On Eyelids and Fingertips of History

Joanna Nordin

Curator and artistic director Bonniers Konsthall
[Excerpt from catalogue, I Kiss Your Eyes

Think of ephemera as trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor.               Jose Esteban Muñoz , Cruising Utopia (2009)
Half obscured, behind a see-through curtain, we glimpse an art work. In the small black-and-white etching with thin, slightly faded lines, are two men, casually and tenderly lying next to each other on a bed. Part of the work series Fourteen Poems by Cavafy, David Hockney made the work in 1966 and now it is placed inside Conny Karlsson Lundgren’s exhibition I Kiss Your Eyes. The curtain and the small etchings, as well as the scenographic installations, video works, photo-graphs and performances throughout the galleries of Bonniers Konsthall, make up a temporary space and a meandering environment that we are invited to become part of. 

For more than 20 years, often with a starting point in the hidden micro-histories of the archive, artist Conny Karlsson Lundgren has gently let surface perspectives on queer experiences and Swedish gay history to the surface. From an interest in the traces of seemingly fleeting moments that together form a larger whole, shared spaces such as the park, the night club, the bedroom and the work of activismm set the stage for his investigations. Within the parameters set by the works, political and juridical structures are made visible, often intertwined with moments of ecstasy, community, intimacy and liberation. 

I Kiss Your Eyes is presented as a mid-career survey, spanning over two decades of the artist’s practice. Following the temporality of the works themselves, the exhibition is set up as a collection of temporary spaces, presented without chronology or inherent hierarchy, interweaving different experiences and generations. 

A feverish longing for intimacy lay at the heart of the newly-commissioned installation and performance work I Kiss Your Eyes (A Year in Eight Weeks), at Bonniers Konsthall. In many ways, the work is representative of the way Conny Karlsson Lundgren tends to work; a new gaze is carefully added to a piece of historic material, that makes a journey through time and finds its way into the present with new meaning. 

For the work, Karlsson Lundgren spent a spring deep down in the National Library of Sweden’s archive in Stockholm, carefully transcribing love letters from the turn of the last century. One of the last letters in the stack was used as criminal evidence in a Swedish trial in 1907 against a man charged with, and found guilty of “fornication”. The case was widely publicised and introduced the word homosexuality into the Swedish language. Many of the letters from the heartbroken writer end with the tender words I kiss your eyes, sent in the hope of reunion with his beloved. 

Rather than focusing in on what happened then—and what has been widely historicised—a man getting the severe punishment of ten months penal servitude for his heart’s longing—Karlsson Lundgren focuses in on the before, charging the story with something else. Unveiling through a series of performative readings throughout the exhibition period rather, we follow our protagonist throughout his long dark months of emotional agony, missing his beloved who has emigrated and might not return home. The yearning, the remembrance and the pain of emotional labour, is put in the place of the harsh replies of a rampant societal machinery. Moving beyond depicting the trial, Karlsson Lundgren’s work holds many other layers of queer history: that of imitations of language and class possibilities; of life, love and of longing. The power we might try to hold over one another in relationships, successfully or not. As the letters are read out loud by employees of Bonniers Konsthall, Fabrikören’s ritualistic chant takes on a choir of new voices in the present, and travels beyond it. 

Conny Karlsson Lundgren is an artist in constant collaboration—with materials and people. A process may begin in a historical archive, but as a material makes its way through time and space, it leads on to new bodies, here and now. Traces and stains are picked up and interlaced with new lived experience. The people who populate the processes enrich, alter and guide the content. 

Presented as part of the exhibition is also a selection of works from a private art collection. Built over the years from his small-town home in northern Sweden, Åke’s Collection is a testament to how collecting can be not only an intimate act of desire and an identity process, but primarily a means of creating a room of one’s own. Placed within the exhibition, the individual pieces from the collection all the whilst, set Karlsson Lungren’s work in dialogue with a specific lineage of queer artists through history. 

Conny Karlsson Lundgren’s process departs from dialogue, whether it is with a private collector in the Swedish countryside or a group of activists on a gay liberation camp in the 1970s. He reveals the border between the private and the public by bringing forward those who have exposed their lives in the fight for equal rights or by evoking the raw, aroused emotion of coming of age. Gently weaving together bodies, lived experiences and materials, a non-linear and trans-generational kinship is built between past and present, making its way into the future. 

As specks and glimmers of the past are filled with new breath, they give us fleeting glimpses of ourselves through time. 

The text in full is published in the artist’s monograph, Jag kysser dina ögon (I Kiss Your Eyes), produced in conjunction with the exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall, spring 2024.

 ©MMXIV Conny Karlsson Lundgren