artist / participant
Maria Friberg is one of our most established artists both in Sweden and abroad. In her photographs and videos she explores concepts such as masculinity and group belonging, social codes and conventions. In her images we are surrounded by men, often young and at the beginning of their careers who wear their business suits like a uniform. The business suit signifies rationality, potency and authority. By finding the chink in the armour that a suit can be, Maria Friberg analyses power and homes in on men’s vulnerability and insecurity, as well as on their playfulness and boyishness.
The exhibition “Boys are us” is the hitherto most comprehensive presentation of Maria Friberg’s work in Sweden, comprising photographs and videos from 1998 till 2008. Seen together, this body of work provides the viewer with the opportunity for new interpretations and readings of her work. Among the works are several of Friberg’s classics, including “somewhere else” (1998). A large, horizontal photograph, 1 x 4 m (in Moderna Museet’s collection) which depicts five men at a conference table. We see only their legs clad in expensive suits and well-polished shoes. They exude power and authority. At the same time we are gazing straight into their crotches, thus objectifying them.
“no time to fall” (2001) is a six minute video of President George W. Bush’s first speech to the nation in 2001 that was shown on CNN. Maria Friberg has carefully edited the speech and removed all the words so that all we see is the President breathing, smiling, hawking and hemming and his facial expressions between statements. We do not hear what he says; all we hear are the applauses and laughter. He is wearing a blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie. Wearing the colours of the American flag, he becomes a symbol of his country. By concentrating on the non-verbal communication and his body language, Maria Friberg makes the most powerful man in the world appear nervous and vulnerable. He glances about anxiously, looking for approval, sometimes trying to suppress a smile as if he wants to convince us that he is a man of forbearance and control. Perhaps what we see in Maria Friberg’s video is a glimpse of the man behind the presidential mask. ”Sometimes even the President of the United States has to stand naked”, as Bob Dylan sings.
Maria Friberg’s images are meticulously staged. She often places her protagonists in surreal settings and environments where they have no control and influence over the situation, as in the video “blown out” (1999) where we see a solitary, bald man swirling around in a turbulent, white, foamy sea. Man versus nature. The old man and the sea. Is he enjoying the waves or is he drowning? His neutral expression provides no clues. Water also features in the photographic series “almost there” (2000). Four handsome young men, besuited but tieless, float about in a pool full of bubbles. The title suggests that they are on their way somewhere, but where? Moving up the career ladder, on their way towards the source of life or are they just doomed?
In the video triptych “embedded” (2007) a number of men dressed in black move slowly in a bed. They glide around in a sea of white satin sheets; they disappear into the voluminous material and resurface. The figurative becomes abstract, the fixed shapes become fluid, the certain becomes uncertain. Just as the sceptical among us can doubt the reports from embedded war correspondents.
In her recently completed photographic series “still lives” (2003—2007) Friberg has shifted perspective. Men are no longer the centre of attention. Rather, she examines the concept of identity itself. Unlike the traditional still life that only depicts objects, often with a symbolic content, Friberg mixes men and women, people and things. Perhaps one could say that the objectification here is more equal. The images are sensual and painterly and there is no mistaking that Maria Friberg began her artistic career as a painter.
In “still lives #1” two young people sit among the clouds like deities, regarding us with haughty expressions. Is this as good as it gets? From here the only way is down? In “still lives #3” a man in pyjamas lies embedded in piles of books. But is he really wearing pyjamas? The white fabric reminds one of a shroud, or mummification.
Several of the images in the “still lives” series are taken at a wrecker’s yard. For some men the car is not just a means of transport but a status symbol and perhaps a toy. The wrecker’s yard is where the game ends. The series is permeated by a sense of transitoriness and death. In “still lives #7” a man is suspended on a row of truck tyres like a crucified Christ figure. In “still lives #5” a man lies on lit de parade on a pile of flattened wrecked cars. As so often, Maria Friberg injects a dose of multilayered humour into her work. In “still lives #8” a man sits in a foetal position inside a giant Pirelli truck tyre, which leads one’s thoughts to the company’s calendar with scantily dressed women.
The “still lives” series, which touches upon existential issues of life and death, had a predecessor in “trinity” (2000), a series of three images that show casually dressed young men with serious expressions somewhere in the desert. The photographs were taken at White Sands in New Mexico, where the US tested their first atom bomb in 1945, in a place that now bears the same name as the title of Friberg’s work. These mysterious images give rise to many questions. How come there are no footprints in the sand? How did the men end up there? What are they doing? We can locate them in space, but where are they in time? Did they just arrive from another planet and the first thing they do is to mark out their territory, or are they just playing?
“commoncause” is a seven minute video shot at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. 300 partly inflated basketballs wrapped in black velvet roll like heads down the marble steps of the grand entrance hall. Some of these amorphous shapes move quickly, others slowly and some falteringly. The dull, thudding noise of the balls becomes a hypnotic soundtrack to the flowing movement.
Maria Friberg’s large, glossy images can be just as seductive as advertising images and at first glance it is easy to think that one has grasped the content but the longer one looks the more one discovers, new meanings are revealed, and that which appears simple turns out to be complex. Poetry and simplicity stand next to paradox and ambivalence. Maria Friberg’s art raises questions of human relations, power relationships and above all identity. Boys are us — but the question is: who are we?
Maria Friberg was born in 1966 in Malmö. She lives and works in Stockholm; she received her education at the Royal University College of Fine Arts (1989—1995). She is represented at, among others, Moderna Museet, the Bonnier Group and Nationalmuseum in Stockholm; Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Malmö Konstmuseum and in public and private collections worldwide.
Maria Friberg: Boys are us
photography and video 1998-2008