“It’s important to me to express myself about art”
Silence, yet chaos. When I meet up with Sara Arrhenius for an interview a couple of days before the opening of a new exhibition at Bonniers Kunsthalle in Stockholm, Sweden, it’s during the preparations for the opening of the exhibition Insomnia. Intense, yet focused. We greet each other in the entrance hall where enormous tiles cover the floor. Others rooms still remain empty. In one, there’s clutter everywhere. Creative chaos in action. Artefacts, images, sculptures are already mounted on the walls. The light from the windows along Torsgatan already transforming them. Artists Julia Feyrer and Tamara Henderson are constantly active, Sara Arrhenius tells me. At that moment preparing part of their part of the exhibition, leaving traces everywhere in the kunsthalle. The huge sculpture The Old Hag is centred in the beautiful exhibition space. Along the almost completely covered walls plastic bottles hang, especially made to look like gloves, or is it human hands they resemble? Half full with a pinkish fluid.
“It’s energy drinks”, Sara explains. Julia Feyrer and Tamara Henderson, both Canadian, have been investigating the secretary. Among other things they have been working with the Yearbook for Canadian secretaries, collecting information and documentation from the magazine about how a secretary should behave. So this woman is a bit like Kate Cooper‘s, always efficient, perfect, present.
As a contrast Feyrer and Henderson have created The Old Hag, a mythical sea monster who is everything that the secretary is not. They’re interested in magic and variations of perceptions of reality. When they work, the do it very intensely. The whole museum is covered with their material, de leave traces everywhere.
Arrhenius have been working as an art critic, editor, author, curator and as a manager of some of Sweden’s most prominent art institutions. In 2005, after being the head of IASPIS, she became manager of the kunsthalle Bonniers konsthall, that she is now leaving to become the principal of The Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm. We stroll around surrounded by the feverish activity that the preparations for the exhibition creates and start discussing it.
Insomnia is about a culture that no longer sleeps. What does that mean to us living it?
We have been working with it for av long time since it was supposed to open before we closed for renovation, more than a year ago. So it’ been resting, sleeping, says Sara, with a smile. The exhibition is self-reflexive, so to speak. The idea emerged from my own experiences of insomnia. Talking to others, friends and colleagues, I realised that many of us share this experience. Nobody’s sleeping anymore. So we considered it as a theme. I read 24/7. Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary where he deals with exactly this. The book is about how we’re constantly online, expected to be productive. In that kind och society no-one is given the privilege to rest, withdraw, to stay off grid. I felt that this analysis of our contemporary society was in close correlation with my private experiences.
What happens with everything we associate with creativity, fantasy and dreams, that belongs to a sort of nocturnal landscape when we’re living in a world that’s completely see through, totally illuminated, constantly online?
I discovered something interesting about the eight hour sleep through Crarys book. The idea is a product of modernity.
In historic times you slept during two parts of the night, and talked about it as the first and second sleep. I had no idea about that when I got in touch with Roger Ekirch, an academic who has done an enormously interesting, classical research about sleeping patterns before modernity, from the 16th century and onwards. He has been investigation old material, such as songs, stories and other things that describes the first and second sleep. How they used to wake up in the middle of the night, having a meal, even. That time had another atmosphere to it, a time for creating, fantasy, sex. The more the idea about the efficient human being was implemented this tradition disappeared och gradually and the ideal gradually became the eight hour sleep. It started to be regarded as healthy to sleep through the night.
In what way have considered chasing artists for Insomnia?
All the artists participating all work on a scale from hyperactivity to other forms of consciousness. I also had the idea that we should activate the art space through the 24 hours of the days. We’re open from dusk till dawn and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with an institution then. In Carsten Höller’s robotised beds you’ll be able to spend the night, they’re constantly moving around and will be creating huge, automatic paintings on the floor.
Have you slept in one of the beds before? Are you going to?
No. I think it would be a bit scary to be completely by myself in the kunsthalle. The loneliness would frighten me, actually.
How is it that art became your occupation?
It started early. I believe that you frequently start with things early on, not really aware of it. As a teenager a read a lot of books about literature and art and it became a way of surviving. Later on I continued in different ways through studies and what I wrote as a journalist, editor, curator, but the content has always been there. Art is essential to me, a way of living. But I think i realised that much later about the interest and the strong feeling of presence, belonging.
The feeling of presence in art is addictive.
Yes, that’s how it ways when I was young, without daring to regard it as an occupation, I arrived at that realisation much later, not daring to believe that I could write about, and devote myself to art as a profession. One way in, for me, was photography, which I think is quite common. there’s an accessibility with photography.
