A Warped World
A Talk with Power Ekroth
The Norwegian artist Børre Sæthre has a series of outstanding exhibitions behind him, and has embarked on an international career. Quite often the installations, or structures, are spectacular, and they are made with painstaking precision. For the large exhibition at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo some years ago, a crew of 35 people worked on the preparations day and night for two weeks. According to the perfectionist Sæthre, an additional two weeks would have been needed in order to get everything just right. The exhibition consisted of a hyper-real installation where one wandered through a kind of high-tech landscape that suggested films like Kubrick’s 2001, or the spaceship Enterprise. After having passed through corridors, soundless sliding doors, rooms with monitors showing films in slow-motion with silent gas explosions, surrounded by a high frequency sound that makes its way into the brain, one entered a giant blue room. At the end of the room, a declining white (stuffed) unicorn was preening itself in the most voluptuous way. It was a slightly surreal experience, and the enormous installation gave the visitor an impression of a totality, something that is quite uncommon.
BS: For me it is all about being thorough in everything, every detail is important and the finish is a great part of the piece. If you are supposed to do something in a thorough manner, and, in particular, if it is a rather simple and pure structure, which often implies more work than something that is sparkling and gaudy, it is very easy for a visitor to see whether any phase of the working process was not conducted properly.
PE: The result of this is also amazingly “slick.”
BS: I don’t think about it in that way, I don’t regard my work in that way at all, even if everyone is constantly pointing it out.
PE: You must be aware of it: you also use a lot of design elements that, in themselves, supply a “slick” approach?
BS: Mhmm, but at the same time I am also constantly “fucking it up” – even though it somehow always seems to end up in an extremely well polished finish, it is never my expressed ambition. Of course I always have a preconceived idea of what I wish the end result to look like, but I always change my mind an incredible number of times during the process, and in particular during the final stage, the construction phase. That is why I am so dependent on a crew that knows me very well; they have to comply with all my last-minute changes. To me, this is all about the differences between my installations and a planned interior; it’s all about discovering new things during the process of putting up an installation, which necessitates continual changes during the whole process. This makes the process so much more time-consuming than it would be with a “regular” exhibition, for instance a painting exhibition: it is not about moving a painting or a sculpture a couple of inches, we are talking about moving an eight-meter-long wall within a couple of hours. It is a layering process, a superposition, that is happening with extreme accuracy, and can at any time change during construction. One can very easily get the impression that the structures are planned in the smallest detail in advance, and to some degree this is the case, since it is about my overall expression, but for me this is much more abstract. I have a sense about the main elements and I know exactly what kind of feeling that should be conveyed.
It is a bit like directing, you do a lot of retakes during the production of the film since you know that things will always happen when different people get together playing off one another, regardless of how strong your preconceived idea of what you wanted to convey was. You have to re-examine all the time. This is a bit what it is like when I put together different components, modules and elements. During the process, I see how they need to put together in a totally different way than in the way I thought from the start, and the dimensions are often so large that the end result is impossible to comprehend from the outset – it is of course not possible to try things out in a studio for instance, if your studio isn’t a hangar or something, that is. I work with an installation almost like a painter works with a painting, in layers, I put on a lot before scraping off and moving around. I often end up with a lot of redundant material that never gets to be used. If you work with many parameters, there are often one or two details that chafe against others, but you are not able to see this “chafing” before you have set up the work in reality. It is all about being able to move smoothly, having a flexible crew, and, of course, having a little bit extra in your budget.
PE: I know that – because you are in the business of art and not design – you have rejected several lifestyle magazines, amongst them Wallpaper, that called you and asked you to build some “cool interiors,” but it’s difficult to deny that it sounds like you are building some kind of complicated set design for a narrative, your own narrative. What do you say about that metaphor?
BS: I would rather tell a story via my things – which would be some kind of overkill in the mind of the set designer. A set or stage designer is working on a given story, a narrative that already exists, and in the end, it works just like a backdrop. For me, what matters is not a narrative that is to be conveyed, but it is rather much more about creating an uncanny notion within the visitors – who of course are creating their own stories; and those are not my narratives but their own. I tend to say “stories,” but they’re not set from the start. I just want to push some buttons in individuals, and make them get their brains in gear themselves.
PE: Why are you so fascinated by ”Das unheimliche”, ”the uncanny”?
