Notes From Underground: Subway Vandalism as Art Draws Mixed Reviews in Sweden

February 16, 2009

Artistic merit may be subjective, but a Swedish art college could soon discover that artistic culpability is easier to assign. According to news reports, transportation authorities in Stockholm will seek restitution from Konstfack—University College of Arts, Crafts, and Design, just south of the city, for vandalism to a subway car that was apparently carried out by a student as part of an art project.

For his graduation thesis last spring, Magnus Gustafsson presented a two-minute film featuring footage of a black-clad figure defacing the interior of a train car with graffiti, a Konstfack spokeswoman, Mabel Selin, told The Chronicle. In the film, “Territorial Pissing,” the offender then smashes a window and jumps onto a platform. The film’s name, which refers to marking one’s boundary, is also the title of a song by Nirvana.

Mr. Gustafsson, who calls himself “NUG,” is no longer affiliated with Konstfack, but this past weekend his work was among those on display at Market, a major art show, and the resulting news-media coverage has spurred a review of the college’s guidelines, said Ms. Selin.

Mr. Gustafsson’s film prompted Konstfack to establish an ethics policy last year, Ms. Selin said, but the renewed focus on his project and another recent incident at the school have brought the issue to the fore. A few weeks ago, a student faked a psychotic episode and had herself admitted to a mental hospital as part of an art project.

“We are now investigating more what happened in these specific projects,” said Ms. Selin. “We have to look at this and see if they have been following this policy or if we have to change it.”

The episodes in Stockholm echo other recent incidents in which students’ outré artworks have offended the senses and sensibilities of the wider world — most notably, projects at the Ontario College of Art and Design and at Yale University.

The Stockholm transportation authority will reportedly seek 100,000 kronor, or about $12,000, in damages from Konstfack, although the school has not yet received an official demand for the money, said Ms. Selin. Sweden’s culture minister, meanwhile, weighed in over the weekend after viewing Mr. Gustafsson’s film.

“I do not think that vandalism is art,” she was quoted as saying in The Local, a Swedish newspaper. —Aisha Labi