An introduction to the exhibition: Notes on a Fallow – The Fogelstad group and earth, Sörmlands museum (30 May 2020 – 26 Jan 2021) by Åsa Elzén, curated by Joanna Nordin
Welcome to Sörmlands museum, and to the exhibition Notes on a Fallow – the Fogelstad Group and earth” / “Träda – Fogelstadgruppen och jord, by the artist Åsa Elzén. My name is Joanna Nordin and I am the curator of contemporary art here at Sörmlands museum, and I’ve had the great pleasure to curate this exhibition.
The past collects, not only in archives, but in sediments and soil, in atmospheres, and in bodies.
This exhibition is a continuation of Åsa Elzén’s long-term work with the legacy of the Fogelstad Group, a feminist initiative formed here in Sörmland in 1921, most well known for running the Women Citizens’ School at Fogelstad. Within her work Åsa Elzen explores the group’s lesser known practice in ecology and resilience.
We live in a time in need of wild re-imagining and we need help. Whether it be through new forms of storytelling, through changing how we understand and connect to the world we are a part of, through rewriting laws, or through rediscovering ongoing yet overlooked practises.
In this time, on many levels, of course it is also of great value to take a closer look behind us, with renewed interest and curiosity, and pay close attention to what came before us. I found working with Åsa on this exhibition to be such a time. A time for deeper understanding, for exploring and unveiling new knowledge of our shared local history, for cross-temporal connection and community, and for unexpected consolation.
Finding out how the early women’s movement in Sweden, particularly the Fogelstad Group, were not only thinking in new and radical new terms of collectivity in reshaping, changing and rebuilding modes of politics and rights within our democracy. But that they, in hands-on and experimental, poetic and artistic ways, at the same time – were doing this in terms of thinking about our relationship with earth, and how to shape our collective future.
Elisabeth Tamm and the Fogelstad group were active at the dawn of industrial agriculture, and they were deeply critical of what they saw coming, such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and farming on an increasingly larger scale but with less biodiversity. The group, far ahead of their time, embraced a way of thinking where they argued that no single issue can be solved on it’s own, rather they strongly believed that everything – political rights, peace, environmental concerns – is part of the same elaborate weave.
This exhibition is an expanding and interdisciplinary project, where boundaries between historical materials and artworks are often fluid. The exhibition includes new works by Åsa herself as well as works by the artist Maja Fjaestad, Fogelstad day labourer and photographer Axel Fredriksson, and by the Fogelstad barn forewoman and sculptor Maren Holebakk. A majority of the materials within this exhibition doesn’t come from institutional collections or public archives, rather it is materials that have been brought back from a form of public oblivion, loaned in by private individuals connected to, or descendants of, the Fogelstad group.
To leave land fallow means to allow it to lie uncultivated in order to regain its fertility.
In 1919, farmer Elisabeth Tamm at Fogelstad Estate commissioned a carpet from Maja Fjaestad, with the desire that it be based on a fallow, in line with her belief in what we now call organic farming, sustainability and resilience. Maja Fjaestad conceptualized Elisabeth Tamms idea and designed the pattern, and the carpet named A Fallow was woven at the Fjaestad sisters’ weavery in Rackstad. The carpet was placed on the floor in the library at Fogelstad, where it lay until the end of the 1960s when worn and brittle, it was put up in the attic after being literally worn down by the first wave feminist movement (and their dogs).
“Fallow” is a very old term used in agriculture and means uncultivated land or ground harrowed to be left unseeded, to rest, as a way to avoid soil depletion.
To let the soil rest implies rest from human production, and instead allow time space for other life.
Fallow. Earth that is lying fallow, earth that is resting; recovery, regeneration, pause, others’ time, other life.
For a long time, conditions of ownership oscillated with the rhythm of the fallow. When the land was set aside to fallow, the ownership was shifted from individually owned or cultivated land to collective pasture, where all animals and people were allowed on it. When the land was taken out of fallow, it returned to private ownership. And so on. And so on.
I think of the impact of the fallow in agriculture, but also as a way to relate to different scopes and formations of time, memory and history. A help to come to terms with both planetary and personal exhaustion. The fallow as a sort of time-space consolation. I think of fallow praxis and fallow mode as ways of slowing down, listen to and connect with other life, more than human life, ongoing world-makings and to past practices that we can learn from. Fallow mode also implies actively to take a step to the side. The fallow is a site of ambiguity and contingency. There is always the risk / hope that the land lying fallow is not re-captured into the circuit of production for only human ends. It is the first step of letting go. It messes with the teleological, linear perception of time, with its focus on progress and economic growth that makes up the foundation of both normative historiography and leads to ecological devastation.
