Towards the Whiteout
Artist Petra Lindholm whose body of work notably has seen her working with the medium of video speaks to us in the interview about arriving at a new distinctive process of working with imagery. Her beautiful new exhibition “Whiteout” at Galleri Magnus Karlsson, inspired by recent travels to Katmandu, allegorizes and shines light on the way we live our lives today, seeking affirmation by a constant chase for the next thrill and high.
C-P: Petra, you’re showing with your new solo exhibition ”Whiteout” at Galleri Magnus Karlsson, your first since 2011’s “For Anne Marie”. As far as the creative process is concerned I know it’s a slight departure from your past work which has been more centered around video works and edited stills. Yet visually it also relates back to your last show with some thematic elements. I’m curious about how you approached this new exhibition which I understand was inspired by your spending several months with your family in Katmandu recently in time?
P.L: I’ve always worked much with colour application in my films, but it’s always felt fairly digital and as a result I’ve been experimenting for a long while, trying my hands to do images which are not video stills and eventually arrived at sheer coloured fabrics through which I can glue and compose images in several layers. I wouldn’t have thought of the idea had it not been for years of video editing and the technique of layer-on-layer that I’ve applied for my video works. Moreover, the fact that I spent the months in Katmandu with only a few hours of electricity a day served this direction. All the beautiful fabrics, colours and shapes in Nepal have been of inspiration to me.
C-P: Notably mountains are very omnipresent in the works you’re showing and make for a recurring element since your last show. The works feel ethereal and faintly romantic on the one hand, and on the other you’ve described them as “apolcalyptic”. On some, the shapes and contours of a person or a group of people can be spotted, which perhaps as well in light of the title of the video work in the exhibition, “Empty Vessels”, is telling of our relationship with ourselves and to nature. Tell me what ideas these mountainous scenes represent to you.
P.L: In my previous exhibition mountains served as a source for healing and contemplation. In this exhibition, mountains rather symbolize our desire to constantly reach new heights, to advance, and constantly chase new highs after an ephemeral state of ecstacy has exhausted following physical efforts. The mountain climbers I interviewed in Katmandu expressed how it becomes like a drug to search for new tops and greater challenges. During our time in Katmandu we stayed in a building on the premises of the Sechen Monastery. Sechen is a big monastery with several hundred munks. There I also met many foreigners who practiced Tibethian Buddishm. I interviewed a nun who explained her search with not having been at peace and ease in her everyday life with work, family, children, house, car and dog…She was searching for something else and have now found it through meditation.
Consequently even if you’re not looking for thrilling experiences and material wealth, the driving force may be the very same; that it really is about finding happiness which we try to reach with various measures. I personally think that the nun has found a way towards a more consistent state of happiness. But it requires courage to sit down for introspection. Empty Vessels is in fact a Buddhist expression which is used in contexts when an emptiness inside which many people feel today is described. This emptiness is suppressed by constant entertainment. The empty vessel needs to be filled.
C-P: I like the feeling of seeing something novel and refreshing, looking at your new works; the way notions of human self-affirmation and exploitation of nature are embedded in such delicate and subtle expressions and as well the collage and assemblage execution of the works which make them not all too easy to define. What is the process behind some of these works?
P.L: I’ve worked with the proportions between the little wanderer in the big wide nature, on his way towards the high mountain top, and the surroundings. We are so small compared to the forces of nature. And yet we believe that we can continue to exploit the way we do to infinity. We want to reach all places in the world, leave our mark on every still unmounted top, big corporations want to extract oil and gas without facing and recognizing the consequences. Similarly the way we test our own limits in a sort of competition with ourselves, we also test the limits of the planet.
All the while, these lone adventurers carrying out expeditions to still unaffected places, who get touched by the beauty of nature are perhaps the ones who later embark on a fight towards a more sustainable planet. What I’m describing are thoughts and ideas that I’ve had floating around in my head when making these images. The sentiment I’ve wanted to convey is our increasingly confused attempts to find happiness. Maybe happiness is to be found on the mountain top, or perhaps on the other side of the mountain.
The work process began when I rendered a few black and white photographs in the shape of fabrics for my last exhibition in 2011; sheer white fabric with sewn on black fabrics in four layers with a tube of fluorescent light behind. The photograph became three-dimensional. I later tried the same thing with images from the new video but it got a bit sloppy so I tried around and checked what would come out of it if I instead glued the layers together. I started with this technique in the summer of 2014 so it’s still something new to me. Sometimes the outcome is successful and sometimes it doesn’t seem to work at all. It makes the work process much more exciting.
