‘I always do what I want’

Astrid Svangren on her search for sensory precision in painting, her love for Sappho’s poetic fragments, and the importance of being hard on yourself as an artist.

Astrid Svangren in her Copenhagen studio. Photo: Malle Madsen.

I last took the train across the bridge from Sweden to Denmark in late February. I got off before my stop, just to wander a bit among the old brick buildings on the way to the more industrial part of Amager where Swedish artist Astrid Svangren’s studio is located. I was meeting her for a conversation before the opening of her exhibition at Anna Bohman Gallery in Stockholm in March. After COVID-19, the exhibition was postponed, first until May and then again until August. Due to travel restrictions, Copenhagen became a mirage on the horizon, and our conversations continued over the phone.

When I arrived at the studio, there were piles and bags with different materials everywhere. A net was hanging from a half-finished painting and a stick with mussels on it leaned against a wall. Svangren graduated from Malmö Art Academy in 1998, and among her early figurative works are watercolours of girls. In 2009, she was one of two artists to inaugurate the new Moderna Museet in Malmö (the other was Luc Tuymans). By then, she had developed an installation-based approach in which textiles, plastic, and other light materials are used for a painting practice that can be executed spatially or on a surface. It’s still about colour – about painting – but in a physical and tactile manner that includes sifting through collected materials. 

Svangren moved to Copenhagen the same year that she exhibited at Moderna Museet, after a few years in Malmö and Berlin. She has been represented by Christian Andersen since 2010 and has also shown at galleries in New York, London, Stockholm, and Turin. In recent years, she has had a number of exhibitions at Danish institutions, such as Gl. Holtegaard last summer.

Going through my notes from our conversations, I notice the reoccurrence of phrases like “hard work,” “a long, long process,” “difficult and arduous.” Svangren seems to be drawn towards the challenges posed by painting and by exhibition settings where a room needs to be solved. An attraction to resistance is also present in her continuous attempts to distil something exact and agile from an inert or viscous material. Or, in her own words, “the inertia of your mind when you’re trying to remember something simple, like a scent or a bike ride.”

Astrid Svangren in her Copenhagen studio. Photo: Malle Madsen.

Would you want to live in your studio?

Yes. I’ve thought about that a lot. Not as in setting up a folding bed in the corner, but having a home that can function as a studio. If it were up to me, I would be working all the time. I’m always doing something, my hands are always at work. I’m not the kind of artist who puts it to the side. I mostly use what I have handy. I collect things and I’m given stuff and buy stuff. The materials I use may look delicate, but they aren’t really. I like a certain brittleness, assembling, breaking, mending. This fragility can be quite powerful. It means being close to the works, they stay with me, accompanying me.

Has that always been the case, that art seemed like a way of living, or was there a particular period or person that made you realise that?

I think it was just always like that. When I was maybe 16 years old I decided to become an artist. I saw art as a way of living, as an opportunity to avoid normalcy. I knew that was what I needed. Sure, you have to give up on certain things. Being an artist won’t make you rich. But when I’m working I become calm and happy. It makes me a better person.

Nina Roos was my teacher at the art academy for three years and now we’re close friends. To meet an artist of such integrity and consistency, not showy at all, at that young age was very important. That tenacity is something we share. I always do what I want. She showed me that was important. That art is the work you do every day, not all that other stuff.

Has that approach been useful now, when much of society and the art world have come to a standstill?

What’s going on in the world is terrible, but it hasn’t been difficult for me personally. I’m used to working alone and in isolation. In a way, it’s a relief that everything has slowed down; it suits me. Now, I can spend a whole day just sitting down, staring in front of me. I hope things will change in the wake of this, that people realise what needs to be different.

Installation view from mystery and dream / the self in constant resolution / the words and the colors / cries out who she is / deathly tired / lies ahead / explains / dismisses / elastic envelope / poetic documentation / the red paper like a knot on the wall / traces of clothing / its own orbit / open sculptures / a play / ritual / glittering and painful / a longing to understand at Gl. Holtegaard, 2019. Photo: David Stjernholm.

I’ve felt this paradox of, on the one hand, losing assignments and income, but on the other having a much clearer sense of what I want to do with my time. I don’t want to say yes to things just for a modest fee or a vague idea that it might lead to something. The crisis has brought things to a head.

It’s awful that people are getting sick, and there’s a sense of collective anxiety in the city. But it’s also a reminder that we aren’t immortal. We need to keep working and get things done before it’s too late.

Your exhibition at Anna Bohman gallery in Stockholm was supposed to open in March, then got postponed till May and is currently scheduled for the end of August. What have you been planning to show?

