day 1. My studio is a mess.
Some months have passed since I was here. I’ve been working in Denmark and doing other stuff, so I haven’t been here. It has become a dump, into which I tossed everything I didn’t need for the moment. It doesn’t work for me to simply start in a mess. I need to feel undisturbed and focused. I need to see my references. It can be chaos, but it has to be mine. I start with making three different workstations: one for painting the last sculptures I made in Denmark, a large table for drawing and a table for writing.
As usual, I procrastinate before I even think of starting: settling my mind, wandering around, putting in order, choosing what to do. Taking in books and stuff I want to work with. Taking out whatever doesn’t fit in. Deciding. Trying to get focused. Once I have started I am fine.
On my writing table lie a selection of books that will guide me in some way: Ellsworth Kelly, Drawings on a Bus, 1954; Silvia Bächli, das; Tetsumi Kudo, an exhibition catalogue with work from his show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1972 (*); The Big Five, about psychological keywords; Boltanski; Karin Lindholm, Knäppfinger; John Coplans, A Body; Antonin Artaud, works on paper; Francis Bacon, an inventory of his studio; Ernst Friedrich, War against War!; Serge Klarsfeld, French Children of the Holocaust.
The last book is the major reference in the series of sculptures I am working on at this moment. I might or might not use the other books mentioned, but I want them at hand. I tend to pick them up, walk through and put them aside again, as a source of artistic reference. I don’t read them. I look at the pictures. Some of them don’t even have texts. I don’t care about the texts, it’s the visuals I’m after, although sometimes I read.
Part of my way of procrastinating is writing. I write about how to get going, about my mood, about whether or not I want to be in my studio and whether or not I feel blocked. I write about why I write all this. I write to kick myself to work: the “work” of sculpting or drawing. But with this project my attitude towards this writing has shifted paradigm and it has become work as well. Even though writing has always been a part of my process, as a way to gain focus, it has also been a way of postponing my work. Now this writing has become permissive, it feels like a liberation or a relief. I feel triggered to write, but since this text will be a part of a presentation, I have to bring it to another level: it has to be readable for others as well.
Who will I address in these writings? This is a journal, but unlike the diaries I am used to keeping, this one will not be private. It has to be more formal, yet personal at the same time. It has to be readable for people with a general interest in art, who happen to be interested in my work or in this research project. This will mean: not too much repetition and self-indulgence. But since I don’t want to lose the openness that I normally have in my diaries, I will write freely and edit later in order to achieve clarity of my intentions and make it more readable for others.
For me, writing is a time-consuming occupation. That is to say, I write very slowly. I use introspection as a method, I try to capture my inner voice. Due to this, I enter a contemplative state of mind where I can be aware of thoughts that otherwise are too ephemeral to notice. It is thereby a writing from within, a reflective writing, like the writing Emma Göransson and Roland Ljungberg describe, rather than an analytical writing. (Göransson, & Ljungberg, 2009) Writing in English, which is not my mother tongue, brings down the speed of this process even further, creating time to develop my thoughts. My vocabulary in Dutch might be much larger; writing in English forces me into a more reflective attitude, where I weigh each and every word.
(*) I saw this exhibition of Kudo together with a friend when I was an adolescent, since we strolled around the museums every weekend, and we thought it was so cool: a penis in a birdcage, a body smeared out over a chair, eyes in a bucket. We saw this exhibition several times and we were very impressed and excited as twelve-year-olds. Kudo is probably one of the artists who has most influenced me to become one myself. Even after 40 years I still have a vivid memory of this show.
I walk in a park. Ephemeral existences disperse from trees. I am not afraid.
day 2. Last year I worked on a series of drawings, which I called “Pondus”. A big, black curved form, a dot, on a white sheet of paper (picture 5). It was about balance and weight and the apparent ease some people, especially dominant white males, have about themselves. At one point the form hits the side of the paper, on the other side it runs off the paper. As I was working on the drawings, I realized that it was not a drawing I was after. In my mind it became a huge, free-standing, abstract, flat, black sculpture. I have not come so far as actually making it, but I will.
