By Kathleen Burke
Minutes away from the city of Stockholm, Sweden lies a labyrinth of 30,000 islands. Despite the intricacy of the archipelago, the evergreen covered rock formations form a uniform landscape. In doing so, the plethora of islands evoke an undeniable sense of minimalism. Situated amidst the calm, dark Baltic Sea where Viking ships once reigned, the archipelago invites sailors, family vacationers, and tourists (like me). Historically and culturally, the Stockholm archipelago is as central to Swedish identity as the legendary Vasa ship or taking a fika, or coffee break. The seafaring nation relies on the archipelago for business and leisure alike. As home to summer cottages dating back generations, as a destination for ferry tours, and as inspiration for artists and writers, the archipelago is essential to Sweden’s rich maritime tradition. In fact, Sweden manufactures and sells almost 10,000 and 30,000 boats per year, respectively. But the ratio of adults to pleasure boat is a favorable eight to one — almost three times that of the US. Along with its economic and social importance, the archipelago commands an uncanny tranquility – an abstract quality only perceived. It stimulates and calms the eye simultaneously, inviting both still fixation on one islet and movement across the ornate pattern of islands.
How can such a boundless geographical feature be at the same time simple? The non-obvious reason for this paradox of simple profundity is the Swedish concept “lagom”, meaning “just enough.” While lagom usually refers to portions or objects, it can be applied to the landscape itself. No better example illustrates the notion of a lagom landscape than the museum Artipelag. Situated on Varmdö, the understated cedar and glass architecture absorb the archipelago. In a certain sense, Artipelag reconciles the vastness of the land with sleek lines and modern artwork. Interestingly, the museum founder Björn Jakobson is the founder of BabyBjörn, the innovative child carrier company dedicated to simplifying everyday life. The museum boasts a metamorphic rock originating about two billion years ago, which is placed in ironic juxtaposition to a lively café. In synthesizing forms of old and new, the museum and its works embody and maintain a state of lagom.
Along the same vein, UK-based artist and writer Edmund de Waal (b. 1964) recently debuted a collection of 40 minimalist clusters of ceramic vessels at Artipelag. The artist interprets the vessels after they come out of the kiln. Then, in collaboration with museum curator Bo Nilsson, they arranged the works to optimize the space and light flooding in from outdoors. The result is a greenhouse filled with white porcelain. De Waal insists that whiteness and silence are interchangeable. By extension, reflecting on silence catalyzes progress. The peaceful sanctuary uses uniformity to convey this message.
The next corridor of the museum holds a seamless counterpart to de Waal’s vessels. The exhibit by Giorgio Morandi (b. 1890), a world renowned Italian artist, displayed a series of still life paintings in monochrome tones. The oil paintings provide even more legitimacy to the idea of lagom in practice. Despite the difference between the fine and decorative arts, both Morandi and de Waal complement the museum structure and reinforce one another. Morandi’s internationally renowned still life works capture what de Waal considers “small epiphanies”, referring to the cathartic moment when you allow an object to figuratively “slow into fullness”. De Waal explains, “These objects occupy space in our world and in our thinking.”
Whether produced by the same artist (or tectonic shift), these similar objects (or islands) are impactful repetitions of the same motif. As de Waal reflects himself in his works, visitors at Artipelag can broaden their thinking. When acknowledging that still life happens, the abstractness of reality becomes clear. Still life can then be considered a collection of small serendipities that “tell stories and hold memories.” The avant garde museum is a space that fosters reflection — but not to the point of nostalgia. While the objects and islands may appear homogenous and stagnant, eventually a shift occurs to give them new meaning. The exhibit stimulates personal reflection and new perspectives. Chance error makes these related objects and landforms slightly different. They affirm nature but also contribute to their surroundings in a way that is not overbearing, rather “just enough” to have an impact.
The concept that objects tell stories was foreign to me, but I now relate to the idea that still life can be dynamic. The uniformity of objects (and landforms) allows for acknowledging what is universal before moving forward as an individual. They accept nature but cannot change it. In this way, objects and people relate to one another based on their connection to nature. Stockholm’s 30,000 islands and de Waal’s multitude of sculptures evoke the same sentiment: less can be more. Achieving lagom provides a sense of solitude that is both reflective yet optimistic. In the face of the influx of immigrants to Sweden and changing international pressures, it is humbling and motivating to visit places like Artipelag, where creativity is a platform for building new ways of thinking and adapting to change. The experience extends when you walk onto the Artipelag boardwalk, which reinforces the network between art and nature. De Waal’s vessels can be viewed as books, cityscapes, tree trunks, or chimneys. With “just enough” imagination, still life continues to happen, and perspectives can continually enrich culture.