A Friendly Gesture

For twenty-five years, artist and writer Leif Holmstrand has worked with experiences of psychosis, prostitution, and transsexuality in a highly eclectic practice. Now, he has collected it all in a new book.

Leif Holmstrand in his home in Malmö dressed in Saari Ceremonial Robe, 2021, with the curtain sculpture Polyps, 2019 and the sculpture Dragon Chariot for Misfits, 2021. On the wall: Prostitute Backdrop, 2021. Photo: Lotten Pålsson.

Leif Holmstrand’s practice comprises an unflagging and extensive production. In addition to being a writer, to date having published thirty-seven novels and poetry collections, he works with performance, sculpture, installations and textile works. These works have now been complied in the monograph De Profundis (Or From Above) (2021), which gives a mainly image-based and mostly, but not exclusively, retrospective view of his spatial and visual works from the last twenty-five years.

Holmstrand’s works include a trans perspective, a psychotic perspective, and a child’s exploratory point of view. He ties threads into nets and tapestries which extend like organisms, testing, proliferating, capturing, and binding solid material to the body. These materials – bin bags, prams, teddy bears, dog bones, garden gnomes, and so on – are what he dubs humanity’s most important cultural products. The bodies in his writing and visual works are alternately nourished and restrained with a permissive and at times humorous excess that also reflects his working methods.

The figures that emerge from these efforts – and which Holmstrand and other actors sometimes perform as – are hybrids of these themes. Like Sally Rattenmann, a combination of the fictional singer Sally Bowles and Sigmund Freud’s “Rat Man,” tied to experience of sex work and abuse. Or Asami Kannon – the semi-comic figure on the cover of De Profundis (Or From Above) wearing a pitch black suit with a meticulously crocheted hood – who is based on a generative misreading of Japanese culture, and is a result of Holmstrand’s many trips to Japan during the 2000s.

I met up with Holmstrand at his home and studio on the outskirts of Malmö. Over the years, his sculptures, images, and an extensive collection of books and films have filled his apartment. We sat down for coffee in the kitchen. Holmstrand humbly talks about having to care for his sick parents during the past year, at the same time as things have never been better career wise. He is in the process of finishing two new novels and is about to publish two poetry collections and a three-thousand-page experimental book. In addition, he is working on new sculpture, costumes, scenography, and a new sound work that will be shown in various venues during the year. 

Leif Holmstrand, De Profundis (Or From Above), 2021.

You are both an artist and an author and have published thirty seven books since your debut poetry collection Stekelgångcame out in 2002, the same year you graduated from Malmö Art Academy. In addition to this, you’ve done performance works, installations and sculpture, initiated collaborations, and been a publisher. How did you start working in visual arts?

I tend to think of my art not as something I started doing, but as something I never stopped doing. An investigative and serious play with materials and images. As soon as you start processing material – almost before you can really talk – it becomes a concern, without any particular experience or knowledge behind the decision. I return to queer and fluctuating states in my works. This can probably be seen in eclectic choices of material and cheerfully hysterical working methods. I also return to the experience of psychotic illnesses, which I try to reinterpret in a way that may not fit within the canon of what psychotic art means – no obvious weirdo indicators, I hope.

How do you conceive of your visual- and text-based production in relation to each other?

When a work leads into language, it is because I have not succeeded in manifesting it in the visual and vice versa. They are two parallel activities. When I draft sculptural or pictorial works, I often do it in text, and sometimes it becomes a literary product, sometimes not. Most of my works begin as recipes for what I am going to do. I start writing when I take a walk and think about what I’m going to do. I list things that I want to be included in a work. So often my works begin as lists, a series of rules, which then mutate as the work progresses. And the drawn, scribbled, and collaged become a way of working with literature as well. Sketching and mind-mapping.

Leif Holmstrand, Berlin Magic Model Project / Prostitution and Other Activities, 1999.

You’ve just published a monograph summarising your artistic work over the past twenty-five years. Where did the idea of ​​making this book come from, and how have you worked with the selection, with the design and layout, and so on?

