The sea, it is said, lives inside the shells. You put your young ears to its lips and there, in miniature, is the peculiar whooshing of waves, the insistent comings and goings of the water lapping at the shore. How did the sea get inside there, your young voice asks. The sea, you are simply told, lives inside the shells. It’s where they are from, the sea is part of them, they keep it held within. As if that’s an explanation. You wonder how the water ingrains itself in the hard, porcelain textures of the shell, how it carries the water with it without spilling. You wonder how it translates the wetness into sound, into echoes of its home.
Colour spills out of some of the shells that dot Astrid Svangren’s installation. They are trickling with gold and drooling red, overflowing with yellow. It is as if the liquid element that was locked within has found another way out, translating instead to bright shocks of paint. The sea, impatient with just its sound being carried, has found other ways out. The room is as if the sea is trying to make itself known through other eruptions: pools of cellophane run down the wall and around the floor, swirling around sponges, corals and baubles glimpsed beneath the fractured surface.
The Greek goddess Aphrodite, the fickle proprietor of matters of the heart and other carnal concerns, has often been depicted emerging out of a scallop shell. Her birth, as one version of it goes, came about when the severed genitals of the sky deity Ouranos were discarded into the ‘restless, white-capped sea.’ She emerged out of the ‘white foam’ that formed around the cast out organ, taking one of her names from the froth, ‘aphros’. From this origin she was known as the goddess of ‘mixis’ – the mingling of bodies, both sexual and violent – as well as the goddess of ‘anodos’, rising up out of the sea into the air.
One of the most well-known tributes to the goddess was written by a well-known poet about whom we know very little. I’d heard the name of Sappho as a popular figure, a poetess of love. Perhaps the first time I encountered her poetry was accidentally, as a bit of writing on a fictional bathroom mirror: a line of hers providing the title for JD Salinger’s short story ‘Raise high the roof beams, Carpenters’ (The poet referred to ironically within the story as a ‘contract writer for Elysium Studios Ltd.’, a literary joke I didn’t get as a seventeen year-old). The expansive reach of her influence is remarkable: of Sappho’s entire work, a scant two hundred lines of it are what still remain, ‘their original order lost’, as one researcher wrote, ‘in a little-known ancient dialect of a dead language.’ When I first finally read her directly, what strikes most about Sappho’s current manifestation of her poetry is the gaps, the overwhelming absences – one fragment consisting of simply the floating line, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m in two minds.' The next thing that seemed most remarkable from the remnants that did remain was their directness, their simplicity. Words that shone their desire to communicate. Her hymn to Aphrodite is perhaps the longest, most coherent piece of her poetry that remains.
It is in the room with Svangren’s overflowing bursts of pink and white cloth and nets tangled with bolts of blue that many of these murmuring contradictions come close to being audible. This is sea water that longs to exist as cloth and paint, painting that longs to speak like sculpture. Here, with the transparent cellophane and rainbow crinkles on the surfaces, the silence is made all the more apparent by the words of Svangren’s title-poem: ‘a day of thirst/ a sleeping jellyfish.’ The longing, mixing and rising of the love-goddess are here in the curves and crevices of the installation. But also, too, are the missing words and urge of transmission of the goddess’s devotee-poet. Svangren’s works shush and sputter; there is constant feeling that they are shaped from a desire for enunciation, that they are trying to speak.
What this asserts is a set of quick, synesthetic metaphors: the feeling of the room creates a sort of liquid equation where water, speech and sculpture are equivalent forces, trading between each other, all with desire to transform, to outpour. Formed from that desire, Svangren’s installation is some times honest and forthright, at other times coy, even duplicitous. It moves from overly melodramatic – dried rosebuds tumbling down to a knotted cloth heavily stained with pink tears – to just plain secretive, with bunches of red and who knows what indeterminate materials hidden wrapped within translucent layers of plastic. Svangren’s transformations waver, uncertain of themselves: the use of corals, of shells, of dried lavender are the stuff of other places, things picked up and re-inserted here. They speak of an outside world. But her splashes of incandescent yellow pigment, daubs of dark red, torn strips of linen, these speak a more abstract, obscure language. They speak of interiority, of things that might be felt but not articulated. Running between them all is a sense of gushing, breathless excitement, a frenzied desire to transmute and piece together the world. It is the wavering of this desire that we witness, at times flowing forth fully, shared and overt; at others shy, secretive, reserved.
