On May 22nd the 12th edition of the Havana Biennial opened. 109 artists from all over the world are participating; among those is Marte Johnslien. KUNSTforum asked her some questions on her work for the biennial and her art practice in general.
Back in 1984 when the Havana Biennial was founded, it aimed at providing a platform for artists coming from Asia, Africa, South America and of course Cuba – artists who weren’t included in the European enterprises such as La Biennale Venezia and Documenta. And in contrast to the European shows being heavily funded, Havana has for many years worked with a rather tight budget, which probably gave way to the vision of art as something more of a social practice instead of objects to sell. This vision seems to be revived for this year’s edition, with the curatorial concept taking Havana itself – ”the city and its people” – as one of many starting points, and to which many of the art works in the biennial are related in one way or the other.
According to the biennial’s web page, this edition of the Havana Biennial “will not have a central exhibition area.” Instead it “aims at settling in those interstices of the city that facilitate the work on various premises.” Could you elaborate on this? In what way has this affected how you prepared your work?
The 12th Havana Biennial has a huge program, and many side programs, and from what I could gather the biennial stretches all over the city and try to involve as many local practices and alliances as possible. I see this as a continuation of the Havana Biennial’s position in the world of biennials: they have always strived to be a counterpart to the occidental, mainstream mega-exhibitions.
In my case, the curators gave me a direct invitation to produce a work in the Casa Blanca area (on the opposite side of Havana Bay from Old Havana), in collaboration with the people running a forest project called Finca Agroecologica Rincón del Cristo. For me this became a valuable cooperation.
In an earlier statement, you say that your works often try to question knowledge and history, and artistic processes that in some ways have had an impact on public space. Given how the biennial concept seems to aim to track previous editions of the biennial and doing so by not having a central exhibition area, is this something you can quite easily relate to?
Yes, definitely. It doesn’t happen often that I get an invitation and a curatorial statement that resonates so strongly with what I feel is the focus of my practice. It was really inspiring.
Your works usually span a wide range of techniques and media, depending on the concept and idea. This time you’ve made a sculptural installation outside, entitled A River in the Ocean. Could you elaborate on the sculptural forms and the location? I understand the location is of special importance?
The project’s location was there from the beginning, based on the curatorial team’s invitation. But I decided that I wanted to produce the works in the forest, rather than shipping artworks there, since this would give me the opportunity to let the surroundings affect the works, and the focus would be kept on the process and the collaboration with the Finca group. There’s a serious lack of materials in Cuba, so I decided to keep it as simple as possible, working with chicken wire, plaster and paint and producing everything in only two weeks. I spent the first days talking to people about the importance of the forest, what they find special about it, and from this I decided to make three sculptures in dialogue with the forest and the plant life, but presented on the concrete staircase running up the hill next to the forest. The three sculptures represent different parts of the body (the skin, the organs and the circulatory system), and two of them contain plants that are known to have medicinal effects on these body parts. Two of them are placed up in a tree; the other is positioned with a view to the sea. They have arrows running on them, which for me represent the many notions that I’ve touched on in the project: streams, changes, connections and circulation.
In your text, you say that “the project aims at investigating how global currents (both financial, political and spiritual) can be found to affect local communities, and the other way around – how local initiatives can carry the weight of the big questions of our time concerning sustainability and distribution of wealth.” Can you elaborate on the possible parallels between the physical currents one finds in water and the immaterial global currents you are referring to?
I have used the Gulf Stream as a subject in this project, since it’s a natural force that affects the climate on the continents surrounding the Atlantic Ocean and something which is under scrutiny by scientists who believe the stream is about to alter due to climate changes. It was mapped in 1768 by Benjamin Franklin (and poetically titled A River in the Ocean), so its history can also be put in connection to the early days of globalization and colonial politics, also because it came to be known as the most efficient route for ships to travel along. This became a frame for me to work within, in order to look at how things are connected, how global changes are affecting Cuba right now, and also as a way to establish a connection between myself and the group I was going to work with.
As a site-specific project where you have worked with local people, I’m curious about what you learned through this. Not only about the place and people and their work on the mountainside to prevent erosion, but if and how this may say something about larger (global) connections, either political/cultural/financial/etc.?
I was met with a group of people who were eager to tell me about their work and their community. And the most striking thing for me: they looked upon art – and collaborating with an artist – as a natural extension of their work. They didn’t operate with clear distinctions between the socially engaged, spiritual and artistic. From what I understood they saw themselves as equal parts in their agenda to protect the local environment. There were reiki healers and farmers working side by side. They were digging out «healing» quartz and citrine crystals from a small cave in the forest, working on mapping the animals in the area, and running community projects, side by side. The farmer has reintroduced native plants to the area to avoid erosion, at the same time as he studies the medicinal properties of these plants. And being situated where they are, overlooking the highly contaminated Havana Bay, the Old Havana with all its financial challenges, and with Miami lurking behind the horizon, they keep the realities close to mind. For me, this is about looking at the big picture, having a holistic worldview, if you want. And I am interested in looking at how this attitude can be applied to both local and global challenges.
How would you describe your work process from idea to final work?
Generally, I start with trying to find what I call the ‘logic’ of the project. This sometimes includes doing research in libraries and archives, traveling to places to photograph and gathering material and experience, interviewing people or simply spending hours on the internet. I search for information I feel contain tension, questions and complexity, and a place for me to enter and make it my own. It’s almost like fuel. I start with a framework, a logic, and from there the project almost starts taking over. The materials, the visual expression and the techniques are often given through this, and I produce according to it. Sometimes this involves doing things I find ugly, sometimes too beautiful, but always as true to the concept as possible. I try to stay free from style, with the focus on communicating the ideas.
What are your main influences when creating a work of art, if any?
Paradoxes, complexities and hidden connections. And very often my projects involve looking at points of overlapping between art, politics and the spiritual.
Can you name an artist, artwork or exhibition that in any way has inspired you?
I think what I find inspiring these days is more the energy released through an artwork, than what the artwork supposedly does. It’s about release. Or the Norwegian word forløsning. And someone who is really inspiring in this sense at the moment is Steinar Haga Kristensen.
How about other inspirations? Such as books, writers, theorists, etc?
I’ve been through a long period of research on Buddhism, and its relation to Modern art and, in continuation, contemporary art. This has been useful because I feel I’ve found some missing links between the ideas of contemplation, creation and social engagement. In certain areas of Buddhism these ideas are very connected. For example, the late Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa’s writings and work was a big inspiration for the show I did at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in the autumn 2014.
What is your next project?
I’m working on a publication based on the project for the Havana Biennial. And in the autumn I’ll have an exhibition at Elephant Kunsthall in Lillehammer, run by Mads Andreassen. It’s situated in a tiny 50’s petrol station in Storgata, and is about 6 m2 big. It’s a unique place, and special to me since my granddad used to work in the basement of the building repairing tyres.