Stereotypes thrive in official culture
Swedish design for the active life. To Dec 29. Tue-Sun, noon-6pm, Wed, noon-8pm. Free. York Quay Gallery, 235 Queens Quay W. 416-973-3000.

Photo installation by Katja Pratschke and Gustáv Hámos. To Feb 15. Mon 10am-5pm, Tue-Wed 10am-6pm, Thu 10am-7pm, Fri 10am-4pm, Sat 11am-4pm. Free. Goethe Institut Inter Nationes Gallery, 163 King W. 416-593-5257.

Paintings by Scott Griffin. To Feb 9. Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10:30am-5pm. Free. Canada Quay, Harbourfront Centre. 416-973-3000.

Did you hear the one about the Swedish designer who was so egalitarian he made a yellow seat cushion complete with Braille type describing the colour yellow so even the blind could fully enjoy it?

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but Saldo’s “Blind Fabric Pattern” is part of Design for Every Body: Swedish design for the active life, at the York Quay Gallery, one of three exhibitions now on in Toronto that purport to be windows onto national cultures (Swedish, German and Canadian). There’s a nebulous relationship between art and culture, which these shows let us explore. What happens when governments and cultural institutions ask art to stand in for national identity? If these show are any gauge, nothing new happens. Rather than expanding our understanding of national phyches, the shows tend to confirm commonly held stereotypes — of Swedes as rampantly egalitarian minimalists, for example. The objects displayed in Design for Every Body, a collaboration among various Swedish government and cultural institutions, showcases cleanly designed, brightly coloured everyday objects that can be easily used by those with disabilities or in special circumstances. The objects range from a cute little lawn mower that operates itself to ergonomically correct toothbrushes, from fitted shirts for nursing mothers to the “do Swing” lamp by Thomas Bernstrand for Droog Design, an attractive ceiling fixture with a hanging chrome T-frame that allows users to pull themselves up from a chair (see right).

The show’s motivating idea is that Sweden’s social democratic system’s emphasizes “freedom to” rather than “freedom from.” “Good design gives us freedom,” the show’s notes say. This concept is hammered home by colourfully illustrated wall panels explaining Swedish government programs. “Freedom can be feeling a sense of security,” one says, followed by a description of the Swedish pension and welfare system. Another explains the statutory right to five weeks of paid holidays under the heading “Freedom can be going to the cottage on vacation.”

If the stereotypical Swede is a clean, efficient socialist, the German is a cold, intellectual philosopher. The Transposed Bodies, a photo and video installation by Berlin artists Katja Pratschke and Gustáv Hámos running at the Goethe Institut, fits this mold in the best way.

Five panels of framed, captioned photographs tell the story of Jan and Jon, friends who are jealous of each other’s physical and mental attributes and are both in love with Marie. The jealous triangle leads the two friends into an accident in which both lose their heads, which are subsequently reattached to the wrong bodies.

Two video installations midway through the photographic novella feature talking heads — one a philosopher discussing Thomas Mann’s novel The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India (on which the show is based), the other a neurosurgeon explaining a 1980s head transplant he performed on a monkey.

Transposed Bodies is interesting both for its presentation, which allows viewers to read the story in all sorts of ways, and for the questions it raises about the problems of human identity in an increasingly scientific society.

The very setting of the Goethe Institut adds to the effect. The German language and cultural centre is in a gorgeous building of granite and contoured metal at King and University, and the curved walls of the gallery add a physical dimension to the narrative’s unexpected turns.

The same is not true of the venue for another show, this one sadly confirming a prejudice about our own national identity: the Canadian government is better at spending money to promote culture than it is at actually finding a culture.

Canada Quay, located in a tiny glass-walled building lost in the courtyard between York and Queens Quays, is home to Canada Place, where “visitors can learn about Canada, our culture, and our heritage.” Banks of unattended computers with flat-screen monitors and high-speed internet access sit ready for the free use of visitors, while two enthusiastic attendants point to displays on diversity and history and stacks of passport applications and other government forms. Canada Quay is well designed but seems pointless, an impression driven home by the absence of any other visitors; though, to be fair, neither tourists nor school groups are out much on wintry weekends. The four paintings that make up Scott Griffin’s “Flatlander” show, in a tiny exhibition space visible from outside through the glass walls, deserve better.

Griffin paints on found materials, in this case pieces of wood that look like they were once part of commercial signs. The use of discarded media lends a rough-edged authenticity to his scenes of various environments — literally so in the case of “Taxi Driver,” which is painted on a jagged, weathered panel of unfinished plywood. A figure walks from a small plane floating on a lake while another figure with shopping bags looks on, seemingly from the edge of the lake where the splintered bottom edge of the plywood forms a sort of frame.

Griffin’s paintings make for interesting Canadiana, washed-out depictions of everyday locations — a gas station, an airport landing strip — that hint at interesting stories about people and places. How odd that the show should contrast so starkly against its own environment, the gleaming and underused “official culture” of Canada Quay. And how odd that the well intentioned but cloying PC-ness of Canada Quay’s representation of our culture should grate so much more than Sweden’s self-congratulatory murals. Once upon a time, foreign-ness was the root of ethnic jokes; now it seems familiarity breeds contempt.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on December 12, 2002.