by Lorella Scacco
In her photographs and video works, Maria Friberg deals with the sociological aspects of our time by creating an interplay between beauty and ambiguity. With a critical and sentimental eye, she skilfully documents society through her reinterpretation of shared models. Friberg belongs to the "Nordic miracle" generation, a group of artists from Nordic countries who rose to fame during the 1990s and who caught the attention of international art critics for the quality of their artwork (1). In 2000, David Elliott invited Maria Friberg to Organising Freedom an exhibition held at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. This was a major event in the exploration of contemporary Nordic art that was taking place in those years; it also showcased works by Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Olafur Eliasson, Henrik Håkansson, Peter Land, Ann-Sofi Sidén, Knut Åsdam and others. As Elliott writes, in the 1990s, Nordic women artists gained greater exposure and attracted increased public attention (2); also, there was a general tendency among artists to deal with the psychological and behavioural states of society. It was a decade characterised by emotional sensitivity - which he defined "touchy/feely" - and by a rediscovery of male and female inner nature (3). In this respect, Friberg's artistic research has been exemplary since her early works, especially with regard to her assiduous investigation of the male universe, which she compared with female experience and, in the wider sense, with the actual concept of identity. Confront me back (1997) marks the start of her artistic career. In this video, she analyses male vulnerability by filming a man in a business suit sitting in the back seat of a car and slowly losing consciousness; whether he is falling asleep or fainting is unclear. At first, the contrast between the man's physical condition and his elegant and powerful figure may raise a smile but then it invites thoughts on issues of self control and lack of inhibition, truth and appearance. This video features a car, a typical male symbol, which the artist would develop further in her later works.
The video Somewhere else (1998) focuses once again on masculinity and power, showing men's legs fidgeting under a table. There are five men dressed in dark clothing who are supposedly taking part to an institutional event, like a conference or a work meeting. The audience cannot see the faces of these hypothetical businessmen; however, the movements of their legs and feet betray their emotion and rivalry. Their legs come closer and pull away in a sequence of attraction and repulsion led by feelings of fear and domination; a kind of sensual dance under the table, which invites multiple readings. Driven (1999), another video conceived and directed by Friberg in collaboration with Monika Larsen Dennis, is also imbued with ambiguity: it shows two bodies dressed in black dancing without ever showing their faces. Despite the strong erotic tension emanating from the characters' dancing bodies, it is hard to make out their sexual identity. Due to this "ambiguity", this video has often been shown at feminist events, like the renowned Konstfeminism retrospective exhibition, premiered at Dunkers Kulturhus in 2005 (4), which presented a history of Swedish feminist art from the 1970s until the present. Around the year 2000, a new feminist artistic current developed in Sweden, with artists like Catti Brandelius, Johanna Gustafsson and Fia-Stina Sandlund (5), who borrowed feminist expressions and methods in vogue in the 1970s to express their own female imagery. Earlier on, during the 1960s, some young female artists like Helena Lindgren and Gunvar Nelson made several experimental videos and documentaries on women and female relationships. It is interesting to notice that, unlike the previous generation of feminist filmmakers and artists, Maria Friberg shifts the focus from women to men, from female to male life stories, in an ?equal rights? perspective that belongs to the artist's education. Friberg depicts present-?day man through female eyes, which makes her artistic research innovative and effective.
In the 1990s, similar issues were also approached by other female Nordic artists like Eija-Liisa Ahtila (human and sexual relationships, psychoses, communication problems and identity), Annica Karlsson Rixon ("gender issues", the relationship between painting and photography in history), Elina Brotherus (emotional relationships), Maria Hedlund (the ambiguous presence of the human body), Anneè Olofsson (loving relationships and the quest for an aesthetic of beauty) and Annika von Hausswolf (issues of physicality and absence). In the late 1990s, video art was an increasingly popular medium among artists. This was because it offered a faster way of portraying reality and commenting on society, which are two fundamental features of artistic research in Nordic countries. Unlike other video artists (Ann-Sofi Sidén and Gitte Villesen, to name but a couple), Maria Friberg does not adopt a classic documentary narrative approach, typical of the video technique; on the contrary, she uses visual metaphors to film her sociological analysis of reality. Her approach to video art reveals strong connections with painting and its iconic power. In fact, Friberg defines her own videos as "moving paintings" and her pictures as "tableaux" (6).
Since the beginning of her artistic career, she has operated across both photography and video, although she has always made constant reference to art history and in particular to Nordic painting, from Schjerfbeck to Hammershøi, from Friedrich to Millais. How could Friberg not be influenced by Helene Schjerfbeck's artistic boldness (7)? This Finnish painter, who spent the last few years of her life in Sweden, often portrayed women as well as scenes of war and death, which were inspired by some epic poems. Back in the nineteenth century, Schjerfbeck proved sceptics wrong and showed that grande manière paintings could actually be realised by women too. For this reason, however, she also attracted criticism from some former women painters of the time, like Fanny Churberg, who declared: «We, who support equality for women, nonetheless d not support the involvement of women painters in the battlefield (8)». Friberg's answer to Churberg's statement is found in her photographic series Way ahead (2009): these pictures show some men rising in a dusty landscape like soldiers after a battle, reminding several historical battle paintings exhibited in museums. Here, Friberg chooses to show male exhaustion rather than the preceding peak of strength and virility; this is also the case with Still Lives #11 (2007), a photograph whose construction recalls Schjerfbeck's Wounded Warrior in the Snow (1880), a painting dominated by the soldier's solitude and exhaustion. Both Still Lives #11 and Way ahead have an oblong horizontal format; as Friberg explains, «long and narrow, these pictures give a sense of time and concurrently refer to?the oblong screens of feature film. This horizontality also anchors the?pictures to the ground, they become extreme landscape paintings (9)».
