Immigrants and young glass artisans refresh Swedish culture in a new show at the American Swedish Institute.
Nothing trumpets an immigrant’s success better than building a castle in the new country. Which is what Swedish-born newspaper publisher Swan Turnblad did more than a century ago when he erected a turreted mansion that is now home to the American Swedish Institute.
It’s an immigrant’s dream writ large — proof that he and his people belong in this town, this state, this country. But times change and so do the immigrants, their stories and their dreams.
Standing recently in the institute’s new addition, which echoes a traditional Swedish farmstead rather than a castle, glass artist Ingalena Klenell had a different notion of immigrant life as she and her artist husband, Ragnar, finished installing her newest project, “Homeland.”
The ambitious centerpiece of “Pull, Twist, Blow,” an exhibit of contemporary glass art that runs through Oct. 13, Klenell’s installation consists of a half-dozen glass trees clustered together. Their hollow trunks are about 5 inches in diameter and at least 6 feet tall, topped with sparkling crystalline crowns of glass shaped to suggest abstract leaves and branches. Made by pouring molten glass into molds, her forest is a fragile fantasy reminiscent of the frost landscapes that materialize on old windows on bitter winter days.
“ ‘Homeland’ is about longing,” Klenell said. “It’s about leaving home and then constructing an image of home, of cutting roots and planting new roots in a new land. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But you try. That is what immigrants do.”
Swedish landscape scenes — of conifer-edged lakes and boats bobbing in sunny coves — can be glimpsed behind her trees. The scenes are simple snapshots that Klenell enlarged and printed onto a translucent material that she then fused to irregular sheets of glass that now dangle from the ceiling. Suffused with light from the gallery’s windows, the sheets look like big transparent postcards, their shimmering landscapes hovering like fragments of a dream or memories of vistas long ago glimpsed from a lakeside cabin.
Glass by 10 other Swedes — mostly young, iconoclastic artisans — is installed in the castle’s ornate solarium and salons. Complementary pieces by eight Minnesota glass artists line the sunny concourse that connects the two wings of the institute, setting up a smart dialogue about how art glass is evolving in the United States and Sweden.
The exhibit comes at a critical juncture in Swedish culture, Klenell said. Recent news reports tell of riots in suburban Stockholm, where impoverished immigrants — many of them refugees from war-torn African and Middle Eastern nations — are struggling to find work and acceptance. Their troubles are shocking to Swedes, who have long prided themselves on their egalitarian principles and embrace of foreigners. But the attitude of native Swedes is changing, and some are less welcoming of immigrants as the nation struggles to adjust to international forces beyond its control.
“It’s inspiring to be here because in Sweden we think immigration is a boring story, but we must be reminded of this story,” Klenell said, referring to Turnblad’s assimilation and to the Swedish Institute’s recent efforts to welcome the Somali and Ethiopian immigrants who now live nearby.
The plight of Sweden’s legendary glass factories — Kosta Boda and Orrefors — is another immigrant tale. The factories are located in tiny villages in southern Sweden, an area nearly decimated by 19th-century poverty and mass emigration to America, especially Minnesota. Artisans persisted there, however, and gradually developed a “Kingdom of Crystal” that from the 1950s until the 1990s enjoyed international acclaim for its elegant handmade tableware. Then that success was undermined by changing taste and lower-cost labor abroad. Manufacturing ended at Boda in 2008 and Orrefors closed last year.
“So there’s nothing left of the small glass factories,” said Klenell, who has memorialized them with bouquets of delicate glass flowers in the castle’s solarium.
But Swedish artisans are again striking out in new directions, as seen in the “Pull, Twist, Blow” show. It’s a mixed-bag sampler of high-style theorizing and lowbrow assaults on Swedish design traditions.
“Rock ’n’ roll rebel” Fredrik Nielsen surrounds his gaudy pitchers with hot-pink graffiti. Matilda Kästel sprinkled glass shards over a sculpture of her own torso. Karl Magnus Nilsson stuck little etched-glass heads in a pickle jar. Åsa Jungnelius concocted a feminist dressing room for Cinderella complete with a stiletto glass slipper and satirical pinups of bare-chested male glass artists. Ludvig Lofgren launched an all-out attack on good taste via a hilariously tacky sculpture incorporating psychedelic mushrooms, glass skulls, a snake and fake fur.
Such outré behavior would be shocking in the old “Kingdom of Crystal,” but times change, and so have Sweden’s artisans and their aspirations.