Perhaps when you were older, you later understood the sound of the sea in the shell. You understood it as a trick of physics, you stripped it of its transitional magic, turning it just into ambient sound and wind compressed by the shape of the conch. It becomes a dull hiss – only an act of imitation, of ventriloquism. But, perhaps later still, that understanding might again change: to know that the nature of the sea is actually embedded, integral, and part of the very grain of the shell. That ventriloquism is itself telling, its pale echo a sign of its essence and its urges to speak of those essences. It is those whispered desires that tell you that the shell does actually carry the sea within it. Svangren’s ‘memory place’, her room flowing with the stopping and starting of those mutating desires to transform, translate and speak our essences, asks us to remember to listen. Here, she creates a place where we might hear; and where we might imagine our own sea from which words might spill secretly forth.
A visit to Astrid Svangren’s studio is an encounter with an elegant, improvised organization of diverse materials: Plants in pots and plastic. Paint, clothes, hair, feathers. A box of raw beeswax. In a corner, a glass cabinet with butterflies pinned to the frame. Just as remarkable is the way the many materials inhabit the room: Piled on the floor. Hung from the ceiling. Braided. Pinned to the wall with long, thin needles or strung up as if levitating. Ripped, crumpled up and flattened out. Repaired and sewn back together again. Crammed into cardboard boxes or laid out on a table. Propped against the wall, strewn on the floor or dipped into something. Washed and stacked. Stuffed into overturned plastic bags. Packed away and found again. It could all best be described by the word temporary. There is an atmosphere as if the whole room had just been washed through by gushing waters followed by an intricate process of reconstruction. The principle that organizes Svangren’s studio provides a condensed image of her aesthetic sensibility. A sensibility revolving around liminal phases of all kinds, where something is about to form, or break apart. Her works, however light and floating they appear in the exhibition space, are balanced on a razor’s edge between the composed and the amorphous. Her grungy yet lyrically refined installations are scenographically aimed at the exact moment when the crumpled plastic foil on the floor ceases to look like trash and is elevated, draped in a particular way to take on a different shape and hover lightly in the room, translucent and organic like a membrane. Surfaces and Veils Painting is Svangren’s starting point, but, like many artists of her generation, she relates freely to the format, because it can be expanded in numerous directions, both spatial and materially. Svangren’s exhibitions are in the nature of total installations, with fluid boundaries between individual works. Svangren splinters painting into all its basic components: plane and colour, stretcher and canvas freely interpreted and detached like independent devices – an aesthetic move where materials sourced from entirely different contexts are given new connotations “resurrecting” them as painterly. Svangren’s 2017 exhibition at Molekyl Galleri, Malmö, titled It happens in a fluttery corner, in a fluttery form, Like the red chest of the sea, I’d rather be inside than out, the basic colour seems to have oozed out of the paintings and onto the floor. Violet rises like a vertical screen against the window, a large piece of clear deep-red plastic foil draped around it, giving the impression of a monochromatic painted surface. Thin red silk hangs from the ceiling like a free-floating painting, while the paintings on the walls are not painted on canvas but on sheets of transparent plexiglass, so that the brushstrokes seem to peel off the ground and hover in midair like scrawled attempts at writing. The painting as such seems to dissolve before our eyes. We can see through it, but other parts remain hidden – yet other layers of fabric and foil are draped on the outside and drawings are attached with pins, dissolving the clear figure-ground relationship into layers of transparency, by uncovering and concealing. The exhibition as a whole revolves around a play with surfaces alternately hidden and revealed – a seductive game with the gaze, constantly shifting across, behind or through the surfaces, denying us the feeling of having seen it all. Modern art criticism, when it comes to painting, has been deeply preoccupied with painting’s flat surface, the plane of a painting. Modernist art criticism celebrated surface as the characteristic of painting that sets it apart from other forms of image-making, such as photography’s lifelike illusion of depth, making it the media-specific feature on which a modern painting expression must turn. Pop art exploded this narrative of the painterly imperative. Painting became a platform for all the different kinds of images circulating in the culture – in mass media like comics, advertising and television. The surface of the painting was reinterpreted as a place that can halt the cultural stream of images and make it an object of reflection and aesthetic exploration – surface as the essence of painting, as a cultural image screen. These two interpretations of surface dominate the history of modern painting. In Svangren’s practice, however, the surface has a third status. There, a constant displacement of the surface takes place, as it is dissolved, brought out into the room, draped, duplicated, broken down, veiled or erased. Unmonumental This play with surface lends a sculptural dimension to Svangren’s work. She draws on some of the same devices used by a recent movement in sculpture that, to borrow a term from a triennial at the New Museum in New York, is characterized by the unmonumental: a new sculptural sensibility that counters the features that sculpture and monuments have in common – the heroic, grand, stable, expressive, compelling – and instead values an expression that is low-tech, modest in scale, built from found objects and materials and has a fragmented, even disintegrating, appearance. The key device is the liberation of expressions that stand in opposition to a more general culture honouring the functional, the