Is there an art to memory? According to Cicero, the Greek lyric poet Simonides was the first to invent it. The story is well known: after the poet stepped away from a banquet hall during a large dinner, the roof collapsed and killed everyone inside. The guests were maimed beyond recognition. Simonides, in a kind of classical CSI forensics maneuver, was able to identify the bodies by remembering each of their seating places around the banquet table. From the start, then, the art of memory is linked to architecture—an interior space, a hall, a room, guests positioned around a table.
I thought of the relationship between memory and architecture while viewing slides of Karin Mamma Andersson’s first U.S. solo show, Rooms Under the Influence (David Zwirner Gallery, 2006). The new work marks a shift toward interior spaces—rooms, stage sets, classrooms, living rooms—and yet the depicted interiors, like memory, are always misleading, indeterminate. Distinctions between memory and hallucination, interior and exterior, are blurred. The repetition of mirrored space provides the ghost of a narrative, but one that is open, open-ended, incomplete. It strikes me that a stage set is an appropriate architectural analogy to Andersson’s new paintings. It is a space cut in half, a half-space, one that opens outward toward the viewer, invites the viewer into an awareness that they are positioned (as art is positioned, as poetry is positioned) in a between-space, a space between here and there—a theater.
The following correspondence took place via email from December 2006 through March 2007. We use the space to locate shared obsessions and to reveal (and then interrogate) aspects of our artistic practice. Like all correspondences, it is closer to a series of exchanged monologues than a dialogue; the epistolary form generates lacunae, gaps, dropped lines of thought. An additional gap occurs due to the fact that our letters were moving between languages, were being translated back and forth between English and Swedish. And yet connective nodes surface. A dialogue forms, however provisional. Our daily lives begin to intersect—me, writing in a room in Brooklyn with my cat on my lap, and Andersson writing in a room in Stockholm, while her son does his homework and her husband, the Swedish painter Jockum Nordström, falls asleep after returning from a Bob Dylan concert.
Dear Ms. Andersson,
We share, I think, similar concerns, albeit in entirely different mediums (language, painting). And yet given the titles of your paintings it’s clear that words are important to you; it is rare to find a painter who also paints titles. Often painters treat this space as a throwaway: the title summarizes the image (The Bathers); or they strive for an overly poetic pretentiousness (Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living). If all else fails, Untitled is available. In your case, titles of paintings, like No Peace to Eat, the Hags Were Pale, the Children Wailed (1998) or The Blank Memories Always Open From the South (2002), or We Work so Closely Without Even Knowing It (2005), function the way strong titles for poems function: they extend the paintings, rather than illustrate them. I admire titles that are figurative, as opposed to literal or associative, and that point to a poem’s multiple hearts (an octopus has three hearts: two for pumping blood through the two gills, and one for pumping blood through the body) or to an absent or empty space, a space the reader inhabits. I’m curious, what is your relationship to titles: what principles do you adhere to, and are the titles invented, or do you draw them—collage them—from other texts, other sources of inspiration?
I am in Berlin at the moment. It is cold, and already dark, even though it is only four in the afternoon. Since Sweden is much farther north than Berlin, it probably grew dark the moment you woke. I heard, while writing you, my cat yawn next to me. Then I remembered my cat is in Brooklyn. His name is Jerry Geronimo. He has one heart, and three ears.
Thanks for your letter. My English language self-confidence is terrible, so I have asked my gallery to translate this response. You wrote on December 18th, when it was depressingly dark in Berlin. Now it’s almost January 18th, and it’s been an awful winter in Stockholm. Up in Scandinavia we need snow to make life brighter. The days are so short, the darkness needs to be lit up somehow.
It’s amusing to try to answer your questions about my titles. Calling paintings Untitled one, two, three (and so on) sucks and will always suck. Titling paintings in Swedish has always been fun. The title is not an explanation of the painting’s content, but an additional layer. A title has many depths and can mean various things all at once—even directly opposing things.
