Q&A with Sten Are Sandbeck

This week Sten Are Sandbeck opens two exhibitions, one in Trondheim Art Museum and one in the Vigeland Museum in Oslo. KUNSTforum asked him some questions about his art and what inspires him.

What are you currently working on?
I am doing two solo shows in museums this month. The first of the two is in Trondheim Artmuseum, the other in Vigeland Museum in Oslo. Both are with a series of large sculptures based on painting techniques. All works are kind of characters in their own right, not merely objects, rather subjects, with an integrity, looking back at us. So it evens the game a little. The one in Vigeland is in addition a play, where each work plays a role in a grotesque drama mixed as an artworld opening combined the surfacing of repressed drives and opening of the gates the hell! Currently I am about to set up both shows, which I am very much looking forward to seeing in their respectively spaces. It is a wonderful possibility!

Sten Are Sandbeck: Opening Reception: The Gates to Hell, installation view at Vigeland Museum. Photo courtesy the artist

Can you describe your work process from idea to work?
First I have an idea, then I do something else and I try to figure out why. And so on. Working and thinking in a continuous process. In the end something materializes that I could not have dreamt of and which I often have a hard time to accept. There are so many thoughts and drives and ideas and feelings put into the process that it wouldn’t make sense trying to figure out the whole reason for the work. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any, on the contrary! It’s just too complex, and the work itself is the purpose, not the initial intention, whatever that was. Anyway, I like painting, but I don’t like the flatness and hierarchy of materials and representation, so I started out tearing the paintings apart and restructuring them as spatial structures. That way the materials would stand out in their own right. It’s a kind of fight for rights on behalf of the artwork! As I said, now they are all individual subjects. Of course they play a symbolic role as well. I am very much into mixing references from the artworld, the history of painting and sculpture, with psychological and even mystical references. It sounds fun, and it is, but it is also very serious. It’s about trying to be a human being, not knowing what that really means, and therefore doing things. Partly to figure that out, partly as an excess of life, partly an expression of all this. So it’s altogether rather existential. You know – who are we, where do we come from, where are we going – thing, which doesn’t mean I am blind of society and politics and such influences, but I think art should offer another place, have some sort of transcendence. To put something forward. Something unthought-of. Undone. This means you risk something, I mean – in the end, this is your life we are talking about.

What are your main influences when creating a work of art?
I didn’t even want to do art. I was a designer, I thought I was going to change the world or even make the world by designing things, until I realized I was much more interested in poetics, of metaphors and analogies, and the sheer factual presence of things. So I started making very material installations and performances. Then my work started being shown in art shows, and I Though, ok! I am an artist—and started painting. I was really into the whole bohemian thing for a while and all my influences where early modern painters and sculptures, and it was a whole different scenario. It was about colors, feelings, senses, pictorial symbolism-  and about techniques, developing skill and mostly about paint, paint, paint. I thought I was Edvard Munch, and in a sense I was. And still am! Then I started artschool, and they said, stop painting! It’s dead and over with. At least don’t be earnest. Do contemporary something – be ironic! I didn’t like the idea of an arm lengths distance in art. Not in anything, really. Still I wasn’t content with being just the regular reactionary painter, as tempting it may have been – I was too interested in space and movement and materiality and the whole context idea. I remember building a house of all my paintings in the academy showroom. Doing something, then using it totally freely for some other purpose. Basically I use the processes of painting – the back-and-forth-process-end-result-game for making sculptures and larger installations. I keep the thematics open and it changes during the course of production. It may take some time before I decide what kind of story the pieces or series are telling. Which is as important as the material and aesthetic concreteness of the work. The narrative it produces. Ok, well, as it sums up: I believe the only real measure for an artwork is the starry sky and eternity. And a life. If it works in that perspective, that’s good enough for me.