I remember that I used to hang out with friends in Stockholm’s Old Town, in vintage stores and at Camera Obscura that Lars Hall was running. Experiencing the exhibitors, buying post cards. So that became a means on the way to art, to me, and later on I started visiting museums and art galleries.
Do you still write about art?
Yes. It’s very important to me to express myself about art. I write in our own publications, we produce books all the time, and also I write in catalogues, and recurring at ArtReview. At the moment I’m writing a book about collective intelligence, on how the making of art often is sort of a collective, networking effort. I consider both the present, how it’s actually being done, and on a historical level, so that’s really exciting.
I know that you’re a long time feminist. I have often returned to your book A Real Woman. About Biologism and Gender Differences from 2000. How has it affected you to work in such a male dominated sphere as the art world, as a woman and feminist?
People still contact me about that book. My writing and working with art has been going on reciprocally with those questions becoming recognised by the art world, so it’s been fantastic to be able to express this together with artists, female, and also male, about these issues. Especially in photography one is very aware of it, so the writing has often touched upon these subjects. It has been very important to med to have that possibility to work with, and show case female artists.
Abigail Solomon Godeau, professor of photography and maybe the leading expert on Cindy Sherman, mentioned you when I met her here in Stockholm two years ago. You came up in the conversation as one of the people who had been dealing with the question about art and feminism, and she told me that you arranged for her to write a review about a film.
Yes, in Aftonbladet, where I was working at the time. She has been very informative to me, very supportive.
Solomon Godueau regarded the situation in the artworld as a kind of back lash.
I wouldn’t totally agree with Abigail there. Looking, for example, at Tamara and Julia, they’re extremely sharp and expressing themselves very consciously about how femininity is reproduced in a culture of images. And Kate Cooper discusses how she is inspired by her grandmother, by growing up in a matriarchy. My daughter, Nora Hagdahl, lives in Berlin. It’s actually her doing that I saw Rigged. She told me, “no, Mum, now you have to come with me to this”, so we went there together.
And where was that?
At Kunst-Werke. That was actually the first big exhibition that Cooper has done. So it’s the same pieces that are going to be shown in Insomnia. I was in Berlin to meet with Susan Phillips, which is the next exhibition we are going to make here. We’re making a book so I went to see her in Berlin to discuss that. They actually work in other ways than how it was done ten years ago, and the critical perspective isn’t quite that obvious. They work more atmospherically. I see young women artists taking an interest in the feminine mystique, the female body and the power that lies in that. They’re being inspired by an earlier generation women artists from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Many young artists today feel estranged to the intellectual way of expressing feminism and are working in the tradition of women in earlier generations. Female artists like Judy Chicago, artists who are searching for goddesses, witches, everything that we were so critical towards.
Now we are seeing an interest in this, a re-evalution, validation and an understanding of those female artists and their work. So they arrive at it from another angle, thereby. So they arrive from a different angle, thereby seeing different things, which is very inspiring. A lot of artists today are interested in the ancient knowledge and are starting to move beyond the academic, interested in arts and crafts and other knowledges, methods and materials, specifically female. Lisa Jeannin, the Swedish artist, is for example working with witchery and alchemy. To be bold enough to do this, yet not in an uncritical way lika falling back on some kind of feminine, utereal mystique.
I think that there’s a resistance in that towards a technocratic society and I’m curious about what knowledge there’s to that.
Yes. You have, among others, exhibited Ylva Ogland who’s approaching motherhood and femininity in that way. I see young women artists committing themselves to this retracing of women materials and methods, female forms of expression and creation.
Yes, and many of these artists investigate alternative kinships and self organised utopias, like gardening, cultivating, that sort of thing.
Yes, at the same time there’s an acute awareness about the theoretical advancements, I think. It’s not simply about furthering the tradition of the traditionally female, like the body, sexuality, the nativistic expressions typical to women artists, in themes and methods.
No, excactly. They’re very informed.
And how do you regard that, the methods they choose? In this day and age the mixing of traditional art, sculpture, painting, in relation to installations, performance is a non question, isn’t it?
I would claim that it’s possible to move freely through the genres, and reinvent them. To return to traditional means of expression, subversively. The mixed medias are fascinating.
During the walk through the kusthalle we arrive at Carsten Höller’s two roaming beds, slowly moving on the specially made floor. It will slowly evolve to an automatic painting, we’re testing it out right now. You can book a stay over in the beads and they will be made up as actual hotel beds. The people spending the night will get a goodie bag that among other things contains herbal tooth paste that’s supposed to influence your dreams.
What will happen to the floor afterwards?
That we don’t know.