A display of kitschy birchwood plaque souvenirs at the American Swedish Institute asks “What is art?” and probes what makes a memory.
There’s nothing quite like a vacation souvenir. Thank goodness.
Souvenirs are kitschy proof that you went somewhere. They make us smile, even as their origins drift into nostalgia. Cheap, yet precious, they’re impossible to throw away, destined to join their predecessors in a forgotten cardboard box.
One day, though, someone will unearth these mementos and see in these relics of tourism, these totems of escape and return, the stuff of an international art tour.
No, really. That’s why the American Swedish Institute is proudly perplexed to host an exhibit of 1,200 birchwood plaques onto which tourist postcards have been glued, then embellished with paint, twigs, the occasional thermometer and birch trees of modeling clay. With a mix of sentimentality, sincerity and just a smidge of sarcasm, the institute is using the plaques to pose the question: What is art?
“They’re too commercial to be folk art, and too folksy to be considered fine art,” said Scott Pollock, the institute’s director of exhibitions, collections and programs. The plaques are, however, immediately familiar to many Minnesotans with deep roots. They’re the stuff of cabins Up North, of roadside flea markets and musty antique shops.
The exhibit, in place through June 2, doesn’t have a name beyond “#NameThisExhibit: 1200 Birchwood Plaques.” That’s where viewers come in. The institute is taking nominations for names, either at the exhibit or online on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AmericanSwedishInstitute, or on Twitter @AmSwedInstitute, #NameThisExhibit. The winning name will be announced at 9 a.m. May 1, via Facebook and Twitter.
The night before the announcement will feature a public bash, “Cocktails at the Castle: Birchwood, Bonfires and Decoupage Revisited,” with outdoor music by local bands Teenage Moods and Dan Mariska and the Boys Choir, a hip-hop set by Zac HB and a live art performance by six local artists making birchwood plaques. That event is from 7 to 11 p.m. April 30. Details are at www.asimn.org.
That’s quite a to-do for an art form that, to be blunt, can be a groaner. But it’s a charming groaner.
Curator Curt Pederson recalled the staff breaking into giggles as they unpacked the plaques, from the collection of Borghild Håkansson and Staffan Backlund, both Swedish artists who like exploring how art gets defined. Each board was swaddled in mere bubble wrap, a far cry from the scene last year when Helena Hernmarck’s precious tapestries arrived for exhibition.
“Those boxes were opened only when their curator was present, and a conservator was on-site for the unrolling of the tapestries,” Pederson said. “No one was laughing.”
He’s now become so taken with the birchwood plaques that he’s vowed to repack them with an enhanced level of care.
The significance of birch
Entering the gallery of plaques inspires a fleeting sense of gazing into hundreds of sad blue eyes. Always cut on the bias to show a bit of birchbark, the oval plaques were a boon to sawyers seeking to supplement their income, and to artists seeking even a modest income, Pollock said.
Birchwood has an iconic status in Sweden. “That is the Nordic soul — the white and the dark,” he said. “It’s the tree that stands out against the dark pine forests,” a stripe of light in the midst of melancholy.
A close look at the plaques can reveal the edge of the original postcard beneath the layers of brushstrokes added to fill in the face of the wood. Birch trees were a common motif, but artists added clouds, landscapes, animals — even palm trees for an exotic locale.
Most destinations, however, were simply out of town, as someone from Burnsville might visit Bemidji.
Yet in the context of an emerging Swedish economy in the early 20th century, such a trip was huge. Hydroelectric power transformed work. Bridges eased travel. Incomes improved, enabling people to take vacations. Upon their return home, they wanted to remember where they’d been — and also remind their neighbors that they’d left.
Pollock said he’s been trying to find an analogy for how we exhibit our current travels. Facebook? Perhaps. Photos on iPhones? The swipe of a finger soon may provoke the same reaction as a fat wallet of vacation photos.
Heck, postcards still exist, although their use on birchwood plaques rarely does. Chalk up part of that decline to urbanization. “The ’70s showed up and suddenly packing up the kids in the auto isn’t as cool as the neighbor who takes their family on an airplane to the Caribbean,” Pollock said.
Tastes also changed, “like my mother’s spoon collection,” he added. “At some point you say,” and his voiced dropped to a whisper, “ ‘Let’s put this away now.’ ”
Suddenly, they’re retro
Today, birchwood plaques have an air of retro chic. They’re kitschy and charming and even historical.
Are they art? Pollock welcomes the debate, even using a quote from Pablo Picasso to introduce the exhibit: “Good taste is a horrible thing. Taste is the enemy of creativity.”
Writing in the exhibition catalog for the exhibit’s U.S. debut in Seattle, Borghild Håkansson said she began collecting the plaques because each is unique and handmade. Best of all, they are tangible keepsakes of an encounter at a time when we experience more and more through the distance of a screen, whether on a computer, TV or phone.
“A graspable world is one in which we can engage,” she wrote. “Perhaps we can say that the birch board picture stands as a symbol of the graspable, the ability to be made happy by that familiar and yet still unknown place which one can long for and wonder about.”
Which pretty much describes a vacation souvenir: a memory you can hold in your hand.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185