A few years ago, when I had to title pieces in English because they were being shown internationally, something else happened. I turned into one of those hip-hoppers who rap and rhyme off the top of their head. New words suddenly appeared, as well as word-associations that a native speaker would never think of saying or writing. I don’t want to say that I’m good at making English titles, but my galleries in London and New York have gotten a kick out of them. They’ve sometimes had to change the titles so they’re not too crazy.
At times I just make something up. A title can come from a word that lives in my head while I’m painting, but it can also come from a song or film. For instance, I came up with Rooms Under the Influence (2006) after seeing Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. Whenever I feel short on imagination, I always read poetry. I can pinch a meaningful or beautiful phrase, even if the poem I’m reading is awful. I feel right away whether a title works or not. A bad title can kill a painting, and a good title can lift the painting up. But a great title can’t save a fiasco, no matter how brilliant it is.
Right now, I’m working on a large solo exhibit that will open at Moderna Museet in Stockholm this May, then travel to Taidehalli in Helsinki, Camden Art Center in London, and possibly to Dublin. I’ll send you a copy of the show catalog once it’s finished, and why don’t you send me something you’ve written?
P. S. We also have a pet—a turtle. He’s taking a bath now and needs to come out soon so he can have his dinner.
A pleasure to receive your first response. I’m back in Brooklyn, with my very real cat glued to my lap (it’s cold). I need a crowbar to get him off. A turtle! They are one of my favorite animals; one witnesses, when their necks are extended, their enormous fragility.
The reference to Cassavetes makes sense to me. When I think of his films I think of interior spaces, stages, dressing rooms, dark apartments, bars, underground clubs, and I always feel like a guest within these interiors. The camera is often positioned at the level of an actor’s face, and one therefore feels like an invisible (but not uninvited) part of the cast. The intense unmediated intimacy he achieves with the audience is partly due to this device.
Your own paintings construct a similar but more complicated set of relationships. They are filled with rooms. Stages. Stage sets. Theater sets. Gallery spaces. Rooms set in landscapes. Landscapes hovering on the walls of rooms. And you repeatedly blur distinctions between interior and exterior space. I’m thinking of one painting, Funny Lesson (2000), where children are seated around a circular classroom table, and the external world—the world of forms—is swirling around the surface of the table and in some cases merging with the children’s hands, or Traveling in the Family (2001), where landscapes and figures emerge from the walls of a room. The surfaces of your paintings complicate this further: black splotches appear, as if an unknown flame (memory, amnesia) is behind the painting, burning through its surface. This in turn has a strange double function: the viewer is forced to address the surface of the painting—painting as representation—and at the same time these burned-out shapes also can be read as the external world bleeding or burning into the interiors. The viewer is constantly tracking between a series of contradictions, visual tensions. It’s like looking at a turtle, but a turtle with a transparent, glass carapace! To me this imbues the scene—the site depicted, imagined—with a kind of fragility. Here is a world. It’s arriving and disappearing as you view it—as you yourself are arriving and disappearing in any moment of perception. Your work is therefore often described as “distressing” or “unsettling,” and yet to be unsettled, to be displaced as a viewer, is a rich experience—an active, participatory experience, a true experience. One is In the Room of Another (2002), and that other is oneself. I don’t really have a question here, but perhaps if you replaced all the periods in the above sentences with a question mark, you could respond?
It’s very late, as usual, as I sit down at my computer. Thank God no one else is here in my studio. It’s so easy to get stuck here and forget the time.
I think you have a much clearer head than I do. Every time I try to figure out what’s going on in my pictures, I get lost in strange sidetracks. That’s probably why I don’t actually understand how or why I paint. When I work, I try to have the confidence to follow an inner voice—to take away things that bother me, even if they are beautiful or technically good. I paint and repaint, and try to surprise myself without losing course, balancing with one foot in madness and the other in a sensible shoe. What upsets me most is when figures in the paintings sabotage the vibrations. Also when I work too long on the same painting, and the nitpicking gets me stuck.