Later I developed the drawings in the opposite direction: a white curved form, left behind after making the rest of the paper as black as it can be. The curved form became the moon in the night sky. Since the drawings were meant to be presented together with a sculpture series on the Danish resistance movement, in particular portraits of assassins, the moon became a symbol for activities which under normal circumstances cannot take place in broad daylight. That is where I start now: a negative form (picture 6).
Black space around a white, single-curved form. If I leave the paper white as it is, it remains two-dimensional. I need to do something in the white sphere. First I adjust the curve, since I am not pleased with it. It should not be perfectly round, but almost. Now it is sort of hanging.
As it is still not as close to a circle as I want, I use a pair of custom-made compasses and adjust the curved line. I have noticed before that I get a better feeling of ‘a moon’ if this moon is not a perfect circle. I will adjust once more.
The black space holds clouds, enclosed. They are in direct contrast with the very dense black space/form around, which has become a container. The clouds meet the dense surface, precipitate, sublimate.
Inside and outside are the same but of a different quality, a different density, a different state of being, another state of mind. The moon has been transfigured.
I am a self-murderer. We are rehearsing the Hell of Dante in an underground parking lot. I am doomed to burn in hell forever and ever.
day 3. Even though it is only one aspect of my work, my psychoses, and how I will relate to them in this project, have dominated this last week. I need to find a convincing way to integrate the small text fragments in the memories of my psychoses that have popped up recently, as parallel elements in my texts. This is in order to say something about the emotional layers of my work. And I need to articulate why I want to include these text fragments in the first place.
I have read about Anna Odell and the way she manifested herself through her BA degree project at Konstfack (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design) Stockholm (Odell, 2009) and I am reading and pondering bits and pieces of other artists whom I could refer to. I am thinking of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) the French writer/artist connected to Surrealism who, for the better part of his life went in and out of mental hospitals and all the while continued to work, write and draw. (Rowell, 1996) I want to use him in my text as an example of an artist dealing with being mentally ill, put him in an opposing position to that of Anna Odell and relate these two artists to myself and to how I approach my work.
I am in a corridor. I need to visit the bathroom. It is dark. A note on the inside of the door says that the light will switch on if you close the door and lock it. I don’t dare go in.
day 4. New drawing. 70 x 100 cm. Although that might be too big right now. Smaller is faster and I want to work with a new form. But small doesn’t speak the same language as big, and 70 x 100 is still just a step in between.
It is sort of the same curved form as the moon, but with a horizontal platform. A plateau. (One could jump from) (picture 7). It’s an old idea, probably twenty years old, but I want to pick it up again, since it is still present. Back then, I hardly ever continued working with a form to develop it further. I worked a little bit with it and went on to the next, knowing that there would come a time when I would continue. This time has come now. I have small sketches in a book and I want to work with them.
The abstract forms I use are quite simple. They always have been simple, in their apparent form, not so much in their context or content.
In my drawing I never developed the technical skills as I have with my sculpture. Drawing has been my older sister’s domain since I was young. She had a hand for drawing, so I could just as well forget even thinking about it. I became convinced that it was not for me and I never even bothered to try. Later I did, but it always has been, and still is, loaded with fears of my inabilities. So I get easily locked and blocked, and it is precisely that which this is about, the Pondus-motif and content are directly linked.
I drive a needle through his eye.
The picture is a newspaper clipping that hangs on my wall. He is a war criminal, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. In my delusion it is me. I am he. I commit voodoo on myself.
day 5. I am struggling to find a way to embed the memory fragments of my psychoses in this project. Since they are very private, I hesitate to integrate them in this text. Yet, if I want to go beyond my fear, I need to use these fragments in view of the fact that they represent important emotional layers in my work. These emotional layers are present in both my drawings and my sculptures as a part of the expression and content. Though in my sculpture they are not directly visual, since I try to conceal them. In my recent drawings the emotional layers come more to the surface.
My psychoses are not a subject in my work, as they are in that of Anna Odell. Odell faked and relived a psychosis as a part of an art project in 2009. (Odell, 2009) She pretended that she would commit suicide and protested intensely to the people who wanted to help her, until she was drugged and forcibly removed from the scene. She had a psychosis 13 years earlier in her life, and did this project to question the way psychiatric hospitals take care of people with an acute psychosis. With her project Anna Odell generated massive media attention and public debate. Yet this debate was not about psychiatric healthcare as she had hoped, but about the legitimacy of her actions and whether her project was or was not art. I don’t think this text is the place to discuss these questions. I name Anna Odell because she is an artist who explicitly used her psychosis, as a theme in her work, to question what she thinks is a systemic failure in psychiatric healthcare. A political stance that I do not want to take.
