The Susan Sontag questions*
Interview by Jane Jin Kaisen
In several works, you have worked with trauma, not least in your fantastic and very extensive art project I died in Italy But No One Knows It and in Pain in the Eye. One thing that strikes me about your work is how you identify so profoundly with the traumatizing occurrence as an event that is both incomprehensible and impossible to lucidly remember, while it simultaneously remains unforgettable and therefore must be relived again and again. Susan Sontag writes about how experiencing great art always makes you “aware of something in art that cannot be said (rules of “decorum”), of the contradiction between expression and the presence of the inexpressible”. She continues by stating, ‘Stylistic devices are also techniques of avoidance. The most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silence’. Can you talk about how you use your body, photographs and writing to identify the traumatic occurrence while also revealing the inexpressible in the traumatic event?
I read quite a lot of trauma and feminist theories that help put a perspective on my own thinking about the traumatic. Furthermore, I work with testimonials by way of reading books and articles, by watching videos on YouTube, where victims share their story, and I research cultural productions centred on traumatic events. I adapt this information, knowledge and experience in my own works, in order to create a field of tension between ‘the individual and the collective trauma’, much like the work, Pain in the Eye, which recounts my own experience with violence and trauma, from the concrete action to cultural and societal questions on how we, in the West, relate to violence, victims, perpetrators and responsibility.
My photographs are created in two different ways. Either I take selfie-type photos, which are a bit like mediocre snapshots, as seen in my work After (2002/10), which consists of 22 photos taken a couple of weeks after a violent attack. Or I stage a photo session where I collaborate with a photographer, and then it becomes about something very different. In those sessions, I become a sculpture, an object, a body in transition, an acting subject.
Jo Spence has written on the difference between ‘being the trauma’ and ‘representing it’. In the snapshot ‘I am’, and when I collaborate with a photographer, ‘I represent’. For the exhibition Nijinsky Notes, a project that took its point of departure in the dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s diary from the beginning of 1919, at the onset of his psychosis and breakdown, I collaborated with photographer Anders Sune Berg on a photo session at Dansehallerne (a dance space in Copenhagen), where I improvised the ballet ‘Le Sacre de Printemps’ from 1913, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky with music by Igor Stravinsky. It became the work, Rehearsal (sacre de printemps), which consists of 45 performative photos in a box.
However, regardless of the medium I use, you are always up against the impossible, as no work of art can encompass the complexity that a human being experiences in a traumatic situation, which often consists of fragmented recollections about the situation itself, a number of psychosomatic symptoms that estrange the traumatised individual from themselves, a communications breakdown between the traumatised individual and the surrounding world as well as an annihilation of the self itself.
Susan Sontag writes that “form - in its specific idiom, style – is a plan of sensory imprinting, the vehicle for the transaction between Immediate sensuous impression and memory, (be it Individual or cultural). This mnemonic function explains why every style depends on and can be analysed in terms of, some principle of repetition or redundancy”. What is the role of repetition in your praxis? And here I am thinking partly of the materials and methods you recurrently revert to, but also, and equally so, to how the repetitive action also seems to be an important part of your working process and of your treatment of themes such as memory, history and trauma?
In working with the traumatic, repetition plays an important role, as a traumatised human being often goes over the event again and again, both in terms of remembering what happened, but also to a great degree, through flashbacks and invading nightmares that can completely disable a human being. Can art be considered trauma processing? I believe so, both in terms of the practitioner and the individual who meets the artwork. So, telling the story over and again is also a therapeutic turn.
My working process consists of different phases that often run parallel and simultaneously, i.e. I experience the working process as circular. However, what I always maintain as my focal point is how the work communicates the thematic content most clearly. In other words, each aesthetic action I take must help drive the story forward, which is why I do not use aesthetic turns simply for the sake of aesthetics. So, even though my works may appear intuitive, emotional and expressive, they are always carried forward by an inner logic. This is something I learned at drama school where my teacher of the Stanislavsky technique, a Russian actor and director, always stressed the need for logic actions in order to reach the authentic.