I’ve worked with painting in many different ways. I hadn’t painted on canvas for a very long time, but for a show at Gl. Holtegaard in Copenhagen last year I took it up again. I didn’t have much time and had to come up with a solution for a room, and it turned out well, so I’ve continued working on canvas.

My works are quite fleeting and light, sort of temporary. But I also want there to be something firm, like a frame or an architectural element. I did a show at Christian Andersen in Copenhagen a few years ago when the works were hung from a wooden moulding along the walls of the room. For the Anna Bohman show, I’ve also been inspired by the Shaker movement in the US and [Shaker] furniture. I’m going to use a wooden structure to hang things on. I want it to be like body or a house, something to be surrounded by. I showed it at Art Basel Miami last year, but now it’ll be slightly different. I like it when things aren’t static, that you can change a work for a new room. It’s not, “look at this nice painting of a tree,” but much more of a process. Like people going in and out of each other, it’s all floating, but there’s still precision.

Detail/garden view from Astrid Svangren’s exhibition at Gl. Holtegaard in 2019. Photo: David Stjernholm.

I know that you admire Lygia Clark and what you’re describing reminds me of that often-quoted line from the Neo-concretist Manifesto, which she signed: “We do not conceive of a work of art as a ‘machine’ or as an ‘object’ but as a ‘quasi-corpus’ (quasi-body) … which can only be understood phenomenologically.”

I like that. That’s probably right. I like her work. There are a lot of interesting Brazilian artists. Myth, life, and death are often present in their works. I’m very interested in different ways of incorporating the body. Painting is very corporeal in itself. Paint doesn’t have to be paint. It can by a body fluid, it can be grass. It’s a very sensory experience for me, almost like an act of love, the application of paint.

A lot of artists today are working with painting in performative and spatial ways. In some cases, it’s as if painting is dead and needs to be propped up by various interventions.

It’s not like that for me. My primary interest is painting. I think about it a lot, what I can do to make it interesting. I want my paintings to be exact. I have often struggled with a feeling that painting on canvas is meaningless; is it really relevant in 2020? The canvas is difficult, it stops me somehow. Instead, I’ve worked with all these installations, breaking out painting into the room, trying out and dyeing different materials. But I’ve arrived at something in my practice that justifies painting on canvas again. It’s taken a long time, but now I feel like I can do what I’ve always wanted, combine these different materials and make it work.

What do you mean by “I want my paintings to be exact”?

I like the feeling in art when things are not stagnant. It shouldn’t look unfinished, but there must be a kind of mobility, a flickering expression as if the works are on the verge of collapse, as if they can be disassembled and then put together again.

If you want a feeling of here and now, lightness, it needs exactitude in order to be strong, otherwise it just becomes a general aesthetic or happenstance. I strive to have as little as possible in my works. Emotions can be centred better if there is some kind of dryness or precision. I begin with lots of stuff, then I gradually start removing things. I keep coming back to the work again and again. It may look imaginative and playful, but it is actually very precise and concentrated.

Installation view from her spinning takes place near the mouth / I see what I eat / I eat what I see / it is an eating that is about risk at Quartz Studio in Torino, Italy, 2019. Photo: Beppe Giardino.

This reminds me of something I read recently in Italo Calvino’s lecture ‘Lightness’. In it, he talks about how he as a young writer realised that there was a gap between real life, his “raw material,” and the sharpness and agility he wanted in his writing. That there was an inertia and opacity in the world, which would adhere to his writing if he wasn’t careful. Lightness as an aesthetic ideal wasn’t about escaping into a world of dreams or the irrational, but maintaining a liveliness and nimbleness of the mind. The Swedish critic Sara Danius described Calvino’s lightness as “the result of a persistent and patient removal of weight.” To me, this resonates with the struggle against inertia which I see in your work, the ways in which you are trying to get at something very fleeting, yet entirely specific. This makes me think of some of the words that reoccur in your titles. What do words like creased, ribbed, or crape mean?

I visualise something like a fruit. Slicing an apple, the texture of the flesh can be creased. A grated carrot or tissue paper can be ribbed. But a sound can also be ribbed, or someone cutting skin. Those words can be fun and light, but also denote something disturbing. How can I articulate something bad that has happened? I can make a black figure or a creepy head. But how can I do it in a different way, using a different language? What does it really feel like? The colours I work with are also associated with this. Yellow can depict something violent or unpleasant. A crisp pink tissue can be transformed into something completely different from what it first denoted. You can’t have a fixed idea of what a material means.

Would it be fair to characterise your “fleeting” expression as a counterpoint to a hard, perhaps masculine, minimalism 

No, I don’t think so. And I don’t believe in that dichotomy. Early in my career, I painted girls, and that was often written about, even when there were no girls in the work, as if it that were my only subject matter. It was seen as nice. Sometimes it’s as if critics are afraid of the feminine; it provokes them, or they can’t see past it. Do you have to make a big screwdriver or a black curtain?

