Swedish Road Trip


House of Sweden Showcases Cars and Transportation Theme

For exhibit-goers expecting the influence of the stereotypical dour Swede in the House of Sweden’s new exhibit “On the Road—Illustration of Movement Through Art,” they won’t find it in the sparkling embassy venue display. Instead, they’ll find a contemporary, Americana-obsessed and even humorous artistic component to the embassy’s larger theme of cars and transportation designed to promote the country’s automotive industry—an industry with a huge market in the United States.

The House of Sweden, which includes the Swedish Embassy offices, is located in Georgetown on the Potomac River next to Thompson’s Boat House. And on a bright, frigid day in February, with slabs of ice covering the river, one could imagine being transported to Stockholm.

En route to view the art exhibit, one passes two state-of-the-art cars sparkling in a shower of sunlight through glass—a white Volvo and a black convertible Saab. Both Saab and Volvo are actually wholly owned subsidiaries of the Ford Motor Co. After some requisite salivating, it’s on the road downstairs to some Americana as seen through the eyes of Swedish artists.

According to the embassy’s press counselor, Anders Ericson, and its cultural counselor, Mats Widbom, a car can be as much a part of a Swede’s identity as it is an American’s. In fact, an unusual, and many might agree unlikely, subculture of car owners exists in Sweden called the “raggare,” which is largely based on American rock ‘n’ roll culture of the 1950s and the James Dean-like “rebel” persona.

In photojournalistic style, Lisa Selin’s pictures document the raggare driving and working on their vintage cars with sunglasses and slicked-back hair. Although the closest translation of “raggare” into English is “cruisers,” these throwbacks to the 1950s are most often referred to as “greasers.” The photos look as if they could have been shot in the United States, but they were taken in Sweden—even the one of a crooked, looming McDonald’s sign seen through a rain-splattered windshield.

One cannot help but be amused as well as surprised to learn that a group with the presumed innocence of 1950s rock ‘n’ rollers are viewed in Sweden as politically incorrect, according to Ericson. The raggare subculture exists primarily in rural Sweden, and the slow parades assembled to show off mint-condition automobiles can be a source of great irritation to town residents.

“But they’re not troublemakers like Hell’s Angels,” Ericson assured. Unlike other parts of Europe, where the greaser subculture popped up but faded out, it has endured in Sweden. Is it part of a Swedish-American dream? Ericson speculated it is, and Selin’s somewhat dreamy photographs of a bygone American era seem to support his view.

In discussing Sweden’s contemporary art scene, Widbom observed that photography and video have become dominant forces. So it comes as no surprise that both of these media are well represented in “On the Road.” A second photography display, “Truckers and Others,” showcases scores of snapshots of California truckers taken by Annica Karlsson Rixon, an internationally known photographer. Rixon’s father was a truck driver in Sweden, and, for a time, she lived in Los Angeles. There, she started shooting trucker photography series focusing on the trucks’ different colors.

The series on display in “On the Road” focuses exclusively on blue trucks, but Rixon has also photographed another series of white trucks and of red trucks. According to Widbom, Rixon snapped all of the photos from the road while driving with her left hand—at times arousing the suspicion and ire of truckers who wondered why their pictures were being taken. Shots taken at an upward angle from Rixon’s car give the truckers a dominating, looming effect.

The video installation in “On the Road” is Mikael Lundberg’s “Lifeline 2003-2004.” Although Lundberg lives in Sweden, the project could have been made anywhere in the world. And in fact, the video installation, with its accompanying map log, has already been exhibited worldwide.

Lundberg wore a global positioning satellite navigation system on his shoulder that measured all of his movements for 506 days, and the log reflects maps for 354 of those days. Whether walking, driving, sailing or flying, all of Lundberg’s movements were tracked by satellite. The result is a video record of one human’s movements through space, emphasizing the mobile aspect of contemporary life. Lundberg collaborated on his complicated “Lifeline” project with a research group at a technical high school in Sweden because the researchers had to devise ways to translate the results of the GPS tracking into graphic form.

Nope, no dour Swedes here. In “On the Road,” we see Sweden showcasing some of its best qualities—contemporary, progressive and open to different walks of life.

On the Road—Illustration of Movement Through Art through March 23 House of Sweden 901 30th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 467-2621 or visit www.swedenabroad.se.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.