For the exhibition Truce. One Hundred Years of Ideas (Våbenhvile. 100 Års Forestillinger) at Overgaden – the Institute for Contemporary Art in 2015, which was one of several exhibitions celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage, I worked on a collective trauma – sexual violence. The artwork, 100 Years of Violation (100 Års Overgreb), consists of a skin-coloured stage curtain made of semi-transparent silk with automatic writing and texts from an extensive Danish report on rape. The report systematically explains the character of the sexualised violence, the crime scene, the relation to the perpetrator and the ways in which the perpetrator tried to avoid being reported to the police. One of the categories was: killed the victim.
While working on the automatic writing, I meditated on the violations women have been subjected to over the last 100 years, which then became a series of signs and words; you could say voices from a chorus of violence. In both types of text, the act of repetition has a decisive function. Automatic writing is a method of accessing the unconscious, while the textual excerpts from the rape report constitute the rational. When you ‘repeat’ the action of two opposite types of text, you expand and put a perspective on the trauma’s dehumanising effect on the individual, both societally and culturally.
In your projects with Huskegruppen (The Memory Group) (2004-2014) and in the discursive events that often tie in with your exhibitions, collectivity and conversations with other artists play an important role. You also initiate a direct artistic ‘conversation’ with cultural icons in, for example, Marilyns (Dancing for Vladislav) and Margate, back to Emin Land (I Need Tracy Like I Need God). Similarly, the project Transitions: Sands Murray-Wassink and Peter Brandt is built around a dialogue. Your praxis makes me think of the artist Mary Kelly who in ‘Dialogue – On the Politics of Voice’ talks about the interesting and often important role played by voice (and writing) as well as dialogue in project-based art, where the artist invests in something outside the art world, e.g. a collective movement. Which role would you say that ‘dialogue’ plays in your art? Can dialogue be considered a material in your praxis? And do you want your artworks to create some sort of collectivity?
I have always had an interest in the iconic, both human beings who become cultural icons, but also artworks that gain iconic status. So when I engage in a ‘conversation with an icon’, I am trying to understand the placement of that icon, in culture and in my own relation to it.
Marylins (Dancing for Vladislav) (2013-16) is a conversation-work centred on the iconic and dedicated to the Russian artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, whom unfortunately I never met, but with whom I corresponded. Both of us had worked on presenting ourselves as Marilyn Monroe; Vladislav had even taken her last name and both of us looked forward to meeting; the two Marylins … Then Vladislav drowned in a swimming pool in 2013, and it is still unclear whether it was an accident or a political assassination. The Russian authorities kept an eye on Vladislav and they censured his work. The FBI also kept an eye on Marilyn, as she was suspected of conducting un-American activities.
Marylins (Dancing for Vladislav) consists of a scenic platform; a silk stage curtain with sown-in cotton wool roundels; FBI reports on Marilyn, Vladislav’s emails to me; an embroidered letter to him written after his death; a diary entry by Sylvia Plath in which she recounts a dream she had about Marilyn, which promised her ‘a new blossoming life’; a video performance, in which I try to bring forth spiritual forces; as well as photographs of all of us. To me, it is an artwork about solidarity across gender, time and place, and it is about freedom as well as the lack of thereof.
In 2011, Doctors without Borders (MSF) invited me to take part in an exhibition at the University Hospital Copenhagen, DK, focusing on HIV/AIDS in developing countries. For this, I thought, I need someone to ‘talk on my behalf’, someone living with HIV. I came into contact with Rabi, a 13-year-old Nepalese boy, who was born with HIV and now lived in an orphanage. I asked him to ‘draw his life’. The artwork Letter to Rabi (2001) consists of his drawings, my letters to him as well as cultural products from the Western HIV/AIDS narrative.
