Oct 17 to Nov 28
Alexander Vaindorf

Useless/Open Letter to the Government #2, Will You Be Profitable, Little Friend?


The painting «Will You Be Profitable, Little Friend?» (1972) by the Swedish artist Peter Tillberg is arguably one of the most famous and beloved post-1968 artworks in Sweden. It depicts an ordinary school class of what appears to be an ordinary small city. In his realistic manner, Tillberg has chosen the frontal perspective of the teacher, who seems to be asking the question in the title. The message is obvious: the painting is criticizing a society in which you are educated to be a wage slave, regardless of whether you work for the State or Capital.
When the Russian/Swedish artist Alexander Vaindorf returned to the painting 34 years later, he took a contemporary standpoint. «Useless/Open Letter to the Government #2, Will You Be Profitable, Little Friend?» consists of a 26-minute DVD, one photograph, personal letters from students to the Swedish government, a blackboard and posters. A graduating class at a senior high school in Stockholm was instructed by Vaindorf to view Tillberg’s painting and write a letter to the government. The letters were included in the regular education as essays in Swedish, and the students had to read what the others had written.
Last of all, Vaindorf gathered the students in a situation similar to Tillberg’s painting for a filmed session in which the students discussed each other’s letters. This video is sent to the Swedish government.
In the video, one sees a very open and honest discussion among students. It is filmed by three cameras, and the recording equipment as well as Vaindorf’s questions are conspicuous. The narration follows the flow of things in the style of «direct cinema.» It starts and ends in color, but the discussion is in black and white, which accentuates the dialogue between the past and now.
The interesting difference between Tillberg’s painting and Vaindorf’s video is that the students’ own views are not accounted for in the painting. We see the students as a group, as an anonymous collective. In Vaindorf’s video, it is the opposite. After a while the students become individuals with diverse opinions. This marks an overall change in the development of Swedish society. For the most part, the students in the video express their fear of unemployment or not being able to do what they want in the future. They also don’t seem to trust society or the politicians, or as one student says: «Do I need to bother about homeless people on the other side of the globe?»
Did the silent students in Tillberg’s painting think the same? We will never know. But in Vaindorf’s video we know. Today you have to stand up for yourself. In one way, this is a positive sign; in another, it is saddening. What is happening to our shared values? This is why Alexander Vaindorf and the students are sending the video letter to the government. It’s time for a reality check!

(John Peter Nilsson, Curator at Moderna Museet Stockholm, Sweden)