File Note 81: Jockum Nordström - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Paolo Colombo



Grasshoppers and Cicadas Images References Quote Biography Credits

Grasshoppers and Cicadas

I recognised a grasshopper (or is it a cicada?) on the frontispiece of Jockum Nordström’s monograph published by Hatje Cantz in 2013. Would this strange creature be his alter ego? Would I be right to believe that in Jean de La Fontaine’s parable, La Cigale et la Fourmi [The Grasshopper and the Ant] Nordström sympathises with the singing diva, rather than with the parsimonious ant?

Let us backtrack four centuries and go to France. In La Fontaine’s tale, the scolding hymenopter comes out as the paragon of morality and industriousness, the righteous example to be followed, although by our more liberal standards it is condemned as a stingy creature, unsympathetic to the plight of its fellow insects. 

For one brief moment, let us suppose that the ant enjoyed the music, although—the grouch that it was—it never came to admit it. Most contemporary science and jurisprudence would maintain that the grasshopper’s song improved the ant’s productivity and would commend the happy singer for kindly providing an atmosphere conducive to work…

Aesop’s tale, written more than 2000 years earlier than La Fontaine’s, carried this message (more aptly, in this version the singing wonder is a cicada). Is this the correct moral of the story? Well… maybe for those times, given there wasn’t yet even a vague hint of an impresario, of a concert hall, of a rock star and Phil Spector’s wall of sound (often compared to the obsessive song of many cicadas!) was definitely centuries away in the making.

Today, what draws us to the carefree insects of fairy tales is that, like a true-blooded artist, they generously donate their creation to the world, without measuring the costs of the transaction. They do not contemplate the chilly winds of winter, nor poverty nor hunger.

Nordström must be strongly on their side, the artist and musician that he is.

‘The story [The Grasshopper and the Ant] has been used to teach the virtues of hard work and the perils of improvidence.’ (, June 2013) 

In his biting irony, Nordström reminds us of quite the opposite. Recurrent characters in his drawings and collages are nineteenth century upper-middle-class families, examples of probity and restraint. Or so they appear, until one scratches the surface of their lives (usually Nordström does this for us) to reveal the seeds of anarchy and wonderful “improvidence”, exposing the desire that hides under the stiff clothes and crinolines so meticulously depicted.

Love is often the subject of Nordström’s art; he is keenly aware of its rebellious and capricious nature. In many of his works one can find themes similar to those recurring in Ingmar Bergman’s films, yet without the latter’s sense of impending tragedy and psychological turmoil. Nordström substitutes angst with the premonition of pleasure—and what pleasure!—barely concealed by the transparent veneer of hypocrisy (which, in the words of Francois de La Rochefoucauld, is “the homage that vice pays to virtue”).

Nordström loves life, and this shows throughout his work. He well portrays the unsettling force of love, the hidden Id that is wont to take over our existence the moment we step out of our Victorian grid. He reminds us we live in a house of cards, as it is witnessed by his room-size sculptures, rational architectures he builds out of flammable matchboxes! We are drawn into his genteel storytelling populated by horses and carriages, tweeting birds, commerce, sailing clippers and villas, and are surprised when he pulls the rug out from under our feet.

To do so, he employs a technique that perfectly fits in his narrative style—his large collages (such as A Stick in the Wood, 2005 and Äta upp soppan, 2013) have the proportions of a cinemascope movie screen. Created in these dimensions, watercolours are a display of skill, a wonderful artifice, bordering on the sleight of hand. There is an accomplished storyteller in Nordström, a shade of the The Prestige (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2006) entrancing the listener (the viewer) with a narrative that is seductive and familiar.

Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” applies to Nordström’s constructed stories, all told in two dimensions (the flat characters are placed like roles being played in shadow theatre), like hand-made stills from a kind of proto-cinema, humble, eloquent and to-the-point.

His vocabulary and syntax are in tune with the content of the work. In it, one finds the formal purity of the Shakers, combined with the “shaking” of rock & roll. Dan Graham made the seminal documentary Rock My Religion in 1983. His truth still holds: that one can draw an uncomfortable parallel between restraint, sanctity and unbridled desire, the same correlation that we find at the heart of Nordström’s oeuvre.

Of course Nordström is a musician and music figures prominently in his work. Like Aesop’s cicada and La Fontaine’s grasshopper, he offers us music (and his art) freely and without guilt, revelling in the pleasures that life has to offer the moment one looks behind the façade of decorum and propriety.


Nina Nikolaevna Berberova Diamantsjuka [Diamond Disease], Mån (1994)

Kimya Dawson I’m Sorry That Sometimes I’m Mean Sanctuary Records (2002)

Piano by Clara Haskil (b.1895–d.1960)

Earl Hooker (b.1929—d.1970), music recorded late 50s to early 60s

Writing by César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza (b.1892–d.1938)

Ermanno Olmi (Dir.) Il Posto [The Place] 1961 

Bud Powell (b.1924–d.1966), music recorded between 1946–1963

Ladislas Starewich (b.1882–d.1965), animated films

Hound Dog Taylor (b.1915–d.1975), music recorded between 1971–2004

Bishop Perry Tillis Too Close Birdman Records (1967)

Jean Vigo (Dir.) Zéro de Conduite [Zero for Conduct] (1933)


It is the middle of summer.
The sky is a white sheet
of paper, my eyes a colon:
I have to write my life down before I can start to live" Eric Pauli Fylkeson


Jockum Nordström (b. 1963, Stockholm) lives and works in Stockholm. His solo exhibitions include: Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp (2012); Swedish Institute, Paris (2011); Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2010); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (2006); and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2005). Group exhibitions include: Works on Paper, Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp (2011); 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale, Thessaloniki (2011); Idag Är Igår Imorgon [Today Is Yesterday Tomorrow], Galleri Magnus Karlsson, Stockholm (2010); New Narrative, Heskin Contemporary, New York (2010); and Thrice Upon A Time: 66 Artists from the Collection, Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall, Stockholm (2010). Jockum Nordström is represented by: David Zwirner, London and New York; Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp; Galleri Magnus Karlsson, Stockholm.


Paolo Colombo is a curator and currently art advisor at Istanbul Modern.

This File Note is kindly supported by the Embassy of Sweden in London.