BS: I don’t know for sure, but I have always been very afraid of “finished” stuff, the done and the concluded. The worst thing I know is to take a final decision. Society at large does have a lot of demands for us to finish things, that everything should have a beginning and an end, even if it never complies to reality. Even if you are aware that this is a rather fake image, the fear of the finished is still there. At the same time, I do like my installations to disappear after an exhibition, that they do not become permanent.
PE: I heard something about how you were going to make an interior design for a gallery in New York, is there not some kind of permanence in this?
BS: Well, it is about modular workstations for a gallery, Participant Inc., which is the new space of Lia Gangitano, at Lower East Side in New York. We have an idea of a construction of removable workstations, modules according to some kind of “lego system,” in order to make it possible for the artists that exhibit in the space not to have to be “locked” to a fixed office structure, but rather can feel free to do more what they like, in a dialog with Lia. It is not going to be a permanent structure; I just give them some components to play with.
PE: Is it art?
BS: I don’t know if I have defined it yet, it is a dialog between Lia and me.
PE: Is it interesting to define it as art at all?
BS: To me it is interesting to do this project in collaboration with her, it is her whole approach that interests me – the name of the place, Participant Inc. , and the overall way of working of Gangitano which is all about how the artists that exhibit are participating in a process. Artists must make other choices all the time in our work than those with more regular jobs would have to do. It is all about a struggle against no budget, too little time, and too little dedication. Lia works in an extremely generous and sympathetic way, since she is so conscientious about the artists she works with, and she always put her own needs further a field – and that is why it feels very good to be able to give something back, to contribute to the continuation of the work. It is a kind of idealistic gesture.
PE: What is it that makes artists/you keep on, despite a constant fight against poor finances?
BS: We are freaks. We are a part of a world that a large amount of people obviously and explicitly feels that they were better off without. I don’t know for sure what that makes us, if not freaks!
PE: OK, but what makes it all worth while, why should we have art? Why is art important to you?
BS: I give that question a lot of thought since I often doubt my own ability to continue doing art. I do it all the same, but I have absolutely no religious “calling” or something that makes me have to “create.” I believe that because an artist is a part of a group of people that have specialized in a very special niche and have done some serious research within that little special part of the world, there is no longer any possibility of return, perhaps… We are in a way “misfits,” but I don’t know that it is this that makes art important to me. I often think that art is rather unimportant. It can be very annoying to me. It is not necessarily the case that being an artist makes one have a less complicated relationship to art than the common man. You often have a more strained relationship towards art. To me it is about how I, for many years, tried to make a more “useful” choice of profession, but somehow I ended up on the outside all the time, first via the architecture school and then graphic design. I was always outside the system of the defined groups of professions. There was for me no other way out – there was only the arts academy left....
PE: Yes, I heard that you, after leaving the School of Architecture with a bang, were thrown out of the School of Graphic Design at Kunst og Håntverksskolen in Oslo because they said that what you were doing wasn't graphic design but art. Are you yourself sometimes confused when it comes to categorizing what you do? I mean, you say clearly that what you are doing is not interior design, not stage or set design, nor for that matter any kind of design at all, while at the same time, the results clearly have the structure of architecture, graphic design and so on – it is everything at the same time....
BS: Yes, it is sort of the ingredients, but it is not really a “useful” architecture, not a “useful” graphic design, it is not really something recognizable as typical architecture, although it is an architectonic structure.
PE: What is it then? Is it useful in some other way?
BS: It becomes something that grasps some unknown emotions in us, something that awakens a kind of emotional engagement, and it touches something that does not necessarily have a natural explanation. It is about an input that is not always definable. Good art to me is often about a feeling that I cannot seem to explain or describe in a concrete way, a feeling of unpleasantness, or delight, or a doubleness of the both which affects you. Something that seduces me and has an effect on my vision and thoughts. I cannot come up with any other explanations for it.
PE: Mhmm, yes, art is in a way a meta-structure of reality, a reflection, not a reproduction, but another twist of reality. You live in the reality but go to the cinema, read a book, or go to an exhibition, and when you leave the theater/exhibition or finish the book, you look at reality in a slightly different way – you have been affected.
BS: Yes, I live in quite a warped world myself where I have difficulties separating reality from unreality, so I do believe that my reality does not really coincide with what everyone else agrees is reality. But I agree on the outline.
