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  • Mar 18, 2013

Wish You Were Here! Kitschy Swedish Exhibit Opens at the ASI

MINNEAPOLIS — March 18, 2013 — As Pablo Picasso once said, “Good taste is a horrible thing. Taste is the enemy of creativity.” He may as well have been speaking of one particular exhibit, opening at the American Swedish Institute Sat., March 30 and running through Sun., June 2. From Sweden comes a most unusual — and highly captivating — folk-art exhibition, #NameThisExhibit: 1200 Birchwood Plaques.

The collection — equal parts contemporary art installation, memory wall, and kitsch overload — is an assemblage of 1200 unique birch board pictures once displayed prominently and ubiquitously in private homes, restaurants, tourist information booths, gift shops, cultural clubs and meeting rooms throughout Sweden.

Sold as tourist souvenirs in the mid-1900s, these plaques were created by informal and itinerant artists, who would angle-cut small slices of birch tree trunk. Upon these they would typically paint outdoor scenes, or affix scenic postcards and add painted embellishments or three-dimensional objects.

The artworks represent the vanishing cultural heritage of a newly urbanized people, and mirror the dreams of those who rarely traveled but took pride in documenting their few adventures. “In the middle of the last century, there was a flood of Swedes moving into industrial cities — which coincided with the rise of this birch wood art form,” says Scott Pollock, director of exhibitions, collections and programs, American Swedish Institute.  “The scenes these plaques usually depict represent nostalgia for the bucolic settings of one’s past — reminiscent of leisure, visits to ancestral summer homes or aspirational sightseeing trips. Imagine something your grandpa might have had hanging in his suburban, paneled basement, and you’ll get the idea.”

“But there’s more to it than that, and in this exhibit we examine the deeper reasons this collection of plaques is so captivating,” adds Pollock. “Why is there always a birch tree painted on the edge of each plaque? In Swedish landscape painting, literature and poetry — the birch tree is a symbol of Swedish summer, representing the light in the dark, standing in contrast to melancholic evergreen forests. The birch tree is symbolic of the Nordic soul.”

“We also will delve into the disappearance of this fascinating and ever-present art form in the late seventies,” Pollock says. “It sunk so far, that few antique dealers in Sweden would even deign to sell these objects — they were seen as so insignificant, they were not even considered kitschy.”

In honor of the vanished birch wood art form, visitors to the exhibition will be able to create birch wood plaques to add to the display, and even help name the exhibit. Votes for the new name may be cast at the museum after March 30, or online on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AmericanSwedishInstitute or Twitter , #NameThisExhibit. The new name will be announced at 9 a.m. on May 1, via Facebook and Twitter.

The American Swedish Institute will also celebrate the exhibit with two not-to-be-missed public events:  

  • Bad Art Installation: Community Collectors Trunk Show will be presented on May 18 (International Museum Day) from 1–3 p.m, and is free with museum admission. Visitors are invited to bring their own out-of-fashion or artistically dubious wall hangings to place on the wall in the ASI’s Osher Gallery. Participants will decide which five objects make the cut, collaboratively discussing the definitions of bad or good art, and what’s ugly or aesthetically acceptable.

Curated by Swedish artists Borghild Håkansson and Staffan Backlund, the exhibit can’t help but provoke discussion of the eternal question, “What makes art?” Recent exhibitions of this collection in Sweden generated tremendous media attention and audience interest. The collection is now on tour in the United States for the first time, arriving in Minneapolis from its U.S. debut in Seattle. For more information on the exhibit, visit http://www.asimn.org/exhibitions-collections/exhibitions/namethisexhibit-1200-birchwood-plaques-swedens-post-futuristic.

The American Swedish Institute (ASI) is a vibrant arts and cultural organization, museum, and historic home located at 2600 Park Avenue near downtown Minneapolis. Founded in 1929 by Swedish immigrant newspaper publisher Swan J. Turnblad, ASI serves as a gathering place for people to share stories and experiences around universal themes of tradition, migration, craft and the arts, all informed by enduring ties to Sweden. For directions or more information, visit www.ASImn.org.

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