This summer, Mattias Härenstams latest video work is on show at Whitechapel Gallery, London. In the following you can read an interview with Härenstam previously published in the printed edition of Kunstforum.
Captivating cycles, facades collapsing, control disappearing, and now voodoo. Mattias Härenstam is fascinated by life’s somewhat darker sides.
Video and installation have long been at the core of Härenstam’s art, but recently, sculpture has also crept in. Common threads from previous pieces are always present, and a dark undertone characterises his work. Through techniques like cycles and reiterations, particularly in his videos, he hypnotises the viewer and keeps them in an ever-encroaching darkness. And according to the artist himself, it will get darker still.
‘I find a creative energy in those dark spaces; I just have to go there to be able to do anything,’ he chuckles over Skype from Berlin. But things weren’t always this dark.
The tone is set early in his artistic career – as witnessed by videos like Supermarket (2001) and Hundekälte – Nächstes Jahr wirds noch kälter [‘Dog-cold – Next year it’ll be colder still’] (2003). Yet, here it is still possible to escape the nightmarish.
‘Supermarket sprang from this idea of a kind of diary with a little scene for each day. The scenes are tied together by endless wandering in the supermarket, shopping, and consumerism. The wandering is broken up by “imaginary escape attempts”, short, escapist moments that disappear as soon as they have appeared. Suddenly, you’re back in the super- market, you can’t escape,’ Härenstam tells us.
Escapism is also a key element of Hundekälte. Filmed around Berlin, the video serves as a portrait of the city. With a camera in a converted stroller, Härenstam wanders around town, filming what he ‘sees’: inhabitants, streets, and buildings.
‘It’s inspired by the book Berlin Alexanderplatz. The Tale of Franz Biberkopf (1929), by Alfred Döblin. The novel has two main characters: newly discharged Franz Biberkopf and the city of 1930s Berlin itself. Written in the vein of James Joyce’ Ulysses, the city speaks a tongue of its own and is an agent in the story, explains Härenstam.
‘The video switches between documentary footage from a cold, grey, and post-communist cityscape and a kind of escape attempt.’
The camera moves through the city, but the grey cityscape is broken up by grass suddenly found growing inside a U-bahn station, butterflies fluttering through a shopping centre, and a cloud of smoke in the sky taking the shape of a sunflower.
‘The East German mark left on Berlin was much more evident then,’ remarks Härenstam, who has lived in the city since 1999. He continues:
‘Part of the story is that the video was made at the start of the noughties, when euphoria over the fall of the Berlin wall and the newfound freedom had dissipated and been replaced by harsh realities: a market economy in crisis, high levels of unemployment, and social unease. In many ways, many of the dreams that had arisen in 1989 had already been crushed.’
‘I had an idea of translating this to a person’s wandering through the city, of showing the inner fantasies of the individual commingled with the city. In the video, you can see the scenes change from large spaces full of people to smaller, almost empty spaces.’
But in time, possibilities of escape vanish. A nightmarish feeling encroaches as you find yourself stuck in an endless merry-go-round, an everlasting cycle – an increasingly obvious technique in Härenstam’s videos.
‘There’s partially a formal reason for that,’ Härenstam begins.
‘Video is a time-based medium and I think it’s difficult to display something that unfolds across time in a physical, motionless room. As an observer, you always come halfway through the video, and you don’t get to see the whole thing. When it’s cyclical, I think the viewer can choose their time with the piece. And there is a hypnotic and captivating effect to everlasting cycles.’
This is shown in particular in the video Closed circuit (2011).
‘Closed circuit is based on a painting by Swedish artist Peter Tillberg, called Midt i Sverige (1972–73) [‘In the middle of Sweden’], that also depicts a suburb somewhere in Sweden with a big hole in the street,’ details Härenstam.
The suburb in Tillberg’s painting is heavy with dark clouds and tristesse. Apart from the actual hole in the street to which Härenstam’s video refers, Tillberg’s paintings often address our modern, everyday life with a realism marked by surreal deviousness. Closed circuit was part of the exhibition project 28thFebruary 1986, shown at the Akershus Art Centre in February 2011. The theme was the murder of Olof Palme, though on a higher level, it dealt with the collapse of facades and a feeling of losing control.