To thank him, I sent Rabi a gift, which included three single-use cameras, which he returned to me and I then had the films developed, thus receiving a highly unique witness account from a boy living with HIV. Three days later, I was told that he was dying, as they had failed to upgrade his HIV medication in time. Two days later, he died. For a long time, I considered whether it would be ethically justifiable to include his photos in a new version of the artwork, as it was not something we had agreed on. However, finally, I decided to give Rabi the voice he was not able to give himself, and so in the second version of Letter to Rabi (2011/13), I included his photos from the orphanage, of his friends and of himself – and even of me, as he had photographed a small photo I had sent to him on a beautiful piece of fabric.
I do not believe that humans create anything on their own as such; the process of creating an artwork is always relational and thus a materialisation of the contributions of many different people. When I, in relation to an exhibition, organise events/conversations/meetings it is in order to draw both art and contemporary time into different contexts and realities.
Can you talk about your working process? What shapes an artwork for you and how do you decide on medium and material?
Usually, it starts when I am touched by something, a conflict, a problem, something unsaid that I need to materialise and give content and shape. When I start a new project, I spend a lot of time researching, both in terms of thematic content but also in terms of art history. Artists who have moved along the same trails where I now find myself help me put perspective on my own praxis. My work is a continuation of the feminist body art of the 1970s, with Hannah Wilke as my most valued reference, but I also include Jo Spence’s work on family history, social class, illness and representation as important partners for dialogue.
I latter years, I have primarily worked with silk, photography, video and text. I chose silk because of its ability to reflect light much like a renaissance painting, where the light appears to materialise from within. Furthermore, ‘sewing artworks’ is another practice embedded in the feminist tradition. However, male tailors in the 1800s and 1900s also sewed reflexive tapestries alongside their garment production. In terms of dealing with trauma, sewing is interesting, as it takes time and therefore enables some sort of meditative action. In British prisons, they have conducted projects with inmates sentenced for murder, rape and violence, who sewed tapestries to depict their life story.
Some times my choice of medium is spot on from the beginning, at other times, I have to try out different materials before deciding on which material will best communicate that particular artwork. Some times it takes years from idea to completed artwork, while other things fail or slowly morph into the process of another artwork.
Sol Le Witt once wrote about Eva Hesse’s works that you are able to sense that she had sat looking at them for a very long time. It was a beautiful thing to say, and I hope that my works also reveal my presence in them. In other words, I spend most of the time gathering energy to enter the fight. Which is also why I think all my artworks are performative. I feel the same rush as you would before going on stage, or perhaps more correctly, as a boxer before they enter the ring.
You have an exhibition at Sophienholm, ‘00197 Roma’. Would you like to say a little about the artworks exhibited there and the thoughts behind the project?
In this exhibition, I show Post Trauma Documents from 2011/15 and the video Contusions from the project I Died In Italy But No One Knows It (2007/10), and both of them are about my personal experiences with violence and trauma.
I was attacked in Rome in 2002, and nine years later, I returned to the crime scene to start working on Post Trauma Documents. The project is about recollecting memories from the attack itself as well as the time after. I have photographed myself at the crime scene and worked with text-based textiles, where my own fragmented memories interact with witness statements from other victims of violence, which I found on the Internet.
In the textile artworks, I operate with both an I, a you and a we, voices from different positions; the feeling of standing outside the ‘ordinary human experience’ as well as the invisibility victims of violence experience both societally and culturally, which often makes them feel unreal and alienated. In the artwork Post Traumatic Document: letter to x (2011/15), it is the memory of how my assailant became ‘a part of me’ that I could not rid my self off, a psychological phenomenon which you often encounter in victims of violence and rape in particular, where boundaries are torn down and the self seizes to exist as it is taken over by a stranger.
In the video Contusions (2010), I dance trancelike while my voiceover tries to recall the moment of attack, of which I remember nothing. Contusions is about the paradox in the fact that I cannot remember the incident that changed my life.
* The Susan Sontag Questions is a conversation series initiated by the Danish Artist Anette Harboe Flensburg (DK 1961) in 2015. Susan Sontag’s essay On Style from her seminal book Against Interpretation (1966) is the point of departure for the conversation series. www.kunstdebatten.dk