Tre personer i samtal

Honorary doctors in appreciated discussion on sports, art, and democracy

She, the artist who, among other things, have become famous for her gigantic nail polish bottles and vagina-shaped lanterns in glass. He, the sports coach who has coached Swedish discus throwers to both gold and silver medals in the Olympic Games. Last Thursday, they met for a panel discussion at the University Library in Kalmar. A talk about fame, unaccustomed roles as influencers, and the significance of culture and sports for people’s wellbeing and democracy.

The spring edition of Linnéuniversitetet Live was introduced with a panel discussion with the newly-appointed honorary doctors Åsa Jungnelius and Vésteinn Hafsteinsson. The point of departure for the talk was their respective upbringing and how the interest for their respective fields had been formed.

Hafsteinsson grew up in Iceland, with a father who was committed to sports. At the age of eight he was convinced that he would become world famous. Jungnelius’s path to art was not quite as straight, but as a teenager she felt that she did not fully approve of the reality she saw around her. She studied an aesthetic programme at high school and when she finally came into contact with glass as art material, it became clear to her how she wanted to use her artistry to question and make an impact.

Despite their differing backgrounds, both sports and culture are highly relevant and important for democracy, two broad movements that offer a sense of community, an opportunity for inclusion and, thereby, create awareness of our surroundings.

“Oppressors often use aesthetics to demonstrate their power. Therefore, it is important that we do things the right way and create environments that are inclusive. Art is a swift debater that brings up issues that can be difficult for society to deal with. This becomes a way of analysing and understanding contemporary society”, Jungnelius reasoned as she referred to, among other things, her work with the lantern “Snippan” when she was to name the glass vagina.

The word snippa was not in the dictionary

“Even though society talks about equality it turned out the word ‘snippa’ was not even included in the Swedish Academy’s dictionary”, Jungelius adds.

Hafsteinsson stressed the importance of shared joy and how a mundane thing like watching TV can benefit democracy and contribute to an inclusive society that creates energy and commitment.

Some 2.8 million Swedes watched discus thrower Daniel Ståhl on TV as he won Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2020. A fact that has made Hafsteinsson reflect.

“Sometimes, I can wonder what the point is with elite sports. What’s the point with watching a big guy like Daniel Ståhl throw a flat, round object into the air? However, successes make a lot of people happy. Daniel got a call from Stefan Löfvén, prime minister at the time, and the Swedish king sent a telegram. I’m very glad that people enjoy watching this idiocy, it means we’re in this together”, says Hafsteinsson.

Power must be handled wisely

The fact their professional successes have given them a voice in society and, thereby, power, is something they both embrace with humility.

“People say that I’m an influencer, but I still haven’t gotten used to the thought. I would say that I have only just recently realised that I have power, and this must be handled wisely”, says Hafsteinsson, who has recently announced that he will retire as sports coach and instead move back to Iceland to help develop their sports concept in school.

Jungnelius also pointed out that it is important for future generations that we safeguard practical subjects in school, like visual studies and theatre, as certain things must simply be experienced with your body and, perhaps, also with different choices of material.

“Art has the ability to create perceptions of reality where words are not always enough. It can help me understand an abstract course of events and help me understand what the person next to me is feeling. Art becomes a membrane in our way of communicating”, Jungnelius explained and mentioned the combined staircase at the University Library as an example of a well-thought-out design that encourages openness, dialogue, and participation.

Grateful and honoured by the award

Vésteinn Hafsteinsson and Åsa Jungnelius were conferred their honorary doctorates at Linnaeus University’s academic ceremony in Kalmar on 3 February 2023.

“This is the finest award I’ve received and I’ve received quite a few awards. I value this award most as it does not come from the world of sports but from academia. I’m so grateful for this award and I could not in my wildest fantasy imagine that I would get to experience this. It’s an honour that brings responsibility to be a good leader, and to become even better”, Hafsteinsson summarises.

Well attended when Linnéuniversitetet Live initiated its spring semester with a panel discussion on sports, art, and democracy.