On December 10, New York’s punk-poet laureate, Patti Smith, accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of Bob Dylan, performing a sparse but moving arrangement of his A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall at Stockholm Concert Hall.
Smith had planned to sing one of her own tunes – she had, after all, accepted the Nobel Foundation’s invitation to perform as early as September, before Dylan had been announced as winner. The veteran art-rocker accepted the invitation while attending the opening of an exhibition of her photography in the Swedish capital.
“Eighteen Stations”, a companion show to Smith’s meandering 2015 memoir M Train, is a deeply personal reflection on the act of artistic creation, and typical of the many offbeat and intriguing surprises that Stockholm’s art scene gleefully throws up in the 21st century. Running until February 19, the exhibition is being held in a venue that, for the uninitiated, could be dismissed as just a huge and faceless shopping mall.
Stockholm’s Kulturhuset (“house of culture”) is a city-centre building of five floors that opened in 1974, one of northern Europe’s largest cultural institutions and a publicly funded hive of creativity housing libraries, a theatre, a cinema and spaces for art, dance and music events, lectures and debates. The vision of its architect, Peter Celsing, was for the Kulturhuset to be open to everyone. “I am building for a new human being that has to come,” he said of his brutalist creation. Its all-glass frontage shows off the building’s core structure, with large and exposed-concrete planes, and offers a transparent view into the interior after dark – which comes at about 3pm in winter.
Defiantly modern (in that 1970s way, at least), the Kulturhuset looks like the type of building that might suffer serious damage in a Jason Bourne movie. And that slightly blue and chilly aesthetic that director Paul Greengrass chose for his action flicks – often favoured when depicting Berlin – is ideal for Stockholm. David Fincher clearly used the desaturated look, too, in his 2011 interpretation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the English-language one, with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig – much of which is set in the Swedish capital.
Strolling around the city, in fact, one wonders exactly when the average Swede loses his (usually his) or her ability to wear colours (or bright colours; and I’m guessing at about the age of 20). When it comes to fashion, the Stockholm look-of-choice is understated, never trying too hard, with black, navy blue, olive and gunmetal being the go-to shades. And while Scandi-dandies might occasionally reach for burned ochre or a splash of vintage burgundy, they’ll always ginger up with bold pops of … well, black. You can tell the tourists in Stockholm – with their scarlet beanies and kingfisher down jackets, they must look, to urbane locals, like deranged children’s-television presenters. (Note: ever-elegant Smith, who turned 70 in late December, sang to the Nobel bigwigs in a navy blazer and a crisp white shirt, her long wavy hair worn loose and naturally silver.)
Although subtlety and understatement perfectly fit minimalist Scandinavian design, Stockholm’s vibrant arts scene – thriving in everything from painting and sculpture to photography and electronic dance music – refuses to be hemmed in. And there’s plenty of colour on show at Moderna Museet, the city’s truly brilliant modern-art museum covering the 20th and 21st centuries.
Moderna Museet’s permanent collection is one of the largest in Europe and features paintings, sculptures and installations, watercolours, drawings and prints, videos, films and photographs, covering everything from cubism and dada to pop art and surrealism, and including key works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Robert Rauschenberg, Irving Penn, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Juan Miró ... it’s a long and impressive list.
Attached to the museum is the compact Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, more often referred to as ArkDes. As you walk through the illuminated space, you do so on different-sized tiles of carpet, each depicting how many square metres of housing can be purchased for 50,000 Swedish krona (HK$42,400) in cities around the world. Hong Kong and London fair equally badly, at 0.2 square metres, losing out only to Monaco, with a laughable 0.1 square metres.
A left-field highlight in ArkDes’ product-design section (a creative field in which Sweden has always punched way above its weight) is Heavy Metal – the world’s first 3D-printed guitar, created by Sweden-based artist Olaf Diegel. Its frame-like aluminium body is an interweaved fabrication of roses and barbed wire.
Moderna Museet and ArkDes are located on Skeppsholmen, an island in central Stockholm. The entire city, in fact, fans out across 14 islands where the mouth of picturesque Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic, making shuttling around on “hop-on, hop-off” sightseeing boats – under crystalline skies that alternate between ice white and cobalt blue – a pleasurable way of getting from A to B.
One such boat will take you to Fotografiska, the magnificent photographic space on the hipster island of Södermalm. Housed in a beautifully repurposed customs house, built in red brick in the art-nouveau style and dating back to 1906, Fotografiska is a world-class facility with 2,500 square metres of display space that has held retrospectives by such shutter-bug luminaries as Annie Leibovitz and Robert Mapplethorpe (who, incidentally, shared New York digs with Smith in the late 60s and early 70s, and took the iconic cover shot for her seminal 1975 album, Horses).
For the art lover, however, the most eye-popping way to get around Stockholm is by using the metro system, or Tunnelbana. Often described as the “the world’s longest art gallery”, more than 90 of the underground railway’s 100 stations have been decorated with paintings, mosaics, sculptures and installations, by more than 100 artists, since the 50s.
The Blue Line of T-Centralen Station is awash with vines and flowers on the platform level, and silhouettes of construction workers on the upper level. (Oh, and I did see a man wearing yellow trousers rushing through T-Centralen, but I bet nobody sat next to him.) Descending into the fiery cave that is Solna Centrum Station is like taking an escalator to hell – but in a good way. The Tunnelbana plan, as at the Kulturhuset, has always been to bring art to the masses.
Stockholm’s subway system is currently operated by Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation, though it is considerably more expensive, a single ride snatching 36 krona from the traveller’s pocket. Certainly, the Swedish capital is not a cheap city, but the visitor does enjoy value, and this is especially true when exploring its exceptional cultural venues.
In short, it’s not all about money, money, money; it’s not all gimme, gimme, gimme. That said … yes, Stockholm does have an Abba museum, too!