expressive and the fully realized potential. Although Svangren’s works can rightly be considered sculptural, they are characterized by an almost total dissolution of the mass or material weight of the artwork, as everything dissolves into thin surfaces. Her materials are weightless sheets of foil, lengths of plastic and delicate structures holding up fabric. The plastic objects emerging on the floor turn out to be piles of crumpled plastic foil – yet another transparent surface dissolving before our eyes. Here, the surface of the painting becomes a series of interfaces, different material surfaces, membranes opening up to the body. Svangren’s installation Amongst all sorts of colours venus hair and a day of thirst a sleeping jellyfish it is the memory place, shown in 2016 at Tranen presented a take on the classical theme of the Birth of Venus. Thin, swaying plastic hangs from the ceiling like cascades of water, silver foil reflecting the light like the surface of the sea, empty mussel shells wrapped in crinkled plastic foil like secrets from the depths of the ocean. In tune with the original story, lengths of plastic are interwoven with long, crude ropes of braided hair, like a fragment of the goddess’s beauty, attached to a wooden stand in the centre of the room. Characteristically, this stand also serves as a support for a painted sheet of plexiglass, whose transparent surface dissolves under blue and violet brushstrokes. The centre of this seductive play of materials and surfaces is the body of the viewer moving in and amongst all the many layers of shiny, transparent surfaces enveloped in multiple layers of fabric, foil and hair that never gel into a single image. The long titles of the works have a lyrical quality, like poems stitching together the splintered pieces with words. But the true function of the titles is as sketches capturing and enumerating ideas for images and setting the basic ambience to which the works aspire. Materiality While painting, historically, has first and foremost been treated as an art form focused on the visual, Svangren’s painting takes an entirely different tack. In her practice, the materiality of the painting is just as important as its visuality. There is an alchemic dimension to Svangren’s use of materials. The organic and the artificial trade places. Trash looks like nature, and vice versa. Thick ribbons of yellow-brown latex resemble bladder-wrack seaweed. Bubble wrap looks like water or bodily membranes. Because materials like dried lavender or raw beeswax exude their fragrance into the room, the artwork is also inhaled. Svangren’s works are part of a multisensory game with the viewer’s body, in which tactile effects play a major role. The smooth and hard versus the soft and yielding. The refined versus the raw. The use of fabrics evokes clothing – as if we could wrap ourselves in the work or put it on. A sculptural object hangs from the ceiling like a stream of silk, elastically yielding, weighed down by sewn-on clumps of raw sheep’s wool. The works’ sculptural dynamics emerge through the combination of two extremes on the spectrum of fabrics: finely woven, almost transparent, delicate pink silk and thick clots of curly fleece shimmering from light amber to black. Increased Sensitivity In her recent work, Svangren experiments with painting directly onto clothing – wearable paintings – and with reshaping clothes sculpturally, like the silk petticoat with butterfly cocoons sewn on, as if the dress were reverting back to the original state of silk-moth larvae in the animal kingdom. Accordingly, the painting is brought out into a performative space, where scents, natural elements, gender, myths and the social game are incorporated into a bodily oriented practice. Here, Svangren parts with the legacy of American and European Minimalism, which otherwise in various ways is being perpetuated in contemporary art as stringently formal work that also includes the body in the work. While Minimalism incorporates the body as a relatively abstract entity, Svangren’s art is closer to the exuberant, multisensory practices of the Latin American avant-garde – Svangren mentions Lygia Clark as a source of inspiration. Clark was an artist whose sculptures were in the form of actual tools to be worn directly on the body: masks enclosing the face and creating a feeling of deep abyss, or special glasses seemingly joining one body to another. Svangren’s work also evokes an artist like Eva Hesse, who in the 1960 and ’70s developed her sculptural work using fragile materials like sewn cheesecloth, wax, rope and latex. While Minimalist art at the time valued repetition, geometry, and solid materials in extremely controlled expressions, Hesse crafted a response with a more disorganized expression, whose ephemeral quality is also found in Svangren’s work. Hesse’s use of materials was a reckoning with an institutionalized view of art that emphasized the stability of the work. Her materials, on the other hand, were perishable and out of her full control – an aesthetic choice that Hesse in an interview linked to the impermanence of life itself: “Life doesn’t last. Art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.” A photograph accompanying Svangren’s latest show, at Molekyl Galleri, 2017, shows a close-up of a hand stroking a surface of lush, green moss. Attached to each fingertip is a small tube of clear, blue plastic, an industrial product glowing against a backdrop of skin and natural green. The blue plastic tips look like an extension of the body, a peculiar, low-tech tool for enhancing the awareness of the fingers’ contact with the moss, while at the same time preventing direct contact. This simultaneously self-contradictory and aesthetically appealing image condenses the conflicting sensory experiences that Svangren explores in her work – a state of increased sensitivity, as one of her titles goes. The artificial and the organic. Body and plastic. There is a fluidity to her whole expression, as if the work were merely a frozen moment in a continuous process. Indeed, butterflies are a recurring theme for Svangren, as are other subjects denoting transience and transformation: cocoons, shells, seaweed and sea foam. It all moves in and out of itself. With the lightness of a butterfly captured in mid-flight and pinned to the wall.