I often use black spray paint as a sign of bad atmosphere or unspecified threat. In the paintings, time flows together. It is at the same moment both now and then and in the future. Even the subject can be both the observer and one of the elements in the picture at the same time. This is probably because when I’m working, I am everything and everyone at the same time, just as when I was a child playing by myself, I played the parts of all the dolls and their mothers at the same time. I find it easy to slip into other people’s identities. If someone tells a good story, I start fantasizing and find myself right in the middle of it. The same thing happens when I see a good movie: I believe I’m the main character until I find myself back out on the street again. Likewise, when a painting is done, I leave it, even emotionally. I find it difficult to recall what I thought then, at the time I was making a painting, if I think about it now.
My clearest thoughts are mostly around pure painterly formulations, for example, am I going to paint with a thick or thin transparent yellow, or yellow in combination with gray-lilac, or should I work with contours or use a black covering, and so on. My themes come and go, but I don’t believe I control them any more than a psychiatrist controls a patient.
When I start from a photograph, it’s usually the graphic qualities as compared to the atmosphere I feel I can read in the photograph I touch. I’m not sure other people can see what I see in a photograph, but I hope they see it in my finished painting.
Here I go: I’ve wandered onto a sidetrack, and I have no idea what I’m trying to explain. It’s just as sensitive as a turtle’s neck—he tries to protect it as well as he can, and if you try to pet him, he draws in his little head right away.
All the best,
P. S. On Saturday, snow fell in Stockholm. It’s wonderful, so crystal clear and beautiful, I hope the color stays for a while.
Your last letter is rich and deeply felt. Thank you. I can see how your paintings perform this traveling in and out of everything, everybody. Two figures or tropes immediately jumped out at me: the figure of madness, and the dispersal of a self into numerous selves—elves. I’ve been working on a book about the supposedly “mad” Austrian poet George Trakl (1888—1914) and I have been thinking about how and where these figures intersect in the practice of writing. Trakl’s poems, for example, often utilize a narrator that is weirdly disembodied, drifting in and out of scenes, textures, subjectivities, points of view. Here is a passage from his poem “Landscape”: “The yellow flowers of autumn / bend wordlessly over the blue pond.” I admire these lines. One first has to imagine—lose oneself—in “flowerness” in order to posit that they don’t speak, or that they might speak, but not with words, our words. And here is Emily Dickinson becoming—instantly—a butterfly:
My Cocoon tightens—Colors tease—
I’m feeling for the Air—
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear—
“Tightens” is the word that astounds me: a cocoon would only tighten if the butterfly were struggling to get out, and I, as a reader, perform this moment with total claustrophobic clarity. In my own work I’m always trying to maintain a similar state of traveling in and out of the things, spaces, levels of consciousness—to allow language to generate its own concerns without a stable “I” getting in the way—organizing things, placing meanings within a hierarchy, or privileging one point of view or perception over another (ideology). Then there is the encounter with language itself: words, deferring to other words, deferring to other words, ad infinitum. To lose oneself in this is a kind of madness. But maybe it’s dangerous to romanticize it, since capitalism seems (hell) bent on keeping its subjects precisely in this same state of distractedness: continuously wandering through a barrage of images, ads, Hollywood films, videos, billboards, pop-ups, videos. As many have pointed out, capitalism itself generates schizophrenic subjects, subjects unable to form a coherent sense of self.
But what I still love about someone like Deleuze (for example) is that he argues that the schizophrenic is a healthy model for combating capitalism. The “healthy schizoid” doesn’t form a stable self long enough to be influenced by advertising. More crucially, the healthy schizoid fantasizes—like a child—not out of a “lack” or “want,” or a need to purchase a pre-packaged self-image, but rather out of a kind of pure desire: to play, to make something, to generate something, to generate something that is real. Seemingly on cue Jerry just walked in and bit my exposed left toe. This is his language. His speech. Feed me.