I think a lot about how there are many ways of expressing something. That’s why my works have long titles too. The figurative and the abstract can mean the same thing. I might apply some paint with my hand, and then there’s a small chest of drawers there too, and they’re both the same thing. I’ve always been interested in how that works. A lot is about creating order, constructing systems. That’s probably why I like hanging things too.

Astrid Svangren, in original violet / influenced transparent / feeling emerald / affected by honey yellow / worker bee / under influence of chestnut red / singing pastel dust, 2017. Photo: Malle Madsen.

The most recent show of yours I saw was at gallery OBRA in Malmö last fall. I remember how you used mussels in several works. There was also a large wooden object that reminded me of a cradle, but also a boat. It accentuated a link between the sea and childhood, or memory, that I took from that presentation. Is the sea analogous to memory or time, as a binding agent?

There is something so natural about collecting seashells. Some materials just come to me, and I like that, that direct relationship. I like the sea, but I also like greenhouses, how the heat makes the air thick. I also like working in heat.

But you rarely use green?

Green is difficult. Blue too. It just doesn’t look good. That’s a silly thing to say, but for me it’s true. I have my colours: red, pink, purple, yellow. They’re colours of the body in different ways. Those other colours stand for something else. I also like transparency, and think of it in relation to the materials I favour, the viscous and thick, almost like saliva.

Is transparency a colour? How does it work in relation to painting?

When I first started at Malmö Art Academy, I mainly painted on canvas. But it was difficult, and a teacher suggested I try painting on plastic instead. That allowed me to paint with my hands, thinking of the surface as a noticeboard where I could put things up and wash things off. With Plexiglas, you can paint on both sides, and transparency can also be seen as a film or a membrane, like layers of the body. Or like the way in which thoughts and emotions are layered.

Installation view from repetition with remembering / repetition without remembering / the fall is always worth it at OBRA in Malmö, 2019. Photo: Petra Bindel.

The Danish critic Rune Gade wrote of your show at Christian Andersen in 2017 that you displayed “a sustained, completely uninhibited desire to explore a colour palette on the verge of opulent kitsch.” How do you know what works, how do you maintain a clear sense of what’s right for you?

When a work isn’t right, it’s because it’s not true. It can look good, but still be wrong. I’m hard on myself in order to not get lost. I usually write down bullet points to remind myself what it is I’m after once I start working.

Give me an example of what a bullet point might be. An adjective?

It could be: “This painting is going to be creased.” Or it could be a counterpoint to another painting that has something more rigid in it. Or a sentence like: “She feels scared.” Then the work should feel exposed in some way. I write to help myself, my titles have the same function.

I really like Sappho’s poetry fragments, and I see the fragmentary also in relation to painting, – that the paintings can be part of a larger whole. I think a lot about things she wrote, simple phrases like “a saffron yellow dress.” How do you convey the feeling of that? The material, how it moves in the wind, or the memory of wearing it?

Astrid Svangren, sustainable order/from life to self / a garden, a city, the universe or a forest / the red goddess or the gold colored goddess, 2019.

Is that something that makes it possible, or at least easier, for you to work? That is, that what you strive for is not complete comprehension; it’s never an entirety to be solved, just a certain aspect or feeling that needs to come to the fore?

I like fragments. It doesn’t have to be a lot of things. Recently, I’ve been working a lot on memory and childhood. I’ve been thinking about the sense of euphoria I had when I was a kid living in the north of Sweden, riding my bike and spring was in the air. It was just me and my bike, and it was all quiet. The feeling of cosmos or emptiness. What was that like? How can I convey that? Can it be condensed to one phrase, “high spring air,” for example?

That’s usually how we understand things, isn’t it, in art or literature, that it’s always a certain part of something that speaks to us, that sets something in motion.

Exactly, I think so. It’s all just fragments. With Sappho, it’s all that is left. Everything else is gone. All we have are these bits that are part of something bigger, that no longer exist. Yet it’s still so powerful.

I like that she is such an enigma. We don’t know much about her. It’s just something that comes along, fleetingly, and stays for a little while.

Like your works? Will they still be intact in fifty years? I’m thinking, for example, of Eva Hesse’s works, many of which are now crumbling to pieces.

The paintings will last, I guess. Some of the other materials will probably lose their colour. But I don’t really think it matters if works change over time and become something else. Art changes; everything you live with changes.

Installation view from from searching : mirroring / metamorphosis / the last rising water / a yellow room / perpetual movement / a kind of thorough rinse / artificial colour at Kohta in Hensinki, 2018. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.