An Invocation of Existence
Interview with Mattias Härenstam by Kristian Skylstad in Spring 2015.
Translation by Francesca Nichols.
KS: My first encounter with your art was “Diary of the Unknown Consumer” at Unge Kunstneres Samfunn (UKS). It made me think of HP Lovecraft and a dystopian, paranoid universe. A parallel reality.
MH: I have always liked Lovecraft. That corridor grew out of a need to see if I could make art again at all. At that time I hadn’t been able to make anything for several years. I got stuck in making videos, in endless video editing, and it was going nowhere. So I began aimlessly to carve some pieces of wood in my studio. It was a yearning for something tangible and physical - something you could touch. In time it gained form and a narrative.
But prior to that you had worked primarily with video?
Yes, for many years. The films I produced before I began working with sculpture had a lot to do with digital manipulation, where escapist fantasies broke up everyday situations. But I had emptied that room. I had taken a path, and walked that path to its very end. I continued to walk, but got nowhere. So I stopped walking. And then I stood totally still.
How did you experience that condition of immobility?
It was horrible. It was probably a deep depression, actually, although I didn’t have enough self-awareness to realise it then. At the same time I began to be interested in other things and other things became more important. It was a form of escape. But the most difficult thing was to accept the immobility, to not feel like a failure. I didn’t go to openings or exhibitions in order to avoid people who asked the question: “what are you working on now?” That is a difficult question to answer when you don’t know what you are doing, or even worse, that you are actually not doing anything related to art. Instead of tackling that, I tried for a long while to hide myself away.
So you confronted the situation by carving your demons in the wall and creating a corridor. It was a death corridor of sorts.
So you tried out something and then it developed into an oeuvre?
A different one than before at least.
Because you are known for your large, complex installations.
I don’t know if they are so complex. They actually have to do with very simple and very basic things.
They have a relatively narrative and corporeal character and blend into each other to form a figurative and abstract discourse. In particular your exhibition in Kunstnerforbundet. I’m thinking of those macabre bodies that reminded me of the Alien films.
That exhibition was simultaneously very personal and quite romantic. The sculptures were based on a reference to Dante, the passage in the Divine Comedy where he arrives at the suicide forest, where the suicide victims have been transformed into human trees for all eternity, as their penalty. But something banal and physical arose in the relationship between the trees and the bodies, which interested me. It was an extension of the wall reliefs in UKS. In that case, my point of departure was the patterns created by the growth rings in the wood, such as faces that appear because of the knots in the wood, while these works were based on the shape of the entire piece of wood.
The spritism element here, is it something you wish to emphasise? It dominates the younger generation of popular culture enthusiasts.
I guess I don’t think as a spiritist, but I have become more and more fascinated by animism, as when dead things come to life. It is also a very strong element in popular culture, Walking Dead for example. My wood sculptures are fundamentally animistic. Via animism in the creative process I became very interested in the fact that the object had once been physically alive and the way it gained new life. They hover over the boundaries between what exists, what no longer exists and what it could be. I am always disappointed when they don’t begin to walk around of their own free will when they are finished.
That would be amazing, but if we were to think about art on the one hand as alchemy, and on the other hand as a form of animism … That is why art is so easy to dismiss, because if you don’t succeed in animating what you see, it is just a thing.
Then it is just a thing. That is why it is always disappointing when I arrive at the last stage, which is the exhibiting space. As long as I have the work close by, and am working on it, it is in flux and has a life. But as soon as it is placed in an exhibiting space, it loses its spark and vitality. Then it ceases to belong to me. It no longer lives. It’s over.
Is it a form of death?
Maybe. They lose potential; they stop living as potential for me the moment they are placed within that framework.
Kristian Øverland Dahl says it a little more flippantly or coquettishly… He compares exhibiting with throwing ones works into a dumpster or a mill, where they are crushed and turned into nothing.
Yes, that is the feeling, but for me it is not the art institution itself that is the problem. I think it has to do with the very act of making it public. As long as I have the works near me, they can change and there are loads of possibilities. They are still only mine. But then it is over, and suddenly they go from being the most important thing in the world to being just another thing.