The art book De Profundis (Or From Above) has been in the making for quite some time. Self-publishing is exciting, and I like the work of typesetting and creating visual contexts in printed matter. I have run a small press from time to time, but it is too exhausting to keep up a business like that continuously when you, like me, already have several other professional roles. It just has to be – sometimes. This, however, is where we get to polyphony as a necessity. I want to strike a blow for non-uniformity and many parallel lines in artistic activity, especially because my own methodology doesn’t have a single signature style, but many different ones. And, I argue, that is a good thing. I would like it if the view of art that I am in a way suggesting with this catalogue, despite the shortcomings, could take hold, mostly because a little more life around us would be nice. It has been liberating to compile documentation from different periods and see that there have actually been a lot of exciting things over the years. In other words, a kind of semi-critical inventory of satisfaction, perhaps something to base one’s own future development on. But above all, it is a friendly gesture aimed at the surrounding world.

The first work in the book is the sculpture When I Was a Little Girl. The figure covered in fabric has no recognisable features. Is the primary form in your visual practice yourself as a little girl?

The sculpture tries to mark a position of uncertain gender. This can be seen from a trans perspective, but also from a psychotic perspective. Or from a vulnerable, but exploratory child position. It is an old work that was in my graduation exhibition at Malmö Art Academy in 2002. I revised the sculpture a bit some years later, and it has been in a number of exhibitions and is now part of Malmö Art Museum’s permanent collection. I think that in a way it is the subject that speaks in my other works. Pronounces them, one might say.

Leif Holmstrand, Sally Rattenmann Hanging Herself, performance, 2004.

Pseudonyms and named figures appear in both your art and your writing. For example, you published three poetry collections between 2006 and 2010 under the pseudonym Anna-Maria Ytterbom. Who is Ytterbom, and has she also appeared in your art?

I have actually thought of Anna-Maria Ytterbom as an art product rather than a literary one, a kind of three-book performance in literary Sweden. Of course, the books themselves are literary phenomena – literary texts – but I see the plot as a happening or a performance piece. The texts and the work and the figures arose from an irritation over the gender-essentialist thinking that resurfaced in the literary public in the early 2000s, and which echoed the worse parts of the so-called Jäderlund feud of the 1980s. This was an idiotic, but huge, debate about the male versus female in poetic text – a destructive simplification of what was said to be impossible for the alleged gender extremes to understand from each other’s words or alleged specific language. And a lot of classic, but amazingly stupid sexism. At the time, I felt a need to express my frustration over fixed gender positions in an artistic act. The result was Anna-Maria Ytterbom. The face in the press photos was my niece Charlotte, who threw herself into the project with great enthusiasm and joy. 

The cover of De Profundis shows a completely black-clad figure with a crocheted hood and a kimono-like jumpsuit in a sort of jazz hands pose, against a backdrop of red and white stripes. Did the image come about after a visit to Japan?

Asami Kannon. Yes, after several visits to Japan. My first trip there was in 2005, when I was deeply moved by what I saw at the Yokohama Triennial. Pyuupiru – a fantastic artist – both performed and exhibited an enormous installation, and I felt that there were so many echoes of my own art in hers and vice versa. She had undergone a gender transition. Her reassignment therapy was not complete – it was finished between 2004 and 2008 – and it was strange to see art that I felt so connected to in a place I had never been before. I had suffered a psychosis that year and was quite ill. At the same time, I received an Iaspis [International Artist’s Studio Program in Stockholm] scholarship for a three-month stay in Japan, which I was close to turning down as I hadn’t completely recovered. But I went. It was a big deal for me to be able to orientate myself in Japan and take part in a culture and an art life that was very global, strange, and without the tropes that I was used to from home. I thought that was cool and liberating. After that I worked on returning as often as I could in the years that followed, and have built friendships, working relationships, and areas of interest in Japan. So this has become quite major and important for my work.