Sten Are Sandbeck: St. Sebastian, 2012. Installation view Fashion Ghost, TKM Gråmølna. Photo: Dag-Arve Forbergskog/ Trondheim Kunstmuseum

Can you name an artist/artwork or exhibition that has inspired you?
Joseph Beuys´ retrospective in Pompidou made a huge impression when I was a designer student. But I was as also taken by a dance performance I saw at a small theatre in the back streets of the Bastille opera. Both were very physical experiences. Also Tinquely and Saint Phalles fountain. And physical theatre, Butoh performances… Then the large Marches aux Puisses with everything from treasures to junk. That was Paris. A long time ago! I also remember a postcard I retrieved from visiting Cologne, with the Kölner Dome standing huge and dark, undamaged in midst of the totally devastated city. I studied for some time in the Ruhr area, which was flat bombed during the war, so that part of history and human fate was very present: The extremity of tearing everything apart, and losing everything. But also it was about complexity. Figural and theoretical. And even more of the intimacy of being, of rawness and tenderness. Later, living in Oslo I used to take strolls out to the waterfront at Bygdøy and end up at Huk, where Henry Moores sculpture is. Now, that is a work that can handle eternity. Especially when it’s a bit dark, when the vastness of heaven, the sea and the city and everything just melts into one.  Ofcourse, there a lot of other works that inspire me more or less continuously, but I tend to forget who and what and just keep the sense of it. Being inspired – it’s not about making good art, it’s about developing an attitude. Developing mind and reaching into your soul, and further into the world. Integrity – just being, that’s hard enough!

Can you name a writer or book, fiction or theory that has inspired your works?
Well, someone just asked if the piece ‘fountainhead’ is inspired by Ayn Rands book. I thought not, I just remembered the title, which I like, and I am very ambiguous about the ideas put forward. But they make great novels! But so does the life and ideas of Thoreau and his cabin… which are quite the opposite of Rand, but they still have this integrity thing in common. Which reminds me of having read early Taoist writings, especially Chuang Tzu mocking Confucius. With the whole idea of not paying too much attention to the political, rather, pay attention to yourself, and the world as such, but more in terms of nature, the seemingly simple things, which are really the most complex. And of course seeing that these things are the same. The outside world and the inside self and so on. Which is exactly what Munch did! His moonlight is a hint: it always points to the viewer. Also, his work was a reaction to the political realism in art of his time, very much alike our time now. So putting this artist into a critical political context is all wrong, but that’s another issue! Lets see— theory? I found some resonance to my interest in complexity in chaos theory, and even more- (I am not ashamed to say!) post modernist writers like Lyotard, Feyrabend, Caputo with their anti logic, anti rational, anti moral anti everything. Especially the ‘against method’ idea suited me well! That was very relieving at the time. It was interesting to see how postmodernist theory is so much like the ideas put forward by Chinese thinkers a couple thousand years ago. So not much has changed! That’s another issue of mine: I don’t like the idea of our time and the linear passing of time. Hey, the earth revolves around the sun, right, every year is the same year, the same place. We are not better or worse or different than our ancestors. It’s the same life, same issues, same world.

Why is art important?
Is it? Of course, but not everything! Yet – art is totally necessary for me, for coping in the world, but also for my understanding of the existence of human kind, the world and everything. Let´s see—we need art and art needs us, I mean—we make art of the same reason we love and do other things – we haven’t the faintest idea why! But we need to do it. That need is felt by some more than others, but I suspect it to be more present than it looks in present society. But someone gets the opportunity, or takes it more- and does it all the way. That makes an example. Of life and of existence. So it speaks of being, of being human, of being here and now. Again and again it must be said: This is human, this is existence. And will be heard  or rather – felt. The outside creating resonance in our depths. Life is not about finding the newest absolute smallest particle or of thinking life as a code in our DNA or somewhere, or even of making grand theories where everything fits. Even if that’s fun, too. But in the end every life is about being, as an example. And doing. So as an artist I am as much interested in the making process, as of the reception of an artwork. Doing as honest and deepfelt as you absolutely can. Then might even get a glimpse of yourself. Then you might see art. Then you might touch someone. And touching, and being touched, well, that is the most important thing. Dancing and loving and screaming and laughing! And then, being silent – listening, maybe crying a little. It’s about rhythm, movement. That is what time is. Not which year we write. Oh, yes and getting to know yourself! Ok, so I should have mentioned Marcus Aurelius earlier, and stoicism – and Gnosticism, right? Although, I can’t say I remember it all too well at the moment.

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