Swedish Style in Tokyo

by Monty DiPietro

The Swedes want you to know that there is more to their country than Abba, Volvos, and (as many people seem to believe) the magnificent Alps. So if you don’t know a fjord from a Ford, relax, the fjords are in Norway (and don’t get a Swede started on that), and Ford, well, they now pretty much own Volvo. Culturally speaking, further elucidation on things Swedish is at hand care of "Swedish Style in Tokyo," a two-week, 30 artist showcase of contemporary art, fashion, design and music from the often-misunderstood country.

Ask the Swedes to define "Swedish Style" and you may well come up with nine million different answers. Looking for common themes among the surprisingly diverse work in the festival is a similarly inconclusive pursuit. But there is a golden thread that winds its way through the consciousness of every Swede, a single and seemingly eternal link that acts as a sort of cultural common denominator. It is Abba.

"My favorite Abba song, definitely," says Krister Kumlin excitedly, "is ‘Money Money Money.’" Kumlin is the Swedish ambassador to Japan, and it is in his expansive Minato Ward residence that some 300 guests have gathered to gulp down Swedish meatballs, knock back Absolut vodka, and kick off the festival. "I think," says Kumlin, "that Swedish style can be characterized by simplicity, aesthetics, and nature."

These three qualities are not to be evidenced downstairs in the embassy auditorium, where a program of Jonas Akerlund’s music videos is screening – work that grabbed nine prizes at last year’s MTV Awards. In the clips, most of which whir by at breakneck speed, people shove needles into their arms, fall from tall buildings, bounce pedestrians off the bumpers of hot-wired cars. While it is weird to find videos that were deemed too offensive for MTV (such as Akerlund’s effort for the band Prodigy) being shown at an official embassy function, their inclusion in "Swedish Style" underscores another aspect of the Swedish identity – permissiveness.

"Of course along with the freedom we have in morality," says clothing designer Elisabet Yanagisawa, "there are also many frames and regulations in Sweden." Working with a limited palette of grays and off-whites, Yanagisawa whispers together wool, felt, and organza in her understated outfits. Yanagisawa, whose father is Japanese, thinks the reduction of design concepts to their basic frameworks accounts for the growing appeal that Swedish fashion is enjoying across Europe and in Japan. Her favorite Abba song is "The Winner Takes it All."

Per Wasberg doesn’t agree that austerity is the style of Sweden. "We’ve always made light and lively pop," says the bass guitar player, who points to "When I kissed the Teacher" as an example. Wasberg is backing up "Martin" as the young singing sensation belts out a song in the Ambassador’s living room, the snappy chorus of which runs, "You are so yeah-yeah, wow-wow…"

And while Maria Meisenberger’s monochrome silhouette photography is anything but light and lively, the six big prints from John Scarisbrick are, in a garish sort of way. Also in the ongoing photography exhibition at the embassy are Mikael Jansson’s nudist colony pictures, which set us off on yet another tangent of Swedish stereotypes (this one being where you’ll find the stewardesses).

Thomas Nordanstad’s favorite Abba song is "Does Your Mother Know?" and the "Swedish Style" curator will let us know more about his country’s contemporary art scene in a May 20th seminar at the embassy. Also up this weekend is painter Joachim Granit, who will show 13 recent acrylic-on-plastic works at HSBC in Nihonbashi from May 21-23. It is the ebullient Granit ("Thank you for the Music") who provides what might be the most appropriate comment on the festival’s title. "Swedish style," he says, "is something that does not exist. If we do all have some characteristic in common, it’s only the blond thing."

notes: Swedish Style runs to May 30, 1999 (5562-5050)
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