Asami Kannon is a figure who came into being after discussions with the Japanese collective Olta. She is something in between a place – or a room and a figure, you could say. The name is taken from Asami Yamazaki, a character in a film by Takashi Miike [Audition, 1999]. A saintly martyr antagonist who acts like “the perfect Japanese woman” in the first half of the film. But in the second half, which is more nightmarish and surreal, she cuts off the protagonist’s feet with piano wire; you could say she cuts the feet off patriarchy. The second part is Kannon, the goddess of mercy who is also part of the Zen mysticism that has been popularised in the West since the 1950s. I placed these two tropes, the people, the lines, as a crossroads where a story of grace and comfort cut through a story of violence and sadism. Without placing any ethical value on the two, letting something happen at the crossroads, which is where the figure Asami Kannon is standing. One of the mechanisms, or what fuels this, is the huge plethora of generative and interesting misreadings of Japanese culture found in the West. If you tweak them just a little bit they turn into the most bizarre worlds of their own that don’t have much to do with the real Japan, but that are interesting in their own right. It also interests me that the Kannon character is above ideas about specific genders. It is also reasonable that for someone who is considered to have lived an infinite number of human lives, it becomes quite insignificant to define oneself as a gender.

Leif Holmstrand, Prams, baby carriages, blue polyurethane rope, 2006. Installation view from Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm.

Is the character Sally Rattenmann, who you killed during a performance at Lilith Performance Studio in 2008, a similar kind of hybrid figure?

She is a non-essential figure and also a set of clothes that can be worn by anyone. I’m not the only one who has performed as Sally Rattenmann; other actors have also taken on the role. Her stories are connected with experiences of sex work and abuse in Berlin in the late 1990s. The name is made up of Sally Bowles – from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin [1939] which was filmed with the title Cabaret [1972] with Liza Minnelli playing Bowles – and then Rattenmann as in Freud’s Rat Man – the compulsive neurotic who is stuck in sexually insidious labyrinthine games against himself. Sally Rattenmann got to manifest this crossroads between the two characters and their conditions. It is a way of telling a kind of elaborate story about abuse, but not to bring out any given subject position or victim position, but rather one that becomes a specific reality with its own laws of nature.

A condition that can be embodied by someone else?

Yes. It is not just about one individual’s discrete experiences, but about a state or space one can enter. There is something both anxious and smug in the idea of the monolithic self in our world. You are so sure of which boxes to tick – what you are, what constitutes your person. Talking about what you are and why is also a popular topic of conversation. It has annoyed me at times, but I also find it very interesting because there is something nervous in this constant determination. I also think that in a queerness fighting for self-definition, there is something skewed and non-functional that I think stems from a popular misunderstanding of the idea of ​​performativity. The mistake is that the creation of an ‘I’ is seen as a personal and isolated act of emancipation. But I don’t think it is. I even believe that subjects are performed by others, to a far greater degree than subjects can perform themselves. The others are more important than you are even in intrapsychic processes.

Leif Holmstrand, Rope Cottage Hockey, hockey goal, polyurethane rope, 2018. Installation view from Persbo Studio Sculpture Park.

When I read Judith Butler, for example, I think quite a lot about how failure – the failure to bear a given identity – is the point. I see a subversive potential in that. There’s something uneasy about the combining going on in my performances, which is about holding together things that don’t really hold together. I often think of people’s personality traits as casings rather than cores, and I think that is reflected in my way of building sculptures. Especially in the characters that are very much about what’s taking place on the surface – what protrudes, what encloses, what protects, what holds in, what captivates, what opens up, and so on. Everything that takes place, tales place on the surface.

Then there are often things encased in the sculptures, but these are usually found objects that haven’t really been processed. They are a kind of “what the world has created” that is in the subject: garbage, waste, rubbish, that kind of material. I usually claim that our waste is the world’s largest cultural product – that trash is readable, a readable cultural product that can be interpreted. Trying to understand the world through the material that humanity rejects is something I often come back to.

Have you ever wanted to belong to a scene yourself?

Yes, often. But then I always got nervous because I’m also a loner – a social loner. I am particularly drawn to rainbow contexts. Preferably those which question gender on a social basis. I ended up in Vladivostok where I completed a large work and lectured a couple of times. Once I got there, I realised that the cultural climate there was permissive. I was happy and surprised that Vladivostok had a vibrant and fun queer rainbow culture of a kind I wish we had here in Sweden. Quite open, flamboyant, entertaining, sexual, with a rich and long history.

Leif Holmstrand, Holy Helpers / Fourteen Plague Saints or Self-Portraits, part of series, 2018.