I use my experiences with psychoses to charge my work emotionally, to make it more powerful, but the psychoses themselves are not a subject in my work. They are a part the experiences that formed me into the person I am now. I do not feel the need to communicate these experiences in a political format as Anna Odell does in her project. Yet, I want to write about these experiences in order to get a deeper understanding of my motives to work with portraits of victims.
From my abstract work one could construe my mental state during the psychoses, which would be a valid interpretation of these works, but only if this interpretation is explicit. Since these drawings are conveyed in a fully abstract realm, they are open to any interpretation.
My intention is to make art. Unlike psychiatric patients who have an incurable urge to draw or who need to get hold of themselves through creative therapy. In my perception they don’t make art with the same intentions as an artist. Yet, the list of artists with psychiatric problems who managed their illness through their work is long. Consider Antonin Artaud. In contrast to Odell, who replayed her psychosis with a political agenda, Artaud can’t be anyone other than who he is: a man with psychiatric problems.
Demonerna kaller mig.
Det är skuggor av fåglar överallt.
Över mig, under mig, på sidorna, bakom mig.
Demons are calling for me.
There are shadows of birds everywhere.
Over me, under me, beside me, behind me.
Berny Pålsson, 2004
(the english translation is my own)
I wake up in pain. It is dark. I lay naked on a bed. It is a spring steel base, no mattress, no sheets. I’m cold. Black creeps out of tiny holes in the wall. I am chained and strangled, cooked and roasted and quartered. I cannot scream.
day 6. Painting a sculpture from a recent series “War against War!” based on a book with the same title by the German author Ernst Friedrich who was active between the wars (picture 8). With this book, and his anti-war museum, the pacifist Friedrich took a stand against war. He collected over one hundred and eighty photographs from German military and medical archives and published them to enlighten the public to the horrors of war. The book contains a collection of pictures of destroyed cities and vehicles, endless numbers of dead bodies scattered about the battlefields, cumulating in a series of close-up pictures of soldiers whose faces are partly blown away by grenades, but who miraculously survived. Some of these pictures are of man whose faces are ‘restored’ by the primitive plastic surgery of the early 20th century. Friedrich hoped that his book would give a face to the war and as such function as a deterrent, preventing wars in the future. In 1933 he was chased away by the Nazis from his hometown Berlin, forced to leave his museum which the Nazis seized as their hangout (Friedrich, 1924: 14-15; Sontag, 2003: 13-14). I have used some of the pictures from this book to make a series of sculptures, since they fascinated and horrified me. The sculptures themselves are freer in style than my series on Racial Biology and French Children of the Holocaust. In the latter two, I wished to depict specific individuals, whereas the former deals with anonymous war victims. I wanted to use a freer style to open up my way of working.
But why do I want to create these sculptures in the first place? What is my interest in them? Is it to shock and provoke the audience? Do I think that the contribution I make with my art will help to put an end to war? Just as Friedrich thought? Actually not. I am not so naive that I believe private discussion initiated by my work here in Sweden would help to put an end to the war in Afghanistan. Yet war seen from the perspective of war victims is one of the recurring themes in my work. Mutilated faces represent mutilated souls. With this work I relive some of the aspects of my past, transfigure those aspects into sculpture with a thought-content tangible to others. With this work I tell my story through the stories of others; I tell their stories through my experiences, through my eyes. Nevertheless, my private stories remain untold. My personal incentive is to feel purified, slightly redeemed, having created these works, while at the same time I feel that I can focus on a topic that is larger than me. This is to salvage the Calvinist in me.
Thinking of Louise Bourgeois in the way she brought her experiences into her work, saying something both very personal and of common value at the same time.
I smash my head through the glass. It is like an eggshell. I need to be reborn. I open the window and put myself on the ledge. I am naked. I loose myself, but there is an angel to catch me.