The fallow also figures as a site of contestation; To understand the rapid industrialization of agriculture one can look at how the fallow has been disciplined. As production rate has increased, fallow time-space has been suppressed. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides have made it obsolete. We don’t have patience to wait for the earth to regenerate. A bit like taking drugs so we can sleep less and work more.
Still in practice in organic farming, the fallow has re-gained recognition as a way to increase biodiversity. Fallow-ish spaces have also re-appeared in conventional farming, as injunctions from above within environmental policies. Now with new names such as ”ecological focus area”, ”minimum share of agricultural area devoted to non-productive features”, ”minimum set aside”.
I was drawn by the fact that Elisabeth Tamm, when visualizing the floor of her library in 1919, wanted to honor the fallow, that awkward in-between with bad reputation, rather than a successful result, for example a rich crop.
In a letter thanking Maja Fjaestad for the carpet she writes: ”I think of a fallow as the symbol for someone’s life’s work, a work that is forgotten and hidden yet nonetheless necessary as a component, however small, of the great whole, in whose course we find the coming sowing and harvest.”
I imagine Elisabeth and Elin Wägner walking around on the fallow-carpet in the library talking and thinking about not only ”peace on earth” but ”peace with the earth” that also became the title of their book. Working, reading out loud drafts of the book. Did they also lie down on the fallow-carpet, perhaps to rest or contemplate formulations, or roll around, intoxicated by their collaboration and other shared passions?
Numerous people involved in early democracy-, women suffrage-, and environmental struggles spent time on the fallow-carpet and everybody that attended courses during the 30 year life of the Womens’ Citizen school at Fogelstad gathered on the fallow-carpet. There was a lot of dancing too.
Did the participants in the much lesser known Women’s Barn and Livestock School at Fogelstad also spend time on the fallow-carpet, or did they prefer to tread the fallows outside? This school was run by Maren Holebakk, who takes up a lot of space in this exhibition, as well as in my heart. The courages young queer woman who in the early 30s walked all the way from the West coast of Norway to Fogelstad, where she participated in both the Women’s Barn and Livestock School and the Citizen School. She came to stay at Fogelstad all her life, working as ”barn forewoman” and as teacher at the Barn and Livestock School. Maren was also an artist. When out working the fields she collected clay from the grounds. From the clay-earth she sculpted portraits of people she met at Fogelstad, and especially of her students. Maren liked the quality of unburnt clay, the direct contact with dried earth, and didn’t fire her sculptures. This makes them fragile, and seemingly, many of them are lost. For years I have been searching for Marens sculptures to perhaps find out more about this elusive school. To my joy some of them re-appeared this spring, but due to corona-restrictions we couldn’t bring them here. But at the same occasion Marens private photo albums re-appeared and they are here, brought down from years spent in an attic, and generously loaned to us. One of them is full of small photographs of these clay sculptures, and the other two depicts life at the Women’s Barn and Livestock School, desires and collaborations in and with the earth at Fogelstad.
JOANNA NORDIN: Today, the earth at Fogelstad is still full of clay. Earth remembers and calls memories forth.
The fallow carpet from Fogelstad is too brittle to step upon. In line with feminist methodologies of making transcripts of withering texts or letters, with the intent to decipher and save them for the future, Åsa has made a transcript of the carpet. Consisting of re-cycled fabrics this work becomes a site, to re-think and re-vistit some of the practices of our predecessors and let them emerge in current times.
To quote curator Lisa Rosendahl about Åsa’s work: “The use of the term transcript, rather than copy, proposes a historiographical process interwoven with the present: by reworking the original, a contemporary reading of the piece becomes a visible part and continuation of its history.”
The fallow is a time-space of collectivity with and in the soil.
And if it weren’t for the pandemic currently sweeping the world, we would have invited you all to come share the space of this carpet with us and further dwell in these worlds. Instead you are welcome to do this in your own time, and in safe distance. And on that note, we now invite you to spend time in the exhibition.
Åsa Elzén and Joanna Nordin
Näshulta, 24 augusti 2020