Karin, I want to ask you about emotions, and your line, “When a painting is done I leave it, even emotionally.” This strikes me as a brave statement. On the one hand your process involves “clear thoughts” about forms and formal relations, and yet I like that you acknowledge a certain emotional awareness or presence at play in the paintings, during the process of painting. Is this presence important to you? (Often “emotions” or “intuition” or “feelings” are viewed with a kind of theoretical distaste; they are automatically connected to notions of selfhood, or self-expression. To me, they are a crucial part of what it means to be human, a human animal, and they actively inform our obsessions, our desire to play, to make something.)
Hi Christian, or maybe I should say Good Night.
It’s suddenly gotten ice-cold again, and this morning I woke up with a sore throat. It’s been only a week since the flu left my body. What is all this? Well, winter in Stockholm.
Thank you for the books you sent. I’ll try to read them, with my dictionary in hand. I contacted the Swedish magazine Pequod, and I am hoping they will send me the poems of yours recently translated into Swedish. I would have liked so much to comment on your poems, but I don’t dare because it would be totally off-the-wall if I misunderstood half the words. Still, I like the bits that I understand, and it’s exciting to get slowly closer to a text. I have to look up word after word, and so it becomes a remarkable trip.
Now to your letter. I’ll go to the main library and look up Trakl. Last Saturday I saw an exhibition of films and installations by the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. In a large room in the gallery’s basement, she built cloud formations on the floor out of large carpets in soft, dark colors. They were stacked to make pyramids without peaks, if you get my meaning. They were like huge beds. When I entered the room, a whole bunch of people were lying on them and looking at the ceiling. I took off my shoes, went up to one of the cloud beds, and lay down between two completely strange men—a rather strange feeling at first. A film that had been shot under water was projected on the ceiling. On the surface, underneath the blue sky, yellow flowers floated. Sometimes I saw a body, or apples and red berries in the water, or branches gently breaking the surface of the water—clear beautiful colors, everything was unbelievably calm. The film’s soundtrack consisted of wind in the trees, weak bells, and the soft cawing of a crow. It was wonderfully strong, and I kept lying there until I stopped thinking and just existed. I often think of what meaning the ego has in my own creations. Once a number of years ago I was reviewed in one of our daily papers; the reviewer wrote that I painted my difficult past, and since I don’t have a difficult past, I felt immediately insulted. I believe that the ego can be there for real but must be distilled in order to taste good. I believe that all of us lying there on the carpet clouds felt both at home and away in a similar manner. Perhaps this is identification: losing and seeing one’s self in an unlimited number of others.
You asked me about presence, about emotional consciousness . . . . This is what I’m looking for all the time. The theoretical distance you mention can fuck off. It is in direct opposition to the desire to create. All of us who’ve become artists, musicians, poets, dancers, film directors—God knows what—we were all once children who loved to delve into our other ego, where anarchy and limitlessness reigns. There we felt alive and creative. We long to find this aspect again in our adult lives—the place where we forget everything around us and just exist.
Since October, I’ve been trying to find this state of mind, but I can’t find the entrance. Sometimes I’m filled with doubt and think that the magic has left me for good. But this is not the first time this has happened. Maybe it’s just the way it is: sometimes it’s easier to come into contact with one’s other ego, or the spirits, or inspiration, or whatever it is.
This sounds so hopelessly muddled that I probably ought to stop writing now. If (healthy) schizophrenia can keep capitalism at bay, maybe we all should be much more schizophrenic than we are. I think it’s nice to be muddled. Unfortunately I do think it’s fun to wander around in the city and go into shops, certainly those times when I have a piss-poor contact with the spirits. I think it’s easy to shit yourself down (a Swedish expression), to disgust yourself, in the same way you drink until you’re so drunk that the next morning you wake up with an angst-filled hangover. It’s easier to go to the studio then.
