messenger,” which features the sounds of a woodpecker, right under the ambassador’s office window.
“Dreamland by Helene Schmitz” will be on display until December 2021 in the House of Sweden, located at 2900 K St., NW. The exhibition will be open Saturdays and Sundays between 12 p.m. and 5 p.m.
The embassy notes that “all necessary measures have been taken including, but not limited to, temperature check, contact tracing, limiting people according to D.C. regulation guidelines, mask requirements, hand sanitizer stations, frequent cleaning of all high-touch areas, and safe social distancing throughout the building.”
If you’re unable to attend in person, there is a short video about the exhibition available for viewing. There will also be several virtual guided tours of the exhibition in April and May.
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.