But that doesn’t happen so easily with video and film.
In many ways they are opposite processes. Film is more or less living images, and has a life in that it moves, but it is a has-been or will-be, but it is not. It is an immaterial surface; the people who wander around within the frame are not there, and in any case not when they become accessible to me during screening. The sculptures, on the other hand, are physically present in the room, and are therefore alive on a different level than film can be.
So tangibility is both the strength and weakness of the object?
Tangibility is always a question of longing, really, for something that is substantially present, here and now. The sculptures occasionally have that quality, when they are in a process, but then they harden and die. Film has fantastic narrative possibilities, but it doesn’t have a now. You can sometimes experience it as a now, if you become totally absorbed in a film, but it is a fictive now that you experience as a viewer. The now that you experience in an encounter with sculpture is actually real. The feeling of now that I feel when I am working is not present once I have placed the objects in the exhibition room. When the first visitors enter the room, they die for me.
Is death an important component in your works?
It has a lot to do with that, and in a way it always has. I think that earlier it specifically had to do with my father’s death, and a way of processing it, but I don’t think that’s the case any longer. A certain kind of awareness came out of there, but it has moved on and become something else, an element in a figurative sense. They say that art should not be therapy, but then it is. Only things that actually touch me manage to engage me. If the problem doesn’t lie within myself, I can’t work with it. Then someone else can do it better. So what I do will always be influenced by what I notice along the way, in life, and then I pick out aspects of the experiences. For me art is a place where I can say things I would never have managed or dared to anywhere else.
It is something you channel unconsciously.
I think so. It’s just there.
What you work with is situated in a landscape that is a little dirty, and in a language that is unusual to grapple with in the field of art. One might almost say that it is taboo.
Yes, and a little idiotic. It is a rather pathetic genre if you take it to an extreme. But it’s a fascinating world nevertheless. The narrative quality is important, and even when I work with sculpture, I cannot refrain from telling a story, even though I sometimes make an active effort to exclude the story. The narrative is a recurring thing, either as an overriding motivation or manifested as small elements. But that being said, the sculptures have become more abstract, and more themselves. The story is gradually being buried in the physical form.
A form of absorption, because you are absolutely not afraid of theatricality.
There can perhaps be an excess of theatricality at times. But it is always there, and in certain works I consciously employ it as a device.
When I see the works that you will exhibit in the Vigeland Museum, with a white material that flows out of a stone like in childbirth, and an arm in wood that desperately holds onto a rope, while the body the arm belongs to is dissipating, I am reminded of both decomposition and rebirth. These function almost as three-dimensional illustrations in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Well, I haven’t thought that much about Tibetan Buddhism, but there are some themes there that interest me. What I’ve actually read a bit about is the Aztec cult of Xipe Totec, a corn and fertility deity. In this cult, humans were flayed and handsome young men were clothed in the skin of the sacrificial victims. During the course of two weeks the hide decomposed and the man was “born” again. A little like the perfect, golden kernels of corn that are hidden behind the rotting leaves of the cob. There are a lot of very frightening and fascinating Aztec stone sculptures on the theme.
This is evidently universal, found for instance in the Hindu and Buddhist Angkor Wat tradition and Aztek symbolism, but also in the Nordic sculpture tradition. What is your relationship to Gustav Vigeland’s work? Personally I feel that there is a much stronger kinship between you and Emanuel Vigeland’s more plastic, but also more existentially brutal production.
Gustav Vigeland’s shadow weighs heavily in the rooms of the museum with its patriarchal monumentality. In one way or another I have to relate to it. The exhibition’s title is “Weaknesses, Secrets, Lies” and the idea, or strategy, is to attempt to make use of some of the monumental forms and materials, but in a way as to undermine them. Is it possible to force the same hard granite to express weakness instead of strength? Make it seem humanly frail instead of elevated, solid and timeless, to be weak, cowardly, deceitful and secretive instead of honest, true and powerful? But perhaps you are right. Maybe there is a greater kinship with Emanuel Vigeland’s works. At any rate, it is a great experience to visit the very strange mausoleum he built for himself.