‘I’ve seen pictures from the Palme murder, and there was a large pool of blood on the street – like a large hole materialising – which for many people probably represented a feeling of “everything’s coming apart”. Tillberg’s painting and that picture from the scene of crime made a link in my head, but I wanted a physical connection, a cycle.’
In the video, the viewer is drawn into the hole in the ground, through a chomping maw, into an intestine-like canal before emerging onto the ground for it to start over again. The cycle repeats over and over, with a hypnotic effect it can be difficult to turn away from. But which also gives the viewer the opportunity to choose for themselves when to move on, if they can tear themselves away.
‘The exhibition was built like scenes from a film, with the intention that those viewing could choose for themselves when to move on to the next “scene”,’ says Härenstam.
A viewer first enters the installation Un- titled (28thFebruary 1986), which is a waiting room where a recording of the emergency call from the night Palme was shot is played. Next, one opens a door to room beyond, where Closed circuit plays. In the room after that, one stands beneath the giant root of a tree hanging down from the ceiling with the title Cannibalistic Solitude (2011), the intention of which is to create a sensation of being underground. In the innermost room, one encounters a video projection of a male back looming close, and the feeling of having lost control encroaches.
‘Portrait of a man reminiscent of my father is a video piece that was displayed quite high up on the wall so that the man should seem even bigger; he comes across as even larger than he really is. To my mind, that is the classic father figure: a grown man larger than yourself. But here, he’s so helpless: with his back turned, sobbing. He’s lost control.
‘To me, this is a parallel to the Palme-murder: the safe and controlled surface cracks – everything cracked after the Palme murder. But there’s a personal level as well: seeing one’s father, the person you trust and who knows everything, collapse and turn out to be as helpless as me,’ explains Härenstam. He continues:
‘In a wider sense, it’s about the part of life that you can’t control. Chaos exists no matter what, and it seeps through to the surface. And control is a recurring element in everything I do.
A control freak, in other words, something the artist laughingly agrees with.
‘I’m very concerned with being in control, in a personal level, but also on a political level.’
He is suddenly serious again:
‘Society revolves around the calculation of risks and dangers. At any given time, all dangers to society must be eliminated. But that’s impossible; you can’t get rid of every conceivable danger or threat. And trying to be in control comes at a cost. Control seeps in everywhere; where do we have room for people? And when the human element enters, everything comes apart.’
In a certain sense, Härenstam’s art can be seen as political.
‘Absolutely,’ he concedes.
‘But it’s political based on subjective, personal experience, and not as answers and comments to specific political questions. For that, I don’t think art is especially well suited. For me, it’s about describing life here and now from a subjective point of view.’
Excitedly, he continues: ‘And here’s where it gets interesting: it turns out that the more you delve into the personal, the more personal the issues become, the more universal they become! You’re not as bloody special as you think; other people have the same problems. You try to find your biggest, most personal nightmares, but then it turns out that even they are universal. And so it becomes political.’
The Need for Something Physical
In 2010, Härenstam contributed The Diary of the Unknown Consumer (2004- 2008) to The National Art Exhibition, Høstustillingen. Featuring a pine-clad corridor with absurd, burlesque carvings on the walls leading into a room decorated in red velvet, where a video played, links to the universe of American director and film creator David Lynch are not far behind.
‘Yes, there is an obvious allusion present,’ laughs Härenstam.
‘And I really like Lynch’s work, especially how everything seems so safe. But under the surface, chaotic darkness is waiting, mixing with the seemingly safe setting. It’s like the ideal of a person’s home – all of a sudden, it’s infiltrated and the façade starts cracking.
Like when the Palme murder shook Sweden. Or when Härenstam crosses over into the world of sculpture and virtually conjures them to life. Video is no longer enough, the need for something more tangible intrudes.