Christian, I’m not sure I’ve touched on what you asked, but it doesn’t matter: we talk beside each other and we talk with each other.
The others are already sleeping and I have to do the same. I want to be emotionally present in my studio tomorrow.
All the best,
Fuck off, indeed. I couldn’t agree more . . . and yet, and yet . . . crucial issues are at stake. One of the beliefs handed down to poets is that a poem is a spontaneous expression of emotional truth. I think it’s necessary to contest this, rethink this, to shift the focus away from a Romantic notion of the self and toward language itself, toward the materiality of language, or language as (in the lexicon of programmers) a “self-exciting code.” To inhabit this space is to inhabit form (and the way language forms a mind), as opposed to a space where language is placed solely at the service of expressivity. However one binary (emotion = truth) generates another (language = mind). I guess at base I want to trouble and interrogate such distinctions. I want to investigate a language that is both aware of itself, its self-reflexive nature, and aware also of the presence of human emotions within mind, within the language of being alive, within the body and the body’s multiple intersensorial (love this word!) nodes of experience. In your work, for example, the viewer’s experience of form or surface, as I mentioned before, is always mischievously undermined by the presence of mirrored images, mirrors, or video monitors, or the repetition of objects and scenes both in a painting and between paintings. At the same time I am struck by a palpable depth of feeling; the paintings unfold these odd scenes, where figures of solitude, adolescence, childhood, loss, and humor coexist. One painting, for example, called Leftovers, depicts one woman in an apartment inhabiting five different moments in time: washing, dressing, sleeping, going out, sleeping again. Optically I move from one figure to the next. I move in a circle, clockwise. When you return to the first figure you’ve traced a clock, and I feel what it’s like to live in a body in time. Formally, the two sleeping figures occupy near mirrored positions. One could be dreaming the other, one could be dreaming the other four, both could be dreaming the other three. Time breaks away from clock-like linearity and becomes something else. A liminal space opens up, one that has more to do with the logic of dreams than of reality. Next, the suspicion that I’m looking at a stage set makes me aware of myself as a spectator—or aware, secondly, of the mind or memory as a stage set, with its endlessly movable parts, props. I’m awake. I’m paying attention. I’m alive. (I also love the weird little cow skull or dog face on the hanging coat pocket; I’m happy this person has this coat.)
I admire Rist’s work. I also enjoy uttering her name. Pipilotti Rist. It is itself an installation, a spell, a wrist preceded by a string of bubbles. Coincidentally, one poem in my new collection uses an image from one of her videos as a point of departure. The video is called Ever is Over All (1997): a woman walks in slow motion down the street wielding a steel or iron flower and uses it to smash, with unrestrained glee, the windshields of cars. Then a police officer enters the frame, walking toward her, but instead of arresting her the officer walks right by the woman, turning at the last minute to reveal that the officer is also a woman. This is a moment of weird complicity between women, a moment where normative (male) power relations (cop, or even the role of the camera’s gaze as being traditionally male-centered) are undermined in favor of feminine irreverence, insubordination, anarchy. As a whole the exuberant playfulness of the video doesn’t lead to a simplistic critique of gender. It’s not an axe to grind but an axe (or flower) wielded in celebration. It is, strangely, loving. Do you know this video? It makes me wonder whether you consciously deal with similar concerns in your own work. Paintings like Traveling in the Family, About a Girl, or In the Waiting Room, and also Leftovers, seem to chronicle female experience. I ask only to give you a chance to talk about this if it’s important to you.