PE: With that, it could well be appropriate to say that artists are freaks, and this is also why they’re more clever in making good art than others, since they look upon reality slightly differently? That is why they are more clever in conveying it to us “normal” human beings, and this makes us react.
BS: Yes, it is often people with a different view than that of the ordinary man. The artist becomes by this an exponent who warps up the borders between the normal and the un-normal. That is why I am so engaged with the reactions of people who say, “This affected me,” and so on.
PE: When I visited the Astrup Fearnley Museum and your large installation, there was a group of kids visiting at the same time, and their response was priceless! The room with the unicorn was popular was particularly popular. Their immediacy of their reactions also made me see your work through their eyes, and I was able to experience it somehow like they did which was very different and quite amusing. I can imagine that many “grown ups” can feel a bit estranged by your installations, that they don’t have the right tools to “solve the riddle” – in particular with the overall difficulties of categorizing the character of the whole of your pieces, which, in themselves, are a combination of categorizable parts. But at the same time they must feel the obviously weird sense of walking into the installation.
BS: Exactly. This is important: to experience art is a lot about allowing oneself to let go, not to think so much about how one doesn’t understand. We humans are always trying to define everything, and are not able to feel comfortable with how there are things that cannot be explained. I am preoccupied by how it is possible to have amazing experiences when you are able to let go of this, to realize that there might not be an explanation, to be left in a state of mind that could move limits/borders. This can enable both fear and anxiety, which can evoke a defensive attitude in people.
PE: It was pretty obvious that it was possible to enter your installation at the museum without having to understand, one could just indulge in the experience, that was central. Certainly there were a whole lot of parameters that could give you more depth to the experience, but the base was a very experience-based art, obviously.
BS: To me there are many parallel ongoing stories that all have an effect at the same time, there is not one solution, one answer, and it is an extremely complex process of procreation in a total mixture of both mythical and surreal sorts. It reminds me of the Lynch-film [Mullholand Drive] that provokes so many since it does not have an “ending” – it kind of ends in the middle of the film. One is expecting the film to go from A to C via B, but this film does not do this, which was extremely liberating for me. It is just a matter of replacements of definitions, and how you play with the aspects of time. It is the way I think about my own pieces, sort of, they don’t have a “round-up,” it is a passage that you can enter, and which takes you to the other side, not necessarily wiser, but affected or a bit annoyed or bothered; you sort of changed frequencies a couple of times. I don’t have any concrete idea about what it is supposed to do with you, but perhaps that it should do something. I don’t have any answers to the question of why one is fascinated with the unexplainable, the “uncanny,” which is really something of an inexhaustible source for me. It is like a good storyteller who never allows the story to end; it just keeps going on and on.
PE: The structure you exhibited at Momentum, Moss 2000 was sort of an architectonic cube one could enter, and through some windows that alternated between translucent and transparent, one could see a very special image. I was not there for the opening, but asked a friend of mine who was there about your piece and she had a really strong reaction. She screamed about an animal sniffing a guy’s ass, and, since I assumed it was a scream of affirmation, said something like “that sounds really cool!” But she was actually overwrought, despite her being a seasoned art person. Do you get that kind of reactions a lot?
BS: Well yes, it happens, but it is very typically me to be just as surprised every time. That piece was really very innocent. When people think that I am at my most provocative, it’s often the case that I have a totally different approach with a very logical yet innocent connection. You have to be aware that much of this is created in people’s own imagination too! Or that their prejudices about art are that art always have to be about the sensational.
I was thinking about a lot of things during that time, and I was preoccupied with thoughts I’ve had since I was a kid, and believed that descriptions in comic magazines of individuals that looked like animals, who acted human, had clothes, spoke, etc. I was convinced that I actually could go out to the forest and make friends, that there somewhere was an animal that could become my very best friend. While the conception of the work was taking shape, I was also thinking about how people communicate, and made some connections to scents. I mean, it is very important how people smell. Dogs always say hello by smelling each other’s asses. You don’t tell a dog “ugh!” or “shame on you!,” because it is understood that this is the way they signal. Humans have the same instincts as animals, but we have become sort of so civilized, sophisticated and intelligent, and we have raised ourselves and walk on only two legs and so on. We have put aside our extremely instinctive appearances, but they arise in certain situations – for example in the sexual sphere, where you undress and peel away a large part of our rationality. You tend to become so different that you very well could imagine a situation where you actually have your nose in someone else’s ass. That is something that happens between two people in a private situation. It was a hodgepodge in my head at that time with a lot of ideas, all about a strange encounter. It was about rationality in relation with what you’d want to see and what you’d like to avoid seeing. That is why I used that kind of glass that blocked the image for 60 seconds and was transparent for only four seconds. To get an impression one had to stand there for quite some time, and you’d have to wait another 60 seconds before it was possible to see the image again and to get an overall impression. There was also a very annoying sound. If I’d wanted to provoke I could have just made a giant image on a wall or something, now you had to enter into a very uncomfortable structure. I thought I had given people a choice by just showing the image for four seconds, which hardly can be enough to corrupt someone. People’s extreme curiosity should not be underestimated however; I learned that people tend to set all their moral principles aside because of their curiosity, until they get enough information to be appalled. I thought I actually warned people.