The literary critic Maria Ramnehill mentioned you a few years ago in an article in Göteborgs Posten as one of the authors who in the 2010s has portrayed trans experiences with a new straightforwardness. She believes that fictional representations have come to outnumber autobiographies and links this to the advancements of rights of LGBTQ and transgender people. Fiction then becomes a sign that the author does not have to justify trans identity through the autobiography. At the same time, of course, there has also been a backlash with more hatred. Do you agree with that description?

Yes. All minorities who are recognised when their political work for survival has taken a step forward are punished and attacked for these advancements and being made visible. However, this does not mean that the work for change has been meaningless.

In an earlier interview in Svenska Dagbladet in 2016, you point out that while transsexualism and gender correction have received a lot of attention lately, not least through popular culture, the transvestite has almost completely disappeared from the Swedish discourse. Which is strange because the transvestites themselves have hardly ceased to exist. How do you define the transvestite?

Now I think of the transvestite as an older identity and cultural marker. I think almost no young people I meet would describe themselves as transvestites; they use other words for related phenomena. The transvestite belongs to my generation and older ones. I also believe that there has been a change of meaning, that the transvestite today has an enhanced sexual connotation. That it’s about an erotic fetish. Which I think is – not offensive, because sex is not offensive – but it is unfair that the field can’t be larger than that. In literature and art, a lot has happened around the world, I would say. When I was young, the concept of trans also included the transvestite position. When people say “trans” now – at least in Swedish media reality – it refers almost exclusively to people who have a reassignment background. Which I think can be a sad limitation.

Leif Holmstrand, Three Lovers, performance at Galleri 54, Göteborg, 2020.

Is camp relevant to you?

Yes, it is. My definition of camp is something that is both heartfelt and sarcastic or ironic at the same time, without there being anything false in that doubleness. It’s a way of undermining this rather heterosexual normality in my head – the true uniformity of being as something specific you are. Being several things at once is apparently less honest than being one thing at a time, for the normal. In that case, I prefer the camp attitude that something exists in several ways. If you do an immediate, but double, reading of things, and use that as a method and production –  I   like that. A statement can be both tragic and funny; it can be both sarcastic and sincere; it can be angry and loving. Camp offers opportunities that can’t be found anywhere else. Traditionally, camp has also been a way to deceive the heterosexual, I think, by sneaking in material that most people read in one way, but that those in other circumstances read in another way. And I don’t think it’s a matter of dishonesty – just a generous coding.

Is proximity a condition for you work’s existence? Has the recent distancing affected your artistic process?

Closeness and sociality are extremely important to my process, but also paranoia. And it’s been a great year for paranoia. Fighting with paranoia has been an energetic way of creating works. But it may not be sustainable in the long run. 

What have you been working on over the past year? Will Sally Rattenmann make a comeback in 2021?

I have a new poetry collection coming out on 20 May, published by Pequod Press, Den fornegyptiska familjesolen (The ancient Egyptian family sun), and next year Bonniers will be releasing my most ambitious collection to date, Inte världen(Not the world). In addition to these projects, I have been working on the autobiographical fantasy novel Lilla sminkade gris (Little pig in makeup) about non-straight youth prostitution and middle-aged gay family life, where several of my characters – including actually Sally Rattenmann – will be mentioned and transformed into fiction. I’m also in the process of completing the novel Kartritartornet (The cartographer’s tower), which is a sad heterosexual-sibling-incest-love story.

Right now I am also working on a sound work in memory of my dear friend Bo I. Cavefors, [the publisher] who passed away in 2018. It will be installed outdoors in Malmö this summer. I am preparing a large-scale, hanging, semi-obscene sculpture for an exhibition in Finland. I have also worked on new costumes, new scenography/stage props, and new happenings, despite, well, the virus situation and everything. Documentation of this might published in due time, if appropriate. And Rojal Förlag will be publishing Jonas Örtemark’s and my three-thousand-page experimental book Svalget (The throat) this autumn, after twelve years of work. 

Leif Holmstrand, Asami Kannon Clothing, 2016.

Ana-Maria Hadji-Culea is a Malmö-based artist, writer and translator. Her performances have been presented at Index i Stockholm, 2018, and at Acud Macht Neu and Spektrum in Berlin, 2016. Her texts and translations have appeared in, among other places, the journal Aiolos, and in Chris Kraus book Social Practice, 2018.