Secondly, I like your evocation of childhood as an anarchistic state, one that blurs boundaries between people and things. As a child I had a cat with whom I would have long conversations. I was convinced she was an angel covered in white fur. Bugs spoke to me. I spoke back. Tadpoles were wriggling black commas, punctuating—arranging—a submerged text. When a tiny bubble surfaced on a pond I believed a frog or fish had prepared and sent to the surface a little speech for me. I still see the world this way, or like to. When I wake in the morning and open my eyes I whisper hello to the ceiling. Sometimes, while doing the dishes, I ask the faucet: is the water too hot for you? Here, too, it’s important to avoid—with any art practice—nostalgia for childhood, or to see art as an escape into these moments. Rather, I like to conceive of poems as a space in which the hyper non-hierarchical or non-boundaried perceptivity of childhood is brought presently into play, both in language and in life, in order to engage both language and life. An escape into the present. What seems important to emphasize is that this process of escape is actually a kind of radical engagement, as the artist Paul Chan has pointed out. To disappear into something, to become obsessed with something, to unfold an endless curiosity, to let go of our selves and allow this to happen is a necessary step toward understanding, toward the kind of learning that changes you, the way events change you, alter you (falling in love), or even the way powerful ideas can punch dents in the back of our naturally unhistorical brains.
Karin, I think one more response might wrap this up, although I feel we could go on talking and walking quite a bit longer. And don’t worry about the poems. Perhaps, if a collection is ever translated into Swedish, you’ll have the chance to really experience them. And I hope you feel better.
This spring I’ve lost track of things and maybe even of myself, whatever myself is. A short note though, having to do with my upcoming show, and all the stuff concerning this exhibit.
I didn’t mean to make you wait so long for my reply, but I was scared when I read your letter. I thought, my God, this is a real theoretician I’m conversing with, an intellectual on the level Andersson has difficulty following, but I’ll do my best.
To begin with, I think that the written language is one thing and the artistic language another; I mean that the latter is clean and unsullied before you stick in a mass of symbols, feelings, and me, me, me. The question seems to be, is there a language that is not self-reflective?
From the time I began as an artist, as a 20-year-old, until today (and don’t forget that this is a reconstruction after the fact), here’s the story.
For the first years, materials and technique were the great problems I had to solve. When I looked at art, I always tried to understand how the artist constructed the piece. I painted models, sketched from life, and painted landscapes. Whatever I painted was subordinate to technique. But when I began art school, the conversation was about other things. It was about pretty much everything: the devil and his auntie (another Swedish expression). And the psychological aspect in my paintings became the most important thing, and the artists who appealed to me also set great store by the psyche. The years have gone by and I have tried to find my own language. I want everything to be direct, spontaneous and not planned, not dressed up in the least. It’s difficult and maybe even impossible.
The way you’ve described Leftovers makes me very happy. I didn’t think that way, I’m not sure what I thought, but I feel that you have the correct analysis. There’s just one person in the painting, naturally, that’s the way it is. And you noticing the cow on the apron, that’s fantastic. The whole picture comes from a play.
A few weeks ago, I saw the Harold Pinter play The Homecoming with three female friends. We talked about the play—whether the woman was a greater victim than the man—for many hours, until we were both tired and drunk. I don’t think I’ll go into my opinion, at least not at the moment. Pinter moves me, theater moves me.
Then you asked whether I explore female experience. Answer: yes; I am a romantic who empties herself in order not to be a nervous wreck. Maybe.
Christian, I’m not being ironic as I write this, but I’m not happy about it either. Thank God you never know what the future will bring.
Spring has come in all its glory, the winter tires are off, the eyes itchy, and the energy strengthens in the trees, in the songs of the birds, and in heart, soul, and mind. I’m sending greetings to the sky and also to you. My 78-year-old mother is visiting me, it’s night and she’s snoring in bed in the same room I’m sitting and writing in, Jockum has gone to bed, earlier this evening he went to Globen and saw Bob Dylan, my youngest son Rudolf has a math test tomorrow, he’s still up.
This summer, I’ll read your books.
Until next time,
Mamma Andersson’s letters were translated from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg, with additional translation by Anna Petterson.