Do you see yourself as a Norwegian artist after so many years in the Norwegian monarchy?
Yes, even though it still says European Union and Sweden on my passport, I am quite Norwegian as an artist. I came here in 1992, when I began at the Bergen Academy of Art and Design, and aside from a few years in Berlin, I have remained here ever since. More than half my life, actually.
Are you afraid of clichés?
Well. That’s a difficult question. I think that something is a cliché because there is some truth to it, and it can be interesting to get beyond that, but sometimes you don’t get over the top. You remain on the ground, and then it remains a cliché.
Who is your public?
I’m not sure, but I am hopeful that anyone will be able to come in and get something out of it, whether it is a film or a sculpture. My hope is that the works can function on many different levels. You should be able to experience art without advance knowledge. It should be possible to gain a direct experience that is just as valid as any theoretical interpretation. I am not defending populism here, but I believe in something simpler and more fundamental, in addition to a theoretical framework. One should be able to experience art from different standpoints. What comes first, and what is most essential for me, is the direct emotional experience. Beyond this experience there must be additional levels that stimulate me to think, and that is what gives the work many lives, but without the first experience, I will not be drawn in to begin with.
The aesthetical work you are witness to must knock you out of your own reality.
Something has to draw you in.
It is not something I think deliberately about when I am writing a film manuscript or carving a sculpture, but I look for it afterwards, and sometimes underway too. To see if it actually works to begin with.
While they are still in purgatory.
That is the best part of the process, when it is finished, but not shown yet. Then I feel as though I am alive, for better or worse. Especially if I have ventured into an area that it totally new to me, a project entailing something I haven’t done before. I have a diverging practice and do many different things. There is a greater potential for failure then, and I learn more.
Do you see your production as one great assemblage?
Yes. I think I do. There is a core, a little like a tree. There is something in the root, deep down in the ground that spreads to the trunk and out into the branches in many different directions. I can admire artists who have one single project, which they work on throughout their lives, but for me it is totally incomprehensible. I am too restless, have an urge to try out different things and vary a lot. It might look scattered, and it might be difficult to get a concise picture of who it is you are looking at. But I feel that there is a connection on another level. Since I never totally escape myself, a form of continuity always arises even though I don’t actively seek it out. One element that often recurs is surfaces that are disrupted. Something that attempts to be something that it isn’t, and in the end it cannot maintain the deceit. There is a reason for it, and it is often rather complicated.
What is it that brought you to art?
I really wanted to be a writer. I still have a great interest in telling a story.
That explains the strong narrative strains in your production.
I try to squeeze it out, but the story sneaks in the back door anyway. The writer crawls up my back and whispers in my ear. It is somewhat of a coincidence that I became an artist.
The corridor in UKS, was that the beginning of the labyrinth?
No, it was complete in itself and the sculptures became more and more an extension of what happened there. But I see many artistic productions that have a much narrower focus that this.
But that is not one of your ambitions?
I don’t think I function that way. Working in that way has its advantages and disadvantages. I think it has a lot to do with who you are as a person, and the art world often rewards what is unambiguous and identifiable. Many are pigeonholed, and once you have been placed in a hole it can be very difficult to break out of it. I have never sought this out, but I always strive to discover what was interesting in previous projects and to integrate it in new projects, or perhaps especially to attempt to move on when it comes to things that were problematic. I gather some of the threads. It is impossible to let go of them all and begin from scratch each time.
What is your core trait?
The narrative perhaps, but really what I am looking for most of all is an invocation of existence. The energy that resides in bending something into a certain shape, perhaps as an expression of a need for control - to mange to bend a little piece of the world according to my will. A tiny piece. I can admire artists who lean back and allow their works to create themselves. The lightness of it. I have never managed to do it; perhaps I am not talented enough. There is always another struggle. I have to use force. I have to resort to violence.
You have to exert violence on your materials and then it becomes art.