C-P: Going back to older works and your last exhibition “For Anne Marie” at the gallery, I found the story and inspiration behind it to be absolutely fascinating; a love story between the aunt of your grandfather and a man around a time of war at the beginning of the last century. When did you first learn about the story and what compelled you to make work around it?
P.L: I had just moved back to my native Finland where I received a three year working grant which entailed a beautiful old villa situated on a cape in a nature reserve. I sat there in my spacious studio and looked out at the sea and felt empty of ideas to make art. I wanted to do something worthwhile and felt pressured by the idea and started digging into my own ideas and then I remembered that I had received a stack of black and white negatives of photographs from my grandfather which his aunt Anne Marie had taken during a recuperation period at a sanitarium in the Alps 100 years ago. I thought it was about time to dig into her story and why she was still haunting around in the old house of my grandparents where she used to live in the summers. My uncle helped my a lot. He is the one who showed me old letters and images and told me the entire story. That film and project took me two years to complete and it fit perfectly with the period of the residency. I see it as a collaborative effort between us. Maybe she stopped haunting now that I’ve told her story.
C-P: As an artist who’s worked long with video, I was meaning to ask you what you consider to be the position of video in contemporary art today, as opposed to say ten years ago? I tend to feel I fairly rarely get to see artists exhibiting video works in the gallery circuit here in Stockholm. On an international level, who might be some of the artists you feel are forwarding the medium today?
P.L: It feels like the video medium has become documentary-oriented today and that many people started working with feature length films. The technical and digital evolution with razor-sharp quality and every imaginable effect and perfect slowmotion perhaps take away from part of what is the soul of the art of video. Some have responded by going back to something resembling a VHS aesthetic. I think the exposure of the medium as art has been increasing, with more artists using moving images as a part of a larger exhibition context. We are so much more surrounded of moving images, through social medias for instance, than say ten years ago. It requires much of the viewer to engage with video works; time we rarely feel that we have today. Just a few new names from before pop onto to mind, people who have inspired me in the past like Shirin Neshat and Doug Aitken but currently I’m afraid I’m seeing too little art to offer any names.
C-P: Earlier when we corresponded, you were telling me about the Finnish-Swedish minority in Finland and living in Ekenäs (where Swedish is the majority language) and about how poor Finnish language education at schools in the Swedish parts of the country create social barriers, perhaps even for you as an artist in relation to the Finnish art community. You studied at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm and have since graduating been exhibiting with Magnus Karlsson for years now, since the early ‘00s, I wonder what your take on the Finnish art scene might be compared to say that of Stockholm?
P.L: To generalize it feels like things are more relaxed in the art scene in Helsinki; it’s smaller and there are fewer galleries present. Even though it’s convenient attending a gallery opening in Helsinki, I don’t quite feel part of the Finnish sphere and feel more at home in Stockholm seeing that it is there I have my former classmates, my gallery and then there’s as well the language factor. I think I sit somewhere in between both. If I’m going to stay in Finland with my family I definitely feel the need to have a greater command of Finnish, to be able to speak of my art in Finnish which I feel I can’t for the time being. If these things give, I think it will all fall into place eventually. Having spent a week in Berlin, I’ve thought about all the artists who move to Berlin and how they in a way also make for outsiders in the same way I am in Finland.
Moreover, I’ve also thought of what it means to be a part of an art community. Perhaps it bore its greatest significance before I got children and could attend all the openings and art parties but it’s a natural progression of getting older to lose some of those aspects to being an artist. Now I look more to practical aspects that are favorable like having kindergarten and school close to home and the children enjoying themselves and my having sufficient space to make art.
C-P: I know you had a busy year exhibiting last year, showing both at Galleria Ama in Helsinki and Collectiva Gallery in Berlin. With a new year just beginning, what plans and projects do you have for the rest of this year following “Whiteout” in Stockholm?
P.L: I have one part left of the Anne Marie project which is to examine if she, which I think, has found herself at peace and moved on from my grandfather’s house. I’ve hired a group of Ghostbusters who happen to have their office and practice in the same city where I live. They will be searching the house although I’m not sure in which form it will be presented. We will also be collaborating on an exhibition project this fall. Other than that I’m just very happy about devoting some time to do music a few months from here. The day after tomorrow I leave for New York to participate in a group show at the Scandinavian House. It will be fun.