Aleksandra Mir

Life is Sweet in Sweden

SIKSI - The Nordic Art Review, #2, Stockholm, 1996
By Lars Bang Larsen

AUGUST 1995: Gothenburg, Sweden's second largest city is turned upside down. During the final countdown to the World Athletic Championships which the Swedish port city will be hosting, there is an atmosphere of self-conscious activity: this urban west coast environment is subjected to a series of 'beautification' projects ranging from the architectural remodeling of the inner city—to the injection of a host of new commercial venues. Greenery, colorful advertising and 'fresh paint' signs sprout everywhere. The east-bound highway leading to the city is newly lined with trees and a giant 'Snickers' billboard graces the largest dock in the harbour and western entry point. A new black market for apartment sublets is on the rise, while the restaurant classifieds are unabashedly seeking 'young blonde female staff.'

When the international visitors arrive at this new improved Gothenburg, the real games commence: the prescibed tourist search for 'authentic folk' and 'local spirit.'

With world media eyes on Gothenburg and the largest planned tourist invasion in the city's history, the air is charged with entrepreneurial excitement. But the day-to-day adjustments to all this 'newness' is wearing on the locals. With the novelty comes disenchantment: they are losing their sense of belonging to the beloved city they are so proud to represent. This feeling of displacement grows as the distinction between 'hosts' and 'guests' fizzles into abstraction. Not even a guide uniform guarantees distinction: everyone (including the natives) is a newcomer to the new improved Gothenburg.

Enter Aleksandra Mir. Amidst the turbulence Mir opens a 'guest bureau' insouciantly monikered Life is Sweet in Sweden. This new tourist office finds its home in the center of Gothenburg: a hundred and fifty square foot space once home to the bohemian Trixter Theater is cleaned out. It's black cube illusionist space painted white for tourist purposes. The new rennovations lie between the demi-world of private bourgeouis coziness and public business space: a familiar combination that makes everybody naturally welcome as they step through the doors. Furnished with Asian wickerwork (whch Swedes have long adopted as their own), plastic greenery, a leased corporate lobby aquarium—dim lights, soft muzak; electric footbaths; a television with shopping channels—and even new freshly scented lavatory—this Guest Bureau is freely available to every and anybody.

Here at Life is Sweet in Sweden the 'host' happens to be anyone who chooses to wear the hostess uniforms hanging on the clothesrack. The uniform is a snappy little dress number: blue and yellow (for Sweden) with the 'firm' logo embroidered in silver on the breast pocket—reminiscent of airline stewardesses and checkout cashiers. There are twelve uniforms available and by the end of the enterprise, forty-six persons will have stepped into the 'hostess suit'—regardless of whether they have any connection to Gothenburg or not.

With several hundred guests passing by everyday for the 10 day duration of the games, the guest bureau will become a social limbo where varying constellations of people interact in varying roles.

The ambiguous visibility of the uniforms provide widely divergent interpretations of the hostess role. An open invitiation to experimental roleplaying, many hostesses explore and manipulate their new status in female servitude. Many spend their time no differently than their guests: lounging, reading magazines, watching TV, studying, sleeping, chatting and sometimes engaging in tasks (almost as if to 'play house') for incoming guests. One striking aspect of the hostess uniform is it's reference to prostitution. The short sexy cut (with national colours) alludes to world wide 'nymphomaniac' reputation that Swedish women have somehow garnered. The allusion to traditionally female service industries (by virtue of the corporate logo—a bed) i.e., the nurse, the stewardess, the waitress—invokes the idea of menial competence making for a good flirt.

Eventually a complex situation arises by way of the 'neighbours.' The prostitutes of nearby Esperantoplatsen (across the way), begin to utilize the Guest Bureau to relax in between 'tricks.' To their shock, the more conservatively inclined visitors find themselves keeping company with women of 'suspect' reputation. To their dismay, no one can tell who is who anymore—especially since the hookers have taken to adorning the hostess uniforms. So now, you have no idea who you are politely discussing sports and weather with—until of course you recognize them an hour later, while getting serviced in your car.

The improbable social circumstances (and unlikely bedfellows) continue. The ante is upped when a motley crew of hostesses leave together and promenade through town to the bar which is providing the sponsored drinks that evening. For each night of the games, a different bar or restaurant has been approached to sponsor the Guest Bureau and it's sponsorship frenzy, the bars and restaurants of Gothenburg are delighted to play host to the 'World Championship Hostessing Troupe.' The confusion is total as the media simultaneously spotlights the World Championship medal girls—the actual official games hostess troupe. Coinciding with the careful handpicking of that elite crew, was the resurgence of the myth that Queen Sylvia (of Sweden) had met the King during the Olympic Games in Munich where she was Chief Hostess. With such good marriage prospects potentially looming on the horizon, the official hostesses decline the traditional blue and yellow folk dress (too gauche)—in favor of a more classically 'chic' lavender suit-rendering them more or less invisible.

In stark contrast the self-appointed hostesses of Life is Sweet in Sweden are all too visible. And so are their reputations (whoever they maybe)—at it's most extreme, there are hairy men, Somalian immigrants and Skinheads—all in the blue and yellow populist outfit. New hostesses are recruited on the spot, uniforms stripped and swopped and photos snapped; the new superstar hostesses get recognized on the street and give interviews about everything and nothing. So at last—if even for ten days, Gothenburg finds a home sweet home for it's shifting (and temporary) identity.