Beyond Paradise

The Swedish National Museum is opening the exhibition Arcadia – A Paradise Lost in September 2020. Our LABLAB co-founder, Daniel Urey, is participating as one of the main curators on the topic of Hinterland. Below you are able to read his contributing essay to the exhibition publication.

Arcadia – A Paradise Lost is a cooperation between the contemporary art centre Färgfabriken in Stockholm, were Daniel Urey contributes to design know-how and programs on topics related to European politics, urbanisation, ruralisation, history, climate change and resilience.

Photos by Suvra Kanti Das. Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Prins Eugen: Fabriken. Utsikt från Waldemarsudde mot gamla Saltsjökvarn. NM 4239.
Image: Prins Eugen. NM 4239.

Hinterland – Beyond Paradise

The word comes from the German, from hinter, denoting ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’. But hinterland traditionally describes an area of land that lies behind a coastal stretch or a more densely populated area, which provides the main area with its workforce and a variety of products. The market of a town is also reliant on suppliers who have travelled there from the hinterland. The English words ‘backcountry’ and ‘backlands’ have a similar meaning. Hinterland has also – perhaps through something suggestive in the foreign word construction – accrued further meaning with related content: countryside, a forgotten or neglected area, a wasteland to explore or exploit, the opposite of a metropolis.

The notion of a remote and hidden area in the form of a hinterland has been of crucial importance for how European societies came to develop physically and mentally. In the Middle Ages the land beyond the mountains was associated with mystery and magic, a world that was hardly settled by humans but rather inhabited by mystical/mythical creatures and gods.  But the mystery faded along with the Enlightenment, urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation. Paradoxically, this demystified hinterland reappeared when the political map of Europe in the nineteenth century became increasingly dominated by nation states. These new communities quickly needed symbolic attributes to manifest and communicate the ideas they stood for.

Among the attributes that were used was the symbiosis between national identity and landscapes – both those that were dominated by agriculture and those where nature still remained untouched, that is, in areas that could be perceived as hinterland. The forms of nature found there were considered nobler and it seemed important to communicate this to the city dwellers, for example via the newly developed photographic medium. Industrialisation, however, entailed an expansive threat to the unspoiled natural landscape, and national parks were formed as a result of this imagined community. National parks first appeared in nineteenth-century USA with the idea subsequently migrating to Europe. Nowadays, there are over 4,000 national parks globally, but their aim is no longer only to uphold the image of nation states. They are also essential to increasingly vulnerable ecological systems and for the global economy, in particular the tourism industry. In the USA alone, 330 million people visited the country’s national parks in 2017. According to the American National Park Service, the tourist industry had a turnover of 32 billion USD in 2015 alone in these parks, which in turn provided jobs for 300,000 people that year.

Through European colonization, the term hinterland acquired global and brutal connotations, the traces of which are still tangible today. Landscape and people beyond the Western world were conquered, transformed and incorporated into the rising capitalism. Many of the former colonies, which, nowadays, are sovereign states, still play the part of hinterland in our age of globalisation. They are sources of cheap labour and production, as well as unregulated spaces that allow most forms of exploitation.

Image: Johan Philip Korn. Nm 6753

Today’s hinterland is also incorporated into the geopolitical game between global super powers. The desire to control existing and future sources of energy has accelerated the charting and conquest of the ocean depths in the Arctic, which has itself been precipitated by the melting ice masses as a result of the climate crisis. This is a kind of conquest that manifests itself symbolically via national flags at the bottom of the ocean which are subsequently spread via the Internet to entrench the idea of ‘we got here first’.

Since the dawn of industrialisation, the relationship between the countryside and the cities has also come to be associated with a kind of hinterland. Here it is not a matter of physically hidden landscapes but rather a place on the ‘city limits’, as we see in Eugène Jansson’s painting by the same title from 1899. In its image and title, the painting shows an environment on the periphery of the city. But it also communicates the modernist way of thinking about centre and periphery, since, despite its title, the image also portrays the periphery of the countryside. The same staging is still in play today as urbanisation increases and the metropolises of the world seem not only to grow in number but also very much in size. The term hinterland becomes dual as an urban hinterland spreads over the hinterland of the countryside. This is precisely what Suvra Kanti Das documents through his photographs, which depict the furious speed of the urbanisation of the megacity Dhaka. Although they are separated by 120 years, Eugène Jansson’s painting and Suvra Kanti Das’s photographs communicate the urban self-centredness and the view of the countryside as a place of unlimited resources in the shape of food, water, energy, minerals and possibilities for recreation and experiences that are offered by the tourism industry. This phenomenon, which was born during the European industrialisation when an expanding railroad system enabled faster transportation of both products and tourists through the European landscape, has now become a global economic power factor.

Eugène Jansson: Stadens utkant. NM 2134Image: Eugène Jansson. NM 2134.

Today there are many hinterlands that are intended for recreation and their characteristics are often highlighted. It is, for example, not unusual for the Norwegian website Visit Norway to market Norway as ‘Empowered by Nature’, implying that nature is Norway’s greatest asset.  Visit Sweden’s website makes similar associations. Together these websites represent and market an endless number of landscapes and wilderness areas that are deeply integrated into the tourism industry and its hashtag-oriented digital existence through for example #vildmark and the chain of related links such as #vandring, #nrknatur, #nordicnature, #norsknatur, #norwayraw, #jaktfiskeogfriluftsliv and #skogsliv.

The existence of urban hinterlands is also essential to urban centres since these ‘urban peripheries’ provide the cities with resources in the form of cheap labour, cheap living conditions, and storage and production spaces. Urban hinterlands can in fact even be found right in our midst in the shape of physically or mentally deserted or forgotten urban spaces – places that quite simply lack economic functionality in a globalised city. Notably, however, these (forgotten) characteristics tend to eventually be ‘discovered’ by the global real estate market in its constant hunt for cheap urban hinterlands that can be transformed into forgotten Hip$terlands.

Image: Beckers colour industry in Lövholmen, Stockholm, around 1918.

Video: Produced by the contemporary art centre Färgfabriken, 2019.


Yet the interpretation of hinterland does not stop at the physical world. Today darknet is the internet’s hidden landscape, where obscure and illegal transactions constantly take place. Here the peripheral nature is essential to ensuring that these digital hinterlands remain inaccessible and thus hidden to most of us.

In exploring the term hinterland in the shadow of Arcadia as a lost paradise, it seems, for better or worse, to have remained extremely vital. Like it or not, our societies appear unable to exist without these physical and mental landscapes.


Image: Edvard Bergh. 1862, NM 938


Image: Ställbergsgruva, 1923. Tekniska museet.

Exhibition at the National Museum takes place between the 17th of September 2020 till the 17th of January 2021.

The LABLAB research on Hinterland is funded by the Goethe-Institute Schweden.


Daniel Urey is also co-curating the exhibition Lyssna – On climate and the intersection between facts and feelings at Färgfabriken, Skellefteå konsthall and Virserums konsthall. Exhibition at Färgfabriken takes place between the 12th of September – 29th of November 2020.

Arkadien - ett förlorat paradis