Astrid Svangren once told me about a story she had read as a young girl. The story is of another young girl, returning home to Sweden from Borneo with an infection in her inner thigh. Upon closer inspection by a doctor, who is also secretly a lepidopterist, it comes to light that the infection is not an infection at all, but a pupa buried in her skin, harbouring a rare butterfly. The doctor, fuelled by his obsession, seizing the opportunity, holds the girl hostage in his butterfly sanctuary in anticipation of the emergence of this rare and beautiful creature from its host. The story was read many years ago, the plot details are vague; instead, it is the memory of an imagined experience that carries the story. It is the sensation of being transported into some literary fantasy world that resonates most clearly in Svangren’s telling. She brings forth the moist, sticky warmth of the tropical rainforest, the thickness of the air in a butterfly enclosure – the recreation of a specific climate suitable for butterflies but whilst holding them, removed from their nature, as objects of desire. The young girl is there too. The tension of her skin as the butterfly grows inside her, of being held captive and the imminent emergence of something beautiful, the image of the young girl’s innocence and the image of her thigh in the humid air of her prison. In an almost Proustian manner, Svangren evokes a memory of the past and simultaneously elicits an immediate sensation. Amongst butterflies, memories, beauty, nature, the artificial, desire, obsession, captivity, creation, violence, and the tensions between innocence and experience, we find ourselves situated in Svangren’s world. Her art. Much has been written of Astrid Svangren and butterflies, they are pinned in frames in her studio, and there are rows of books dedicated to them there too. The chrysalis and the butterfly are reoccurring motifs in her work. It is not surprising perhaps given that so much can be said of their symbolic role in her process and expression. Less surprising even, is how they may have become nestled in her memory, where they have long played a role in human history as symbols of metamorphosis, of life, death and rebirth, of beauty, in spiritualism and animism. But also as objects of study in the natural sciences as examples of evolutionary traits, with camouflage or the use of bright colours as a warning, or as pollinators and a food source in complex ecosystems. There are indeed many ways of knowing butterflies, as there are many ways of knowing Svangren’s work, allegorically and discursively. But, there is something else too. Sensation. That which is not known, but felt. The ways in which we move, and are moved, the pathways we trace as we experience butterflies and Svangren’s work, and in the ways that these movements serve to bring us closer to our own lived experience and the world in which we live. As you move through Svangren’s work, it is you that carves out a pathway; there is no clear narrative, no clear beginning or end. The work however, also moves you. Around, under, over, in between, leaning in, zooming in and out, focusing and refocusing. Like finding a chrysalis hidden under a leaf on the branch of a tree, as a child, you find treasures and secrets in Svangren’s work, treasures of beautifully intricate detail, microcosms, hidden and found again. Or those moments of material expression as if you had found an exhausted, dying butterfly, wings tattered, frail, as if made of dust – that become moments of sadness, fragility, vulnerability and exposure. But, as with a butterfly floating through the air, Svangren’s work beats and pulses, there are moments that appear as if from nowhere, flowing continuously into one another. You trace them with your eye, an intrigue and an excitement are aroused in you. Now you are moving too, together with the work, always trying to see it in its fully realised colours and patterns, but never quite succeeding. It is here in which the power of Svangren’s work lies. It cannot be seen as a monist whole or known from the outside, you must participate in it – you are immersed in it. As you move, the layers and textures of the work melt into one another, and then become unravelled and obscured, always changing form, always new, as partially connected versions of itself, as if in a dream. The work cannot be known in its entirety, only as a set of memories and sensations, moments that hang together briefly and delicately before rearranging completely, and you, fully entwined, become acutely aware of yourself as an effect of those sensations.
George Garbutt, Copenhagen, 2017