I also like the thought that “curiosity killed the cat,” the sound for example, that was a high pitched sound, almost like a warning signal, and sounded every 20th second. There were a lot of things indicating that this was not totally comfortable. It became in a way an experiment about how eager people really are. The trap was obvious. In a way I also like that it worked like a filter, it should not be accessible to everyone. But, again, to me, it was about things entirely different from animal sex. If you ask some guy to put two fingers up your ass he probably will go “yuk!,” but if you do it in a different context he might actually enjoy it. We, as a race, have nurtured individuals to become so sophisticated that we deny a piece of our nature in a way, at least on the surface. We are too advanced to become simple.
PE: But you don’t really mean that your images are not the slightest bit sexual?
BS: No, I’m not saying that at all! But the photography is in a way a totally different project than the rest of my production.
PE: What do you mean, you are incorporating your photography in your installations?
BS: Yes, It strikes me from time to time that I don’t know really how successful I think it really is. The making of photography started at first more like some kind of recreation, away from the main activity, on the side in some way. I still cannot really explain why I take photographs, I am not a photographer.
In relation to the installations, the photographs are more concrete as stories. They are much more like some kind of scenes in a course of events. It is difficult to use the photographs in the same ways that I use the installations. My idea with the photographs is not to use them in the same way as the installations which are about to work with large things in a topographic scale, and it them that I want to deal with. They are about a state of mind I’m in, while the photographs are a lot more like a concrete outline of a story. I don’t know why I separate them and at the same time work with them parallel. I find it very amusing to create photography, but it will never be my main project, not because I don’t like it – I really enjoy taking photographs. I am fond of imagining an outline or course of events, and picking a scene from this, and then creating an image from that scene. I believe that they have worked to a variety of degrees as something that can be incorporated in the installations.
PE: I can see a sharp difference here that is about what Nicolas Bourriaud talks about, a kind of postproduction, that is that you pick up already existing things, films or structures, and put them in a new context, just as you do when you put together a whole exhibition: you take different art pieces and put them together and create a totally new meaning with this. You change the meanings of structures, design and other already existing things by pulling them together and placing them in a totally new context with your installations. In your photography, there is clearly an author and a sender, already in your fantasy, you have created a whole narrative of your own that you convey.
BS: Yes, I believe that that is what I mean when I say that I know very well what I feel in relation to my installations, it is a state of the mind that I can enter and depart from. Photography is much more an act than an outline. I have had a rather unstable photographic production; there can be years in-between and all of a sudden I do several of them. The photographs also have a completely different audience than the installations. The people that like the installations often dislike the photography and vice versa.
PE: I thought that incorporating your photography in the installation at Momentum worked very well.
BS: Yes, even I liked the incorporation there. But most often it changes the experience in a way that I don’t like. I have so much more to say with the installations that are connected with what I am interested in. That is maybe why the photographs are more on the side, they tell their stories and are so much more “finished,” they continue to associate and suggest on their own, the photos are completed when they are taken and will continue to live their own life afterwards and I don’t have anything to do with that. The installations are much more about the state of mind that I am in, and there is some kind of a continuity in the whole thing that continues on. The photographs constitute simple stories. Of course are they important in their own way, but it is something else. It is like a philosopher writing heavy texts every day, but relaxing by making comic strips.
PE: Yes, that is (again) a state of mind, and you did, in the end, name the exhibition at Astrup Fearnley with the unicorn “My Private Sky,” and that says a lot.
BS: That is a claim. Welcome to my world: this is my private sky!