The artist blends photography, video and landscape painting in a continuous, open flow of different genres, which is why she considers her works as "mental paintings". They combine cognitive needs with subjective projections, where landscape/nature becomes a middle ground between the self and the Other.
In 2000, Friberg moved to New York, where she lived for two years. She was particularly struck by America's "car culture", which will later inspire her video Transmission (2010), where she filmed cars from underneath (10). Friberg writes: «I first got the idea when I was living in NYC 2001-2002. Then I just wanted to put a camera in the one of the holes in the street and shoot the flow of cars passing over your body. It was a strong feeling of power, macho cars and speed in the city (11)».
Technically, the artist filmed cars from underneath while they were rolling along a glass pane. In the video, however, cars appear to be moving in a loop from the top to the bottom, in a freefall of car bodies, whose sound is like a wind amplifying their passage. In this video installation, Friberg wants to document her American experience. However, she also knows that, over the last ten years, the automotive market has been hit hard; this has caused a marketing shift towards green politics and recycling design, which are values that also typify present-?day masculinity.
The idea of male power is associated with politics. No time to fall (2001) is one of Friberg's most politically committed videos: here again, she explores the architecture of power; this time, however, she chooses a well-known character: President Bush. Friberg edits his first Speech to the Nation broadcast by the CNN, cutting the spoken parts and leaving only the silent pauses, rich of small gestures revealing fear, insecurity and confusion. The mask of verbal rhetoric falls, exposing the truth spoken through body language. This video crafts a psychological portrait of one of the world's most powerful men, who must look infallible but who, unconsciously, through his gestures, actually responds to external pressure like everybody else.
In the US, Friberg was fascinated by the female stereotypes recreated and taken on camera by Cindy Sherman; who in the 1980s brought to fame "staged photography", where photographs were designed and staged before shooting. This said, Friberg's artwork in general and photographs in particular are mainly influenced by international body art performance, which she studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm (12). That probably explains why she chooses not to use professional actors in her photographs but ordinary people she meets by chance and invites to her photographic sets. The artist directs their movements and positions; however, their lack of experience promotes spontaneity and may produce some variations to the original scene.
While Transmission explores issues of power and masculinity as well as the relationship between Man and Nature, Calmation (2012), on the contrary, expresses the desire to find a balance among different inputs coming from the outside: it shows a man trying to keep his position against strong water currents. Here again, there is a visual metaphor of chaos vs calm, of the quest of new forms of balance in a constantly changing society and, finally, of the courage needed in order to deal with change while keeping focused on one's objectives. The setting of the video Calmation was inspired by the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Millais's Ophelia, after falling in a stream while picking flowers, keeps on singing while drowning. Maria Friberg's man, on the contrary, struggles to keep afloat and his effort shows through the tension of his facial and neck muscles. It is interesting to notice how, by switching the sex of the main character, the artist also subverts the notion of weakness, which is traditionally associated with women, and places it into the male sphere, giving it a contemporary twist. After all, society is constantly changing; human relationships and relationships with the outside world take different forms and are shaped by different lifestyles and means of communication. Information technology has changed the quality of human relationships profoundly; its excessive use has shown that it can also be a dangerous tool. The issues explored in Friberg's most recent works like Duration and "..." (2014) deal with social isolation, an increasing phenomenon among teenagers and adults brought about by the Internet and social networks. In fact, these platforms allow users to live a parallel life made of nicknames and personas created with the purpose of concealing one's weaknesses and insecurities. As a result, far from intensifying contacts among people, social sites sometimes drag users into an actual state of isolation from the real community. Through her "mental paintings", Friberg keeps drawing attention to contemporary human weaknesses. This time, unlike her earlier works, where she focused mainly on the male sphere, the artist embraces all genders and ages, showing her extraordinary awareness of our changing society and lifestyles and, at the same time, her unremitting interest in the community, typical of her Nordic upbringing.
(1) The expression "Nordic miracle" was coined in 1998 during the exhibition Nuit blanche: scènes nordiques: les années 90 at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris.
(2) D. Elliott, Foreword in the catalogue Organising Freedom. Nordic Art of the '90s, Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2000, p.7
(3) Ibidem, p.16
(4) This exhibition was organised jointly by the Göteborgs Konstmuseum and the Liljevalchs Konsthall.
(5) Se Y. Eriksson, The Visualized Femininity, in the book From Modernism to Contemporary Art, Swedish Female Artists, Yvonne Eriksson and Anette Göthlund (eds.), Bokförlaget Signum, Lund 2003, Sweden
(6) Artist's declaration quoted in her website: www.mariafriberg.com
(7) Helene Schjerfbeck (Helsinki 1862-Saltsjöbaden 1946)
(8) Quoted in M. Valkonen, Arte in Finlandia Otava, Helsinki 1992, p. 46
(9) Artist's declaration quoted in her website: www.mariafriberg.com
(10) The same thing happened to Annica Rixon who, after living o the West Coast, realised the Truckers an Others series.
(11) Artist's declaration quoted in her website: www.mariafriberg.com
(12) Among her teachers at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm were Monica Nickels, interested in American "actions", and German artist Ulay, a pseudonym for Frank Uwe Laysiepen, one of the major performance artists in the 1970s, who worked with Marina Abramovich between 1976 and 1989.