‘I’ve been doing video for a long time and it becomes quite intangible. I can’t just do video anymore; I need to explore something else, too. It started with pine walls in the The Diary of the Unknown Consumer: I began carving everything from wood – with no goal or intent in mind; I didn’t know what it was going to be.’
But even the video in the innermost chamber of The Diary of the Unknown Consumer, which shares the same title, bears witness to the need for something physical.
‘The video in the installation is a dreamlike sequence, where the person, or more specifically, the hand, continually tries to seize things he/she finds on their way in a desert landscape. It’s about the eternal craving for something physical, the enormous need to touch something, to handle something physically. But every time, the objects dissolve.’
Härenstam clarifies his position on society and human needs:
‘Today we only believe in what we can see and touch. It’s a way of seeing the world; you have to have an object to show who you are.’
Trees and Voodoo
The need for some- thing more physical and tangible resulted in sculptures in solid wood, shown at the exhibition I know you are there at Kunstnerforbundet, Oslo, in April. Grotesque carvings, similar to those on the walls of The Diary of the Unknown Consumer can also be found scored into the surface of these sculptures. But the inspiration for the sculptures also came from an illustrated version of Dante’s Inferno.
‘The worse your crimes, the worse your punishments in hell. In the story, Dante descends into a sort of forest with a lot of trees. He accidentally steps on them, and the trees cry out in pain. It turns out they are people who have committed suicide, transformed into trees in punishment for their crime.
‘In the illustrated version, these trees are depicted,’ enthuses Härenstam.
And it is precisely the connection between body and tree that captivates him:
‘Take trees in the in winter, for example: standing there, denuded, they have a very body-like quality to them.’
Regarding his work with sculptures, he draws another parallel between sculpture and animism.
‘To me, it’s about trying to create life out of the sculpture, almost like trying to bring them back from the dead. I want to charge them with life, and try to make them (conceptually) alive. In addition, the tree splits; it’s a material with a life of its own, a power of its own, within the tree, which bursts forth.’
Härenstam’s sculptures also feature a bit of hair. Thin tresses hang from branches; there was hair hanging from Cannibalistic Solitude, the tree root suspended from the ceiling in 28thFebruary 1986. Why the hair?
‘The hair is another attempt to charge the sculptures with life. Hair is a bodily, “living” substance, but at the same time unpleasant. The limits where the object ends is erased by the hair, and as a viewer, you’re in danger of catching the hair and pulling it with you.’
Despite the new medium and new materials, the wooden sculptures also form a part of the same atmosphere found in the video pieces, the same disconcerting atmosphere of cracked facades.
‘The role occupied by escape attempts in earlier pieces, such as Supermarket and Hundekälte, is replaced by cracks in the façade, where the underlying chaos gushes out,’ Härenstam explains, continuing:
‘The sculptures deal, in part, with the well-organised welfare state through the use of IKEA-furniture and light tones of wood, but they’re also about something else: You can never explain art based on an autobiography. Nevertheless, it is precisely those adventures and experiences that make me; they’re something I take into the studio with me. Of course, you could say that my up- bringing in the safest of worlds – middleclass suburbia in the social-democratic “people’s home” Sweden, but with a father who suffered bouts of deep depression, and obsessed with control in order to avoid a failed and striking drop into some undefined abyss – clearly influences the art I make today.’
For Härenstam, it’s about bringing the dead back to life, on a personal level.
‘The sculptures were physical attempts at bringing my father back from the dead (he later committed suicide). The exhibition title ‘I know you are there’ is like an oath, a mantra repeated to summon his actual body into the logs of wood.’
Further inspiration has been drawn from – inter alia – African sculpture and voodoo. ‘While working on the sculptures, I looked at a lot of African wood sculpture, where they mix different materials, like hair, and magic incantations give dead ancestors a chance to live on among the living. An absurd thought in the secularised and unmagical reality we live in these days, but I really tried – honestly. I can’t exactly say that I succeeded, but maybe some of the power and energy that was put into them was somehow stored in the sculptures,’ he finishes.
The interview was previously published in the printed edition of KUNSTforum 3–2012. For subscriptions, please click here.